"I am a boy and she is a girl. She has brown skin and I have white skin. We both like to swing on the tire." —A four-year-old boy tells his teacher about his new friend.
From the moment we are born, we are swept into a never-ending stream of sensory information: sights, sounds, scents, and more. The brain is constantly processing, sorting, categorizing, and storing these incoming signals, allowing us to find order in the world. The most complex sensory signals come from those we are surrounded by in daily life — other human beings.
As the young boy demonstrates by the quote above, children make sense of these complex signals by categorizing people in simple terms that they can understand. On a very basic level, the boy is aware that differences and similarities exist between himself and his new friend. The information that he gleans from this relationship will affect his future interactions, as he builds experience with each new relationship.
The ability to be attuned to others is an essential element of human communication and of successful school interactions. As a child grows, his or her understanding of the differences between genders, races, and cultures grows. The child forms friendships, participates in groups, and interacts with a variety of diverse human beings, consequently developing a sophisticated awareness of the ways in which he or she is like others and ways in which he or she is unique. Such ideal awareness builds the knowledge that a child needs to survive and thrive.
The Brain Stores Experiences
In this process of negotiating our infinitely complex variety of human relationships, the brain uses a set of rules. These rules of association and generalization are allowed by the brain's amazing capacity to store experience and create memories.
As an example: If you take a ticking wristwatch and put it next to an infant's ear, his or her memory will store an association between the watch and the ticking. If you then show the infant a picture of a wristwatch, the infant will put his ear to the photograph, automatically listening for the sound associated with a wristwatch. This child's brain has "generalized," applying one experience to another. With a little experience, however, he or she will be able to distinguish between the actual watch and the image of the watch. The important point here is that it takes experience to transform a simple association into a more complex, complete, and accurate impression.
And so it is with people. If a child has limited experience with someone of another ethnicity, body type, skin color, religion, or culture, he or she can be much more vulnerable to forming categorical, simplistic, and inaccurate impressions. Invite diverse groups of people with different cultures, languages, and religions to visit your classroom and talk about their professions.
Even if your school lacks obvious racial diversity, differences can still abound in the way children act, dress, and think; in the rituals they observe with their families; and in their personal experiences. Seek to highlight each child's unique personality by capitalizing on strengths, encouraging personal memoirs that are shared whenever appropriate, and pairing children who have different learning styles and behavior. Remind students that there are many types of diversity. Everyone is unique, and everyone has his or her own particular way of seeing the world. At the same time, we all share joys and fears, strengths and weaknesses — we are all human. Children can learn that just as they are similar to and different from their peers in many ways, so are they similar to and different from students elsewhere.
If you're geographically isolated, there are other ways to promote awareness of diversity without leaving your neighborhood. Research pen-pal programs with a foreign school, or participate in an initiative such as Students' Art for Peace (see "What's the Buzz?" on page 8 in the March 2002 edition of Instructor magazine).
In your teaching, seek to avoid stereotypical aspects of a culture. Go beyond surface learning. For example, if studying Native Americans, avoid merely making construction-paper headdresses in arts and crafts; rather, commit to an in-depth study of tribal customs, languages, religions, and history. Invite a Native American speaker to your class to speak about his or her culture and profession.
Ideally, every child should have the opportunity to learn about and interact with others who are different in ethnicity, religion, language, learning styles, family background, and more. The more you do to build an awareness of diversity, the more solid a foundation a child will have as he or she grows into a mature, accepting individual — one who shares his or her strengths with the world and values the strengths others have to offer.
Struggling With Awareness
Occasionally, a child will struggle with awareness issues. Here are some warning signs to watch out for. When a child is struggling with awareness, he or she may
- Tease other children about a very sensitive issue such as their weight, ethnicity, religion, or handicap. Some teasing is expected and normal in young children — it is one form of verbal play — but it is important to listen and make sure it does not cross certain boundaries.
- Tend to see things as absolute: e.g., "Fat people are lazy."
- Form negative ideas about others based on stereotypes.
- Encourage peers to adopt their negative stereotypical views about others.
- Have a tendency to attack others who threaten their own insecurities (e.g., if a boy's parents are fighting a lot, he may tease another boy in the class who has no father in his life).
Adapted from the article "We're All Different (We're All the Same)" which originally appeared in the March 2002 edition of Instructor magazine.
Dr. Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D.
Dr. Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., is an internationally recognized authority on brain development and children in crisis. Dr. Perry leads the Child Trauma Academy, a pioneering center providing service, research, and training in the area of child maltreatment. In addition he is the Medical Director for Provincial Programs in Children's Mental Health for Alberta, Canada. Dr. Perry served as consultant on many high-profile incidents involving traumatized children, including the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado; the Oklahoma City Bombing; and the Branch Davidian siege. His clinical research and practice focuses on traumatized children, examining the long-term effects of trauma in children, adolescents and adults. Dr. Perry's work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain. Dr. Perry is the author of more than 200 journal articles, book chapters, and scientific proceedings and the recipient of a variety of professional awards.