by Nar Doumbya, T.E.A.C.H. Counselor
In early education, it is widely accepted that children learn in the context of a healthy responsive relationship with their caregivers. Rightfully so, those of us who’ve been in early education classrooms can attest to the importance of relationship in learning and psycho-social development during and beyond the early years.
Yet, relationships do not always come naturally, especially when we serve children and families whose racial, cultural or linguistic backgrounds differ from our own. When it comes to engaging in racial and social justice discussions and learning, early educators often agree that it can be challenging even when we have seemingly good relationships with children and their families. Besides the many feelings (e.g., guilt, fear, shame, among others) these topics invoke, I often hear educators say that they do not know where or when to start, what’s developmentally appropriate or individually responsive. This despite decades of research that shows the importance of talking to children about race and identity.1 Our collective confusion and reticence show just how difficult this task can be. Nevertheless, it is something we can learn.
What is Deep Culture?
As a former childcare teacher and administrator, I believe my success with engaging children and families stemmed from the genuinely respectful and responsive relationships I strived to develop. To me, relationships are catalysts for families to more easily let us into their deep culture. That is to say, who they are beyond race. Deep culture relationships take us beyond the more superficial moments of intake, drop-off, pick-up and ritual events such as the annual family night. Through authentic connections, we come to understand families’ goals for their children, their hopes and dreams, their strengths and challenges. In so doing, we expand and enrich our understanding of the children in our care.
Standards exist – but we’re called to go further
In Wisconsin, licensing standards, the quality rating and improvement system, and Head Start performance standards all uphold the crucial role cultural identity and relationship play in learning and development. Consequently, educators routinely receive training in cultural awareness, curiosity, or competence, culturally-responsive child guidance, and parent engagement. Often, such training focuses on culture more superficially by emphasizing externally visible aspects such as attire, artifacts, or holiday customs.
We seldom delve into issues of equity and social justice because we may rightfully feel that we don’t yet have the competence or resources to address them. While there may be social and racial justice policies and procedures in place at the system and center levels, teachers are daily confronted with opportunities for ensuring that every child is provided with an environment that mirrors how much they are valued in the classroom community. An environment that conveys the message “I see you and value what you bring to our classroom community.”
Take time and practice – with support – at the WECA Conference
Developing and strengthening the ability to have conversations about race and social identities and becoming an equitable educator takes time and practice. That’s why we are calling all educators who embrace social and racial justice work to attend this year’s WECA Conference.
Our social and racial justice track will offer space for critical self-reflection, support you in promoting equitable learning environment, and provide you with the tact and know-how to engage in social action
She will challenge us to reflect on our own identities and personal experiences with school and our childhood communities and how that influences our roles in relationship with children and families today. We will examine the impact of class, race, and culture on building authentic relationships and how we apply these concepts to support and care for all children and families. Her session will challenge our assumptions, engage us in important conversations, and provide us with tools and resources to better understand our roles in shaping the future of children in the context of the world today.
While at the conference plan to visit our interactive display designed for gathering ideas, and incorporating the concepts of diversity, culture, and peace into your program. Come expand your knowledge, connect with other professionals, and leave with a renewed passion to provide an equitable learning environment all children!
1. Winkler, E. N. (2009). Children are not colorblind: How young children learn race (Vol. 3). Pace.