Help young children learn about differences in healthy ways

Bullying in elementary school targets kids based on human differences. Educators, youth workers and parents have important roles to play in helping children learn about human differences.

The elementary school years are a time of rapid growth and development as children gain knowledge, develop skills and learn more about themselves and the world around them. Children this age are also taking in and making sense of the many messages they receive about human differences. A new report titled Playgrounds and Prejudice: Elementary School Climate in the United States shines a light on the prevalence, dynamics and impacts of biased language and bullying behaviors on younger children. Released earlier this year by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), the report provides the results of a national sample of 1,065 kids in grades three through six and 1,099 elementary school teachers. The children and adults who responded to the survey make it clear that hurtful language and names grounded in stereotypes and bias about human differences are regularly used by kids in elementary school. This creates a climate that feels unwelcoming, unsafe and even hostile for some kids.

Educators, youth workers, parents and others have important roles to play in helping children learn about differences in healthier ways – a life skill that will serve them well now and in the future. Here are some things we can do:

  • Talk to children early on about differences based on race, ethnicity, gender, gender expression, disabilities and other human differences.
  • Help children learn to recognize, understand and appreciate differences in other people – and in themselves.
  • Encourage children to make friends across gender, race, disabilities and other differences.
  • Don’t avoid the difficult conversations related to human differences.
  • Don’t pretend that “everyone is the same.” Unfortunately, historically and currently some groups get treated as “less than” and some     groups as “better than.” It’s okay – and in fact, essential – to acknowledge this and talk about how we want a more caring and just world     for everyone.
  • Let children know that families come in many different sizes, shapes and forms and that family is about people who care about, love and support one another.
  • Don’t perpetuate rigid, narrow and confining gender roles and expectations. Allow children to have access to all of their emotions and explore a wide variety of interests and activities.
  • Acknowledge that everyone learns misinformation about groups different than themselves and that bias and prejudice hurt people. Model for children your commitment to addressing stereotypes and interrupting hurtful language and behaviors.
  • Tap children’s natural wisdom and instincts about issues of fairness and work with them to create settings that are safe, affirming and fair for everyone.

GLSEN also recently released a toolkit called Ready, Set, Respect!  which is designed to assist educators in helping elementary school-aged children feel safe and respected and develop respectful attitudes and behaviors based on differences. For more information, visit Young children’s biases are reflected in bullying behaviors and  Don’t confuse bullying with harassment.

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