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6.6: Issues of Social Justice in the Early Childhood Classroom

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    Social justice and bias (implicit and explicit) have recently become key terms in the field of early care and education, but have been researched for many years. Dissecting biases can often lead straight to imbalances in social justice which include inequity in education, access to resources including food and healthcare, and in areas early educators see as vital to development such as play.

    The Disappearance of Play

    In early education, we have been taught that play is a child’s work. Children learn about the world through play, practice social norms including role-playing, learn how to negotiate, use their imagination and release stress, develop fine and gross motor skills and misdirected energy. Yet as we look at early education centers who are located in lower socioeconomic communities, play can be little to none. Often times it can be used as a reward and given, or a punishment and taken away. Schools that serve impoverished communities may mistakenly eliminate play and replace it with more formal, structured instructional time, believing this will help children learn. This ignores the facts that children are fully engaged when playing, developing self -regulation through movement and choice, social-emotional skills by negotiating and building ideas together, and practicing what works in language. (K. Esquivel, 2019)

    “Free play should not be seen as a “reward” for young children’s hard work - play is the work of a young child. Early childhood educators must use play as a tool for cognitive and social-emotional growth.” Young children need play in order to develop full, healthy lives. It gives them a unique way to engage with language and build literacy skills. It builds their knowledge as they solve problems, interact with concepts, and test their hypotheses. “Children build resilience, confidence, physical abilities, and relational skills as they engage in play with meaning.”

    Play is increasingly being pushed out of children’s daily lives, in spite of the advocacy for play from researchers, psychologists, and early childhood educators. “The issue of missing play in schools is essential for educators to address as children continue to grow in stressful situations, requiring the unique supports that development through play offers. Children who experience a play-based early education are empowered as confident people with tools for healthy development in every area of their lives. Play is a tool that educators must use to honor children’s needs as they learn and grow.” [82]

    Inequitable Access to Play as Curriculum

    As we discuss the types of curriculums used in more affluent schools, we will see the vast difference on how play is welcomed, nurtured, appreciated and viewed as a necessity. We also know children from more affluent communities tend to have less behavior related challenges, more impulse control, and greater use of language which shows a direct correlation to the increased play that is received and valued.

    As the next generation of early care and education educators, there is a need to be cognizant of the social justice issue rooted in play, while also acknowledging the biases which may be linked to children playing. Some of these biases are:

    • Play is a waste of time
    • “Those” children are already too wild and get more wild when they play
    • Children are to be seen and not heard
    • “Those” children are already behind and need to be learning not playing

    Understanding why a family or school pushes back on children’s play is an important first step towards change and delivering information and moving towards changing imbalances. Diverse cultures place differing value on play. Not all families will understand or agree with the importance of play for young children in early childhood education programs.

    A disparity in materials purchased can also be noted and rooted in the feelings of certain groups being less deserving and/or not taking care of nice materials. As professionals, we know fancy materials are not needed, rather the upkeep of an inviting, clean environment and quality interactions using materials that are in good repair and rotated frequently to maintain engagement. Additionally, providing the ‘basics’ are needed such as:

    • Various building materials
    • Various art materials including writing
    • Various books that are culturally relevant to those in the class
    • Outdoor space with ways to practice fine and gross motor skills

    Appropriate classroom materials including how to design high quality environments can be found in Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS-R) for preschoolers or Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale (ITERS-R) for infants and toddlers. Additionally, there are separate tools used for family child care centers, Family Child Care Environment Rating Scale, Revised Edition (FCCERS-R) and for programs that serve out-of-school programs, School-Age Care Environment Rating Scale (SACERS).

    Differences in Food and Mealtimes

    Meal practices vary based not only on family culture, but differences can be seen based on the location of the early education center. Schools located in more affluent areas have a tendency to get more fresh foods and homemade meals by default vs the opposite in other communities who receive packaged or processed foods.

    Many programs are understanding the value in children having access to fresh foods including fruits and vegetables and are adjusting their practices and budgets accordingly. Families are also understanding the negative effects on children’s growth and development along with the immediate effects on their child’s behavior due to various dyes found in many foods (K. Esquivel, 2019).

    In addition to the food served, meal time practices also vary. Meal times are most beneficial when they are enjoyable, not rushed, and filled with back and forth conversations that allow for children to socialize and practice social norms. Having family style meals (where the food is on the table and children serve themselves) allows for children to practice their fine and gross motor skills and leads to children trying a variety of foods they may not typically be exposed to. Educators must consider the possibility of push back because of family traditions, food scarcity, socializing at the table only being for adults and eating all things given is a must.

    As you work with families who exhibit meal time traits that do not align with best practice, strategies discussed in Chapter 14 may be helpful. One strategy is starting a conversation with the family, while encouraging the child to take a more active role in their meals is a useful tool. There is a fine line between respecting the family culture and their wishes, and perpetuating social injustices that can be linked to socioeconomic differences (K. Esquivel, 2019).

    It is also important to note that the use of food as a play material is a topic that families and early child educators may have strong feelings about. For some, especially those who have experienced food insecurity (not knowing where their next meal was coming from), it may be considered wasteful to use food for play instead of nourishing people. Programs may choose to implement a policy to respect the views and the values behind them.

    Biased Response to Children’s Behavior

    Developing a culturally responsive understanding of child development is imperative to ensure child behaviors are not categorized as negative when they are actually rooted in race, ethnicity, and/or gender. Educators must acknowledge that goals and beliefs about children’s development vary across different cultural contexts (the cultural context of the many adults in the child’s life: parents/caregivers, extended family, practitioners, teachers).

    The behavior of children of color, particularly Black, Latino and Native American boys, is often mislabeled as challenging and negative. Boys from these groups are singled out more often for displaying the same behaviors as and withheld from more opportunities than their white peers. They are suspended at much higher rates, even from preschool and are more harshly labeled as being aggressive, loud and disrespectful.

    A group of children playing soccer.
    Figure 6.4: Behaviors in boys of color are more harshly labeled. How might this picture be interpreted?

    Boys of color are seen as much older than their actual age, thereby having expectations being placed on them well beyond their ability. Research has shown that implicit bias, the unconscious beliefs each of us possesses about specific groups, plays a large role in the negative connotation given to typical child behaviors. [83]

    In his experimental study, Dr. Gilliam asked early educators to watch a video of children in a classroom and press a button each time they saw a “behavior that may become a potential challenge”. The video included four children- a black boy and girl and a white boy and girl engaged in a small group activity. In reality, the video had no challenging behaviors in it. Using an eye tracking device, the research team measured where teachers were looking on the screen. Findings revealed that teachers spent significantly more time looking at the Black boy in the video, than any other child.

    This research may shed some light on the stubborn disparities we see in expulsion and suspension practices. If early educators are scrutinizing black boys more, looking at them more, expecting more challenging behavior from them- we may expect they may find it, or in some cases think they’ve found it, even if objectively it is not there.

    When the federal government published its own data on preschool suspensions for the first time, the results were remarkably similar. Though black boys made up 18% of preschool enrollment, they made up 48% of preschoolers who had been suspended. New Federal data released just this year, again, show that the numbers haven’t moved. While black children make up 19% of enrollment, they make up 47% of suspensions. This year’s data also reveal that black girls make up 20% of the female preschool population, but 54% of all preschool girls suspended.

    Of course, when we see such pervasive and long lasting disparities, many of us consider the possibility of bias in the system. Dr. Gilliam’s research is important because it provides us with data that explicitly finds implicit bias in the educators and directors who work in our early childhood programs. While it is exceedingly disturbing that bias, which is pervasive across all systems, is also present in our early childhood programs, it is not surprising.

    All of us have biases- no matter what our profession, no matter where we live, or where we’re from. We are all exposed to a society that is full of implicit biases—biases of all kinds. In fact, research shows that while explicit bias has decreased in our country over time, implicit bias has remained stable. And it is instilled in us at very early ages. [84]

    This page titled 6.6: Issues of Social Justice in the Early Childhood Classroom is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Krischa Esquivel, Emily Elam, Jennifer Paris, & Maricela Tafoya.