Nipping Bias In The Bud

Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times, July 16, 2007

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Similar lessons on cultural, racial and religious diversity have been incorporated into Temple Israel’s curriculum on an ongoing basis as part of the A World of Difference Institute, a program recently adopted by the school.

Sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League’s Miller Early Childhood Initiative, it is one of the few anti-bias programs specifically for preschoolers, drawing on research showing that children begin to perceive differences and attach negative or positive values to them as early as age 3.

Now operating in 14 cities, the program trains teachers in strategies to confront prejudice and uses specially designed materials developed with the characters from “Sesame Street.” The goal is to teach tolerance, respect and inclusion in a way that is geared to young minds.

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The children are developing a growing consciousness of how their behavior can affect others, said teacher Esther Posin. A recent morning’s lesson about the rain forest and nocturnal creatures led to a discussion on what vision loss means.

The children were challenged to use their tactile sense instead of eyesight to guess what fruits were in a covered box, and Posin demonstrated how a walking stick could be used as an aid.

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The program gives educators the resources to combat prejudice in all forms, but at the fairly homogenous Temple Israel, many of the issues that crop up normally involve gender roles, Weisman said. One boy left a jewelry-making class that he enjoyed because all his other classmates were girls. After getting reassurances from teachers, the boy eventually returned to the class and made a present for his mother.

In the Santa Ana Unified School District, where the program is operating in 11 schools and community centers as part of the Kinder Readiness Program, 4-year-olds learn about their own heritage and to appreciate others, said readiness coordinator Marjorie Cardenas. Roughly 97% of the students are Latino, with smaller numbers of Cambodians, whites and blacks.

The center at the Warwick Square Apartments used the arrival of a teacher from Sri Lanka for real-life lessons in intercultural exchange. Teachers had noticed that the children avoided dolls with Asian or black features. They decided to introduce the dolls to the children as a group and talked about how, although they were different, they wanted to be loved like the others.

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One of the strongest aspects of the program, Carpio said, is the outreach to parents, who also are encouraged to attend workshops and use the curriculum at home.

Studies have shown that children learn social cues at an early age from their environment, the media, and especially from the behavior and words of caregivers and family members.

About 85% of the brain develops during ages 3 to 5, and impressions formed after age 2 are lasting, said Linda A. Santora of the Anti-Defamation League. One study found that 50% of children formed racial biases by age 6, she said.

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