Can Elementary Educators Address Diversity and Equity Issues?

Students in Bret Turner's class working quietly. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

Dr. David J. Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

Can elementary teachers address topics surrounding equity, social justice, civics or even racism in a meaningful and age appropriate way? Or should a curriculum that addresses social justice and equity be relegated to the middle and secondary classroom? What about having conversations about prejudice and discrimination in Pk-2 classrooms? Would topics such as these be considered inappropriate? Would the material be too sensitive for such young ears? The common assumption is that any conversations in the area of social justice can only take place at the middle and secondary level? However, these topics can be addressed at any grade level. In fact, the earlier the better. Teachers just have to use a developmentally appropriate pedagogy.

Ideas for Starting Conversations
Teachers can connect conversations and lessons on racism to a unit on bullying. Even very young children can grasp the idea that it is wrong to tease or make fun of others because they are different. Lessons and pedagogy rooted in empathy can really help in having these conversations with elementary students, even those in pre-school through second grade classrooms. Here are some great lessons on bullying in early grades.

Another idea is to give certain students special privileges because of their hair color. The teacher might give students extra candy, a special eraser, a sticker, the privilege of erasing the board or more time on the computer. When the first group seems to be enjoying their extra privileges teachers can switch and pick a different hair color to reward. At the end of the activity each student will have been in a group where they did not receive extra privileges. At this point, teachers can have students free write or draw, then discuss how it feels to be treated differently because of who they are. This activity taps into student empathy, letting them know how it feels to be treated differently for something one has no control over. From here, connections can be easily made to discussing racism. It is helpful to use inquiry based pedagogy that teaches students questioning strategies that help them think deeper about social justice issues.

We have included other resources below that can assist educators in teaching topics surrounding issues of equity and civics in elementary classrooms.  

Videos:
Arthur on Racism: Talk, Listen, and Act | ARTHUR
Becoming a Citizen | ARTHUR
Speaking Out | ARTHUR
Finding Solutions | ARTHUR

Lesson Plans/Resources
Forgiveness | An ARTHUR Interactive Comic
Cultural Connections
A Folktale Play
Let’s Dance
TV Star

Other Resources
Teaching 6-Year-Olds About Privilege and Power
Black Lives Matter BrainPop
Racism Lesson Plan for Elementary School

Check out Dr. Jessica Klanderud at Berea College’s Carter G. Woodson Center and her animated videos teaching African American history to elementary students entitled: Ruling Through Race Part 1.

9 Comments

  1. This article has a lot of wonderful resources to use with students. It is true, that even though diversity and equity can be really tough concepts to tackle with such young children, empathy is something that students can relate to much easier. Letting empathy take root in young children about racism, sexism, ableism, or anything else can help students to grow up caring for people. Practicing exercises so that students understand how it feels to be treated differently or bullied are a great way to drive home these tough conversations. I definitely plan on using this resources and activities in the future.

  2. This article gave insight on the idea that elementary educators should address diversity and equity. The article describes that the level of depth that the educator goes into these subjects is directly correlated to their age (developmentally appropriate pedagogy). For younger children, this could be as simple as a unit on bullying, in which they can understand that making fun of someone who is different than them is wrong. I liked the strategy of giving students privileges based on their hair color. I think that is really allows students to understand how it feels to have those privileges and what it feels like when those privileges are taken away. This is a simple but effective way to understand privilege in a kid-friendly way. The article also provides many resources to additional ways elementary educators can integrate teaching about the topics of diversity and equity in their classroom.

  3. I agree that elementary educators can begin to have conversations about treating everyone equally and nicely as well as teaching students about bullying. There are so many great resources to use to get these conversations started and I feel like I will use these resources in my own classroom to start those tough conversations. The lesson plans and resources will be very helpful and the activity idea of giving certain students special privileges is a good way to model to students these problems we are having today.

  4. I enjoyed reading this article and felt it was very informing on ways that I can teach my students about diversity and equity in my future classroom. The exercise of rewarding certain students is a great way to introduce the topic of racism to children and how they may feel. Even though this may be a hard topic to discuss with children, all children should learn about racism and the exercise from the article is a great way to get students thinking and discussing the topic. Children may not be taught about diversity and equity at home, so the classroom is a great place to introduce these important topics. 

  5. Thank you for sharing this article. Even young children are able to grasp the idea that bullying is wrong, and that we should not make fun of someone who looks different than us. This needs to be addressed in the classroom, and I appreciate all of the resources and the example provided for my future students. I think a conversation about empathy would be beneficial. These topics about diversity and racism should be talked about and I like that you mention that teachers just need to use developmentally appropriate pedagogy. This respects the age and individual needs of each child. I think many teachers are afraid of bringing up these ideas in class because they are scared of retaliation from parents, administers, etc. It is extremely important to talk to your students about bullying, diversity, racism, etc., because some of them may experience it every day. Discussing these ideas can help students of all age feel more comfortable in school.

  6. As a future elementary educator, this article really stood out to me. Looking back on my own experiences, bullying was a major topic that was discussed during my K-12 schooling. However, from what I can recall, none of the activities regarding bullying were like the privilege activity Dr. Childs discussed. Rather, we wrote mean words on paper, crinkled the paper up and were then asked to make the paper flat again. We squeezed toothpaste out of bottles while saying mean words and were then asked to put the toothpaste back in. The experiences I can recall learning about bullying dealt with understanding that words cannot be taken back. However, they never specifically focused on privilege. I like the privilege activity Dr. Childs discussed in the article because you can make each student part of the unprivileged group. As a result, students who may be privileged in society now have the opportunity to see what it feels like to not be privileged. Additionally, as Dr. Childs mentioned, this activity teaches students empathy, which I believe is an important trait for young students to learn.

  7. I think it is important, as teachers, to use our platform to create good citizens in the community. Saying this, I think it is important to address diversity and equity within our classrooms. Many of these children are living in homes where racism or other issues are going on and so they believe that is the normal. By creating conversation about these topics, it will allow students to learn right from wrong and to help build empathy and love for everyone. I remember doing the activity that was mentioned in the article where some students gained a privilege while others did not. This really helped me understand at a young age, that some of us have it a lot better than others. I believe the more teachers that start addressing these issues at the elementary level will result in much more love and empathy in the world.

  8. I agree that a discussion about diversity and equity can and should take place in an elementary classroom. Teaching about empathy is a developmentally appropriate way to do this. Students will be able to have a conversation when they experience not being treated fairly. There are good ideas on how to teach these lessons, as well as some good resources to make sure the lessons are appropriate for the students. This was a good article that gives teachers a chance to think about how to incorporate these lessons.

  9. I do believe that elementary educators can and should address diversity and equity issues. This was a very good read that brought about many different ideas in my mind. Just like all things you need to put it to a level that these young students can understand and relate to such as bullying or such discrimination based on the way that someone looks. Young students are learning at a very fast rate and are like sponges. The more that we bring these issues up to them and put it in a way that they can understand, the better the future will be because they will understand these issues at a much deeper level and will treat people with respect no matter race, gender, etc.

Comments are closed.