A View from the Field
Promoting Tolerance and Respect for Diversity in Early Childhood
Publication Date: May 2008
As part of our initiative, “Promoting Tolerance and Respect for Diversity in Early Childhood: Toward A Research and Practice Agenda,” the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) attempted to map the nature of U.S. approaches to diversity, tolerance, and respect for diversity (DTRD) education in programs directed to children from birth to ten years of age, in order to identify: current DTRD curricula used in early childhood education and other initiatives; common components across initiatives; evaluation designs and methodologies; and barriers and opportunities related to implementation, as well as potential levers for taking DTRD education to scale. Approximately 40 organizations implementing DTRD programs with children from birth to 10 years of age, and/or their parents, teachers or caregivers were identified through internet searches, recommendations, or the literature. The foregoing pages present a summary of the main points discussed with representatives from ten organizations, followed by descriptive profiles of all the organizations identified.
Established solely for the purpose of promoting respect for diversity and reducing or eliminating prejudice, most organizations followed a broad approach to prejudice, focusing on a wide variety of disparities and stereotypes, and prompting program participants to draw parallels and examine similarities among different kinds of prejudice and the impact of government policies and social practices on different groups.
Organizations began their programming in different ways: as a result of the personal interests of the founder; as part of local public school districts; as part of already established formal organizations that were working on DTRD with other age groups; or in response to state-wide initiatives. In nearly all instances, the need to address serious social problems affecting local communities was the pivotal factor for individuals to undertake DTRD programming.
Most typically, organizations offered workshops for teachers and caregivers, and to a lesser extent parents and children. No organization provided direct services to the preschool population. To varying degrees, programs aimed at promoting intercultural understanding; helping participants obtain a more sophisticated knowledge of themselves and others; appreciating, respecting, and valuing difference; recognizing the psychological and social mechanisms of prejudice, intolerance, and exclusion; and helping disseminate that knowledge in the community. While all organizations ultimately intended to effect change in society at large, none of them followed a model of cultural emancipation and social reconstruction. They stood away from an essentialist, monolithic view of social groups, and stressed instead the need to appreciate differences along race, religion, language, nationality, social class, education, age, and immigration status in all social groups. Mostly designed by organizations’ staff themselves, programs did not evidence one single approach to DTRD education, but relied on a variety of strategies and techniques.
Organizations experienced little difficulties in recruiting and retaining participants, and reported instead high demand for their programs because of their strong network, as well as of their reputation and visibility in their communities.
Varying in size and complexity, organizations succeeded in recruiting and retaining committed volunteers for many years. While all organizations provided staff training and professional development on an ongoing basis, few systematically evaluated of these efforts.
Sources of funding for DTRD activities were fairly diversified, including federal, state, and/or local government agencies; private foundations and individual donors; fees; membership; and fundraising events.
While all organizations aimed to carry out a rigorous evaluation of their programs, few achieved this end. Most examined participants’ self-reported behavior change, knowledge and perceptions of DTRD issues at the end of the program, with little follow up over time. Few conducted implementation studies. In all cases, anecdotal evidence provided strong support for program effectiveness.
Most organizations have faced challenges managing their relatively fast growth and responding to the increasing demand for programs without compromising the quality of programming.
- Organizations encountered varying degrees of resistance on the part of participants and communities to address DTRD issues. Teachers were seen as easier to reach and exhibiting more buy-in if their participation was voluntary rather than required, yet they seldom saw DTRD issues as an important part of their professional development, or as having direct significance to their work. Parents were described as a harder-to-reach audience because they might not see DTRD issues as relevant in general or relevant to them, or were openly opposed a DTRD agenda.
- The greatest challenges recruiting and retaining staff resulted from the seasonal, part-time character of work, and in most cases, the relatively low salary, limited transportation and time, and burnout.
- In most cases, fundraising was seen as a constant struggle, particularly for small nonprofits.
- Difficulties evaluating programs were cited with regards to using outcome measures, following rigorous research-based, evaluation designs, and being able to attribute change to their programs. Organizations expressed the desire to partner with universities to develop more rigorous, experimental or longitudinal evaluation studies, as well as to secure funds to that end.
This exploratory scan suggests that, despite these obstacles, organizations provided participants with “life-transforming” experiences that allowed children to articulate a sense of ethnic identity and talk about it. The following preliminary conclusions and reflections are drawn:
- There appears to be no unified approach to DTRD education with young children in the U.S. Organizations examined implemented a wide variety of approaches to DTRD education, particularly with regards to philosophy, program components, activities, strategies, target audience, and program evaluation.
- Most organizations claimed to implement a program whose design was based on research. In-depth conversations with representatives of these organizations, however, did not evidence the sharing of a clear, common knowledge base or body of research on prejudice reduction and elimination on which their programming rested.
- Interestingly, some consensus was found regarding a DTRD framework that distances itself from essentialist, monolithic views of diversity and, in contrast, emphasizes differences between and within groups, as well as the commonalities among and uniqueness of various groups in the U.S.
- While each individual organization appears to be well connected, there is little communication and collaboration among organizations doing DTRD work with under ten year olds and their parents, teachers, or caregivers in the U.S.
- The organizations examined understand the need to look at their programs and their impact in a more rigorous way, not only to comply with funding requirements, but to inform program development and practice, and expressed the desire to form partnerships between universities and organizations.
- There is no direct DTRD work with under 6 year olds, mostly due to resistance to DTRD work in general, and misconceptions about the little relevance of this work with very young children. These misconceptions reflect a lack of knowledge of the most recent scholarship from developmental psychology and the critical, cultural studies of education. This scenario calls for renewed efforts to systematically investigate, translate and disseminate findings on the processes of prejudice and bias formation in the early years.