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Got Bias?

Picture it… a child care program on the beautiful island of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands just hired their first male teacher to work in the preschool classroom. On his first day, families walked into the classroom with excitement to meet their child’s new teacher. Yet, one family enters the room, takes one long look at the teacher, and does a sharp u-turn heading back out the classroom door.

Later that morning, the director visited the classroom to let the teacher know that the family was apprehensive about leaving their daughter in the classroom. They said they would think about it and decide by tomorrow. The reason for their hesitation was me – a male teacher. It was then, at the young age of twenty, that I came face to face with the vicious tentacles of implicit bias.

It is hard to admit but, thirty-plus years later, implicit biases are still streaming into our early childhood classrooms. Sadly, our children are now the victims.

We all know how biases generate attitudes and beliefs about a certain race or class of people, genders, religions, cultures, and the list goes on and on. You know the drill. Yet, I recently noticed one specific bias that has been making the headlines in the early childhood community most recently involving black preschool boys. We are finding more and more teachers are viewing black boys as troublemakers from an incredibly young age. Their play is viewed as more dangerous, violent, and not developmentally appropriate. Not just a perception, but a bias.

Black preschool boys have become the targets of some teachers’ biases. These biases are often coupled with the teachers’ inability (or refusal) to interact and engage using a strengths-based teaching approach as opposed to a deficit-based. Regrettably, the teachers’ biases are affecting a population of children that are already facing the most barriers to success in life.

Do you think I am making this up as I type? Well, check this out. The latest trend of suspending black boys from preschool programs is at an alarming rate. Yup, you read correctly – suspending four-year black boys seems like a thing to do when some teachers cannot get a handle on their behavior. It happens when some early childhood educators have embedded their attitudes and beliefs (their biases) about the behaviors of our black boys in their teaching practices.

The facts don’t lie. Just look at the 2016 report from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that I came across. The findings from this report were astonishing, to say the least. It found that black children made up only 19% of our country’s preschool enrollment. Yet, sadly to say, they represented 47% of out-of-school suspensions.

Let me be clear, black boys being labeled early in their life as troublemakers is just one type of bias children are experiencing in classrooms. Other young children are experiencing the negative impact of biases based on their gender, their zip code, who their parents love, and their family’s cultural beliefs and values, to name a few. Unfortunately, these biases are affecting how children see themselves in the world, their self-worth, and their self-esteem.

As an early childhood educator, I stand strong in my belief that we must press hard on the accelerator pedal in our training and professional development world. Early childhood professionals must have more opportunities to discuss authentically (in a safe non-judgmental space) how to identify their biases that may affect the beautiful children that we care so much about. Biases that have long-lasting negative consequences and outcomes for young children have no place in our early childhood classrooms!

Where do we go from here? There are solutions out there, stay tuned.

~ Jerry A. Graham, Virginia Quality Technical Assistant

Want to learn more? Here's a great video that explains more about implicit bias:

Jerry supports early childhood programs as a CLASS, curriculum, and behavior specialist. He is also a certified Red Cross First Aid/CPR/AED instructor and a Professional Development Specialist with the Council for Professional Recognition. In his spare time, he stays connected to his local community as a board member of the Virginia Family Child Care Alliance and a member of the Black Child Development Institute of Hampton Roads.

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