Every January we pause to remember civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the anniversary of his birth. Many key elements of Dr. King’s legacy are as relevant to our current times as they were in the mid-20th century; educators and parents around the country continue to develop ways of conveying those ideas to teach and empower each new generation.
Whether you’re an educator, or parent, here are some of his timeless truths you can bring into the classroom:
Harnessing the Power of Diversity
By dedicating his life to the struggle for racial equality, Dr. King embodied the belief that America’s diversity is an essential aspect of the country’s identity and strength. This may be one of the most powerful lessons we can impart to our youth.
Educators across the country are employing strategies to infuse child care settings and classrooms with diversity awareness. By viewing diversity as a strength, and practicing inclusivity, we reinforce the unity of our communities and our society. This shared goal is a simple one, perhaps best expressed by Priscilla Shirer from Dallas-based Going Beyond Ministry, who supports teaching that “oneness is not sameness.” Being united in principle and purpose does not preclude embracing our differences.
Unity Means Including Everyone
In 21st century America, the concept of diversity isn’t limited to racial diversity, but encompasses ethnic, socio-economic, religious, political and just about any feature that people use to self-identify. The concepts of race, age, and sex/gender are ideas children begin exploring the moment they begin to speak. It’s important to remember that even babies and toddlers watch adults for cues about how to react to the world around them; our responsibility is to teach by example and encourage meaningful conversation about the situations we encounter together.
Early childhood expert and trainer Vanessa Levin explains it this way: “It is our job as teachers to prepare our students for the real world, and the real world is a very diverse one. We have the opportunity to teach our students love and acceptance NOW, whether or not it is being taught at home.”
Child360 Program Coach Katherine Leon believes the key to success might be less planning, rather than more. “What is most important is open conversation/discussion—especially when a challenging topic is introduced by a child,” she says. She explains that, while planned lessons can be beneficial, for very young children, fostering a broader “environment that supports the child’s ideas—even when adults perceive those ideas as challenging or prejudiced—is the most effective approach.”
Practical Tips for an Inclusive Early Learning Program
We asked our experts how ECE providers and educators can incorporate diversity training into daily care, and they shared the following real-world tips.
- Be prepared to have uncomfortable conversations. It’s important that differences are discussed, and that questions are answered and not avoided. When a child remarks about another child’s skin color or race/ethnicity, it should be discussed instead of corrected. If the child is immediately shushed, or told they are wrong, you’ve lost the opportunity to help them express their thoughts and celebrate our differences.
- Provide materials in the classroom that feature children of many different races, religions, and cultures: the books on the shelf and artwork on the walls set the tone for how children see the world.
- Openly discuss differences and similarities in cultures with your students; stressing the similarities will help them relate to others.
- Provide students with multicultural paint, paper, and crayons as often as possible and allow students to choose the colors they want to use for skin, hair, etc. Using persona dolls is another great way to discuss human diversity with a group of children.
- If you discuss one holiday in class, make sure to discuss them all. For example, instead of focusing only on Christmas, make sure to cover and give equal time to Hanukkah and Kwanzaa too. Other opportunities can exist with the Lunar New Year, Ramadan, and Diwali.
Respecting and promoting diversity is a powerful tool, especially when it comes to the impressionable minds of children; the attitudes they perceive about inclusivity form lasting impressions, creating a worldview they’ll carry throughout their entire lives.