Confronting Issues of Diversity
It is important to remember that where issues of diversity are concerned, children constantly get mixed messages - from their environment and from television, movies, and book
Working with children on the complex issues of respecting diversity calls for deep reflection and consideration. Let's go back to Sylvia's class and look at one example: During the day the teachers took the children out on the playground. Jermaine and two of the other boys built a structure they called a fort. After draping blankets over several large crates, they crawled inside. When Susan and some of the other girls came over and peered inside, they flatly stated, "You can't come in here. No girls allowed." The girls appealed to Sylvia. Susan asked, "Why can't we play? Girls are just as good as boys."
Sylvia approached the boys, saying "The girls told me that you won't let them in your fort because 'girls aren't allowed.' They're upset and Susan said something I agree with. She said, `Girls are just as good as boys.' You know it hurts when you feel left out, and right now that's how these girls feel. In our class, we don't leave people out because of who they are." Sylvia then turned to the girls and said, "That does look like a really neat fort. If you want, you can build one yourselves. There are plenty of materials over there." We know that three- and four-years-- olds often exclude others from play for arbitrary reasons. One day it might be: "You can't play, you're not wearing sneakers." Another day you might hear children say, "You can only play if you ride the bus to school." Gender exclusion, as well as exclusion based on race or abilities, comes up as well. And all of these need to be talked about acknowledged the way Sylvia did: "Being left out hurts. We don't leave people out in our class because of who they are. That's called exclusion and exclusion hurts. We don't hurt people in our class."
We have to address these issues of diversity. At the same time it is important to promote the value of differences, drawing children's attention to the contributions that differences can make to the group and also to the world.
The reasons children exclude others are not always developmental. Sometimes children who don't have a positive sense of self put others down. Sometimes children have decided that those "others" are not as good as they are - perhaps picking up on messages from their environment.
Whatever the reason, issues of exclusion need to be brought up and dealt with. Besides interacting directly with children, teachers need to talk with the parents of those who are excluding or showing prejudice, letting parents know the philosophy and values of the program. At the same time it is also vital to work together with the parents of the child or children who are being excluded. Explain program values, your plan, or how this behavior is usually handled at school. Sensitively ask the parents if they have any suggestions about how to handle this or if they've had to deal with it before. These aren't easy tasks, but they are terribly important ones.
Issues of exclusion are part of respecting diversity and involve children in learning to understand and respect similarities and differences. It is important to remember that where issues of diversity are concerned, children constantly get mixed messages - from both their environment and from the media (television, movies, books, and so on), which often presents people of various races, cultures, and abilities in unappealing situations or leaves those same people out when depicting attractive situations.
You may be confronted with situations in which a child has decided he or she won't play with someone because of race, ability, or sex making unfair/untrue statements. This cannot be ignored and needs to be dealt with in a timely and sensitive way. If the child says this is what he heard in the neighborhood, you can take a stand by saying, "What you said hurts. We don't hurt people at school, and we don't say that here."