Social & Racial Equity

Wondering how to talk to your kids about social & racial equity? Check out these tips and resources:

Let your kids talk about race. Parents typically shush their children when they mention race. While doing so may make you feel more at ease, it can increase your kid’s anxiety and confusion, and give him or her the impression that “bad” things happen when race is mentioned. The truth is, whether or not we draw their attention to it, children, and even infants automatically notice race and other differences between people, and discussing these won’t increase their likelihood of being racist. Research has shown just the opposite: talking about race can decrease prejudice, make people feel more comfortable and accepted, and even help kids perform better at school. On the other hand, not discussing race can interfere with children’s communication and leave black interaction partners feeling less accepted. So the next time race comes up, as uncomfortable as it is for you, seize the opportunity to help your child make sense of the differences he’s seeing.

Showcase diversity by celebrating similarities and differences. Encourage your children to engage in cooperative activities with diverse groups of people – a soccer team, an arts club, a community clean-up day. Working together toward a shared goal and having to rely on each other is a great way to build strong, meaningful bonds between children (and adults, too!). Even if you live in a homogenous community, expose your kids to various races and cultures via books, movies, or the Internet, and be sure to celebrate both differences and similarities. Discuss ways in which groups are different–languages, foods, traditions–and some ways that groups are similar–we all like to dance, play, and work hard at school. Finding this balance helps children feel special while also connected to others, irrespective of race.

Practice empathy. One of the most important social developments in childhood is the understanding that others may have different beliefs, desires, and intentions than our own. This so-called “theory of mind” is essential to cultivating empathy, even beyond the context of prejudice. To develop this skill, capitalize on opportunities to ask your children how they think others feel. When watching Bob the Builder, for instance, stop periodically to ask your kids how Bob, Wendy, and Travis feel when a new job comes in. Actively prompting your kids to consider others’ thoughts, feelings, and experiences is an excellent way to help them identify situations in which someone might feel excluded or is in need of help. If they see David making fun of Hakim on the playground and know that Hakim’s feelings will be hurt, they’ll be more likely to reach out and help him feel better.

Model and reward good behavior. Children are sponges for social information. They mimic and infer meaning from the behavior they see, particularly yours, so it’s crucial for you to exhibit positive behavior toward people from different backgrounds whenever there is an opportunity to do so. Reach out to people who are different from you, become engaged in multicultural events in your community, and cultivate friendships across group boundaries. At the same time, make sure to reward your kid’s good social behavior. If you see him interacting with people from different groups or demonstrating concern for the fair and equitable treatment of others, let him know that this makes you proud. If you show your child that equality is important to you, he’ll follow in your footsteps.


Here are five concrete ways of bringing discussions about bias and diversity into the elementary classroom:

1. Use children’s literature.

There’s a wealth of children’s books that can be read aloud and independently to approach the topic of bias, diversity, and social justice. Whether it’s about people who are different than your students (window books), an affirmation of their identity (mirror books), or one that exposes bias or shares stories of people who stood up to injustice, reading books is a core part of the elementary classroom curriculum and therefore a seamless way to address the topic.

2. Use the news media.

Find topics and news stories that bring forth these themes, discuss them in the classroom, and build other reading, writing, social studies, and math lessons around them. Relevant news stories that highlight bias and especially those where someone stood up to it and justice prevailed — like the nine-year-old boy who was banned from bringing his My Little Pony backpack to school because it was the source of bullying, or the story of Misty Copeland becoming the first African American appointed as a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater in its 75-year history — are terrific teachable moments.

3. Teach anti-bias lessons.

We know that all educators face a plethora of daily demands. But because children’s social and emotional development is a key part of the elementary curriculum and because much of the teasing, name-calling, and bullying is identity-based, it’s helpful for the classroom climate to set aside a time every week for an explicit lesson on this topic. Social and emotional skill development lessons are the foundation, and then teachers can move to lessons on identity, differences, bias, and how bias and bullying can be addressed individually and institutionally.

4. Give familiar examples.

Take advantage of children’s interest in books, TV shows, toys, and video games, and use them as opportunities to explore diversity, bias, and social justice. Whether it’s about toys and gender stereotypes, a New Jersey girlwho was tired of seeing books only about white boys and dogs, or discussing a new line of dolls with disabilities, you can provide openings for children to see how bias takes place in media and the everyday objects that they use.

5. Explore solutions.

Re-think the concept of “helping others” (through service learning projects or other volunteer opportunities) to include discussions with children about the inequities that contribute to the problem and consider actions that can address it. For example, while it’s useful to provide food to homeless people, we want to deepen the conversation to convey a social justice perspective and a wider lens with children. Therefore, discuss the stigma and stereotypes of homeless people, learn about unfair housing policies, and reflect on solutions that will reverse the problem in a lasting way and encourage students to take action.


Why should we talk to kids about racial equity?

Racial identity and attitudes begin to develop in children at a young age. Two- and three-year-olds become aware of the differences between boys and girls, may begin noticing obvious physical disabilities, become curious about skin color and hair color/texture, and may also be aware of ethnic identity. By the time they’re five and entering kindergarten, children begin to identify with an ethnic group to which they belong and are able to explore the range of differences within and between racial/ethnic groups. In terms of bias, by age three or four, white children in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Europe show preferences for other white children. Further, current research suggests that children as young as three years old, when exposed to prejudice and racism, tend to embrace and accept it even though they might not understand the feelings.

What is social equity and why does it matter?

Social equity is making sure everyone has equal access to community resources and opportunities such as housing, medical treatment, education, policing, or transportation. A simple way to assess social equity in our communities and institutions is to ask these three simple questions:

√ Is there fairness and equal treatment?

√ Is there equal distribution of resources to reduce inequalities?

√ Are we creating equal opportunity through targeted initiatives, programs or services?

Organizations that work for social equity strive to help level the playing field for those who are at a disadvantage for any number of reasons such as poverty, discrimination, or disability.

While not guaranteeing equality of outcome, helping mitigate the effects of inequality through targeted social equity efforts, we can strive to ensure equality of opportunity.