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. I love the ideas talked about in this. Racism is such a tricky subject to approach regardless of age and I feel like it may be a tricky subject for particularly young students to grasp. Tying it into bullying or favoritism of hair color is a really unique, interactive, and effective approach to the situation! I wonder what kind of questions this might spawn in the classroom and how, as a teacher, one might approach them?

  2. I think that teaching students about diversity and inclusion is very important and its definitely better to begin these lessons when they’re young. Throughout my Elementary years, I remember that bullying and anti-bullying activities were focused on heavily and that they dropped off during Middle school. I personally think that anti-bullying activities and programs should be heavily focused on in Elementary school and Middle school because those are foundational years for a child.
    I enjoyed looking through some of the lessons about bullying (even though I think they’re definitely for young students) and really enjoyed “Spookley the Square Pumpkin.” It’s nice to have a bullying lesson that goes with the current season and it reminds me of something my grandma always used to say; “You should be a frootloop in a world cheerio’s!”

  3. I fully agree that teachers should address diversity in the classroom starting at a young age. I was actually having a conversation earlier today about the different amounts of exposure that we have to diversity just between neighboring school districts. It is amazing how much can change between two schools only 6 miles apart. Growing up in an area with little diversity between students or in lessons I have found myself more driven to find that information as a young adult. I really enjoyed this article and the ideas of how to present diversity early and how to start introducing an end to the stigmatisms that are presented today through the use of lessons on Bullying, Forgiveness, and Folk Play. I feel that the stories we share with students leave an impact, that books, tv, and music can all be fantastic tools to bring different cultures together. I feel these lessons do need to go beyond just looking at race but going deeper into the roots such as religious backgrounds, cultures, and how we can work together and be respectful even when we look and believe something different.

  4. I think that the lesson on equity and diversity can 100% be taught in elementary school. With younger students you teach them right and wrong in the aspect of bullying. Teaching empathy is key in this topic because if you are empathetic, then you can learn the true meanings of equity and diversity.

  5. I think that all teachers, no matter what grade level they teach, should talk about racism and equity in their classroom. I think that teaching racism through a bullying unit/lesson would be a great idea for younger students to understand. Some may think that older students in high school may not need to learn or talk about racism since they are older, yet racism still toady comes in all ages of even adults. I think that having a conversation over racism is very important for all students to learn more about or even to just re-fresh their knowledge on it. One of the resources provided that I really enjoyed was the Black Lives Matter Brain Pop. I think it is a great topic that is still happening and very relevant today. I also believe that this resource could be used for elementary students and even 6th or 7th grade students as well!

  6. I truly enjoyed reading this article! This is a topic I feel many teachers shy away from out of fear for the judgement/retaliation from administration, parents, and the community. While I understand where these educators are coming from, it is crucial that diversity and equity issues be discussed early on in a child’s academic career (as mentioned in the article). The most important concept that educators must keep in mind when planning lessons around equity and diversity as mentioned in the article, is to use a developmentally appropriate pedagogy. The resources provided in this article are some I intend to hold onto for when I have a classroom of my own!

  7. I really enjoyed this article and think the examples included were very well thought out. These topics are often avoided by teachers and even parents which leaves the kids naive and potentially at fault with some of these issues. Being able to address these issues with kids benefits them in ways you wont see right away. For kids to get an understanding of issues such as bullying, helps them understand why racism is such a big problem. Kids who understand the feeling of being left out or discriminated against are less likely to put that pain and hurt on other people. There will always be exceptions to this due to environments children are raised in but even if it makes a little difference in how these students treat others, it is worth it. Keeping these big subjects out of classrooms does a disservice and that is not what teachers are supposed to do.

    I think incorporating simple lessons about equality and compassion can make a big impact on students. One time when I was in middle school, we had a really big issue with bullying in the classroom. The principle decided that it was time to call my entire grade to the gym and sit down and have a talk with us. We had students who had been bullied come up and talk about how they feel about the bullying and about themselves and it was honestly heartbreaking. With a few exceptions, this simple task turned our grade around and really helped us consider everyones feelings from there on out. It is the simple things that make a difference.

  8. I have always thought about how I would approach this topic in a young classroom. I don’t remember my elementary teachers going over topics like diversity very much. If they did they just skimmed over the topic, or only addressed it once a year during Martin Luther King Junior Day. I really think that the topic of diversity is an important topic to address in every classroom. It is something I find very important, and I want to make sure that I can provide my students with knowledge on this topic. I really like the resources you provided and I look forward to using them to teach diversity and how they can show empathy towards others.

  9. I think that having this conversation at a young age is extremely important. While I can see why some may be hesitant or shy away from the conversation at a young age I think that having this conversation and having students understand at a young age can be important for helping students to be more aware of their actions as they get older. I think that there are some great resources here that can really be implemented into the classroom to help students have the discussion in a productive way. Helping students become aware at a young age and continuing the conversation as they get older can help our society as a whole to be more aware and hopefully result in change as time goes on.

  10. I loved this article! When I was in elementary school, diversity or equity was never really talked about because I feel like teachers probably thought that it wasn’t appropriate or that we wouldn’t understand. Kids definitely understand more than we think and you don’t have to teach them in a way where it would overwhelm them, everything can be simplified. As you stated, it comes down to the basics that they should know how people should or shouldn’t be treated. The idea of it being incorporated into a lesson about bullying is such a great idea because students learn about that all the time. I just think that there are good ways to do it and it needs to be seen being done more because of the importance.

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