Anti-Bias and Social Justice Education

Children’s biggest work is to make sense of the world around them. In their play and conversations, in their acts of exclusion and their gestures of inclusion, children ask questions about identity and belonging, about community and relationship and fairness. They may be trying to figure out things like:

  • Who am I in relationship to the people around me?
  • What holds us in relationship? What fractures our relationships?
  • How do we heal those fractures?

And they may even be asking challenging questions:

  • Can boys be part of the game about the kitty family, or just girls?
  • Is the bad guy in this movie the one with brown skin and a funny way of talking?
  • How come your lunch has food in it that I’ve never seen before?
  • Why don’t you have a dad in your family?
  • Is it fair if you have Easter at your house, but I don’t?
  • Why is your skin a different color than your mom’s skin?

Children are fundamentally concerned with making sense of their social and cultural world. Children’s questions – and the understandings and misunderstandings, the assumptions and values which grow alongside them – are the focus of our anti-bias and social justice education at Hilltop.

Our Approach to Anti-Bias and Social Justice Education

Anti-bias and Social Justice work is a natural component of our approach to curriculum. In all our teaching, we aim to listen to and watch children carefully, in order to learn about their understandings and misunderstandings, questions and confusions. We grow curriculum from our observations and reflections, offering children experiences that invite them to deepen or shift their thinking. This close attention to children’s pursuits and questions leads us to encounters with the meaning of gender, the nuances of skin color, and the dynamics of culture – the terrain of identity and community, diversity, equity, and inclusion.  This is the terrain of anti-bias, social justice education.

Several decades of research show us that very young children notice differences, and form values about differences. We’ve learned that, by the time they’re six months old, children notice skin color and gender differences. By the time they’re two-and-a-half years old, children are aware of and begin absorbing socially prevalent negative stereotypes, feelings, and ideas about people, including themselves. By the time they’re four years old, children have begun to construct theories about what causes differences – theories that are often negatively influenced by societal bias. Throughout their early childhood, young children work to construct understandings about race, gender, abilities, class, and culture.

Four goals lie at the heart of anti-bias work with young children

We aim to:

  • nurture each child’s construction of a knowledgeable, confident self-concept and group identity within a cultural context;
  • promote each child’s comfortable, empathic interaction with people from diverse backgrounds;
  • foster each child’s critical thinking about bias;
  • cultivate each child’s ability to stand up for herself or himself and for others in the face of bias.

These goals guide us as we continue to deepen our practice of social justice and anti-bias education at Hilltop. We strive to learn as much as we can about what the children are thinking about the differences and similarities among people – about the core elements of identity like skin color, gender, abilities, and class. We want to counter the biased messages that children may be absorbing, correct misinformation, and offer new understandings of difference rooted in empathy, generosity, and kindness. And we want to invite the children to think critically about unfairness, and to take action when they identify an injustice.

These commitments shape our teaching in several ways. We watch for “teachable moments,” times when children’s words or actions alert us that they’re trying to understand some aspect of race, culture, abilities, class, or gender, and we step in to offer guidance and challenge. And we offer “provocations” aimed at sparking discussions with children about identity, community, and fairness, with activities like painting self-portraits with skin-toned paint, for example, or by planning with the children a birthday celebration for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

We recognize that anti-bias work is about more than skin color, so we talk with children about the range of people that make up our Hilltop community and the wider world. We take care with the words and beliefs we express. Social problem solving is a present part of our daily lives together. We challenge children to articulate their feelings and support them in working towards mutually agreeable solutions. By emphasizing alternate-perspective-taking, we help children advocate for themselves and recognize the needs of others. Faculty engage in ongoing professional development around anti-bias work to challenge our own biases, hone our anti-bias teaching practices, and gain further skill in supporting children’s individual identities and home cultures. In addition, we develop, with children, in-depth study projects that engage them in social justice thinking and work.

Reimaging our role in society

Hilltop is committed to becoming an anti-racist, multicultural organization. Underpinning that goal is our vision of becoming an inclusive institution in which barriers to collaboration and entry are not dependent on one’s race, socioeconomic status, citizenship, or wealth. With dedicated faculty working externally and internally to support families, businesses, and individual in dismantling entrenched policies, practices, patterns, we are committed to combatting norms and values that may undermine anti-racist work through our own individual and collective liberation work.

Since Hilltop does not work in silos, part of our work as a member of this community is to build capacity in others. We deem this work as critical to eliminating the hardships such as securing future housing, employment, higher education, and other opportunities that children, especially Black, Indigenous, and children of color may face in their journey in ensuring their dreams becomes a reality. With a shared language on the organization’s anti-racism work, we strive, both individually, and as a community to understand the roles of structural and institutional racism, the impact on the Non-Profit Industrialized Complex, and therefore, hold ourselves accountable through the examination and development of tools to apply, implement, and sustain anti-racism and social justice work going forward.