Tuesday, Jun. 9th 2020

Guarding against implicit bias: Keeping the Head Start experience joyful—always

A few years ago, our current board chair Wassy Tesfa penned an article about implicit bias. I thought it worthwhile in light of the current national events to revisit Wassy’s commentary, which is excerpted below. Head Start can obviously play an important part in how children see and experience the world–and how that will make them compassionate adults in the future–Edward Condon, R9HSA Executive Director.


Guarding against implicit bias: Keeping the Head Start experience joyful—always

By Wassy Tesfa


We all know how impressionable children are. Early positive and fun experiences are relished for a lifetime. That’s why from all across the country, educators, doctors, lawyers, military personnel, artists, engineers, religious and civic leaders, and scientists—and even members of Congress—remember Head Start as the place where, at an early age, they acquired a life-long love of learning.

So—if children remember their positive experiences, they will also remember the negative ones, as well. And that’s what I want to write about this month: The need to keep our Head Start classrooms joyful places to learn—and a subtlety that threatens this.

New research from the Yale Child Study Center finds that when pre-school teachers expect disruptive behavior from children, they look at the child’s race. Basically, the research showed that the teachers in the study expect black boys to act worse in the classroom than anyone else.

Lead researcher Walter Gilliam’s study also found that when teachers know about a child’s background, they react with empathy. And that black teachers considered black children’s disruptive behavior worse than white teachers did.

The trouble with implicit bias is that it’s everywhere—Gilliam notes it is subtle, subconscious stereotypes that are normal and guide people’s expectations and interactions with people.

“We all have them,” Gilliam said, during a National Public Radio interview. “Implicit biases are a natural process by which we take information, and we judge people on the basis of generalizations regarding that information. We all do it.”

So we have more proof now that even in early childhood education, teachers are subject to subtle behaviors that can deleteriously affect children. In fact, in another recent study—also reported by NPR—the U.S. Department of Education, found that black children are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended from preschool than white children.

As an educator, I believe—as I’m sure all educators do—that knowledge is power. Knowing there is a problem is a first step to correcting it. That’s why I am positive that going forward, Head Start program workers can begin to address the kind of issues that implicit bias creates in the classroom when they find it—even in themselves.

I believe that if any pre-school program can overcome the problem—it’s Head Start. The very foundations of our program 50+ years ago has deep roots, after all, in minority and immigrant communities—a place where color should make no difference, where differences are positive attributes that make our lives richer.

I am Ethiopian who as a young adult, went to school in Germany and then immigrated, to the United States. So I well know the bias that can occur because of one’s race. But I also have experienced wonderful, boundless generosity from my adopted country—its openness, inclusiveness, and how the American spirit is one that proclaims there is a progress to the development of the human mind. So when I see studies like the one Yale did, I think, “Ok, now we know. Now we can do better.”

Wassy Tesfa is Divisional Director Head Start/Early Head Start at Pacific Clinics in Arcadia, Calif.

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All children, regardless of their circumstance at birth, deserve a full and prosperous life.

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  • Support high-impact Head Start programs for children and adults by creating opportunities for collaboration, networking and information sharing.
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