Read, Write, Respect Preschools Learn It’s Never Too Soon To Teach Tolerance

‘I hate blacks,” a 4-year-old boy at the Cabrillo Community College Preschool in Aptos, Calif., announced recently.

Teacher Eric Hoffman, who’s worked with children for more than 20 years, was mystified, because the boy’s best friend was African American.

The boy would stop saying it if he told him to, Hoffman knew, but that wouldn’t change his perceptions. Instead, the teacher prodded the boy, asking him to explain what he meant.

As it turned out, the child didn’t understand that “blacks” were brown-skinned people like his friend. Somehow he’d decided that they were people who wore tight-fitting stocking caps, which he found frightening.

“If I hadn’t been able to correct this child, he would have maintained his ‘I hate blacks’ attitude, even though he didn’t really know what that meant,” Hoffman says. “After a time, though, it would have become a real prejudice.”

Hoffman’s approach is only one of the many forms of anti-bias education going on around the country. In various different forms, these programs use games, discussions, visual images and hands-on experiences to help youngsters understand and respect a wide variety of differences in others.

Such goals were always morally desirable, but in an increasingly multiethnic world and workplace, they are also immensely practical.

So the sooner we start addressing these issues the better, experts say. Here’s a peek at how some innovative preschools are doing so.

Images of diversity

At Washington Beach preschool in Boston, the students are predominantly black or Hispanic. But the classrooms are filled with pictures, books and other images of a world bursting with variety, and not just in skin color. Kids see women doctors, mothers in wheelchairs, heavy people playing sports, street cleaners, waiters and factory workers - people doing work that is important but undervalued.

“Young children are simplistic thinkers, and visual information is important for them,” says Ellen Wolpert, the school’s director of education. “If their experience has been that men are doctors, it’s natural that they think only men are doctors. We have to help children develop more complex understanding.”

Make kids part of the community

A key part of anti-bias education is helping kids learn to respect and cooperate with others, including those who have different ideas and values.

At New York City’s Manhattan Country School, an elementary school with a diverse student population, community-building starts with shared responsibility for keeping the classroom functioning. Each of the 18 children has a job, whether it’s feeding Paco the guinea pig or putting away toys.

“Doing and sharing jobs is important, because it introduces the idea of interdependence,” says Lois Gelernt, the lower-school director. “At first, kids are discussing how to respect and take care of the guinea pig and the blocks. Later it’s other people.”

The children also connect to the larger community, learning how to politely greet area shopkeepers and practicing Spanish, a common language in the neighborhood around the school.

“Being respectful of the larger community is connected to the curriculum,” Gelernt says. “It’s all part of caring, respect for one another, awareness that we’re all different but there are commonalities.”

Differences and similarities

Educators are careful not to focus solely on racial and ethnic differences and similarities, but to talk about everything from the kinds of cereal they like to the number of siblings they have.

“There are millions of ways that people are alike and different,” Hoffman says. “I’m always bringing those up. And doing it in a positive way.”

Helping kids to understand and accept some differences, however, can be tough. Recently, some children at the Cabrillo preschool were singing “Happy Birthday” when one boy became upset and begged the others to stop.

He was a Jehovah’s Witness - his religion frowns on frivolous song.

“The singing seemed like an innocent thing,” Hoffman says. “But it was important to say, ‘This has to stop because it’s hurting someone.”’

The children were surprised and confused that their song had made someone feel bad. Religious differences are hard for preschoolers to grasp, so Hoffman explained the issue this way: “In your family you celebrate birthdays and sing songs. In his family they don’t, and he doesn’t want to hear it.”

Ultimately, the class decided that those who wanted to sing would make sure that they were far enough away that the Jehovah’s Witness boy wouldn’t have to hear.

The power of words

Words can be tolerance’s greatest friend or greatest foe. That’s why teachers take care to talk about the power of words and why it’s important not to use any that might make someone else sad.

At Manhattan Country School, Gelernt says, the rule is: “If you don’t know what a word means, don’t use it - because it might hurt someone’s feelings.”

Still, Hoffman says, it’s important to allow kids to say what’s on their mind and ask questions.

“I focus on getting children to ask permission to talk about people,” he says. “If they see someone in a wheelchair, for example, to find out from a grown-up if they can ask the person about her chair.”

Providing real-life experiences

Concrete experiences are an essential part of early childhood learning, which is one reason the Manhattan Country School’s preschoolers take field trips to one another’s homes.

The 20-year-old tradition began when students mistook a young Indian classmate for a Native American.

“He was frustrated,” Gelernt recalls, “and wanted the children to know he was from India.”

The boy decided to have classmates come to his home and listen to Indian music, eat his favorite dessert, see pictures of his native land and watch his mother perform a traditional dance. The trip was a huge success. Now classmates visit each other’s homes once a year, and the host kids help design the trips.

The differences are revealed, said Michele Sola, director of the school, but also the similarities: “They find out that everybody has a favorite teddy bear.”

Teaching tolerance isn’t easy, of course, and requires trial and error. Not every child learns right away, any more than any adult does. In fact, teachers say they are learning as well.

“This is not something you learn from one workshop or course,” Wolpert says. “It’s a lifelong peeling-the-onion. I learn new things all the time about myself: how I may be unaware, how I may contribute to biases, what I can do about it and what the children are thinking.

“It’s a learning process for all involved.”


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