Using friendship as a tool for overcoming stereotypes and prejudices in building an inclusive society
By Didi Ananda Devapriya
Stereotypes and prejudices are already evident in early childhood (4-5 years old). Once fully formed, they become resistant to change and create a solid foundation for racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. Children learn who is “like us” and who is not and fear of “the other” develops. Many of the messages they pick up on are non-verbal, as they observe not only what the important adults around them say – but also how they act, what makes them uncomfortable and indirect messages about who is important and who is not that are reinforced by the popular media.
However, in early childhood, belief systems are not fully formed and are still in a hypothetical phase of testing. This provides a unique opportunity for effective intervention that can have a lasting impact. One of the best antidotes to this fear of the other, and the barriers it creates is warm, authentic friendships with a diversity of people. As children are carefully observing the behavior of their teachers, a truly effective pro-diversity program must first address the barriers that have been internalized in them – otherwise a diversity curriculum will be superficial.
The project “We all have a story”, financed by the NGO Fund (Norway, Lichtenstein and Iceland funding mechanism for Romania) is developing a new methodology for addressing pro-diversity education in early childhood settings. The project is a partnership between AMURTEL/NHE Romania, contributing expertise in the inclusion of children with disabilities, Romanobutiq, sharing expertise in inclusion of Roma children, and the Center for Equal Partnerships (CPE), sharing expertise in educating gender equality. It first aims to help teachers establish human connections and respect for people from different minorities – including ethnic minorities and people with disabilities as well as addressing gender-based stereotyping and oppression. By creating a safe space for sharing personal stories, all of the participants will have the opportunity to appreciate the differences and similarities between their own stories and those of people facing the extra challenges of being in a minority. In a subsequent phase of the project, the friendships made through the project will be extended into the classroom so that children can make positive connections with a diversity of people, using the “Life-story” method developed within the project.
The following are the objectives of the “We all have a story” project:
To raise awareness and train 100 kindergarten teachers on the themes of gender, minorities and disabilities
To train those 100 teachers in applying 3 practical pro-diversity methods with children
To develop a network of 20 resource people to promote diversity in preschool education (ethnic Roma people, people with disabilities, etc);
To support 25 kindergartens in implementing thematic projects about diversity
To pilot a complex pro-diversity educational program in 6 kindergartens
To initiate advocacy actions to integrate diversity in the primary and preschool educational system
In June 2014, the first phase of the project began with 5 series of 3 days of diversity trainings for a total of 100 kindergarten teachers in Bucharest. Leading up to the training, AMURTEL/NHE’s project team, Didi Ananda Devapriya, Magda Zambet and Diipani Halangescu collaborated on writing 60 pages on inclusive practices for integrating children with disabilities for a manual to complement the training. Each organization led a day of the training series. CPE began with raising the awareness of the teachers to both the subtle and overt forms of gender bias existing in Romanian culture, mass media, childrearing practices etc. which translate into unconscious forms of bias in the classroom. Participants were facilitated to see beyond the gender biased expectations they have of girls and boys and to explore the socially constructed nature of gender. They were also encouraged to give children broader opportunities in choosing forms of play that go beyond the restrictions of stereotypical gender expectations, as well as being aware of biased content in stories and toys.
On the second day, the trainers from Romanobutiq presented the history of the Roma people, who have suffered a long history of discrimination and oppression in Europe. Most scholars agree that the Roma originated in India, though they came in several waves of migration and for different motivations – from seeking refuge after devastating wars, to looking for better opportunities. The phenomenon of the particularly high percentage of Roma settled in Romania as compared to other European countries, has its roots in the phenomenon of “robia” – a type of slavery or serfdom that occurred during the Medieval period.
Romanobutiq also presented Jane Eliot’s video “Blue Eyes, Green Eyes: A class divided” which was a remarkable social experiment conducted by a 4th grade teacher in the US, in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination. The teacher created an artificial division of the children on the innocuous basis of eye color – and then proceeded to give privileges to one group and exclude the other group, a day later switching the roles. Racist behavior quickly surfaced in the children and as adults, all of those that participated in the experiment reported that it had a permanent positive effect in their lives. It sensitized them towards the dynamic of racism and they have remained able to extend empathy, alliance and respect to those that are in situations of discrimination.
The trainers also led an exercise in which participants were each given a role written on a card, from a wide range of possible scenarios. Some of the roles were of children with privileges, enrolled in private education; others were of children with various forms of disadvantages. Then as the trainer talked about different events in life (entering kindergarten, entering school, going on vacation, having a new dress at the beginning of the year etc) – each participant had to decide whether their character would be able to take a step forward, remain in place, or even take a step backwards. This exercise showed often invisible, but very clear impact of privilege and why certain people end up “left behind”.
The third day was led by AMURTEL/NHE’s team and focused on creating inclusive attitudes towards children and the families of children with disabilities. Unfortunately, in Romania, though the state has legislated that all children should have the right to be included in mainstream education, practical support for this process is almost non-existent. While best practices in inclusion point to the essential role of special education staff within the classroom – most state kindergartens have a single specialist who comes once or twice a month to supervise up to 200 children. So it is a situation of throwing children into the pool and expecting them to swim, which creates discouraging outcomes both for children and for teachers. A more rational approach is to provide supports to create situations in which all children can succeed and build on their competencies rather than being seen through the lens of their deficits. At the beginning of the session, when AMURTEL/NHE requested teachers to describe their expectations and hopes for the course session – many were desperate for practical suggestions in how to integrate children, as well as how to deal with parents – both of the typically developing children and of those with special needs.
We were able to share our practical experience from 19 years of including children with disabilities together with typically developing peers and this was very useful to the teachers. Early in the workshop, we asked the teachers to form small groups – and to discuss a time when something which was easy for others was really hard for you. Enough safety and trust were created that some participants even cried as they revealed their personal and often invisible struggles. It was easy for everyone to see – that indeed, we all pass through moments when we have special needs – and one of the main characteristics of this experience is the isolation that it often creates as our needs may be quite invisible or misunderstood by those around us.
We also shared a few video clips that underlined this message of invisibility. The Swiss organization, “Proinfirmis”, which works to “make disabilities disappear”, created two very moving publicity spots which we shared in the course of the training. ( So as not to take away from the powerful impact of these pieces – I highly recommend watching them – simply google Proinfirmis Teddy Bear and Proinfirmis mannequins.
We also performed a simple exercise to help participants to personally experience the dynamic of exclusion. Everyone stood in a circle and we placed post-it notes on their heads. Most had yellow and a few were green. Then we had everyone circulate in the room and greet each other in a normal way. Next, we told them to ignore anyone who had green, and finally we told them to form a circle only of yellows and to sing and dance a simple song together. No two groups reacted exactly the same to this exercise – but one of the most interesting results was that almost everyone noticed how the moment in which exclusion was introduced (they couldn’t see their own color, only the colors of those around them), everyone started to feel less safe and wondered if they would also be excluded. In most of the cases those who were excluded, stuck together – which beautifully illustrated how minorities often stick together to feel safe when they are left out.
We talked about how to reframe the “resistance” of parents to “accepting” their child’s disability – and to rather question themselves – how can I make this safer for the parent, how can I be an ally? We also talked about creative ways to include volunteers, associations and parents in order to receive some of the classroom assistance they need. We addressed the importance of language – and why it matters. So many words that refer to disabilities end up becoming put-downs, and so language must continually evolve to find ways to express respect for the person – so we described the concept of “people first” in which the person or child is first mentioned and then “with” a disability, rather than identifying the child and the disability. (For example a child with autism rather than an autistic child).
The experience was truly moving, eye opening and transformative, and tears filled the eyes of the participants several times throughout the training.
Some of the feedback from the participants:
“Before participating in this course I wasn’t interested to find out about the situation of those that have special educational needs, but the presentation made me realize that this is a part of society that we must pay much more attention to.” “The theme increased my awareness and now I will think twice before I act.” “The information we received responded to many of the questions I had about children with special needs.” “We talked about problems that we face and we found many practical things to do differently”.