Applying Anti-Racist Strategies in Early Learning Environments and Family Engagement

Article Table of Contents

Child Development and Racism

As early childhood professionals, we want all children to thrive and reach their fullest potential. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always seem possible for all children, given the social and political contexts within which we live. Differences in race, ethnicity, culture, gender, and class can lead to differential opportunities and outcomes for some children. The UN Declaration for the Rights of the Child (Link)  states (Four Principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 2019) that:

All children have:

  • The right to survival
  • The right to develop to the fullest
  • The right to protection from harmful influences, abuse, and/or exploitation
  • The right to participate fully in family, cultural and social life.

As educators, it’s the ideal time to create environments, offer opportunities and/or implement anti-racist supports for all young children in our diverse society. To accomplish this, we must recognize the various forms of diversity and bias that define our society and the disparate expectations and opportunities offered to each of us because of said differences. This invites us to step forward and develop our capacity to work effectively with diverse families and children in early childhood settings. 

In this article, we discuss how racism and anti-racism efforts appear in early education spaces, core ideas behind being an anti-racist educator, and what mindsets and strategies we can use to create anti-racist learning environments that support young learners and their families.

Discussing Anti-Racism: Important Terms and Definitions

Our commitment to “live, learn, and work together in diverse and inclusive environments” requires a shared understanding of the terms and/or issues we are concerned about.

Let’s tie together these key ideas and what they mean for the creation of a better world. Culturally relevant care and education is more so based on respect, the foundation for our relationships. Anti-racism education is a component of anti-bias education, with both having more of an activist focus. These approaches are all integral to our anti-racist journey.

What Does it Mean to be an Anti-Racist Educator?

As we have discussed in our first series article, “How Bias Impacts Our Relationships with Children and Families,” (Link)  our first step is to reflect upon and bring to awareness the biases we have internalized, how they impact our thinking and our actions, so we can provide environments that truly support the children and families we serve. 

Once we recognize our biases, continuing to become an anti-racist educator provides us with opportunities to examine our values and actions. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 lockdowns and the racial awakening in the summer of 2020, we have become more aware of the structural inequities in our communities and the importance of our role implementing anti-racist practices for families, staff, and children. In our roles as early educators, we have the opportunity to create more equitable learning environments that stop and undue some of the harm created by racism in the lives of our children as well as equipping them with the mindsets and tools they need to identify and take action with openness and empathy. This means getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, but if we want to make a difference for the future of humanity, this work begins with the minds and hearts of our early learners, their families, and ourselves.

No one expects you to do all of this at once. Becoming anti-racist is a journey, not a final destination. Choose actions that resonate with you as you continue taking steps on this journey towards anti-racism and equity. Here are some ways you can continue your journey as an anti-racist educator:

Before we can teach kids to be anti-racist, we must first prioritize and take time to venture on our own anti-racism journey. 

What can Teachers do in Early Learning Settings?


As education scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings stated over two decades ago, culture matters in teaching and learning because culturally relevant approaches are “a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes.”  (Ladson-Billings, et. al., 1994).

Because of our commitment to culturally relevant practice, teachers of young children have an opportunity with the youngest learners to challenge the bias built into our systems of education, to create teaching and learning environments that recognize and embrace the social and cultural identities of young people. Our first task is to recognize our own values and perspectives, to understand how we may consciously or unconsciously perpetuate bias or racism despite our desire to support the positive and healthy development of all children. On an institutional scale, the inequity of resources and the biases that justify that inequity have a huge impact on the lives of young children. 

In recognizing that we live in a world that does not offer equal opportunity for each child to reach their highest potential, our next step is to provide culturally relevant and anti-bias education. When we do this, we provide children with the tools they need to navigate the complex issues of identity, diversity, prejudice, and power in their everyday lives. How can we as early educators make a difference?

Children as young as infants see, hear, and feel diversity among people. As early childhood educators, we can:

  • Create Space for children to explore these issues in developmentally appropriate ways. We can acknowledge both their questions as they begin to develop ideas about the meaning of the differences they see and to explore the discomfort and negative biases they encounter in their interactions with people from diverse groups. (Winkler, 2009, Children are not Colorblind: How Children Learn Race, PACE Vol. 3-No. 3).
  • Don’t Wait for children to raise these issues of race, as we know that developmentally they are aware of and trying to understand what they are seeing and experiencing from birth. To assume that a child is too young to be aware of these issues or affected by them is to underestimate their capacity to participate in their world. 
      • We also don’t need to have all the answers; to do anti-bias work is to respond to children’s questions, to embrace the teachable moment, to address the issues as they arise in the classroom.
      • Understand that anti-bias education is more than responding to issues raised by children. Anti-bias education is a balance between child initiated (or emergent) opportunities and teacher initiated (or intentional) provocations and responses. 
      • Bring up social justice and equity issues that are affecting children and their families and that families believe are important for their children to learn about. Our developmental expertise enables us to provide stimuli that are developmentally appropriate and that incorporate children’s ideas.
  • Be Uncomfortable: Let’s acknowledge the discomfort we may experience when we incorporate these ideas and issues into our curriculum and interactions with young children and their families. As children hear information, misinformation, and biases about other cultures and races from the media, their families, and other sources in their communities, they will bring their questions and ideas into the classroom. 
      • Notice and respond to children’s questions, ideas and feelings about differences, even if it makes us uncomfortable.
      • Keep an eye out for what you bring to conversations with young children: We may bring in our own biases or triggers when it comes to children’s questions and conversations, as they don’t have the same kind of historical experience or abstract knowledge about the world that we have as adults.  
  • Encourage Conversation with children, with families, with coworkers around these issues and their impact on children and our programs. Teachers can offer multiple perspectives about children’s questions, fostering children’s critical thinking and expanding awareness of their own and others’ ways of being. 

By answering children’s difficult questions, we have the opportunity to give children accurate, factual, information about diversity and fairness that is aligned with the developmental level of the children. An anti-bias, anti-racist approach calls upon us, as teachers, to promote explicit values about embracing equity, respecting all people, and seeking social justice (fairness). What we do or say, what we don’t do or don’t say – it all communicates a particular perspective on diversity and social justice. Let’s ensure that what we communicate to children and families through our words and actions supports our commitment to ensure that all children thrive and can reach their highest potential. (Derman-Sparks et al., 2020)

Just as we teach our kids to be kind even before they fully understand what it means to be kind, we should teach our kids to be anti-racist even before they fully understand what it means to be anti-racist.

Anti-Racist Strategies for Early Learning Programs

Below are some ideas that you can share with the children and families you serve to support anti-racist early learning opportunities. Choose actions that make sense for you and the families you serve and work within your program’s capacity. As you become more comfortable, you will be able to expand the ways in which you use anti-racist practices to engage with the children and families you serve.

Create space. Create a brave space where: 

  • Self-expression is encouraged
  • Support is provided
  • Bravery is inspired
  • Emotions are embraced
Practices & Programming: What does it look like in our interactions with children & families? What strategies can we implement to make this happen?
Every child needs a place, space, and person. 

    • Reflective Questions: Does each child have a village, a support system of sorts? Do families have supportive social connections? What about ourselves and our staff? How can we help families recognize and/or build their support systems? How can we foster a sense of support and community for children in our learning environment?  
    • Encourage families to share their culture, stories, and experiences with the children by creating events and routines where families are encouraged to take up space. 
    • Bring in books and visuals intentionally – to prompt opportunities for these conversations

Take a trauma-informed approach to connecting with families, as many have experienced harm due to racism. 

    • Use books and story time to promote a calm, healing environment where feelings are welcomed – including these QSLA booklists.
      QSLA Yoga Booklist, Read from the Start Booklist: Feelings & Emotions
    • Ensure all families are encouraged to have a seat at the table, from board meetings to committees, to volunteer opportunities so all voices can be heard.

Bring in uplifting practices to support the positive development of BIPOC and white children. 

    • Use positive affirmations to support the development of children’s positive identity and sense of self, particularly BIPOC children to counter the harmful negative messaging they receive from society.
      Black Education Matters – “90 Daily Affirmations for Black Youth”
      How to Use Positive Affirmations for Kids for Better Wellbeing
    • Use a growth mindset approach to help all children understand that our relationships can change and our actions do not define us. This can help all children understand that we will make mistakes, we can learn from them, AND committing harm does not have to bring shame but instead, we have the capacity to repair the harm we commit to others. Most of all – frame growth mindset statements as a way to help children restore their relationships after racist actions like name-calling, microaggressions, etc. happen so they don’t repeat the cycle again.  

Don’t wait to address issues of bias, racism, and social justice.

Practices & Programming: What does it look like in our interactions with children & families? What strategies can we implement to make this happen?
Vet media and learning materials before using them in your program to ensure that messaging is not racist or promotes stereotypes and microaggressions.

Intentionally include more anti-racist Books and books about Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in your program’s library and story-sharing activities! Including those shared in these QSLA booklists:

Plan ahead and bring in age-appropriate movies, cultural presentations, multilingual or racially diverse authors to lead age appropriate activities, answer questions, etc. 

Lead activities that focus on successes and achievements of people from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds. This includes outside of typical months like Black History Month, Native American Heritage Month, etc. – celebrate people from diverse backgrounds continuously throughout the year!

Be uncomfortable: Lean into the discomfort that racism brings, as growth comes from discomfort and can create positive change.

Practices & Programming: What does it look like in our interactions with children & families? What strategies can we implement to make this happen?
Share your own experiences with racism. The heartbreak of racism is denial. If you can model for a child that it is okay to open up about our own previous racist beliefs/actions or share our own experiences with racism, this can help children understand that talking about racism is important and that they are not alone in having these experiences. 

  • This can help children understand that
    1) talking about racism is important to dismantling it, and
    2) it can be manageable together and discussed in a respectful way.  
  • Potential situations: When reading stories that may depict racism, a child shares about a recent news story

Challenge the idea that all people are treated the same. It is common to share lessons like “be kind to everyone” with kids, but this reinforces the idea that racist acts are only carried out on an individual level and ignores that all people are not given the same access to necessary resources. Although we might teach kids that “anyone can do anything,” we also have to teach them that racist barriers exist that stop us all from being truly free. Understanding this is the first step in helping to change it. Being kind does not mean that we avoid seeing race, but that we celebrate racial differences.

Partner with families to implement anti-racist programming and policies. 

  • Host regular family cafes or listening sessions to learn from families how they would like anti-racist education to be implemented or hear their concerns, share their experiences with racism in education, etc.  

Encourage conversation among families and early educators, parents/caregivers and their children, as well as early educators and children about race, racism, and how to counteract the harm.

Practices & Programming: What does it look like in our interactions with children & families? What strategies can we implement to make this happen?
Talk to the children about how people aren’t just “racist” or “antiracist,” but rather how their actions can be racist or antiracist. Kids might understand how this is similar to when we say we don’t consider them to be a “bad kid” when they do something wrong, but we must acknowledge that they made a bad choice. They have the opportunity to make a better choice the next time, because we know that identity is not fixed. Being antiracist is about what we do, now who we are. Being measured by our actions allows us to continue to grow. (adapted from “Anti-Racist Baby” written by Ibram X. Kendi)

Talk with the children about the people in their friends group. Help your child to explicitly name the race of the people around them so they understand it is not insulting or harmful to do so. Normalize conversations about race so they know it is safe to discuss what they think about different races, why they think those things and how they can understand racial differences as an imagined construct, but with very real consequences.

Offer guided activities and conversation spaces for children and families to discuss these topics

Help staff and families understand that racist policies are also part of the problem, not just people’s actions. You can reflect with staff and families about their understanding of what they see in regards to their community. Consider conversations around these questions/topics: 

What is the racial make-up of their school or neighborhood? Is it truly diverse? Or is the neighborhood or school they attend segregated? Help them to understand that this is a result of racial policy and discuss how schools are given resources. 

Discuss how families who experience poverty, food insecurity, or homelessness are disproportionately Black and Brown. Discuss why this may be the case and talk about the conditions that caused this, making clear it is not the fault of the Black or Brown family.

As anti-racist educators, we want to be sure that our words and actions communicate to children and families our commitment to ensure that all children thrive and can reach their highest potential while acknowledging their unique realities. Let’s remember, being an anti-racist educator is a life-long journey in support of all children, families, and the education community where we are called to actively confront and challenge racism.


  • Derman-Sparks, L., Olsen Edwards, J., & Goins, C. M. (2020, season-04). Teaching About Identity, Racism, and Fairness. American Federation of Teachers.
  • Fensterwald, J. (2022, June 22). California Prop. 13’s ‘unjust legacy’ detailed in critical study. EdSource.
  • Four principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. (2019, June 24). UNICEF.
  • Gloria Ladson-Billings, et. al: The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children, 1994 (p. 382)
  • Lander, V. (2021, June 30). Structural racism: what it is and how it works. The Conversation.
  • Semuels, A. (2021, July 23). “We’ve Found the Enemy, and It’s Not Each Other.” Heather McGhee’s Quest to End America’s Zero-sum Thinking on Race. Time.
    • Our Authors: Members from PEACH and QSLA

      Cindy Stephens Cristina Espinoza Deborah Owens
      Professor of Early Childhood Education, College of the Canyons Family Education Coordinator, Quality Start Los Angeles Department Chair
      Child Development & Education Dept., Glendale Community College