Why children have to be treated differently to be equal
As the first bridge out of the family home into wider society, it is vital that pre-schools reflect diversity
Kathleen McDonnell, Maria Dollard, Martina Ozonyia and Toddy Hogan at the Equality and Diversity Early Childhood National Network/Stay Strong conference in the Clarion Hotel, North Wall Quay. Photograph: Alan Betson
Louise Derman-Sparks, a leading US advocate of anti-bias education, says: ‘The bias and the prejudices that affect young children come from family, from media, they even come from toys.’ Photograph: Alan Betson
Colette Murray, EDeNn co-ordinator and lecturer in Blanchardstown Institute of Technology, says: ‘It is one of the myths that children don’t notice difference. Children categorise from a very early age.’ Photograph: Alan Betson
Everybody knows one little girl in the pre-school class is a Traveller but nobody talks about it. However, when one of her classmates is having a birthday party, she is the only child not invited.
Members of the pre-school staff are horrified – particularly, as it happens, because they are in the middle of a training programme run by the Equality and Diversity Early Childhood National Network (EDeNn). They realise they are not supporting this Traveller child to be equal among her peers.
So they invite the girl’s father, who collects and sells periwinkles, into the pre-school to talk about his work. All the children are fascinated to hear about, handle and even taste the edible sea snail. Photographs are taken for a booklet about periwinkles and his proud daughter is “queen” for the day.
This was the scenario in one pre-school in the west of Ireland, as recounted by Colette Murray, EDeNn co-ordinator and lecturer in Blanchardstown Institute of Technology. But the initial act of exclusion is undoubtedly repeated in many others, be it on grounds of race, religion, culture or family type.
Blame it on the adults, you might say. Surely any group of small children play along happily, blissfully oblivious to such differences?
Not so, according to Murray. “It is one of the myths that children don’t notice difference. Children categorise from a very early age.”
But noticing difference is not the problem. It’s the attitudes that filter down from society to those differences which sow the seeds of prejudice in very young minds.
Early childhood care workers who are aware of the impact of those attitudes and are trained to build on children’s natural curiosity about differences are able to explain how people are both different and the same, says Louise Derman-Sparks, a leading US advocate of anti-bias education, who was in Dublin recently to address a conference entitled Making a Difference for All Children.
Sources of prejudices
Sitting in the offices of Start Strong, which jointly organised the conference with EDeNn, she explains: “The bias and the prejudices that affect young children come from family, from media, they even come from toys.” Some come as misinformation in the form of stereotypes and some are a result of invisibility – “because what you don’t see is not important”.
The flip side of that is if you are visible and your image is reflected in pictures, posters, books and TV programmes, it not only helps you develop a positive self-concept but it also makes you think that people who don’t look like that may have something wrong with them. And if you are a child who doesn’t see themselves in materials around you, “then there is the feeling that you are not worth as much as the people who are visible”.
Pre-school is the first bridge out of the family home into wider society, she points out, so children’s experience of inclusion or exclusion at that stage is likely to have a significant impact on their formative years.