- Distinguish between equity and equality.
- Describe how equity looks in practice.
- Explain how to make your program more equitable for all children.
Imagine a child in your program is experiencing food insecurity due to a parent’s recent layoff. As the family adjusts to being a single-income household, they are faced with making some tough decisions. Since you have a strong and positive relationship with the family, they have shared information with you about the layoff, as well as the added stress that it has caused them. They have also shared this information with the program’s administrators. In the spirit of advocacy, you and your colleagues compile resources about organizations and services the family can contact for support, including information about a food pantry. While the food pantry is helpful, it is not enough to provide for all the family’s needs. You decide to send boxes of individually packed cereal, small milk cartons, and fruit home at the end of each week to support the family. Does this action represent a matter of equality or equity?
How would you define equality in child and youth programs? How would you define equity in child and youth program? Simply put, equity in child and youth programs means every child has access to whatever they need to be successful. That will look different based on the needs of each individual child, but the idea is that no one will be left out or unable to have the tools or support that will allow them to learn and function at their best. Examples of equitable caregiving include providing a unique seat for a child with specific sensory needs, one-on-one support for a child learning a new skill, or extra response time to complete an activity for a child that struggles to process written instructions. Equity does not mean that everyone is provided with the same tools for learning; it means everyone is provided the specific tools needed to learn and do their best. A school-aged child who is able to remain focused and engaged independently may not need to sit near a staff member during work time, while a child who has difficulty remaining on task may benefit from having a staff member nearby to help them stay focused. Equity does not require everyone to have the same thing or an equal amount of something.
Now let’s consider equality. Equality can be defined as everyone having the same thing and the same amount. For instance, equality in a child or youth program might be everyone having an equal number of crackers for snack or an equal number of books to read during rest time. Equality does not consider that some children and families may have more than they need due to their social class while other families may be struggling to pay their bills. Equality does not consider the different needs of individuals. Instead, it aims to give everyone an equal amount. Equity considers that people have different starting and end points and different needs, so the concept focuses on what is needed to make opportunities accessible to all individuals.
Structural racism has purposely set White people up to have access to the things they need, often without barriers. The same is not true for marginalized racial and ethnic groups. Social class also influences the types of access that people have to goods and services, so wealthier individuals will often have access to several options while individuals with less financial wealth often have access to fewer options. Consider the ability to obtain food. Wealthier individuals generally have better access to reliable transportation, therefore, obtaining groceries is easier because they can drive to wherever the items they want and need are located. On the other hand, individuals that lack access to reliable transportation might have to walk to the grocery store that is closest to them. That store may not have the items they need, and they also must consider how much they can buy if they have to carry their groceries home. In this example, the amount of grocery stores is equal to everyone, but the ability to access what is needed is not equitable. Attempting to make things more equitable is not about favoring one group over another. Instead, it is about recognizing and acknowledging that society was designed for only some groups to succeed and that has been perpetuated in order to uphold the false hierarchies that exist in our society.
Equity in Practice
Equity in child and youth programs will look different based on the context but there are some aspects that will remain consistent across programs. Equitable child care programs ensure that:
- All children can learn
- All children feel safe
- All children know that they are valued
Every child needs certain things to learn. They need to feel safe in their learning environment and they need to know and feel cared for. The feeling of safety in programs is important, but it may not always get the attention it deserves. Children and youth cannot feel safe if they are being teased, bullied, treated differently, ignored, rendered invisible, or given too much attention from their peers or their educators. Invisibility in programs can happen through curriculum choices that reflect which identities are visible in the program or which identities are shown in room posters and wall hangings. The languages in print around the program, including material labels, word walls, charts and something as simple as the letters of the alphabet also tell a story. When you sing songs or do finger plays, what languages do you use? Do you sing the alphabet in Spanish? Or in sign language? Have you considered learning the days of the week in a language other than English that is represented in your program or a language that you want to introduce in your learning environment?
A child cannot feel safe if they rarely receive attention because of their identity. Children from Asian backgrounds are often considered gifted and can go unnoticed when they are struggling with material because popular biases and assumptions would make some educators think that they do not need help. Children with quiet temperaments who may be struggling with an activity, materials or the environment may also go unnoticed because of an assumption that they are fine if they are not asking for help, when in reality, they may not feel safe enough or comfortable enough to ask for assistance. Outgoing children and youth are not the only ones who need support. All children should have the opportunity to learn and get help when they need it.
Some children and youth may feel invisible in programs while other children may feel too visible and constantly under surveillance. Children who receive too much attention may receive it for several reasons (their walk, talk, style of dress, hair, religious attire, personality). If a child receives unnecessary attention because of how they wear their hair, this may lead to them being told that they can’t wear their hair in a certain style, or it may turn into disciplinary actions. When this happens, a child will likely lose a sense of security in the environment. Equitable programs recognize that White children do not face the same level of discrimination. Consider how a Black child might feel if comments are made about their clothing, skin, or hair. Even though the texture of a White child’s hair being considered “normal” is not an explicit message in society, it has been implied for so long that the effects have been long lasting and damaging. In the 1940s, two psychologists conducted a study using dolls to see how Black children felt about their racial identity. Mamie and Kenneth Clark asked Black children a series of questions about the dolls, one White and one Black to see how children associated specific ideas and behaviors with the doll. The psychologists found an overwhelming preference for the White dolls, and they also found positive words associated more with the White dolls than with the Black dolls. While the study was conducted more than 70 years ago, the underlying belief that White is good and Black is bad persists. It is not a small thing to deny a child the right to show pride in their culture and represent that pride through the choices they make about their hair or any other way they choose to express themselves. In many cultures, hairstyles have cultural meaning and instill a sense of cultural pride in a child. A child cannot feel safe if they receive negative attention because of a part of their identity, like how they choose to wear their hair or because they wear a religious head covering like a hijab or a yarmulke.
The Connection between Safety and Equity
Safety is not simply about protecting children and youth from physical harm; it must also include protection from emotional harm. It is difficult for a child to feel safe in a space where their feelings and emotions are not accepted or normalized. It is important to reflect on the messages we send children when we consistently say things such as “calm your body” or “catch a bubble” during instances where they are feeling age-appropriate excitement, anger, or curiosity and need to move, talk, and express themselves in other ways. Similarly, children and youth cannot feel safe if their actions are looked upon differently because of their identity. Children notice everything. They notice which one of their friends receives a lot of negative attention from child care professionals and they notice which actions lead to negative attention. Children cannot feel safe if they are constantly removed from learning spaces because of their behavior, such as being moved to the hallway when they should be in a classroom or other learning space, or if they receive disciplinary action that suspends or expels them from spaces that are supposed to help them learn. All these actions have consequences beyond those for the child and their family. How do these actions impact the rest of the learning environment? How are other children harmed when they are forced to witness the discipline of a peer? Do they fear that they will be next? Do they wonder about their own safety after witnessing a friend’s negative interaction with a caregiver? These are questions that should be considered when we discuss equity and safe programming for all children. When we talk about safety, we must consider all aspects of safety rather than isolate the conversation to physical safety alone.
A safe learning environment aims to make sure that all children know that they belong and that they are cared for. When children feel safe, they are more likely to have fun and engage in learning experiences. All children are curious, and they show it through both words and actions. “What is it?”, “How does it work?”, “What will happen if I push this button?”, “Can I have a turn?”, “Can I have another turn?” These are all ways that we know that children and youth are engaged and want to be a part of a learning experience. Children and youth are naturally curious, but sometimes they need educators to pique their interests through a careful selection and display of materials in a learning space. For children to learn, they also need to feel like their questions and observations matter. Children may choose to express themselves in different ways. Some cultures may encourage children to be quieter, which may conflict with how schools expect children to show what they know. Partnering with families will allow you to know the cultural expectations for each child, and work with families to create opportunities that are respectful of each child’s culture while allowing children to demonstrate their understanding of materials. Staff should review their curriculum in addition to their environments to ensure activities are respectful and equitable. While whole group activities serve a clear purpose of building community and allow for a shared experience, every child may not feel comfortable speaking or participating in a whole group activity. Some children will feel more at ease sharing their knowledge with a small group. Having different types of learning activities and experiences is essential for learning and it is equitable. This is important for staff members to know as they design different types of experiences and activities that will allow all children to be able to participate.
Making Equity Evident
All children need to feel valued. Knowing they are truly cared for and loved by their educators makes a tremendous difference in how they experience schools and educational programs. Imagine what it might feel like to be in a space where no one looks like you, enjoys the same hobbies as you, eats similar foods, or speaks the way you and your family speak. How might this make you feel? Now imagine that not only does no one else have any of the same experiences as you, but that those experiences are never even discussed during the day. It may feel like you don’t even exist in that space. What if when your experiences do show up, they are almost always negative and inaccurate. Would you feel like you belong or that others want you to be there? Would you feel excited about returning to this place every day? Would you feel curious and excited about learning? Children and youth can’t feel successful if they don’t feel seen or like they belong. Equity means that each child has access to the tools they need to succeed and that barriers are removed that could possibly prevent someone from feeling successful and like they belong.
When a program is equitable, equity is evident. Equitable child care programs include the voices of children, youth, and families. This will vary depending on the age of the children. At a preschool level, it might mean giving the children a say in when certain activities happen or how they should look. At an elementary or middle school level, children and youth can be more involved in the decisions that take place in their program.
When you envision equity in programs, you probably aren’t thinking about school safety officers and metal detectors at school entrances. This becomes an equity issue when the metal detectors are placed in schools in marginalized communities, and they are not located in programs with wealthier families. Parents likely imagine a different start to their child’s day than walking through a metal detector. For example, a group of Louisiana fathers were concerned about violence at their children’s high school, but instead of agreeing to the addition of metal detectors or school police officers, they decided to take turns volunteering at the school each day to greet all the children with jokes, high fives, and encouraging words. The school saw a sharp decline in violence as a result. This shift away from fighting and violence to having children begin their day feeling less stressed, more connected to their peers and happier demonstrates the need to partner with families and the importance of their role in schools. This is equity in practice.
When equity is present in programs it reminds us that we need to move away from constantly trying to catch children doing the wrong thing and try to find more ways to make sure that we have carefully set them up so they can do the right thing. The intersection of identity markers like race, class, and ability, to name a few, impacts the amount of surveillance children and families receive and the types of experiences they have access to. If staff members have high expectations of the children and youth they work with, they will most often see great things in return. But when staff members have low or no expectations for the children and youth in their programs, very often the children will meet those low expectations. The way we interact with children and youth matters. The words that we say and the words that get left unspoken matter. The way that we speak words of value and affirmation to the children and youth in our care makes a difference.
In addition to the ways equity appears in your program environment and curriculum, the tools we use to assess the learning experiences of children must also be supportive of all learners, including those from racially and culturally marginalized groups. Oftentimes, conventional assessment tools do not account for the diverse backgrounds, experiences, and needs of all children and families. For assessments to be culturally responsive and equitable, they must account for the differences in children’s identities, cultures, and lived experiences. When assessment tools or methods include accountability measures that respect cultural strengths and values, staff members can improve their teaching practices and nurture the academic, social, and emotional development of children and youth.
Finally, equity in practice examines who has a voice and power among staff and who does not. If a program practices equity, it must be evident on all levels. For example, equity in practice should be observed through the design of your learning space, the interactions with children and youth, and hiring and retention practices. If your program hires individuals from different racial or ethnic backgrounds, people with different religions, from different socioeconomic statuses, people whose first language is not English, and people who have different gender identities or sexual orientations, it is not enough to simply expect them to succeed without giving them the tools to do so. Tools to succeed, when centered in equity, will recognize the challenges that may come with being seen as “different” among colleagues and will support the growth and development of all employees, not just some. Equity from the lens of staff will not assume to know what individuals need. Instead, program leaders should lead with the question of “How can I better support you?” Equity among colleagues recognizes that just like the children, youth, and families we work with, equity will not mean giving everyone the same thing. It will mean giving everyone the things they need to succeed while actively removing any barriers that might stop them from being able to thrive.
Making your Program More Equitable
Now that you have had a chance to think about the meaning of equality versus equity and heard about equity in practice, consider your program and how you can make it a more equitable place for all children. Below you will find areas of the curriculum to consider as you make changes to your learning environment and reflective questions to help guide you in making your program more equitable.
- How is the environment designed?
- Is it possible for every individual to navigate the learning environment easily?
- Do you offer different types of seating options for children and educators with different needs?
- What messages are being sent through the materials (furniture, toys, dolls, puppets, posters, books, placement of materials, digital learning tools, learning supports) present in your program?
- Which identities might feel centered?
- Which identities might feel excluded?
- Do posters or displays throughout the year highlight different identities?
- Does your environment include visuals to provide context clues for emergent bilingual learners?
- Do you use language supports like sentence starters to support language development for emergent bilingual students?
- Does all the text appear in the same color, or do you use different colors to make it easier to distinguish text?
- Are visuals and text large enough to support children with visual impairments?
- Which languages are valued based on the learning space?
- Do your materials support various types of learners (for example, do you have smaller crayons, crayon rocks, or pencil grips for children with fine motor needs, can children write while standing up using a piece of paper taped to the wall to provide a different level of sensory input, are there visual cues in the learning space to support different learners?)
- Are various races, ethnicities, and cultures represented in the learning space?
- Do you offer different modalities for children and youth to show what they know (drawing or other form of artistic expression, sculptures made from clay or model magic, dance or movement, written assignments, audio or video recording, podcast, song, rap, poetry, etc.) based on their age?
- Are louder voices given more value in your learning space?
- How are quieter voices being nurtured and developed?
- How often do you audit your materials?
- What is your process for choosing new materials to purchase or use?
- How are various races, ethnicities, and cultures centered in your curriculum?
- How are various languages centered in your curriculum?
- How is gender or sexual orientation discussed in your curriculum?
- Where does religion show up in your curriculum?
- How is ability talked about in your program?
- Are different identities discussed year-round or only during specific points of the year (for example, is Martin Luther King Jr. discussed only around his birthday and the only thing children and youth learn is about his I Have a Dream speech)?
- Is your curriculum well rounded or does it only depict a narrow and partial narrative about specific identities (for example, family structure is only discussed when you have a family that is a same-sex couple, Black history only gets discussed during Black History Month)?
- How is children’s learning assessed?
- Do children have several opportunities to demonstrate their learning?
- Are the assessments appropriate for each type of learner or do you use a “one size fits all” approach regardless of whether the approach does not serve all children well?
- How does the real world show up in your program?
- Does your curriculum incorporate current events, or does it isolate children from the stress of the world outside of your program?
- Where do the identities and unique experiences of the families show up in your curriculum?
- Do families have opportunities on an ongoing basis to share oral stories, read with the children, talk about their work, teach a song from their culture, or share a recipe, or is this something that only happens during “culture week,” “culture month,” or another designated time?
These questions are meant to encourage continual reflection and evaluation of your program throughout the year. You should also discuss them with colleagues to ensure that you know what you are doing and why you are doing it and to help you remain accountable to your goal of creating an equitable program. If you truly want to make your program equitable, constant vigilance will be required to keep you on the right path, but the results will be worth it. You will likely find that children, youth, and their families are more excited about learning, feel more connected to the program, and are able to relate real-world events to their learning.
Responding to Bias and Stereotypes in the Moment
A proactive approach to creating equitable early childhood programs and teaching with anti-bias and anti-racist goals in mind will support children as they learn to recognize, respect and celebrate differences. Nonetheless, there will be times when you find yourself faced with comments or questions that need to be addressed. What should you do if a child in your program makes a comment that is biased or based on stereotypes? Does it matter if you are the only person who hears the comment? What if the comment takes place at the end of the day as the child is leaving with their parent or guardian? Should you address the comment in the moment? Should you revisit the comment the next day?
It is important that when you hear a biased remark, take a deep breath and remember that you are capable of providing a response. Child care professionals should always respond to comments or questions that reflect bias or stereotypes, regardless of whether the comment was expressed in front of them. If the remark catches you off-guard and you do not have a response in the moment, it is OK to let the child or children know the statement is not OK and that you need time to consider the best way to respond, as long as you do in fact return to the discussion in the very near future. It is also a good idea to share the comment or question with the child’s family so they can continue the conversation at home. It might be necessary to provide language to families who may need support in addressing the situation at home with their child. If a child got physically hurt while playing with another child but you did not observe the incident, you would follow up with both children to find out what happened. As child care professionals responsible for protecting and caring for children and youth in the absence of their family, we must extend the same level of care when it comes to issues that cause emotional harm. We must treat racial incidents and other incidents based on bias and stereotypes just as seriously as we would treat physical incidents. Bruises, cuts and scrapes will heal eventually with time and care, but the unseen cuts or microaggressions left behind when peers or adults say something that causes harm or treats children and youth differently because of who they are can last a lifetime. We should not and cannot ignore these comments or questions even if they cause us to feel uncomfortable momentarily. Imagine how uncomfortable those comments or questions make the children and youth they are aimed at feel. You are responsible for the protection and safety of the children in your care, and that includes their emotional and mental health. Below you will find examples of comments or questions that children and youth might pose that show biases or stereotypes along with ways to respond in the moment.
The examples above demonstrate how staff members might respond if faced with a situation where a child is expressing bias or a stereotype. There are many ways that you can respond to the statements listed above. The main thing to remember is that a response is needed. We should not allow a child to walk through the world with incorrect information about themselves, their identities, or the identities of other people. While kindness is often encouraged, it is not enough. It’s important to remember that in most cases children are not trying to be unkind. Often, their curiosity is expressed in a way that feels harsh to adults or they have been misinformed and need a space to consider a different perspective. Children learn stereotypes early so it’s important that we interrupt the stereotypes as they become apparent. The important role that books and other materials can play in interrupting biases and stereotypes cannot be overstated. There are several thoughtfully written books that can help staff members enter conversations with children and youth about identity and equity. These books should always be reviewed carefully before they are introduced to the children. Staff members can use notes and mark the pages where they want to stop or return to as they engage in conversations about what the pictures illustrate and the underlying message of the book. In some cases, with older children and youth, it can also be useful to show books that are not well written as a comparison. This can help children see where biases and stereotypes might exist in text. A careful examination of books and materials to see what the narrative is and how certain identities are represented can help children enter discussions about representation and power. This helps children develop a critical lens when reading, and that is a skill that will be helpful throughout their lives.
This course has provided a lot of information about culturally responsive and equitable early childhood programs, however, there is always more to learn. Sustaining your identity as a culturally responsive and equitable early childhood educator is a transformative journey. This is just one part of the journey that will help you discover information about yourself and the children and families in your program.
Equitable child care programs are spaces where children feel valued and represented in the program and are given what they need to learn and thrive. Listen as Tara Kirton, Research Assistant, Teachers College, Columbia University, describes what equitable child care programs look like and how to respond when children ask difficult questions or make comments that involve bias and stereotypes.
Equitable assessment tools help programs to remain true to their equity goals. Listen as Iheoma U. Iruka, Research Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Founding Director of the Equity Research Action Coalition at Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, discusses the importance of equitable assessment tools.
Incorporating a proactive approach to creating equitable child care programs and teaching with anti-bias and anti-racist goals in mind will support children as they learn to recognize, respect, and celebrate differences. As issues related to bias or stereotypes arise, keep the following in mind:
- Be a role model for reacting to negative comments.
- Pause and consider the best way to respond to the comment or question. You do not need to have the best response in the moment but acknowledge that the statement or question is not OK.
- Ask yourself if the person making the comment understands its harmful effects. Either way, educate them.
- Discuss biased remarks or stereotypes with colleagues and role play response scenarios.
- Acknowledge the person who received the comment or question (if directed to a person or group). Validate their feelings in the moment.
- Discuss the situation with parents or guardians as early as possible. Families may request support in addressing the topic at home.
- Review your curriculum and the assessment tools your program currently uses to ensure they reflect culturally responsive and anti-bias practices.
Children of all ages are capable of learning about and discussing race and racism. All children collect information from their experiences, so developmentally appropriate discussions are important early and often. Use the Discussing Race with Children attachment to review and reflect on what children understand about race and how to support their learning.
Use the Supporting Discussions activity to help families engage in important discussions with their children about race, ethnicity, and culture. The resource list is meant to be a starting point for your program and should be updated to reflect the individual needs of the families and children in your care.
This course has introduced many strategies for implementing anti-bias, anti-racist, and culturally responsive teaching practices. Use the Creating Culturally Responsive & Equitable Programs: Direct Care Practice Inventory to think more deeply about the practices that you use to support equity and diversity in your program. After completing this inventory, talk with your trainer, coach, or administrator if you need more support. Training and curriculum specialists may also use this inventory to observe direct-care staff members’ practices.
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Curenton, S., Iruka, I., Rochester, S., & Durden, T. (2023). The Assessing Classroom Sociocultural Equity Scale (ACSES). Tool in preparation. Brookes Publishing. https://brookespublishing.com/coming-soon-the-assessing-classroom-sociocultural-equity-scale/
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Souto-Manning, M., Rabadi-Raol, A., Robinson, D., & Perez, A. (2018). What stories do my classroom and its materials tell? Preparing early childhood teachers to engage in equitable and inclusive teaching. Young Exceptional Children, 22 (2), 62–73. https://doi.org/10.1177/1096250618811619.
Sturdivant, T. (2021). What I learned when I recreated the famous “doll test” that looked at how Black kids see race. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/what-i-learned-when-i-recreated-the-famous-doll-test-that-looked-at-how-black-kids-see-race-153780.
Tao, K. (2020). 10 Tips on talking to kids about race and racism. PBS Teachers' Lounge. https://www.pbs.org/education/blog/10-tips-on-talking-to-kids-about-race-and-racism.
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