By Louise Derman-Sparks, Debbie LeeKeenan, and John Nimmo
Together, we are the co-authors of Leading Anti-Bias Early Childhood Programs: A Guide for Change (Derman-Spark, LeeKeenan, & Nimmo, 2015). Louise has been an educator and activist for much of her life and grew up in a White, Jewish-American working-class family from Brooklyn, NY. Debbie is a third-generation Chinese-American, also originally from NYC, who has a multi-racial family; her personal experiences greatly influenced her professional life as a social justice educator. John is Australian by birth, and identifies as White and economically privileged. Being male, straight and cisgender in the early childhood field has been an important provocation in his thinking.
After the 2016 presidential election, both experienced and new teachers shared an outpouring of emotion and questions about how to respond to the children in our early childhood classrooms. Feeling a sense of urgency, we compiled the following response, a version of which first appeared the week after the election on our website: http://www.antibiasleadersece.com/
White supremacists who backed his candidacy are jumping for joy. They think they now have their man in the White House. ... We can't afford to take [their] statements as the ravings of extremists on the fringes of society. They are now at the gates. (para. 16–20)
Even more disturbing, as soon as the election results were known, racist attitudes began turning into hate actions–––both verbally and physically. These hate actions have been directed against children as well as adults. The SPLC, which has tracked the racist actions of organizations for many years, wrote in the days after the election that in the reports they received, “many teachers took pains to point out that the incidents they were reporting represent a distinct uptick; these dynamics are new and can be traced directly to the results of the election” (Costello, 2016, para. 14). Pulling from news reports, social media, and direct submissions at the Southern Poverty Law Center's website, the SPLC had counted 201 incidents of election-related harassment and intimidation across the country as of Friday, November 11, at 5 pm. These are being directed against African Americans, Latinos, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ people and women (reports can still be made at https://www.splcenter.org/reporthate ). Outrageously, the SPLC is finding that the most commonly reported location where incidents of harassment occurred were K–12 schools (Costello, 2016). For example, in Georgia a teacher reported, “I’ve had a lot of students repeat the phrase ‘Trump that bitch’ in my class, and make jokes about Hispanic students ‘going back to Mexico’” (para. 26). In Washington State, a teacher shared, “he day after the election I overheard a student in the hall chanting, ‘White power’” (para. 38). In Tennessee, an early childhood educator reported that “one Muslim girl clung to her kindergarten teacher on November 9 and asked, ‘Are they going to do anything to me? Am I safe?’” (para. 45). Second- and third-grade Mexican-American children in Fullerton, CA, reported to their young sibling’s childcare teacher that they were told by classmates to pack their bags because they had to get out of the country (personal communication to authors). Adults have also been targeted. For example, a parent from El Salvador was in a Greater Boston school and told to “Get out of here; you are in Trumpland” (personal communication to authors).
Such hate behavior harms children directly, when they are targets, and indirectly, when they see or hear about someone else being a target. No matter how the families of children in our classrooms voted, our schools must be hate-free zones. We have to intentionally and pro-actively do everything we can to ensure that the goals of anti-bias education are fully implemented and celebrated during a time when our children are hearing and experiencing hate messages and may be experiencing tension anger, or pain from family members. We also have to work intently to ensure that all of our children feel safe and are comforted when they are hurt. For example, we can broach the topic and encourage an inclusive community with openings, such as:
In our country, we vote for the person who is going to be our leader. Not everyone votes for the same person. In an election, people have different viewpoints and we are not always happy with who becomes president. However, the president is supposed to be the president for everyone. We hope that the adults in charge of our country can work together to benefit all Americans.
We know that some people are saying and doing hateful and hurtful things to other people. We also know that there are many people who do not like those hateful words and behaviors. In this classroom/in this school, I /we (all staff) will make sure that everyone belongs, and is safe, cared for and treated fairly. If you feel unsafe, if people say things that are not nice to you, you can come to the adults. Our job is to keep you safe and to be brave and stand up to any unfairness/injustice that comes to our community.
Here are some additional guidelines to support children during challenging times:
- Encourage children to ask questions.
- Be a good listener. Pay attention to words and feelings. Look for the underlying meaning.
- Answer children’s questions immediately and directly, with information that is appropriate to their developmental level and experience.
- Accept complexity. Recognize that there may not be simple answers, but still ones that can help children. We want to move beyond either-or thinking. Be aware that some children will be receiving messages that the election result is welcomed, with speech that does not include hate language.
- Avoid responding to current events and issues in highly emotional or dramatic ways. Even if you are angry or upset, try not to let your own feelings influence how you pay attention to and interpret what the children are saying and feeling. But do let the children know that it is okay to be e.g., scared, angry, sad, while also comforting them and helping them sort through their feelings and actions.
- Provide resources to help children manage fears or uncertainties. Include resources that talk about people who have worked together in the past to make life safe for everyone.
- Engage the children in creating ways that they can make themselves and each other feel safe and happy in the classroom and school.
Cohen, R. (2016, November 10). White supremacists think their man won the White House. Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved from https://www.splcenter.org/news/2016/11/10/white-supremacists-think-their-man-won-white-house
Costello, M.B. (2016, November 28). The Trump effect: The impact of the 2016 presidential elections on our nation’s schools. Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved from https://www.splcenter.org/20161128/trump-effect-impact-2016-presidential-election-our-nations-schools#executive summary
Derman-Spark, L., LeeKeenan, D., & Nimmo, J. (2015). Leading anti-bias early childhood programs: A guide for change. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Louise Derman-Sparks has worked for over 50 years on issues of diversity and social justice as a preschool teacher at the Perry Preschool Project, child-care center director, Human Development faculty member at Pacific Oaks College, and activist. She is author and coauthor of several books, including Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, and What if All the Kids are White? Anti-Bias/Multicultural Education for Young Children and Families, as well as numerous articles. She speaks, conducts workshops, and consults on anti-bias education with children and adults throughout the United States and internationally. Louise is now retired as a professor emerita. firstname.lastname@example.org
Debbie LeeKeenan is a visiting professor of Early Childhood Education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Previously, she was director of the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School and an instructor in the Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. Debbie consults locally, nationally and internationally. Her publications include co-authorship of Leading Anti-Bias Early Childhood Programs: A Guide for Change with Louise Derman-Sparks and John Nimmo, as well as numerous chapters and articles. She holds a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of New Mexico and is a former preschool and elementary school teacher. email@example.com
John Nimmo is assistant professor in Early Childhood Education at Portland State University, Oregon. Previously, he was Executive Director of the Child Study and Development Center and associate professor of Family Studies at the University of New Hampshire. His publications include Loris Malaguzzi and the Teachers (with Carolyn Edwards & Lella Gandini), Leading Anti-Bias Early Childhood Programs, Emergent Curriculum (with Elizabeth Jones), and numerous chapters and articles. John’s research includes a video documentary on children’s rights through the World Forum Foundation. He holds a doctorate from the University of Massachusetts and was an early childhood teacher in Australia. firstname.lastname@example.org