Do you believe Native American or African American children are more likely to fall behind in school? What about kids whose parents don’t speak English—do they have fewer chances of succeeding?

We know what you’re thinking. “No way! That’s crazy talk. I’m not biased.”

But if you’re anything like the rest of us, you are.

The problem with implicit bias is it’s “like the wind,” says Walter S. Gilliam, director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy. “You can’t see it, but you can sure see its effect. It does not begin with black men and police; it begins with preschool.”

But if we’re not aware of our bias, how can we ever hope to address it? For starters, we need to understand what bias truly is and how it plays out in the classroom.

How does implicit bias impact how we teach?

The connection between teacher expectation and student success was first highlighted in a famous study conducted by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson in 1968.

In the study, a group of elementary school teachers was told that a group of randomly-selected students had a higher level of intellectual potential. Even though this was completely bogus, the same students achieved higher test scores than their peers. Interestingly, the results were most pronounced in grades 1 and 2, indicating that bias has a bigger impact on younger children.

A 2016 study by the Yale Child Study Center explored the research further using start-of-the-art eye-tracking technology. Here’s what they discovered:

  • Preschool teachers and staff showed signs of implicit bias in administering discipline.
  • Preschool teachers showed a tendency to observe African American children, and especially African American boys, more closely if they expected challenging behavior.
  • African American teachers held African American students to a higher standard of behavior than their white counterparts.
  • There was a tendency to base classroom observation on the gender and race of the child.
  • Teachers need to better understand family struggles and how they affect student behavior.

Now that we’re clear about the fact that bias is a real problem in the ECE community, let’s look at the some of the ways we can help solve it.

7 ways to recognize unconscious bias in early childhood settings

  1. Cultivate awareness — Train staff on the impact, reality and practical approaches for handling implicit bias and cultural competencies in the classroom. Define appropriate and inappropriate behaviors as clearly as possible and standardize evaluation and punitive processes to reduce personal bias.
  2. Challenge stereotypes — Create a culturally-representative environment. Actively counter traditional stereotypes such as boys are good at math or girls are good at art. For example, you could celebrate famous female scientists or male fashion designers.
  3. Hire diverse staffHiring the right people is essential. After all, they are the foundation of any early learning environment. And we’re not just talking about teachers but also assistants and support staff. Help students see their cultural experience reflected in those around them.
  4. Apply the data — Employ data-informed decision making processes to limit implicit bias in disciplinary actions and class placement.
  5. Talk to the students — Use storytelling or perspective-sharing activities through role play or art to address the concept of bias with your preschoolers.
  6. Engage with families — Research shows that family and school collaboration helps improve behavior. Get to know the children’s families, especially if they have different beliefs and experiences from your own.
  7. Question your beliefs — Actively seek to connect with people who are different from you. Go out of your neighborhood and join a new club or group. Find guest speakers to come into the classroom and share their experiences.

The idea of our youngest children coming face-to-face with crippling biases in what’s considered to be one of our community’s safest places is shocking, to say the least.

But no matter how uncomfortable it makes us, the research is clear: the impact of unconscious bias on young children occurs as soon as they enter your classroom. And the only way out is through.

To ensure that every child has the best possible opportunity to fulfill their true potential, we need to change the narrative, starting now. This means regularly checking our thoughts, beliefs and expectations through rigorous self-reflection and ongoing dialogue with people from a variety of backgrounds.

When can make our differences something to be proud of, rather than an indication of future success or failure, we can enrich the lives of all children regardless of race, gender or class.

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