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Reducing 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 the same?)
  • 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.

Book Ideas

  • 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)

Sources

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: Merrill.

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 ideas, see teachingtolerance.org)



 

last updated 10/04/05

 

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