When I wrote my post on the Anti-bias approach and the continent boxes, I never realised I was going to open up such an interesting debate. Karen, Fiona and My Boy’s Teacher have helped me walk through my journey of multiculturalism awareness and I thank them so much for that. It prompted me to think a bit more. I asked myself if children are actually aware of racism? Aware of differences? Louise D.Sparks believes that they are. I wouldn’t be so sure here in Ireland. And this is where my teacher probably turns into a blind ideologue as My Boy’s Teacher mentioned in her comment. You have to be realistic, objective and true to what is actually going on at your own doorstep. Ireland’s ethnical and cultural diversity is far from being as profuse and extended as in the USA, where the Anti-bias approach comes from. Yes, we have welcomed thousands of Eastern European immigrants to Ireland for the past 15 years and the number of asylum seekers has considerably and steadily risen too according to Irish statistics. However, the differences my teacher or Louise Sparks are talking about are definitely not as noticeable as they make it. If children notice a child with a different coloured skin, a different language or with a disability, I don’t believe they would actually be aware of racism or behave in any racist way. Maybe I am naïve. But this is what I can observe in my classroom. If children are much aware of racial differences, they do not act upon it. Not at their age. They ask why the little boy is black or why he is in a wheel chair, get an answer (hopefully an answer that is completely anti-bias!!) and move on. The child will not ponder on it. The difference will be accepted as normal and acceptable if explainedproperly. However, I do agree with Louise D.Sparks that avoiding talking about differences will not turn the child into a non-prejudiced human being! The problem is that children learn the prevailing social attitudes toward these differences whether or not they are in direct contact with people different from themselves. And they learn these attitudes from us.
So, as a childcare practitioner (and a Mam of 4), what do I do? Yes, I know.. I can hear my teacher.. Follow the goals of the anti-bias approach and apply them in my curriculum. I understand that. I appreciate that and I think I have already done a good job. Yet, as many of you have said, we are dealing with children of 2 to 4.5 years of age here. Well, in my classroom at least. As My Boy’s Teacher simply said “a three year old engaged in critical thinking about social justice? Really? Does that sync with what we know about how a 3 year old thinks?”. Let’s go back to theory. Piaget believed that children build intuitive concepts from immediate hand-on experiences, allowing them to develop more complex and logical thoughts. Yes, children see differences. And the answers they get when they ask questions about these differences are extremely important. A three- to five-year-old in Piaget’s pre-operational stage will be mainly interested in observable differences: physical differences and cultural ones (the way we dress, the way we talk, the way we eat). Hence the importance of our continent boxes in our classroom as a constant reference to other cultures. These boxes can revisited all through the year, whenever we want to. OK. So, children observe. But their experiences are very limited and when they are confronted to something they don’t recognise or something new, their first reaction is to use a past experience or memory to explain it. Piaget called the children “egocentric”. I can give you one example: last week, a little girl came back to school after a 10 days absence. She had been quite sick and had spent 3 days in hospital. She had been treated by a black doctor in Wexford Hospital. A few days later, as she was going to Penney’s, she spotted the security guard at the entrance of the shop. He was black. Her father told me that she pointed straight at him and said to her father: “look, here is my doctor!”.
Their second reaction when confronted to something new is to “classify”. Just like that little girl did. In Montessori, classification is a very important skill we work on in the classroom because classifying helps children to get information about the world around them, as well as to develop their thinking and reasoning. Classifying can start as early as toddlerhood, when a child might put items together by attributes. Children love putting together objects they think are alike and this help them to closely observe and organize according to specific characteristics. Anyway, I am starting to rant here. All this to say that children ask questions or make comments which reflect the way they classify in their heads. How can you look different and still be in the same group? An example comes to my mind: we have a little girl in our classroom born in Ireland but whose parents are both non-nationals. We had been talking about languages and I mentioned her parents spoke a different language just like I do or just like Bibi (our substitute teache) do too. A few days later, a boy asked her:
- “ you are not Irish?”
- “but your mam speaks different”
- “but I am Irish..”
- “well, not really..”
Of course, I stepped in and used this incident as a teachable moment and explained that the little girl was born in Ireland and that you could be Irish and speak 2 or 3 different languages.
My point here is that most of the time, here, in a preschool setting (2 to 5 year olds), in rural Ireland, children’ s developmental stages have to be taken into consideration before jumping into the conclusion that they are having a racist attitude (derived from what their parents said, what they have seen on tv or from any stereotypes they might have encountered). Though becoming aware of the impact we, adults, can have of these malleable and absorbing little minds is important to put things into perspective and realize that theories and approaches created in America do not apply word for word to every situation here in Ireland. My teacher is doing her job by opening up our mind and opening discussions among childcare providers. However, she should not be narrow minded, especially when she herself has no experience in childcare. She has worked as a social worker and has been trained in equality and diversity . She has mainly worked with Irish travellers. The ABA arose from an deep-rooted American societal and cultural issue; America is a big “melting pot” and is a nation originally created by several other nations. Ireland ‘s diversity is much more tamed. In community groups where traveller children are sent, it is important to respect their culture and ways of life and explain it to the other children (though from what I gather from colleagues, most traveller family do not want to singled out and would rather blend in). Though there is a very small percentage of ethnical or cultural diversity, the differences in our rural society are much more socially and economically embedded. And preschoolers would not be as aware of that type of differences. So at that stage, my role is to open up my preschoolers’s horizons, prompt them to ask questions and give them the “right” answers…. OK.. What a rant!!! My apologies for such a lengthy post but it has helped me putting my thoughts in order…