Mini Grant Recipient: Anti-Bias & Culturally Responsive Work in Early Childhood Special Education Classrooms in Rochester, MI

In our school district we have been engaging in cultural responsive professional development as an approach to working with culturally diverse students and families and for creating equitable school experiences for our students. We have been focused on our own work as adults in becoming aware of one’s own culture, the culture of our students, and the culture of our classrooms. As a trainer on my own journey in learning about cultural proficiency, I’m now engaged with this learning with my colleagues in Early Childhood Special Education for my second year.

As educators, we have the power to convey the right message to our students and create an inclusive classroom community where everyone is seen and accepted. We have a responsibility to ensure that each of our students has equitable opportunities to thrive in our classrooms. We know that children learn what is important to the adults around them by observing what is and isn’t present in our classrooms, from their play with toys to what’s read to them from picture books. We also know from the research that babies can categorize race as early as 6 months of age, and that as many preschool children are learning to categorize, they notice skin color and may come to inaccurate and negative conclusions about those categories. Since children learn prejudice from messages and images of prejudice and also from the discomfort of adults when children ask or comment about the human differences they see around them, it’s our responsibility to be part of the solution and work towards educating ourselves and the students we love.

To this end, we educators are taking a pro-active approach in talking with our students about race and differences. When we pay attention to children’s developing ideas and feelings about racial identity, we can give them accurate information, foster empathy, and nurture anti-bias relationships with racially diverse people.

We are increasing our own comfort level in talking about race and racial and cultural differences. While we want children to form a racial identity that supports a healthy self-concept while simultaneously valuing uniqueness, we also want children to be aware of the similarities we all have with one another as well. We have chosen to be intentional in building a positive awareness of diversity so that children see themselves in their classrooms and that the diversity represented in our materials provide opportunities for discussion and conversations.

We purchased the following materials with your generous grant funding: books, crayons, dolls, and puzzles supplemented by grant funding from our local school district foundation. All of our students can see themselves and their skin color in their artwork, in their play with dolls, and in our books. Each type of material was thoughtfully researched and chosen with careful consideration of the dominant messages conveyed by the toy or picture book featuring Black and Indigenous People and People of Color (BIPOC).

BIPOC were depicted in the books, but race/culture were not always central to the content. A critical lens was used to ensure that images counter stereotypes, avoid traditional images of ethnic groups, do not depict an ethnic group unrealistically, and showcase multiple narratives that normalize BIPOC. Our culturally responsive teaching will incorporate these materials while being mindful of cultivating caring relationships, encouraging respect for individual differences, and viewing each child as a person who brings their own stories and experiences to the classroom.

I am so appreciative for the DEY grant that provided these materials for our preschool students who delight in recognizing story book characters who have skin color like their own. I look forward to continuing to support our district’s Early Childhood Special Education classrooms and speech therapy settings and collaborating with my colleagues in delivering culturally responsive instruction, using teachable moments in daily interactions, cultivating children’s empathy, and working towards equity and social justice for everyone.

With gratitude,

Elizabeth Roberts, School Psychologist Rochester Community Schools, Rochester MI