Teaching Racial Justice in Early Childhood Settings
Stephanie Curenton, a professor in the Teaching & Learning Department at BU Wheelock, has spent her career tackling tough questions of race, bias, and discrimination in early childhood education—and the ways that teachers, researchers, and other professionals can combat it. A developmental psychologist by training, Curenton leads research on the social and cognitive development of racially marginalized children as the director of the Center on the Ecology of Early Development.
Curenton is a coauthor of We Are the Change We Seek: Advancing Racial Justice in Early Care and Education (Teachers College Press, 2023), which combines theoretical and practical guidance about how early childhood education systems can become racially inclusive. We asked her to talk about her experience incorporating principles of antibias, antiracism, and social inclusion in early childhood education.
Question: How does race influence early childhood education? What should be done about that?
Stephanie Curenton: In the United States, racism as a societal force and operating structure affects everything we do, including early childhood education. Schools may teach that slavery was bad, but that it was “worth it,” or that the killing of Indigenous people was “par for the course.”
We need an early childhood system and programs that fight against the effects of racism within our society, both through the learning environment and the workforce. We need teachers trained to understand structural racism and the ways it affects kids, including the true history of the US, the attempted destruction of Indigenous people, and the use of slavery, sexual abuse, and labor exploitation as an economic engine.
Question: And do preschoolers have a concept of race at a young age?
Not every white three- or four-year-old will identify their race, but most kids of color can name their identity. Also, even if white children do not talk about race, they are aware of social and power structures in general, and they are also aware of racial social structures. And typically for little kids, ideas of race are usually based on appearance: skin tone, hair texture, sometimes clothing.
Question: How would you talk about racial justice with young children? Aren’t these abstract concepts for three- and four-year-olds?
We want to make sure everything is play-based, experiential, and open-ended. Some of that includes letting kids think about their own identities, who they are, and who their friends are. They also learn through pretend play—we encourage them to act out different roles in society and let them work out issues of power and justice.
There are many people who do this work. For example, there’s someone well known here in Boston who talks about racial and gender justice. Their website is called Woke Kindergarten. There’s another group in Boston, Wee the People, that uses puppets to teach kids.
Question: With that knowledge, how do you incorporate antiracist and antibias principles in early childhood education?
The first piece is the curriculum, what kids are actually being taught. We want to make sure that it’s play-based and exploratory and allows kids to “just be” and explore power dynamics.
But it’s not just about the curriculum. We’re talking about the way in which you instruct. We’re talking about the design and approach of the program in general. An antiracist early childhood system involves making sure that educators are diverse, that they represent the kids’ and families’ backgrounds, and that they are well trained on racial identity and justice. And it also means that teachers are well-compensated and that there is no racial disparity in hiring or compensation.
Question: We hear a lot about critical race theory in education. What’s your take on it?
My work is situated in who I am as a developmental psychology scholar. We talk about critical race theory in our book. Critical race theory is one theory, and it’s not the only theory that’s ever talked about race and social justice. There are also theories by Cynthia Garcia-Cole and Margaret Beale Spencer. These have always interrogated the effect of racism on children’s development, and they’ve shaped a lot of my thought. Much of my work is grounded in an ecological systems model, and we have actually extended upon this model by talking about how race interacts at every level of a child’s development.
Question: How would you respond to criticism of antiracist and antibias education?
I’m doing this work because it’s what I believe in, how I should prepare the next generation. I’m going to do what I believe is right for our children and society so we can all get along and live together. I have to follow my moral conscience, and I can’t be afraid to do that. If my ancestors had been afraid to fight for morality and humanity, then I would not be sitting here where I am today.