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Teach Young Kids about Identity

By Naomi O'Brien

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identity

What do Kids Learn?

When I first started to teach young kids about identity, I found that they didn’t really know what I was talking about. What is identity? I wanted to make space for them to dig deep and get to know themselves. I wanted them to understand who they were at their core, and become aware of what made them, THEM.

What did they like?

What did they dislike?

What did they value?

What were the important parts of their culture to them?

Have any parts of their identity changed in any way?

These discussions were so insightful, because kids could uncover and name parts of themselves. If they weren’t sure, it allowed them space to think about ideas they hadn’t considered before. For example, one child was thinking about what she valued in a friendship. She had never thought about it before. Spending time on identity gave her time to pause and think about what really mattered to her. While one may value humor, another may value honesty. As kids shared with each other, it was nice for them to see their classmate’s (or family’s) various identities and the diversity that was there all around them!

“Different people do different things in different ways.”

It is important to teach young kids about identity for so many reasons. Kids who understand their own identities will be more self-aware and confident, which leads to better self-esteem. By walking through all these parts of identity and having discussions with each other, kids can feel seen and valued by their classmates. They also learn one of the biggest lessons- “Different people do different things in different ways.” When kids notice one person is monolingual, but another may be bilingual, it decenters themselves and opens up a wide world view and rich discussions. (If you have been having discussions on diversity or race, this is a great next discussion to have!)

My Experiences

I have found that when I teach young kids about identity, initially they give me blank stares. The conversation will go something like this:

Teacher: Who are you?

Student: I’m Brayden.

Teacher? What else?

Student: I’m 6.

Teacher: What else?

Student: *crickets*

After a few days of exploring identity, the conversation will sound something like this:

Teacher: Who are you?

Student: I’m Brayden. I am biracial, and 6 years old. I like baseball and the color green. I really love vegetables but don’t like spinach! I value humor and integrity in my friends.

Student 2: Right now I’m a kid, but I know I’ll grow older. I want to get better at riding my bike.

Student 3: I love to read books and want to read more!

Student 4: What!? You like telling jokes? Me too! (a friendship blossomed.)

These conversations are real answers from my students. Most went into the conversation not being able to say who they were. They came out knowing exactly who they were in this moment. How wonderful is it, that kids can clearly and articulately name who they are? They are confident in themselves. When classmates and adults know and accept them as they are, it boosts self-esteem. At the same time, they really start to understand that it is ok to be different, and for others to be different too.

Notes for Adults

When we begin to teach young kids about identity, unfortunately some adults may get anxious at the potential for pushback. Included in this lesson are easy teacher guides to help you on your way, as well as parent communication to ease the nerves. Being upfront and open can make things easier. Also included are worksheets to allow kids to name and write down the parts of their own identities. As you read the stories below, allow children to add and change their own pages. This will deepen their understanding of all the parts of identity and allow them to reflect on themselves. Maybe they didn’t think about how a language at home or a ritual with someone is a strong part of their identity.

If you are a parent, this is definitely something you can 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.

Books to Continue Learning

You can pull out an identity conversation with almost any book, especially if you are reading diverse stories. Here are some great titles to get you started.

  1. A Kids Book about Identity, by Taboo and Jennifer Goldstein
  2. The Day You Begin, by Jaqueline Wilson
  3. My Name is a Song, by J. Thompkins-Bigelow
  4. Hair Love, by Matthew Cherry
  5. Sulwe, by Lupita Nyongo
  6. Eyes That Kiss in the Corners, by Joanna Ho and Dung Ho
  7. Jack, not Jackie, by Erica Silverman
  8. Neither, by Airlie Anderson
  9. Where Are You From? By, Yamile Saied Méndez
  10. Home is In Between, by Mitali Perkins
  11. Bilal Cooks Daal, by Aisha Saeed
  12. Stolen Words, by Melanie Florence
  13. The Bagel King, by Andrew Larson

This book list explores stories from various cultures, genders, food, and language. It will help kids pull out many different aspects of their own identities and learn about their classmates.

Follow Up Questions

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

  1. What are some of the parts of _________’s identity?
  2. Is this a like/dislike/value/cultural piece?
  3. Did any character have part of their identity change? What was it?

Looking for More?

If you’re looking for more support in facilitating these discussions, I created a multi-day lesson to help you. You can read the e-book walking kids through all the parts of their identity, pausing to reflect and write. We had a really great week discussing, exploring, and learning about ourselves.

Click on the images below to check out a few different identity resources.

identity

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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