Creating an anti-bias learning environment

If children are to learn not only to tolerate but to respect diversity, they need manifold opportunities to become familiar with it. And given that childcare centres are part of our societal structures, they must be careful not to reproduce and pass on biases and prejudices. In discourses on anti-bias work, one frequent claim is that very young children could not possibly already have biases or prejudices, and that childcare centres are places of unbiased coexistence. This belief is often accompanied by the idea that when “different types of children” come together, communication is automatically unbiased. But experiences and studies have shown that these notions are simply not true: “When children go into a childcare centre, they are more open to friendships with children of the opposite gender and to non-stereotypical play experiences than when they leave. Of course, the childcare centre is not solely responsible for this biased development, but it is also not entirely innocent.” (Greenberg, cited in Derman-Sparks 1989, 5)1 “We are going on the assumption that targeted and active interventions of educational professionals are necessary to ensure that young children can develop positive attitudes towards differences. Simply having contact with children of different backgrounds is not enough.” (Wagner 2001, 5) It is usually not explicit biases that influence children but rather subtler messages that convey attitudes towards right and wrong, acceptance or rejection, “normal” and “abnormal”, important and unimportant. “They make inferences from the mix of people on the staff, the images on the walls, the main characters in stories, the daily routines. They also make inferences from what is not there: when there are no references made to them, their families, their languages, and their particular experiences and abilities, it can mean: ‘This centre would be just fine without me and my family. I don’t belong here.’” (Wagner et al. 2006, 18).
If we want children, with all their unique, individual qualities, to grow up feeling accepted, appreciated and respected for who they are, then we have to create a learning environment that enables this. Therefore, we must establish conditions that allow all children to develop a sense of belonging. They should be able to grow up in an environment where they are not forced to deny their own socio-cultural background. It should be an environment that enables them to develop self-confidence and strengthens their sense of belonging to their own reference group. Once that happens, children will have the chance to flourish both in their own family and in the majority society, and be able to stand up for their rights (cf. Hahn n.d., 1). This paper will outline the ways in which a learning environment can be established in line with the principles of anti-bias education.

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