- Define implicit bias.
- Explain how implicit bias appears in child and youth programs.
- Describe how implicit bias might show up in your work with children and youth.
What is the first thing that you think of when you hear the word black? Did you think about the color or did you think about a word associated with black? Now, think about the word white. What is the first thing that you think of? Did you notice a difference in your answers? If so, what would you attribute that difference to? If not, think about why?
According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, some definitions of black include “thoroughly sinister or evil, wicked, indicative of condemnation or discredit, heavy, serious, very sad, gloomy, or marked by the occurrence of disaster.” Now consider how many times you have heard the word black used in association with something negative in daily conversations. Maybe you have heard someone referred to as “the black sheep in the family” or heard the phrase “black cloud” to describe a person’s bad mood.
Now, let us contrast the definition of the word “black” to the definition of the word “white.” According to Merriam-Webster online, “white” can mean “free from spot or blemish, free from moral impurity, innocent or not intended to cause harm.” In daily conversations you may hear phrases like “white as snow” or a “white lie” indicating that a lie is not to be taken seriously because it is harmless.
The difference between the definitions of the words “black” and “white” are stark. While this may seem innocent, it can lead to harmful outcomes because language has power, especially when that language becomes a part of our daily culture and is used without question or examination and reflection.
A careful look at the outcomes for many Black children and youth can confirm that there are differences in the way they experience educational programs as opposed to the way programs operate for White children and youth. Children from other marginalized racial and ethnic groups also experience educational programs in different ways than their White peers. In the book Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, author Monique Morris discusses the constant surveillance that takes place in educational settings that focuses on Black and other children of color. Morris notes “in principle, access to a quality public education is not a gendered right. While the privileges of all women and girls are up against entrenched patriarchy, the selection of which girls are privy to a formal education has always been informed by race and class” (p. 31). Multiple aspects of a person’s identity can affect their educational experiences, including, but not limited to race and gender along with income level. Looking further at how schools and programs negatively impact the experiences of Black children, Morris shares data on preschool suspensions. “Today, Black children are 19 percent of preschool enrollment, but 47 percent of preschool-age children who have had one out-of-school suspension. Black girls are 20 percent of female preschool enrollment, but 54 percent of girls receiving one or more out-of-schools suspensions” (p. 57).
This narrative should cause alarm. How could one out of every five Black children represent roughly half of all preschool suspensions? What could cause such a large number of suspensions for 3- to 5-year-old children? It is important to examine disparities that are present in your learning environment and community, and to question why they continue to persist with minoritized groups. This is particularly true with Black children and youth. What is it that we might not be considering because it is so commonplace that we are taught to ignore it? The reason “black” and “white” are viewed so differently is directly connected to structural racism. Structural racism is unequal treatment based on race that has been established within society over time. It can operate silently, and it affects everything we do unless it is carefully examined and interrupted. Tatum (2017) compares racism to a smog that we all regularly breathe in but are not conscious of. Racism manages to exist largely in unspoken and subtle ways, yet it has tangible impacts on the way that we all live. The question should never be if racism is evident in educational settings, rather where and how racism is evident in schools and child-care programs. Racism is not the only form of oppression that exists in our society. Other forms include classism, sexism, and ableism. As you review this lesson, keep in mind the reflection at the beginning of the lesson about the words “black” and “white.” Remember, language has the power to impact reality, and our beliefs can impact our work with children and youth. This is true even when our intentions are not meant to cause harm.
What is Implicit Bias?
Implicit bias, also referred to as unconscious bias, refers to “a set of automatic and uncontrolled cognitive processes that affect our attitudes toward others” (Iruka et al., 2020, p. 3). While these biases are not considered voluntary or something that we think about consciously, they can lead to characterizations of other people that are both positive and negative. Educators, coaches, administrators, and other school leaders all have implicit biases. Everyone does. Children and families have implicit biases too; however, teachers and program leaders’ biases can lead to harmful outcomes for children and youth when they do not regularly examine their attitudes and beliefs to see how these might be showing up in their classrooms.
Consider the following example to see how implicit bias operates in program. Imagine your colleague is telling you a story about a child who they believe is very disruptive. The child is loud, hits other children unprovoked, and often arrives to school late. The child is 4 years old, and this is their first school experience. What might you think about as you hear this story? Have you imagined a specific gender? Have you imagined a child from a particular racial or ethnic background? Is the child’s economic class or income level something you wonder about when you hear the story? If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, that is implicit bias. Implicit biases can be found in everyone, and they often exist uninterrupted inside of us. However, not addressing that those biases exist can be very harmful for children and youth from vulnerable backgrounds, as our biases often affect the way that we interact with children and the way that we do our jobs.
What Does Implicit Bias Look Like?
Walter Gilliam (2016), a Yale researcher, conducted a study in which early childhood teachers were asked to watch a video featuring a Black boy, a Black girl, a White boy, and a White girl who were all sitting at a table. The teachers were informed that they would see misbehavior on the video and were asked to make a note of it each time they saw it by pressing a button. Gilliam found that, regardless of the teachers’ race, all of the teachers pressed the button to indicate misbehavior mostly for the Black children. The teachers were not aware at the time, but none of the children misbehaved in the video that they observed (Iruka et al., 2021). This is not coincidental. This is a clear example of how implicit bias operates. As the study illustrates, even teachers from the same racial and ethnic group can demonstrate bias against children of color based on how society racializes everyone. The idea is that educators expect certain children to behave in negative ways and they begin to look for it, even when the “misbehavior” is not there. You might wonder, how is it possible to imagine that a child is doing something wrong when they are not doing anything negative and are behaving like their classmates? The answer again would derive from implicit bias.
Gilliam (2016) also examined preschool suspensions and expulsions and found that Black boys were more likely to be expelled than White, Latine, or Asian kids. He also found that the size of the child affected their likelihood of being suspended. Bigger children were expelled more often. The three factors that impacted the expulsion rate the most were the size of a child, their gender, and their race (Otto, 2021). When children are bigger or perceived to be bigger, this is known as ‘adultification’. These young children are perceived to be older and more threatening. Why would the size, gender, and race of a child matter in a decision to expel them from school? While the reasons vary, implicit bias is a factor. Behavior should be treated in a similar way – fairly—regardless of gender, race, or size but, unfortunately, behavior is not always treated fairly due to bias. If behavior is treated differently, it should be for reasons that humanize children and youth with consideration to their specific circumstances. A child may behave differently due to deployment, divorce, illness, or financial insecurity, for example. Think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943) in which basic needs must be taken care of so that we can focus on doing well in school. All these factors will no doubt have an impact on a child, regardless of whether they have the words to articulate that information to child and youth professionals. This is yet another reason that a strong, positive, and collaborative relationship with families can help to provide information to child care professionals that will enable them to make adjustments to support children.
While Black boys are often the focus of zero-tolerance policies, receiving harsh treatment for things that may not even involve a warning in the case of a White child, Black girls are also affected disproportionately by harsh punishments. Epstein et al. (2020) note that “Black girls routinely experience adultification bias as early as age 5. Adultification bias is when adults believe Black girls need less protections, support, nurturing, and comfort than White girls” (p. 58). These findings reinforce the importance of considering how implicit bias operates in programs and schools. Remembering to question what is behind the behavior and not the child in your program will help minimize implicit bias. If you struggle to see the behavior objectively, it might be a good idea to describe the behavior in a matter-of-fact way, (without including your opinions) to at least one colleague for their thoughts. It is also important to implement a regular routine of questioning your own behavior to examine how your biases show up in your classroom and how it is affecting the way that you care for and teach children and youth.
Let’s consider how suspensions and expulsions happen in preschool. Suspensions and expulsions in preschool are widespread. In fact, roughly 50,000 preschoolers were suspended in 2015 and 17,000 were permanently kicked out of their schools through expulsions (Einhorn, 2019). In some instances, the behaviors that lead to being forced out of preschool stemmed from safety issues such as kicking or biting. However, anyone who has ever been around a young child will know that kicking and biting are common with young children. Behavior is a form of communication. It represents an attempt to express a need. The “what” behind that need may not be obvious at first but, with care, support, and a relationship with the child and family, educators can often get to the root of the behavior. For more information on challenging behaviors, review the Focused Topics course, Supporting Children with Challenging Behavior.
Preschool suspensions and expulsions are damaging as they affect how children see themselves, as well as how they are viewed by their peers. Children are observant; they notice everything, including who gets attention and the type of attention that certain children receive. While it may appear that only one child is harmed through zero-tolerance policies that remove young children from preschools, either temporarily or permanently, the reality is that all the children are affected by witnessing a peer who is in their class one day and then removed for several days or even longer. While the teachers may not directly tell the children why a specific student is no longer a part of the class or program, children pay attention and notice when a teacher’s tone changes when speaking to certain children. They can tell when a teacher’s body language shifts or when they appear to be stressed while interacting with a child. Children will often begin to exclude peers who receive negative attention on a regular basis. It may be common to hear children say things like “Jay is a bad boy. He never listens.” Children may equate a child who struggles to follow the routine as a troublemaker. They may not understand that everyone needs help for different reasons and that does not make someone a bad person, nor does it mean that some children never listen. This is an indication that it is time for the educators to examine their interactions to see who is being excluded or has the potential to be excluded. It is time to make sure that any child who is struggling is getting the support they need, while remaining an important and valued member of the classroom and program.
As child and youth professionals, it is important that we recognize that implicit bias exists within each of us, and we must be cognizant of how it can show up in our classrooms. It can lead to stereotyping people based on their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, appearance, religion or disability. It also affects people who share a similar racial or ethnic background, not simply those with different backgrounds. Implicit bias is an automatic response that people have, regardless of their race. While many of the examples provided focus on implicit bias based on race, it can also impact the way that we view people with different identities around social class, age, and other identity markers. While implicit bias will still exist inside of each of us, awareness of it can help us slow down and question why we believe what we believe about people who are different from us. With deep reflection and intention, we can learn to become aware of our implicit biases and do something to change them.
The Hidden Curriculum
Another important concept related to implicit bias is the hidden curriculum that is taught every day in programs and schools. The hidden curriculum refers to values, norms, and ideas that remain unspoken, but are woven into the fabric of schools. The hidden curriculum may teach students that some are valued more than others in their classroom, program, and society. It is often the message that culture, and diversity are meant to be recognized or celebrated during specific times of the year, such as Hispanic Heritage month, Black History month, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month, or during “culture week” that often represents one week out of the school year when programs highlight various cultures of the children and families in their community. What message might it send to a child who is not in the dominant culture if they do not hear stories that represent their background or see images that demonstrate their perspectives throughout the year? What messages does the hidden curriculum teach about races and ethnicities that might not get acknowledged as prominently during Heritage month, like Indigenous cultures whose narratives are largely centered on Christopher Columbus.
In the video Fighting Racism in Schools, Indigenous youth activists reflect on the harm and trauma they experienced during elementary school when their peers or teachers made comments about their racial identity that were inaccurate, or only provided partial narratives. Others shared how some of the projects that they were forced to participate in at school provided a partial narrative of the history of the country, ignoring the harm that was caused to Native American people. In almost every instance, the youth talked about how their families shielded them by providing an accurate history of their culture to prepare them to know their actual identity, heritage, and history. Missing from their recollections were moments where teachers or other students spoke up or interrupted the harm they were experiencing. The voices of these youth activists as they looked back on their earliest memories of school were not warm memories. They were filled with trauma, racial battle fatigue (Smith, 2020) bias, and a hidden curriculum that spoke volumes about who society thought they were and what society thought about their ancestors.
Take a moment to think about these reflections. Is it possible that a child in your program might feel as though they are not safe and free to show up as their authentic self? How would that make you feel if you learned that children in your care are saying or doing things in the dramatic play area or on the playground, when educators are not around, that cause harm to some of the other children in your care? What can you do to interrupt those harmful comments? What can you do to bring conversations about diversity and differences out into the open so that children have the space to make comments and ask questions on an ongoing basis?
While adults can often feel as though conversations about race, social class, ability, or any other identity marker can be difficult, the same is not always true for children, who may view their question or comment as any other wondering they have during the school day. Children and youth are simply responding to what they see in the world. While infants and toddlers may not be at the point where they are making comments or asking questions about diversity based on their age and their emerging ability to use expressive language, it is still very important to proactively include language around diversity in your classroom and programs through the books that you read, the images that you display, the languages that you use, and the materials that you select. Your classroom and materials tell a story. What story do you want your learning environment to tell?
If conversations around diversity, in all of its forms (race, gender, social class, ability, religion, appearance) feel uncomfortable at first, that is OK. You can acknowledge that, as an adult and child care professional, you also have questions or things you have noticed about children in your classroom or children and people who exist in the community and world. This level of vulnerability and authenticity can demonstrate to children and youth that you are on a journey together to learn more about the diversity that you see, and it can also demonstrate that race, gender, social class, ability, religion, or appearance are not reserved for one conversation. Instead, you can demonstrate to children and youth the value of returning to your questions and engaging in deeper and needed conversations around the topic of diversity and differences. You may find that, by opening these spaces for the children and youth to wonder, you offer them permission to comment on the things they notice but might not have felt comfortable asking about. You can begin with conversations that focus on your appearance and you can compare and contrast your appearance to that of other adults in your program. You can then move on to the appearances of the children and youth to see what they notice and what they wonder. This conversation might include intersecting identity markers like appearance, gender, and race. As you move further into the conversation, you may find yourself learning new things about your students and they will learn new things about their educators and peers. Diversity, as we learned in the first lesson, refers to differences and variations. When it comes to identity, there are some things that you can see and others that will not be as obvious. When we consider identity and the biases and assumptions that come to mind around identity, we should remember the example of a cultural iceberg—there will always be things above and below the surface of someone’s identity.
- holidays & festivals
- literature & arts
- family & gender roles
- work ethic
- body language
- attitudes toward environment
When it comes to ability, some things will be easier for some people and not as easy for other people, which is information that will not be available to us just by looking at someone. A child who can focus better by sitting near a child care professional and far away from distractions like a shelf with toys or materials may not be able to focus as well if they are given a spot to sit on where lots of distractions can be found and there is no child care professional nearby to help redirect them. Another child may not require the same sort of support to focus well. Both children can feel successful if given the proper tools. In another example, a child who may have gross motor delays may be able to engage in movement activities for a shorter period of time than their peers. Knowing this information, educators may select movement (tactile and kinesthetic) activities that include a short period of standing followed by something seated. Or the educator can give children and youth the option to stand or sit to engage in the activity in the way that feels best for their body. This allows every child, regardless of ability, to participate in a whole group activity with their peers without having to explain why they can only join the activity for a short period of time.
There are many ways to have conversations around diversity in your classroom and program. Books, images, and a curriculum around diversity can offer entry points to conversations around ability, gender, race, and other identity markers. You can also remain alert to the questions and comments in your classroom or program, on the playground, or at home to see what your students are thinking about and how you can provide accurate and explicit information to answer their questions and/or provide additional insight on the topic of diversity. In our next lesson, we will focus on partnering with families to learn how we can honor and celebrate identities and experiences.
Implicit bias refers to the attitudes and stereotypes that impact our decision making, actions, and understanding of the world around us. As you listen to Adrienne Moetanalo, Program Coordinator at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, discuss implicit bias, reflect on the ways you can minimize the impact of biases that show up in your work with children and youth.
Having an awareness of your own implicit biases and when they typically show up will allow you to focus on minimizing the way they affect the children, youth, families and peers in your program. Consider the following ideas to reflect on and mitigate implicit biases:
- Pay attention to the way biases show up in your day. Create a list of what you see or hear in the media (in print, online, on the radio, etc.) that stereotypes or indicates a bias toward an individual based on appearance, race, gender, age, sex, class, and/or ability.
- Explore the Kirwan institute's Implicit Bias Training and take the Implicit Bias Test in the Apply section to reflect on your own biases and how they show up in your work. Use a journal to document your reflections and return to/add to them as often as needed.
- Acknowledge that you also have questions about diversity and differences that exist in the world.
- Intentionally bring conversations about diversity and differences into the open so that children have safe spaces to make comments and ask questions.
- Include culturally affirming curriculum, books, toys, other materials (e.g., flesh tone crayons and paper), and language about diversity in your classroom environment.
Paying attention to the way biases show up in your day, both inside and outside of the program, will help you to engage in equitable interactions and create a more inclusive environment. Use the Observing Bias activity to reflect on your current interactions with children and how biases show up in your classroom.
Complete the Circle of Trust activity to examine your inner circles to see where many of your perspectives derive from and how individuals that you trust can help you to identify your biases and engage in discussions around equity.
Implicit biases exist in everyone. Acknowledging and understanding your own biases is an important and necessary step in becoming a culturally responsive child and youth professional. Use the Implicit Bias Test developed by Harvard University to explore your implicit bias. After completing the assessment, reflect on your results and how you can use the information to improve your interactions with children and families.
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