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Teach Young Kids about Bias

By Naomi O'Brien

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Why should we talk about bias?

If you have been talking to your kids about diversity, race, and identity, you can teach young kids about bias next. Whether we want to have them or not, we all have biases. Biases around foods, experiences, people, and pretty much anything else. Biases are basically ideas and opinions we have about something without an experience to back it up. Today, many ignorant comments (Where are you really from?), small microaggressions (You’re pretty for a black/fat/etc girl! How do you speak without an accent? Were you born here?), to full blown racism, all come from internalized conscious and unconscious bias. How powerful to teach young kids about bias, how to identify it in themselves, and say no! We could re imagine a new way to be, where we are open to all people!

Impact of Biases

How do we choose our friends?

How do we decide who to partner with in class?

How do we decide if we want to engage in a new experience or not?

Try a new food?

Often, the answers to these questions are from our biases.

Biases come from all sorts of places. Since kids are sponges, they soak up messages from all around them:

  1. Parents and grownups- What conversations are you having and what comments and jokes do you make? What does your friend circle look like?
  2. Educators- Is school a culturally responsive and inclusive place? Are all people seen and made space for? Even people who aren’t at school? How do narratives in stories and history get told? What are the comments made by teachers?
  3. TV- Are you watching only white characters? How are others talked about in shows? Are you only watching one news channel? Is information coming only from one type of person?
  4. Music- Who do you listen to, what message is coming?
  5. Books-Are you only reading white/male/straight protagonists, white systems and beliefs? How do you make sure kids reading is diverse?

These are a lot of places to get information! This makes it vital to teach young kids about bias early on. Biases can be good or bad. While some biases can be good, any decision made unconsciously will close us off from experiences and we may make the “right choices” for the wrong reasons. Kids are also fully able to learn the difference between a bias and a preference. By naming and defining bias, kids can be ready to analyze some of their own thoughts and why they felt that way. They can then remind themselves to be open to new people and experiences, deciding if their feelings make sense and are fair, or not.

Our Experience

When I teach young kids about bias, and then pose questions like, “Who would make the better friend?” while showing them two pictures, they are stumped. They eventually come around and shyly say, “I’m not sure. I can’t decide from looking.” BINGO! That’s what we were looking for, and you’re right. You cannot tell anything about anyone just from looking.

We were then able to talk about how we would decide what made a good friend. Was it their character? Their sense of humor? Their kindness? Since these chats, I notice kids are more detailed in their rejection of someone, and it is always based in some version of “They’re not nice to me,” or “They hurt people.” Gone are the reasons of “They’re a girl/boy.”

When kids start watching a show and I notice it is reinforcing gender biases, or not diverse enough, they understand why such a show may be harmful to their own world view. They are able to challenge it and say “that’s not right.” On the flip side, they even see shows and comment, “Wow, there is a lot of diversity here!” This is great, because diversity shown in the right way challenges bias.

Notes for Adults

When we begin to teach young kids about bias, unfortunately some adults may get anxious at the potential for push back. Included in this lesson are easy teacher guides to help you on your way, as well as parent/caregiver communication to ease the nerves. Being upfront and open can make things easier. Also included are worksheets which pose scenarios for “judging” a person. Kids can practice having a “good” bias or a “bad” bias and see what the outcome may be.

If you are a parent/caregiver, this is definitely something you can examine for yourself (are all your sources, entertainment, people around you the same?) and also teach at home. These topics are actually a rich treasure trove in uncovering thoughts your kids already have, as well as nudging them deeper when needed. When life happens at school, or when kids are closed off, I find this gives us a common language to use. Are we judging a person or experience based on preference and experience or a bias? How can we approach this in a different way?


Books to Continue Learning

While you can google and find endless books to help teach young kids about bias, here are some titles to get you started. You can pull out a bias conversation with almost any book, especially if you are reading diverse stories. Ask students what they think about a topic before and after reading. Help them identify how they had hidden biases, and how they could behave differently based on these biases. Reading itself is a great way to challenge beliefs when we cannot have all the experiences.

  1. The Arabic Quilt, by Aya Khalil and Anait Semirdzhyan
  2. Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao, by Kat Zhang and Charlene Chua
  3. Pink is for Boys, by Robb Pearlman and Eda Kaban
  4. The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family, by Ibtijah Muhammad, S.K. Ali, and Hatem Aly
  5. Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, by Sarah S. Brannen and Lucia Soto
  6. Hair Love, by Matthew A. Cherry and Vashti Harrison
  7. The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh, by Supriya Kelkar and Alea Marley
  8. The Other Side, by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis
  9. The Wall in the Middle of the Book, by Jon Agee
  10. Fry Bread, by Kevin Noble Maillard
  11. Fatima’s Great Outdoors, by Ambreen Tariq and Stevie Lewis
  12. A Persian Princess, by y Barbara Diamond Goldin and Steliyana Doneva

All the books listed for diversity, race, and identity are also great to use to teach young kids about bias.

Some good follow up questions to ask while reading these stories:

  1. What were some biases you had before reading? How do you know it’s a bias?
  2. How can you learn more about ___________?

Further Resources

You can continue important conversations by exploring the Perspectives Through Picture Books series. The resource shared in this blog post can be found here.

Naomi

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Hi, I'm Naomi

I have been teaching elementary students for over 10 years. Effective reading instruction and accurate social studies at the primary level are huge passions of mine! 

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