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.

10 Comments

  1. This is such a powerful subject that I think a lot of elementary school teachers avoid for fear of being ridiculed or because they just don’t know how to approach the subject with young children. I for one appreciate the resources that you’ve shared. I agree that using empathy is a great way to get young children thinking. I especially like the idea of giving children special privileges based on something they can’t control and asking them to write about how it felt to be excluded from that group. Helping children take this perspective from a very young age is the best way to actually make a difference. If hate can be taught from a very young age (which it is) then surely we can teach children compassion, tolerance, empathy, acceptance, and love.

  2. I agree that it is very important to teach students early about social justice and equity related issues. Making it age appropriate and using developmentally appropriate pedagogy will help the students understand the concept of what is being taught. I love that this article includes resources to help teach these concepts. I really like the idea that is discussed in the last paragraph and I think it’s a great way to show the students what privilege is and how it’s not right to treat others badly just because they are different. If we want to make a positive change in society we need to start as early as we can to teach students empathy and compassion for others.

  3. This article is important because I believe that this is essential, for students to hear about all forms of bullying-which racism is a form. Many parents, teachers, and other adults are nervous to teach students these difficult concepts because they fear that the students may not be mature enough for it. Students are able to understand what is right from wrong at an early grade level. It has been said that “racism is a learned behavior,” which can hold true today. Students continue to play with each other, no matter the different ethnicities. Once students have understood what mistreatment is, they can lear about bullying. Students at a second grade level would easily be able to learn about racism and notice the issues behind it. The more students learn about racism, the less likely they will obtain it in the future. It is definitely a difficult decision to make as a teacher, although it’s important that students are fully aware of the world that they live in.

  4. I agree that it is important to start at a young age in elementary to discuss diversity and equality to students. It is important to start s young as you can, and not all students are taught about this at home. I think by relating it to bullying is important to teach students how bullying is not okay, and you shouldn’t treat other kids different. I really like the exercise of rewarding certain students, and then have them express how they felt afterwards. This social experiment really teaches kids what it feels like to be treated different, this way they know how it feels and will understand it is not okay, and we should all be treated the same.

  5. I do believe even young elementary students can be taught about diversity and equality. Just like the article said bullying is a tough topic for children to discuss, but children of all ages are taught bullying is wrong and treating everyone with respect is right. Teachers and school administrators need to plan age-appropriate lessons about diversity and the current issues going on in America. There are great resources like BrainPop videos and picture books that include stories of diversity that all elementary children may understand. It just takes some extra planning for the teacher to make a lesson appropriate for each age group, but it can be done. It’s important that we do not shy away from teaching things that may make some students or parents “uncomfortable.”

  6. This is an aspect of teaching that I fear the most, retaliation from parents, because they don’t feel their child should be learning such things. Which in a sense I understand but racism is a real thing, and it happens at every age. You cannot hide your children/students from things that are happening right in front of them. I like the idea of starting small with students and using bullying as a starting point, because all in all we should be nice to everyone no matter if they are different from us.

  7. I think our society has been reluctant to teach elementary age students about racism and its history in America. As Dr. Child’s states, “these topics can be addressed at any grade level. In fact, the earlier the better. Teachers just have to use a developmentally appropriate pedagogy.” There are several creative ways to help children develop empathy for others, to view issues from multiple perspectives, and to understand equality. When my daughter was 8 years old, we read the American Girl series on Abby, a young African American girl born into slavery who finally experiences freedom. The book was age appropriate and helped her to look at our history through the eyes of someone treated unjustly.
    I also liked Dr. Child’s idea of giving privileges to certain students because of their hair color, then changing it every week so that all students can feel what it is like to be treated differently for something they cannot change. This would lead to some interesting journal entries and class discussions. The only way our society will change is through the hearts and minds of our youth. Teachers must unite and teach children to love one another, to accept and celebrate our differences, and to look at issues through multiple lens.

  8. I enjoyed reading this article and I am excited to have these great resources to use in my future classroom. I had been wondering about different ways to incorporate diversity and equity into my classroom and I love how you have laid out many resources for us. While in a first-grade classroom I saw the teacher do a band-aid activity that I think goes right along with the information you have provided. The teacher asked one student where they had a visible injury and placed a band-aid over it. Every student after that told the teacher where their visible injury was but got a band-aid in the same spot as the very first student. This led to a discussion about fairness, equality, and different needs that people have. I have provided a link to a lesson similar to the one I saw done which may be helpful to other teachers. https://empoweringeducation.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/25-EE_Fairness-and-Equality_Pt1_3-5.pdf

  9. I agree that it is important for teachers to address diversity within the classroom. Just like any other content topic, diversity knowledge should be built over time and progress. Students may not be fully able to process the depth and impact of racism; however, they will benefit from a discussion on differences and empathy. I appreciate the resources provided! I think a great way to start a discussion about these topics is to use a character that is familiar to students- like Arthur here.

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