Why Diversity Education Matters for Kids (and Their Parents)
The call to increase diversity is more prevalent than ever before. It’s in the workplace, in our television shows and, of course, in our news feeds. Yet, surprisingly, so few of us understand what diversity is or why it truly matters — and even more importantly, why inclusion is an important value to pass onto our children.
For instance, did you know that as early as two years old, children notice racial, gender and other identity-based differences? The younger we start educating children on diversity, the better chance we, as a society, have in reducing biases that lead to disparities in health, education and the criminal justice system. Here are several other reasons why diversity education matters and how it can help with our children's development (as well as our own).
First, let's define it. Diversity is the inclusive appreciation of various identities, including but not limited to race, gender, ability status and sexual orientation. As the mother of two black children, I’ve experienced first-hand how intolerance can have a negative impact on childhood development and understand why it’s vital for children of all races to be educated in the benefits of diversity.
Being that we live in a mostly white area, my children are more likely to be impacted by the mental consequences of trying to adapt to a white society. We also have to face the very real truth that, in a group of friends, my son is the one that will be accused of malicious intent when things go wrong. After all, the American Psychological Association has found that black children, particularly black boys, are viewed as older and less innocent than white children.
The year is 2018, but in many ways, the conversations we have around race, nationalism and civil rights are reminiscent of soundbites from 50 years ago. And our children aren’t above its influence. Thankfully, each day, more individuals are waking up and seeing that division as well as hate-based rhetoric and, by extension, hate crimes are on the rise. But for real impact, we have to teach our children to be anti-racist, anti-homophobic and the host of other things we’re witnessing. That’s hard to do when so few children are exposed to “otherness.”
Most of us inhabit communities that reflect our own identities. The Public Religion Research Institute found that 75 percent of white people have entirely white social circles. The homogeny of our social groups creates a barrier between us and the establishment of meaningful relationships with an array of identities.
Exposing children to diversity has the potential to yield a variety of cognitive benefits. This is because the introduction to new cultures often brings never-before-experienced challenges. Naturally, those challenges require solving.
As children learn to work through the challenges that accompany meeting (or even hearing word problems with examples of) individuals who are different, they enhance problem-solving skills.
Prepares for Real-World Challenges
Thanks to globalization, and the internet, our world becomes increasingly smaller every day. Different languages, religions, ability statuses and ethnic groups are all commonplace. And we’re expected to interact without discomfort. Now, it’s more important than ever for children, as well as adults, to be prepared to interact with someone of a different background.
Children who have been exposed to diversity and have experienced some form of diversity education are better prepared to deal with the demand that accompanies a global society.
Many organizations work to promote a more inclusive world. Case in point: The Kaur Foundation, a nonprofit that works with schools to increase understanding of Sikh Americans through curriculum materials, believes diversity education is a key component of transformative change.
Diversity education teaches children that people come in a variety of identities, abilities and appearances. When children are taught to expect these differences, they are less likely to ridicule others for “being different.”
We know differences and intolerance views toward people of color can lead to an increase in bullying. Shortly after the 2016 election, countless horrific accounts revealed Latin youth being harassed about citizenship status. Sadly, immigrant youth from all backgrounds are at an increased risk for bullying. Diversity education provides the opportunity to reject nationalism and make sure they feel safe during the acculturation process.
Decreases Feelings of Inadequacy in the Classroom
Diversity in the classroom can help reduce student perceptions that they do not belong because of certain identity factors, according to Yale’s Center for Teaching and Learning. These thoughts often impact students in the form of decreased classroom participation, general distractability or by leading to feelings of inadequacy.
When children are in classrooms that promote diversity, teachers are less likely to see the above signs as evidence of lowered capabilities, and children are less likely to see being different as a problem. As students become increasingly comfortable in their environment, they become comfortable in themselves. Student of all ages — even as old as college — reveal a positive correlation between self-confidence and academic performance.
Empathy is a key factor in humanizing individuals who have different values than you. But it’s nearly impossible to develop the relationship depth required to empathize with someone who holds different beliefs or identities than you if you never have the opportunity to interact.
That’s why studies have shown group activities like youth sports leagues benefit children by providing them with a common goal and the chance to interact with people outside of their usual circle.
Introduces New Ways of Thinking
After interacting with individuals who have had different life experiences from us, we have the opportunity to reprocess information in a way that considers an alternate reality.
It would be unrealistic to expect an upper-middle-class child who grew up in a gated community to understand the conflicts that local residents in Ferguson, Mo., have with police. Structurally, their lives are very different. But by discussing the historical legacy many black children have been passed down from their loved ones, these issues might make more sense.
Promotes Open-Mindedness and Inspires Engaging Conversations
We don’t think about issues that don’t impact our daily lives. Chances are, your children have given little thought to the way everyday things like stairs and bathtubs can limit accessibility for people who are handicapped. Similarly, your family probably doesn’t discuss the way seemingly harmful expressions that have made it into mainstream language can invoke hurtful memories for people of different ethnic backgrounds. Unless those issues affect you.
Through diversity education, children are given a headstart in the way people of varying groups internalize messages. And from that understanding will come more open-mindedness and the chance to have engaging conversations that go beneath the surface.
Children notice racial, gender and other identity-based differences as young as two years old. Unfortunately, with this perception often comes a preference for certain groups. It’s human nature to notice a difference. However, it’s socialization that leads us to have racial or ethnic preferences. For example, by preschool, many children have already internalized messages of anti-black bias.
If we want to make a dent in reducing negative expectations of other groups and reducing the number of negative messages children internalize early on, we have to start early in exposing them to differences and educating them that diversity is beautiful. This can help to reduce implicit bias, which is at the base of all of the negative thoughts we have about other identity groups.
Benefits the Brain’s Executive Functioning
In a report titled, "How Racially Diverse Schools and Classrooms Can Benefit All Students," for the think tank The Century Foundation, the three authors highlight the ways diverse classrooms can lead to improved cognitive functioning for students.
But we’ve been aware of the benefits of diversity for a long time. As early as 2004, researchers such as Anthony Lising Antonio have suggested the time we spend trying to manage implicit bias distracts from our ability to use our entire brain. Of course, this is more of an issue for older children than younger children, but isn’t it comforting to know diversity education can improve learning outcomes by giving children one less thing to focus on? Children don’t have the capacity to allocate resources towards bias and focus on learning.
Encourages Better Leadership
We all hope to raise children capable of being effective leaders. But how many of us know exposure to diversity is a great way to accomplish that?
One of the best qualities of an effective leader is the ability to reduce prejudice and negative messages. If you can overcome the challenge of generalizing others, you will be able to meet each individual in a way that inspires them. Also, children who have experienced diversity education are more likely to be inclusive leaders. That quality will enable them to appeal to people from all walks of life instead of just those who are like them.
Gives Marginalized Children the Chance to Feel Represented
We all want to be represented, but many of us aren’t. One of the most important benefits of diversity education is the impact it has on marginalized students. Every day, children from marginalized groups are forced to interact with a world that tells them they are different and don’t deserve regular treatment.
When children of color, children with income disparities, children from same-sex families and a host of other identity factors get to see themselves reflected in a curriculum, they feel normalized. This representation brings a sense of value, self-acceptance and often pride — something all education should do.