How Bias Impacts Our Relationships with Children and Families

Article Table of Contents

This is the first article of our new series in partnership with PEACH: “Using Anti-Bias & Anti-Racist Practices to Support Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging for BIPOC Families in ECE.” This series focuses on creating intentional conversation spaces where early learning programs like yours can share ideas and learn how to center anti-bias and anti-racist practices in your work with staff, children, and families. For more information, click here!

To be human is to have biases. As we grow up, we all adopt preferences, judgements, stereotypes, and mindsets that affect how we view the world and more specifically, how we view people and their identities.

As Dr. Ibram X. Kendi shares, these ideas surround us from birth like rain, pouring down all around us and yet we don’t know we are wet until we become aware of it. We are exposed to and learn these biases from many sources – different societies or networks we are a part of, family, the media, friends, school, etc.

As you can imagine, we carry our biases everywhere – including in our early learning programs and in our interactions with young children and their families. Let’s remember one of our core family engagement principles: we are all doing our best, given our capacity, given our reality. This leads us to Maya Angelou’s insightful quote:

“Do the best you can until you know better. 

Then when you know better, do better.” – Maya Angelou 

As educators, as humans, we are always learning! This is another area in which we can learn, explore new ideas, make mistakes, and always try again – ultimately continuing our goal of creating an early learning environment that respects and supports the diversity of our staff, young children, and their families.

In this article, we focus on defining key anti-bias terms and understanding the effects of bias on ourselves, our children, and the families we engage with. In reflecting on these impacts, we tie in intersectionality to examine how bias affects each of us differently depending on our multiple identities. We also explore what an anti-bias approach looks like and specific strategies that our early learning programs can use. 

Key Terms & Impact: Vocabulary to Support Anti-Bias Conversations

In order for our learning to begin, it is important for us to have a baseline and ensure that we are communicating in the same language. This is new territory for many of us so we want to start with definitions of important key terms and real-world examples related to bias and anti-bias:

Nowadays we often hear comments about the value in knowing these terms and how they show up in our real world. On the other hand, we also hear folks complain about how sensitive or “politically-correct” they have to be in expressing or behaving themselves, as many of these situations like those shared above seem trivial or minor compared to more unmistakable acts of violence and hatred.

Yet, we may be unaware (or need a reminder) about the cumulative effects of these types of actions. Consider the Anti-Defamation League’s Pyramid of Hate – this diagram shown below helps us more clearly understand how our biases and “smaller actions” are the seeds or first steps of more dangerous, violent, and widespread behavior.

As we can see in the diagram above, these biased attitudes lay the groundwork for more insidious actions that promote hate, discrimination, and violence.

Note: Violence is not just physical – it is also emotional, verbal, economic, geographic, psychological, spiritual, sexual, and neglect.

In order for us to create positive change for the children and families we work with, social justice, inclusion, and representation should be at the heart of all teacher-initiated activities. Anti-bias attitudes and approaches provide us with a north star, and anti-bias education curriculum is the map that guides us closer.

How Biases and Anti-Bias Efforts Show up in the Early Learning World

Painting Pictures: Examples of Bias in Early Learning Programs

As we saw in the Anti-Defamation League’s Wheel of Privilege/Power before, there are various categories of power – including but not limited to: gender, age, race, wealth, language, citizenship, skin color (also known as colorism), ability, sexuality, neurodiversity, etc. Below we share examples of some of these power dynamics at play in ECE, when bias is involved:

  • Cultural/Racial Bias Example:
    Dual immersion programs that do not incorporate the cultural and racial identities of families, solely focusing on dual language development of the children.
  • Gender/Class Bias Example:
    Low-income wages for early educators overall. Naturally this is tied to many factors, including 1) early educators getting paid less because they are seen as less educated without a degree conferred by an institution and 2) the social norm of women “naturally” having the responsibility of being caregivers for young children, so why would they get paid a reasonable wage?
  • Formal Education Bias Example:
    The power dynamic between families and early educators, where there is a deficit-based assumption that families are there to receive support and bring little to the table. This ignores families’ funds of knowledge, their areas of experience and/or expertise.
  • Ability Bias Example:
    Early educators assuming a family member who has a disability does not have the capacity to attend and actively participate in a leadership committee or take on a similar role within the early learning program.
  • Gender Bias Example:
    Our programs may use phrases like “boys and girls” or “ladies and gentleman” to refer to young children and adults. In doing so, our word choice reflects a bias that ignore the existence of trans and non-binary people and their preferred pronouns (for example: they, them).
  • Gender Bias Example:
    Early learning programs calling mothers or other female caregivers, assuming they are more attentive and/or responsible for their child than the father or other responsible caregivers in the family.
  • Skin Color Bias Example:
    Dolls and human-like toys in the play areas that only represent white or light-skinned people, European facial features, straight hair – as opposed to including dolls and toys of many skin tones, varied facial features from multiple races or ethnicities, and textured hair. White bodies and features are seen as the “default”.
  • Age Bias Example:
    Early educators assuming a grandparent family member is less capable of caring for their grandchild or using technology because of their age.
  • Sexual Orientation Bias Example:
    Male children may feel discomfort or fear when playing dress up or participating in other types of play that are often associated with females. Homophobia and/or internalized misogyny is typically the root behind that fear and discomfort, as if they may be judged as “less” or “weak”.
  • Wealth/Class/Formal Education Bias Example:
    Family Child Care programs may be undervalued and underpaid. FCC providers may be seen as less educated and as if they have less to offer without an ECE degree, in addition to a potential bias against their program because they are not “formal institutions” like centers.

What Does the Data Show? The Effects of Bias in Young Children

As you can see, these examples above highlight how bias can negatively affect children, families, ourselves, and our fellow early educators – all of us. Let’s dig deeper – what does the research show about how bias negatively impacts young children?

  • The majority of these 4 year old children studied showed a strong and consistent “pro-white” bias. (Armstrong, 2019)
    • As Edutopia shares in this article, children notice and pick up biases and biased behaviors from an early age. The findings from experiments conducted by researchers at Northwestern University found that young children not only absorb the stereotypes they see, but they also become very aware of social labels, status, and biases shown by their family.
  • White children may subconsciously learn that their race holds a privileged status compared to others, and non-white children may learn that their race does not (Clark & Clark 1950; Van Ausdale & Feagin 2001).
    • Materials in early learning spaces also have a similar effect as they often lean towards highlighting white experiences, resulting in harmful consequences. When this isn’t noticed or counterbalanced with images or stories with lead characters from other cultures and races, the importance is placed on white early childhood experiences, and we miss opportunities to teach children that all races should be valued.
  • Children as young as 3 months are aware of racial differences, and by the time they are preschoolers, they make choices, based on race, about with whom to play and how (Katz & Kofkin 1997; Van Ausdale & Feagin 2001; Hirschfeld 2008; Quintana & McKown 2008).
    • A child’s ideas about their own race and others’ races are formed during early childhood, regardless of whether the topic of race is directly addressed, completely ignored, or actively suppressed in their classrooms.
  • Few children’s books are about or are published by black, indigenous, and people of color (Cooperative Children’s Book Center, n.d.).
    • As the Cooperative Children’s Book Center shares in their statistics on diversity in books, here are their latest findings from the year 2021, only:
      • 22.3% of children’s books are by/about Black or African people
      • 3.9% of children’s books are by Indigenous people
      • 25.2% of children’s books are by Asian people
      • 16.7% of children’s books are by Latinx people
      • 0.4% of children’s books are by Pacific Islander people
      • 1.3% of children’s books are by Arab people

Lastly, consider other educators’ perspectives: take a look at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)’s video below, “Recognizing Bias and Promoting Equity in Early Childhood Settings” about the importance and positive effects of an anti-bias approach with young children and their families.

What Can We Do? Anti-Bias Education in Early Learning

Anti-bias education shows us what is possible when we respect and embrace diversity. As we shared in the previous section, anti-bias education provides us with strategies and principles to bring into our early learning programs, but it also shares a vision that can guide our efforts in early learning. Consider this vision below as shared by Louise Derman-Sparks & Julie Olsen Edwards

  • “All children and families have a sense of belonging and experience affirmation of their identities and cultural ways of being.
  • All children have access to and participate in the education they need to become successful, contributing members of society. 
  • The educational process engages all members of the program or school in joyful learning. 
  • Children and adults know how to respectfully and easily live, learn, and work together in diverse and inclusive environments. 
  • All families have the resources they need to fully nurture their children. 
  • All children and families live in safe, peaceful, healthy, comfortable housing and neighborhoods.” 

Naturally, these all point to the world we want for our young learners and their families! This is what we are reaching for when we take pause to recognize our biases and take pause to reconsider our perspectives. Look on to the next section to see what we can do as individual early educators.

Reflecting & Preparing for Anti-Bias Efforts: Doing the Inner Work as Early Educators

We are each on our own anti-bias journey as early educators, each realizing our biases while also learning new ways to be more fair and equitable towards the young children and families we work with.

Examining ourselves is not only about unlearning past biases and beliefs caused by systems of oppression and learning new ways to be more fair and equitable towards others – it is also about healing ourselves. It is about exercising self-compassion, grace, and slowing down to build our capacity to address fears and anxieties that lead us to continue inequitable practices with ourselves, our colleagues, the young children, and families we work with.

This type of internal change can help not only transform our perspectives, but gradually become more aware of our reactions around certain topics, behaviors, and groups of people. From there, we can recognize what actions we typically take to “protect” ourselves from facing our biases and what thoughts or emotions show up within us that stem from ingrained prejudice.

Anti-bias education provides us with strategies and principles to bring into our early learning programs, but it also shares key reflective questions that can guide our inner work, our process of self-analysis, and what biases or prejudices we may have. As shared by Derman-Sparks & Olsen Edwards, consider these reflective questions below, all tied to the 4 goals of anti-bias education:

  1. To what degree, or in what ways, do I nurture the construction of a knowledgeable, confident self-identity and group identity in myself?
  2. How do I promote my own comfortable, empathetic interactions with people from diverse backgrounds?
  3. In what ways do I foster my critical thinking about bias?
  4. Under what circumstances do I cultivate my ability to stand up for myself and for others in the face of bias?
  5. What are the challenges to achieving these goals in my life?
  6. What might be ways for me to develop each of these goals in my personal life? In my work?

Why is deep inner work important?

We bring to you another new term: performative activism (also known as optical allyship) – which is harmful, shallow, and doesn’t create longer lasting change. Performative activism is the visual illusion of allyship without the actual work of allyship. For instance, in the United States we offer parades, put up “diversity” posters, offer commemorative days off, launch social media campaigns, etc.

These examples highlight how celebrating diversity only does so much and is often focused on virtue-signaling, showing our audience how “great” and “aware” we are. While everyone may feel good in seeing these actions, how much change is actually happening? How much of this is actually for appearances?

Inner work is challenging and almost always self-guided and self-selected. It is a journey, not a destination. There are rarely clear, cut-and-dry solutions and answers to most of these previously mentioned issues. Just as racism, sexism, and many other systems of oppression have existed for centuries, this change for the better will not be quick. And so we can better prepare ourselves by framing our mindsets to be aware that our efforts plant a seed for long-term change, by being willing to accept a lack of closure. 

What can I do to begin or continue my inner work as an early educator? What are some initial resources I can use?

Personal efforts as an individual:

  • Explore tools and resources that help you identify what biases and prejudices you may have, to further understand why and how these show up in your thoughts and actions.

Professional efforts as an individual: 

  • Attend trainings, webinars, and more around these topics of anti-bias and equity, including:
  • Take pause and reflect during difficult moments or conversations involving bias and identity(ies) in your work. What are those moments signaling to you?

There is an indisputable value and difficulty in doing the inner work, especially as 1) no one really holds you accountable, 2) it is uncomfortable, 3) there’s no clear path, and 4) it can create “controversial” change with people in your life (in and out of work). Let’s be real – what is right is not always what is easy. Yet, this inner work and the positive long-term effects it will reap will affect how you show up in your role as an early educator. Your effort will be a “seed” in your early learning program. On that note, head on to section 4 for actionable strategies to implement in your early learning program!

Planting the Seed: Beginning Anti-Bias Practices for Our Early Learning Programs

As we shared earlier in this post, Anti-Bias Education is an approach to teaching and learning that includes self-identity, self-reflection, and actively, intentionally disrupting bias in all areas of the early childhood program. In this section we offer some practices and strategies to help foster an anti-bias environment in your early learning program.

Read through the following sections for key ideas and practices, accompanied by targeted resources to support your program’s learning and change-making!

Program Policies & Procedures

Interactions & Programming with Families 

Diverse cultures, languages, abilities, and families are supported and welcome in every aspect of an anti-bias program. This is evident in:

  • Family-school communication: Communications are accessible in print and online, available in the languages that families speak, use visuals that are representative of families, and use terms to identify families inclusively.

Work with your program staff to identify anti-bias strategies that your early learning program can use to support families.

  • Consider incorporating focused strategies in working with Black, Latinx, Native American, Asian, and additional families of color.
  • Santa Clara County Office of Education – My Name My Identity Educator Toolkit 

Classroom Environments & Interactions 

  • Teaching for Change – Resource Page on Anti-Bias Education which includes booklists for early educators and young children, films, and articles! Here’s a snapshot of what they include:
    • Teaching for Change also has these article collections in English and Spanish

      Our work in early childhood education always comes back to the core goal of supporting children’s well-being and positive development. By incorporating anti-bias education and extending these ideas to our family engagement practices, we can create more equitable and respectful relationships with families. We invite you to consider that this work is fundamental and essential to the positive development of young children and their families. Every small step we take in learning about these equitable ideas and unlearning the harmful systems of oppression helps create a better world for ourselves, young children, and the families we partner with.

      It’s not easy, but it’s worthwhile. Let’s take inspiration from Maya Angelou’s words, and remember, “When we know better – we can do better.”

      Our Authors: Members from PEACH and QSLA

      Cindy Stephens Cristina Espinoza Elmida Baghdaserians, Ed.D. Michelle DeJohnette
      Professor of Early Childhood Education, College of the Canyons Family Education Coordinator, Quality Start Los Angeles Professor, Child Development, Los Angeles Valley College Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Studies at Cal Poly Pomona