Thursday, Jul. 6th 2017

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

 

 

 

 

 

Recently, National Head Start Association Chairman Damon Carson wrote a commentary for the Region 9 Head Start Association about a vivid documentary that detailed how Head Start formed the early lives of the leaders of the Girl Scouts of America, the Ford Foundation and the NAACP. What came zinging through their stories was how much as young people they cherished their Head Start experience and, later, the memories of that experience.

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.

This year, the Region 9 Head Start Association has invited the Yale study’s head researcher, Walter Gilliam, to be the keynote speaker at The Family Engagement and Cultural Effectiveness Conference (Oct.30-Nov.3). The conference is designed to celebrate the different cultures, traditions and practices that are reflected in the modern family. In so doing, participants learn how to use the strengths and attributes of culture to aid a child’s own successful walk through the world. Our gathering is an apt place to delve into how to make our Head Start children’s experience more rewarding—and fair.

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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