By the time children enter kindergarten, they’re already perceiving and talking about race. But there’s little guidance for how teachers should address this natural curiosity—and many, in fact, see it as a sensitive subject.
This tension, and how to address it, were themes that ran through several of the panels and workshops at the National Council for the Social Studies’ recent conference in Philadelphia.
Studies have shown that young kids notice race, try to make sense of it, and talk about it. Babies use race to categorize faces before their first birthday. Preschool age children have already learned and internalized racial stereotypes: research has found that 3-year-olds in the United States associate Black faces with negative traits. Young children also experience racism, which can affect their physical and mental health.
Ethnographic studies of early childhood and early elementary classrooms have shown that kids discuss race and separate themselves into racial categories—whether their teachers bring the subject up or not.
And then there’s connections to classroom content. Many elementary school state standards require that students learn about Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, or Martin Luther King, Jr., in grades K-5. Race is key to understanding the lives and significance of these historical figures.
Even so, many teachers say they’re avoiding issues that could be considered controversial—including race—in the current political landscape.
A recent EdWeek Research Center poll of about 1,000 educators in September and October 2022 found that 56 percent of the teachers said they haven’t discussed any potentially controversial topics with their students this year, including politics, slavery, gender, religion, ethnicity and race, sexual orientation, the Holocaust, and sexual education.
And children’s age is a factor in that pattern: Of those teachers, 21 percent said they didn’t think their students were old enough to talk about any of these topics.
What elementary students discuss and question
“A lot of the recommendations for how we should teach about race, or shouldn’t, are based on studies that are done with older kids,” Anna Falkner, an assistant professor at the University of Memphis, said during a session at NCSS.
Falkner, whose dissertation on the strategies that young children use to learn about race won a 2020 award from NCSS, shared findings from her ethnographic study of two classrooms: one majority-white kindergarten class and one majority-Black 1st grade class.
The students in the study were interested in talking about race: They paid close attention when their peers brought up the subject, they asked questions, tried out theories, and told their own stories about experiences with racism. Kids were trying to define their own racial identities—something that they did by comparing themselves to people in their families, their classmates, or others in their communities.
Falkner highlighted takeaways for classroom teachers, based on the two she observed for her study. Those teachers allowed students to discuss, to try out ideas, and to ask questions. They didn’t shut down conversations about race by saying they were inappropriate or off-topic.
Teachers can help students navigate the topic by giving children space to talk and reflect across the curriculum and the school year—not just during Black History Month, Falkner said.
Making this space also requires teachers to practice and become comfortable redirecting students if they say something racist or hurtful. Teachers need to know “which students to protect, which to correct, and which subjects to center,” said Hasan Kwame Jeffries, an associate professor of history at the Ohio State University, in a keynote presentation at the conference.
How can teachers know what to center?
In the elementary social studies classroom, race often comes up in the context of early lessons on slavery or the civil rights movement. In these topics, Jeffries said, it’s important that teachers center the voices of enslaved people and resistors. These sources should be considered essential parts of the historical record, rather than additions or alternatives, he said.
But slavery shouldn’t be the only—or the first—context in which students learn about Black history or the histories of other people of color, said Gholdy Muhammad, an associate professor of literacy, language, and culture at the University of Illinois at Chicago, during a different keynote presentation at NCSS.
“We don’t start anybody’s history with what oppressors have done to a group of people,” Muhammad said. “We start with their genius.”
Dawnavyn James, a doctoral student at the University of Buffalo, drew on her past experience teaching elementary school in Missouri to show one example of how to do this.
James had integrated history with math, designing a lesson on data analysis around George Crum, a Black chef who is one of the men credited with inventing the potato chip.
She read a picture book about Crum with the kids. Then, they did a taste test of several different chips, collected the data on their favorites, and plotted the data on a bar chart.
Teachers also sparked in-depth discussions when they introduced stories about kids.
In Falkner’s research, the kindergartners and 1st graders were especially interested in histories and stories about how race and racism affected children.
“I watched kids toss aside a book about Martin Luther King, Jr. in favor of books about Ruby Bridges over and over again,” Falkner said. “I think there’s something important there in what kind of content we provide to children.”