What do you learn in school? Ask any first grader, and the answers you get will likely have to do with letters, numbers and the occasional art project. But teachers know there is so much more to school than academic ability.
In preschool, children interact with groups of kids in their age group—and often for the first time. This begins a foundation of socialization that they will build on as they grow. As they watch and learn about how people work or don’t work together, they gain another education entirely.
“Part of school is learning how to get along with other people, particularly in the early grades when children first come to school and join a class,” says Dr. Kirstin Pesola McEachern, diversity and inclusion coordinator at The Summit Country Day School. “Young children are very observant and not only pick up on differences, but also notice how we as adults attach value to differences. It is vital to ingrain an appreciation for diversity from the start.”
Setting the stage early on with anti-bullying lesson plans and a proactive effort to promote tolerance can have a profound impact.
“Young students are more than our future; they are our ‘now,’” says Chad Dion Lassiter, professor of race relations at the University of Pennsylvania. Lassiter says that schools have the opportunity to counteract racial socialization and learned biases that children pick up elsewhere. “As educators, there needs to be a disruption.”
But how? When you think about those small faces smiling and tiny hands dotting in your classroom, you might have a hard time picturing complex lessons of injustice, inclusion or diversity in the same context. But don’t worry—even subtle changes can make a big difference. Our experts agree that kids pick up on a whole lot more than most people realize.
9 Strategies for creating an inclusive classroom
1. Seek diversity in your own life
“In order for teachers to demonstrate respect and appreciation for differences, they need to first examine their own identities and how they contribute to a larger, diverse community,” McEachern says. You know as a teacher that learning is a lifelong process. This is so true in terms of understanding tolerance and diversity.
“We can preach the value of diversity, but if we do not surround ourselves with people different from us, ideas counter to ours, and experiences out of our comfort zones, we aren’t modeling that for our students,” McEachern says.
There are so many potential ways to do this, even if your time is limited. “One way that I personally seek to be more inclusive is to intentionally follow news sources and websites whose political affiliations are different from mine,” McEachern says. “I also make sure I am reading a variety of books by authors with varied backgrounds.”
2. Give your classroom a diversity ‘audit’
McEachern advises teachers to complete “diversity audits” of their classrooms. This can be as simple as walking around your room and making note of the identities and cultures represented in your classroom materials, books, pictures and classroom decor. You could even invite a friend to come by and make a few observations about what they see.
It’s helpful to consider many different kinds of diversity as well. Perhaps you see a great representation of different ethnicities in your picture books for example, but don’t have any stories featuring various protagonists who are differently abled. If you walk around your class even for a moment in the mental shoes of someone else, you might notice a great deal.
3. Enhance your curriculum
“Teachers can ensure that assignments and lessons encourage students to celebrate their identities and learn about those of their classmates,” McEachern says. Even something as subtle as reading children’s stories written by diverse authors can offer the impact of new perspectives to your young students. “I recommend exposure to diverse texts: enabling texts, minority protagonists and bilingual books,” says Charesha Barrett of CHARP EDucation Consulting.
If you want some more ideas, the Teaching Tolerance website offers curriculum standards and lesson plans by age group and subject area. “The resources there are free, including webinars on particular topics if teachers need to build capacity in a certain area,” McEachern says.
4. Who is depicted on your walls and books?
Images make a big impression—especially on younger students. Barrett says teachers can promote tolerance and inclusivity by featuring pictures of children from different cultures on their wall posters and in the books they choose for the classroom. Once again, consider different aspects of diversity— diversity in race, culture, gender and ability are all important to feature.
5. Be consistent in your expectations
“Have high expectations for all of your students,” Barrett says. Children can start internalizing messages about their ability or their value early on. If you start to expect less of certain students or seem inconsistent in the way you discipline, they will notice. While every child needs something a little different in terms of teaching, your expectations of their performance and the way you handle class discipline should be consistent from child to child.
6. Honor special days
A quick Google search can tell you that many days out of the year are dedicated to something special. Some of these days might be important celebrations in other cultures, and some are along the lines of “National Doughnut Day.” But Barrett says celebrating notable days each month for women, Native Americans and African-Americans can be a great way to introduce more inclusion into your classroom.
7. Be quick to listen
Nothing is quite as powerful as hearing other people’s stories. Many biases begin in assumption. So no matter how much experience you’ve had, letting people tell their stories and listening to them can show your students that everyone deserves respect. Lassiter says he spends plenty of time with people from different communities but constantly tries to expand those horizons.
Listening to your students and their families is a huge part of this process as well, according to Barrett. “Teachers can build a community of diversity by making their classrooms student-centered, in which each voice and emerging opinion is heard and respected,” Barrett says.
8. Know who you are
“It is imperative for me to have a strong understanding of self,” Barrett says. “’Who am I? How does my upbringing play a major role in the person that I am today?’ In order to measure my competency in inclusivity, I have to understand emotional intelligence.” Barrett says emotional intelligence is a major underlying factor in responding with or without tolerance when confronted with a different culture.
When you are strong in your own identity and able to empathize with others, you will be better able to understand other cultures. “Cultural competency is the key to becoming more inclusive—the knowledge, skills, attitudes and awareness needed to work with individuals from diverse backgrounds,” Barrett says.
9. Commit to your own ongoing education
There is always more to discover about people and the ways in which we are diverse. Barrett works to develop more skill in empathy, appreciation and listening without judgment. “Once I am aware and know about different cultures, then I develop the right attitude and skills to manage cross-cultural relationships. Throughout the year, I participate in diversity and inclusion workshops and cultural events.”
Lassiter says diversity and anti-racism training should be a part of education for teachers. If your school doesn’t offer training in this important subject, they might be willing to sponsor your attendance at a local conference. If not, you can always begin by checking out the resources available through Teaching Tolerance.