Teach Them While They’re Young: Elementary Students are Not Too Young to Learn about Diversity

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

Introduction
In light of the celebration of the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther, Jr. in January and Black history month in February. I want to share some thoughts and resources on teaching topics centered on diversity, equity and inclusion in elementary classrooms. It has been said that when traumatic events or circumstances occur in our world such as natural disasters, war, genocide, pandemics or poverty everyone is affected deeply. But the population that is often affected the most are the children. However, when controversial topics need to be addressed in the classroom the assumption is that elementary children are too young. As a social studies educator I never agreed with the idea that teachers should wait until students are in middle school, high school or college to have the tough conversations. If we wait until they are older we may have missed some important opportunities to help students process or develop sophisticated ways of addressing trauma in their own lives.

I developed this insight partly based on my own experiences with racism as a child. Sometimes when my brother and I walked to school in elementary, older white students would target us, often physically assaulting us and hurling slurs at us. And time does not permit me to discuss the racism I experienced from some of my white teachers and administrators. I often thought that it would have been wonderful if I had teachers and course material to help me discuss, process and combat the discrimination I was experiencing. One may find it surprising to know that some of those things I experienced as young as 1st grade! Therefore, it is never too early to discuss topics centered around diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. The important thing is to ensure that the material is developmentally appropriate.

Teaching an Age Appropriate Curriculum
Starting with the obvious, an educator should not teach material designed for a twelfth-grade classroom to kindergarten students. This of course applies to DEI topics as well. For example, during January when the country is commemorating the work and life of Dr. Martin Luther King it would be inappropriate to emphasize that he was shot to death and share the images with 1st grade students. Further, much of the historic footage of King and others being beaten and sprayed with hoses is traumatic, even for adults, not to mention children. Or when studying the history of American slavery, it would be unwise for an instructor to show the film “Roots” in a fourth grade classroom for example. But many educators make the mistake of thinking that they should not address the topic of diversity at all because they do not want to expose the youth to anything negative. One of the main issues with this is that many of the students (Like in my own case as a child) are already dealing with discrimination and even racial trauma. When educators envision what the average child goes through they perhaps are not considering the life of a Black child experiencing racism at a young age or other traumatizing events elementary students may be undergoing.          

Moving Beyond the Fear: These Resources May Help
As such, we thought it would be helpful to help teachers get started in facilitating these difficult conversations with young children. “Many educators shy away from teaching about diversity and inclusion in their classroom because it is such a controversial topic and they may also feel inadequately prepared to discuss it with students. Furthermore, there is even legislation at the state level that regulates what can and cannot be taught as it relates to the topic of diversity.” These realities often frighten teachers into the shadows. But the work is so important we must all collectively press on. Below we provide some lesson plans and resources that teachers can use to address the subject matter of diversity, equity and inclusion in a meaningful, creative and effective way.

Lesson Plans and Resources on Diversity and Inclusion
Activities that Promote Racial and Cultural Awareness
Looking Closely at Ourselves
Tolerance in Times of Trial
YWCA is on a mission to Stand Against Racism!
Diversity: Differences Make us Unique- Kindergarten
Diversity Lesson Plan- Kindergarten
Kindergarten Diversity
I Am Special and You Are Special Too Lesson Series
15 Cultural Diversity Activities For Elementary Students
Teaching Tolerance ~ Elementary Lesson Plans
5th Grade Diversity Lessons
Diversity Using Literature- Elementary
Culture and Change: Black History in America

What ideas do you find useful? Please share what resources you find helpful for your teaching.

We are open to feedback and discussion. If you see any typos or grammatical errors please feel free to email the author and editor at the address below:

Dr. David Childs
childsd1@nku.edu

3 Comments

  1. My first thing is I feel like at a young age kids don’t see each other as not being equal and they are almost looming though a lens because they see everyone as equal. So if the kids see each other as being equal teaching them that people are not equal but you should teach them that we should treat every one as being equal then that could be very difficult for them to understand.

    I do like how the article did talk about how teachers need to match and fix the material for the age/ grade level that they are teaching because you can almost tone everything down that needs to be taught in school to make it approbate for the grade level that you are teaching, so it dose not scare them and so they can fully understand it.

  2. Coming from a primarily white elementary school, I couldn’t agree more that diversity should be taught in every classroom, no matter how young. Thinking back on my elementary school experience, I wish I had gotten to learn more about diversity and inclusion when I was young. It did not get introduced to me until late elementary or early middle school, so by then it felt confusing and had me wondering why we had never talked about this before. Like Dr. Child’s said, the topics should be age appropriate but none the less should be discusses. Preschoolers can be taught the beauty in diversity by having simple conversations both at home and in the classroom. Teachers and parents share the responsibility of educating their children from a young age on the importance of diversity and inclusion.

  3. The subject of diversity and different cultures, in general, should be implemented into regular lessons in early education. It is never too early to introduce the topic of diversity to children as we are setting them up for their future. Allowing children to have these conversations at a young age is important as it will help them learn and respect the different people and cultures of the world. The school system is leaving out major parts of history or barely skimming the surface causing children to have little to no information on events that are important for them to learn.

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