Why we must incorporate diversity and inclusion in early years education
Alicia Wilkins, early years educator and tiney home nursery leader
Thursday, November 26, 2020
Diversity has been at the heart of many conversations this year, and should be at the heart of early years education, says childminder and early years educator Alicia Wilkins
Our awareness of difference - whether it be race, gender, or identity - has been heightened and discussed like never before. From the boardroom to the classroom, it feels like we are finally starting to give diversity and inclusion the energy and airtime it deserves.
But when is the right time to start incorporating diversity into our lives? Having recently retrained as a professional childminder and early years educator, I feel passionately that we should be placing inclusivity at the heart of early years.
During my childhood, I was lucky enough to have two loving and supportive parents who continually reinforced that I was good enough. I carried this through school and into adulthood, confident in my own abilities - propelled through life by the affirmations I received at home.
As a black child in a predominantly white primary school, this protective shield created for me by my parents was something I didn’t realise I’d been carrying until much later in life. My twin brother was just as talented as me, but has less natural aptitude when it came to academics.
His primary school teachers, whether consciously or subconsciously, fell into the trope so many young black men experience. They expected him to underperform. By not meeting their expectations, he was right on track.
Conversely, my academic achievements were met with surprise. I was an over achiever by default, because less was expected of me. That’s not to say our teachers weren’t wonderful professionals who were doing their best. It’s simply a reflection of the assumptions we all unwittingly ingest from the world around us and which go on to impact those around us.
During my adult life I’ve often thought about the children like me and my brother who entered primary school not armed with the love and affirmation of brilliant parents or carers. The prejudices and presumptions that fester within the seams of our society - whether it’s around skin colour, body size, or religion - can chip away at the confidence of the very youngest children, absorbing everything like a sponge as they do.
Even those children who are met with wonderful primary school teachers who try to reinforce the child’s uniqueness and abilities are often too far down the track of societal expectations. They have already internalised their ‘difference’ and labelled it negatively.
Prior to becoming a childminder, I worked as a primary school teacher at various wonderful schools across London. And whilst they had created a loving and caring environment, they had not actively put diversity and inclusion at the heart of their ethos.
This means some children weren’t given enough reinforcement to counter the narratives society was pushing towards them. I’ll always remember one little girl coming up to me and telling me that she hated her afro hair. She can’t have been more than seven-years-old, but already was seeing her difference as an issue - desiring instead the caucasian hair of her classmates.
For those children who, for whatever reason, have internalised and branded their differences, we must create spaces in which those myths can be dispelled.
And I believe a huge amount of positive work can be done in this regard in the early years space. Children who learn to celebrate differences in early years setting will help strengthen their self-worth and tolerance before they head into primary school. Each piece of armour we can weld for them before they head into the world is a vital piece of protection against society’s preconceived notions.
In the home nursery I’m creating, making each child feel special is the objective.
I want to celebrate their uniqueness, foster a sense of pride in who they are and where they come from, and create awareness that difference is something to be treasured.
For such little children, this of course has to happen holistically and organically. It will be reflected in the food we eat, the music we play, and the characters in the books we read. It will centre around what they enjoy - ensuring they’re praised for what they’re good at, as well as encouraged to try new things in their own time. There isn’t ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in inclusive early years settings; simply love, care, and inquisitiveness.
Every single educator - from early years to academia - has a responsibility to support and encourage the young minds placed in their care.
With so much vital development occurring during the pre-school years, we cannot afford to let the importance of diversity slip off the early years agenda.
We must find and create, age-appropriate ways of helping children understand that their differences and those of others are wonderful, cherished and welcome. If we can support a generation of children to think and feel like this, just think what an impact it could have on creating a fairer, more tolerant society.