Inclusion, equality, diversity - how do these principles get turned into what actually happens in settings? All too often in the past, what has happened has been superficial, even tokenistic, and contributed little to including all children, promoting equality, or reflecting diversity in a positive way.
Sometimes this has been because of lack of commitment from leaders and managers, and sometimes because hard working, busy practitioners have not had time and space to get to grips with the real issues involved and take on board just how significant these aspects of their work are for the welfare of the children and families they work with. To be able to incorporate lofty and worthy principles into daily practice, it is essential to have a clear understanding of the negative effects of stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination, and to be motivated to be more inclusive, to promote equality and to emphasise the positive side of diversity. Practitioners also need to reflect on their own personal attitudes and be honest about their own beliefs and opinions.
People who work with children are very powerful. They play a big part in influencing the way children develop values and the ways they think, speak and behave. This is especially true of early years workers, and this is what makes it so important for all early years provision to take the issues of inclusion, equality and diversity seriously.
One way into this ‘difficult' area of practice has often been to focus on acquiring resources. It is indeed important to look at the resources in a setting, and make sure they reflect the lives of the children and families who participate, providing a welcoming environment and offering positive images. Resources can also play a part in broadening children's knowledge and understanding of people and cultures different from their own. So a critical audit of your setting and the environment created by the resources you use can pay dividends.
How do the resources in your setting measure up? Do the dolls, puppets and ‘small world' figures, equipment you provide for make-believe play (dressing-up clothes, cooking pots and pans, home-corner furnishings), puzzles, musical instruments and books reflect the identities and lives of the children in your setting? Do they depict in a positive way a range of ethnicity and culture, both genders, disabled people, a variety of family groupings? Do you have a range of shades of paint and felt tips so children can draw themselves, their family and their friends accurately?
It is worth the time and effort to get the right resources in place, but just acquiring a range of resources or relying on a ‘multi-cultural resource pack‘ will bring little in the way of lasting benefits. In fact, it risks a feeling of being able to tick inclusion, equality and diversity off the to-do list. So, black dolls are not enough!
Why it matters so much
Much more fundamental to the sort of practice of inclusion, equality and diversity that really makes a difference is the development of understanding about the complex concepts which surround these issues, starting with why it all matters in the first place.
We live in an unfair society in which even very young children are not fully included - in settings, in their local community, in society as a whole. Many experience limitations on their opportunities, and some encounter prejudice and discrimination. The denial of opportunity and the expression of prejudice and discrimination that threads through social interactions and institutions may be based on any number or combination of factors in a person's identity:
- ethnicity and culture (including language and religion)
- social or family grouping
- appearance or accent
Lack of equality of opportunity limits children's life chances and denies society the full benefit of their potential skills and talents. Prejudice - and the fear and hatred which surrounds it - is a poisonous influence in our society. It leads to suspicion and disharmony between individual and groups of people, and abuse (verbal and physical) directed against individuals. Unhappiness and harm is widespread in a society which does not value inclusion and diversity.
Children who grow up being interested in people who are different from themselves and learning about differences in a positive way are less likely to become prejudiced adults. They develop respect for their fellow citizens, and do not see people who look different from themselves, or live life differently from them, as a threat or a source of fear.
Understanding and attitudes
Part of the media and some politicians seek to exploit anxiety about differences and the unknown. They use the rhetoric of immigrants ‘swamping' Britain, and exaggerate or even invent stories to show how ridiculous the ‘PC brigade' are. The whole ‘Baa, baa, green sheep' saga was a myth, blown up by tabloids with more interest in sales figures than serious efforts to create a more just and harmonious society.
Working in this context makes it difficult to maintain motivation and commitment to the practices of inclusion and anti-discrimination. The understanding that every practitioner needs to have to be able to do this starts with probing in to what all the terminology means - words and phrases, some of which have already been used in this article, like
- inclusion, equality of opportunity, diversity
- discrimination, prejudice, anti-discriminatory practice
- stereotypes and positive images
and many more. As you dig down into what these terms mean, your understanding of the negative influences at work emerge, and provides a sound basis for your personal motivation to make things better for the children and families you work with.
Reading about, thinking about and discussing these issues can be personally challenging. You may find it uncomfortable to be confronted by facts about prejudice and discrimination. We all have negative feelings and stereotyped opinions within us, perhaps developed from our own earliest years, and it takes energy and courage to make changes in ourselves.
The unique individual
One way in to all of this which can provide a strong foundation for thought and practice is to see each person as an individual, different from all others. Each of us is a unique collection of features related to our gender, ethnicity, social and family background, age, sexuality and, perhaps, disability, plus our own personality. No-on else is just like you or just like me. Thinking in this way helps to avoid the pitfalls of stereotyping.
And acknowledging that each of us deserves respect for our individuality encourages us to accept differences, not reacting with aggression or looking down on people who are different from us. Showing this sort of respect takes many forms, such as taking care to get people's names right even if they are unfamiliar and need practice to pronounce accurately.
Equality of opportunity
Each child has a right to grow up with as much access to opportunity as each other child. We still have a long way to go in our unequal and unfair society in achieving this, but practitioners can play a part in making sure that their own attitudes and practice enhance rather than limit children's opportunities. A first step is the avoidance of stereotypes, but there are many positive aspects of practice to explore and develop to make sure that each child can flourish. One example - it seems that many boys learn differently from many girls. What looks like noisy, aggressive super-hero play to a (female?) practitioner may be rich fantasy play to the small boys involved, and better suited to help them make sense of their world than trying to sit quietly at circle time.
Expectations of children play a key role in keeping the doors of opportunity open for them. If we assume that a disabled child will not be able to join in with physical play, they are likely to sit on the sidelines, being marginalised in the setting, and neither we nor they will know what they are capable of. If we expect children from a particular estate to be rough and rude, it won't be a surprise if they live down to our expectations. But if we have high expectations for a child's achievement and tell them that we expect great things from them, that we know they can do it, the boost to their self-esteem may be sufficient in itself to carry them through to those great things.
Helping children to grow up without prejudice
On the other hand, the effect of prejudice and discrimination can be devastating for a child's self-esteem and self-confidence. Exclusion (in the sense of settings which are not inclusive, not striving to remove potential barriers to meeting all of a child's particular needs and requirements) leads to loss of opportunities and denies children life chances, impeding the outcomes set out in Every Child Matters.
It is tempting to believe that childhood is a time of innocence and that children don't notice differences so they do not have prejudices against others, or behave in discriminatory ways. However, it has become apparent that this is not the case, and practitioners have a responsibility to help even young children learn about differences. They need accurate information and reassurance to understand that someone who is different from themselves is of equal value and deserving of respect. If they behave in discriminatory ways, such as name-calling or excluding from play, practitioners must intervene and support them in developing more respectful attitudes.
Ready to learn more?
There is much to learn in the field of inclusion, equality and diversity. Some of it is practical, like good practice factors in working with bi-lingual children, but practitioners also need to be ready to tackle the philosophical ideas which underpin good practice. Deepening understanding of, for example, the historical roots of sexism and racism, right up to the recent growth in Islamaphobia, can reveal the reasons behind prejudice and help us work out ways to combat it.
The most important thing is to have an open mind, and to be flexible enough to take on new ways of working, adapting to individual children. This is what will lead to principled ways of working that can make a difference to children's lives and build a safer, more harmonious society for us all to live in.