Information for Child Care Providers
stereotyping in the preschool classroom
Alison Levitch, M.A., and
Sara Gable, Ph.D., University of Missouri Extension
Are you aware that it is normal for
preschoolers to stereotype? Stereotyping comes naturally for young
children due to how their cognitions – or thought processes –
develop. A stereotype is a way to categorize or typecast people.
According to Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory, 3- to
6-year-old children are in the preoperational stage of thinking in
which they focus on what they can see. Preschoolers are likely to
form stereotypes about others based on observable characteristics,
material possessions, or preferences (e.g. likes or dislikes).
It is important that early
childhood educators know that young children are especially
susceptible to forming stereotypes. Helping children get along with
one another and combating discrimination and name-calling can become
a regular part of classroom experiences. According to the human
relations model of multicultural education, activities should
promote tolerance, respect and appreciation of others. Teachers can
also confront acts, such as name-calling and stereotyping, which
lead to others feeling devalued. According to Sleeter and Grant,
professors at California State University and University of
Wisconsin-Madison, helping children see that stereotypes will not be
supported and encouraging children to feel good about themselves can
lead to less tension and discrimination in the classroom.
Teachers can decrease stereotyping
in several ways. Begin with self-observation and awareness. This is
important because, according to Bandura’s social learning theory,
children learn through observing people they admire. If adults can
talk openly with preschoolers about the strengths of diversity and
the detrimental effects of prejudice, children are provided with a
model of openness and awareness to imitate.
Children ask all sorts of
questions. If adults avoid children’s questions about race, gender,
disability and sexuality, children will notice. They may think that
their questions are inappropriate and unimportant. They may come up
with their own conclusions, even if these conclusions are incorrect
or harmful. Adults need to talk honestly and openly with children
about the differences that children see and ask about.
In her book, White Teacher,
kindergarten teacher Vivian Paley describes how adults can be good
models for children when dealing with hurtful comments that may
contain traces of stereotyping. For instance, during school one day,
a child says that she does not want to be partners with another
child who is black. The child wants to be partners with someone like
herself, a white girl. The teacher responds, “Ellen, Barbara feels
like working with someone who looks like her. Sometimes people get
that feeling. Can I help you find a partner for this time?” (Paley,
2000, p.43). Although the teacher was hurt by the child’s statement,
she concealed her emotions and stayed neutral. She did not
exacerbate the situation or make the girls feel uncomfortable. As
per the human relations model of multicultural education, the
teacher wanted to promote both girls’ self-concepts and morale.
Thus, she kept her response simple and used language and ideas that
the girls could understand. The teacher was also aware that her
response would not make the girls feel bad, which allowed them to
continue being playmates after the incident.
In addition to stereotypes about
race, young children are also susceptible to making stereotypes
about gender. Between 4 and 7 years of age, children realize that
gender is stable, regardless of changing clothes or actions.
Children also notice teachers' behaviors and further learn about
what boys and girls can do. Are you aware of what you say to the
boys and girls in your classroom? Some suggestions for teachers to
create an environment to reduce gender stereotyping include:
- Monitor your own behavior as a
teacher in various situations. (How do you handle emotional
behavior, such as when a child cries? Do you treat boys and girls
- Recognize the abilities of all
children without considering gender. Encourage children's
self-worth, regardless of the activities they select. (Are both
boys and girls acknowledged for sitting quietly? Are both boys and
girls recognized for playing in the 'housekeeping' area?)
- Foster gender equality by
encouraging boys and girls to do the same activities. (Encourage
both genders to build with blocks and engage in craft activities.)
- Expose children to models of
people in non-traditional gender roles.
As suggested by the Southern
Poverty Law Center, program practices can be used to help reduce
gender stereotyping. For instance:
- Avoid language that limits one
gender or another from participating. Children learn what is
expected of them from the language used by their role models. (Use
gender-neutral labels, such as congressperson, mail carrier,
flight attendant and firefighter.)
- When selecting books for the
children, strive to balance the gender of the main characters.
(Choose stories with male and female heroes and villains, or
protagonists and antagonists.) As noted by Roberts and Hill,
stories typically focus on male achievements and present
characters in stereotypical roles that support stereotypes.
Remember to discuss and acknowledge both male and female heroes in
stories — both men and women can accomplish great things.
- Amazing Grace by Mary
Hoffman. Dial Books for Young Readers,1991. (Topic: Gender, race)
- Little Granny Quarterback
by Bill Martin Jr. and Michael Sampson. Boyds Mills Press, 2001.
(Topic: Age, gender, disability)
- White Dynamite and Curly Kidd
by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault. Henry Holt and Company,
1986. (Topic: Gender)
- The Paper Bag Princess by
Robert N. Munsch. Annick Press Ltd., 1986 (Topic: Gender. Note:
Also includes some name-calling).
- Ira Sleeps Over by
Bernard Waber. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972. (Topic: Gender)
Paley, V. G. (2000). White
Teacher. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Roberts, L. C., & Hill, H. T.
(2003). Using children’s literature to debunk gender stereotypes. In
Carol Copple (Ed.). A world of difference: Readings on teaching
young children in a diverse society (pp. 125-127).
Sleeter, C. E., & Grant, C. A.
(1999). Making choices for multicultural education: Five
approaches to race, class and gender (3rd ed.). New Jersey:
Southern Poverty Law Center.
(1997). Gender learning in early childhood. In Starting small:
Teaching tolerance in preschool and the early grades (pp.50-54).
Montgomery, AL: Author. Reprinted. (Includes suggestions for
teachers’ behaviors to reduce gender stereotypes. For other lesson