By Didi Ananda Devapriya
Families play a central role in the life of children – indeed a child’s identity is first formed in relationship to her family. To develop a healthy positive sense of self, children need to have their family experiences affirmed when they start to venture out of that safe nest and experience the larger society. Children are very sensitive to noticing differences between themselves and expected norms and feeling different can lead to a feeling of isolation and that something is wrong with them if not handled consciously with care.
Thematic projects on families a pro-diversity opportunity
Many teachers frequently use family as a thematic project during the course of the year. Such projects provide a wonderful opportunity to apply a pro-diversity approach that address the many different experiences of children and supports each child.
The wide variety of family structures
The modern world has had an undeniable impact on the structure of families around the world. While most educational materials and content still reflect a traditional concept of families with a mother, father, brothers and sisters, the reality is that the children that come to our kindergartens are living in a wide variety of home situations: single parenting, parents in the midst of a divorce, with adoptive parents, in maternal assistance programs, living with grandparents while parents are working abroad, or with two mothers or two fathers in same-sex households. Some have brothers and sisters, many are only children. Some have half-brothers and sisters and live altogether, while some are living in other places, even other countries. Some families have parents with different nationalities or ethnicities. Some families live together with uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents. There is no one single “normal” family, rather it is important to recognize that these families are normal for the children growing up in them, unless and until they receive direct or indirect messages that tell them that there is something “not okay” about it.
Encouraging inclusive attitudes
So how can we effectively support all of these children, each with a unique family experience? It is natural that children first come to kindergarten assuming that their family is what all families are like. Soon they are exposed to more information and friends and they become sensitive to ideas about what is “normal”. Children want to fit in as they begin forming social relationships outside of the family. Differences can make them feel uncomfortable or insecure about their place in the wider group, but when reassured by messages that difference are positive and interesting such discomfort easily dissipates. Environments in which all children are encouraged to develop accepting, inclusive attitudes create more safety for everyone.
Common assumptions can unintentionally exclude
Though good, conscientious teachers would never intentionally make a child feel bad about his or her family, there are many messages that contain common assumptions that can unintentionally exclude children that don’t fit the stereotype. For example, a child being raised by their grandmother may feel sad, confused or left out when a teacher asks all of the children to make a painting for their mother as he has never met his mother. Taking care with the language we use when discussing families is of particular importance. In the commonplace example above, there is an implicit assumption that all of the children have mothers, which can inadvertently transmit a message that something is wrong with you are not living with a mother like “everyone else”.
Defining Family – those who we love
Children’s definition of family is usually based pragmatically on those who they love and who love you and take care of you. This understanding is one that is good to encourage as it easily leaves scope to include many different family configurations.
Using language that invites many individualized responses
So consider instead of asking the children to paint something for their mothers (or fathers, or grandparents, or sister, etc) using a more “open –ended” language such as “Who would you like to bring this home to?” or “Lets paint something for our families”. It requires some effort on our part to become aware of situations where we automatically revert to language based on assumptions of only one “normal” family structure but once we are deeply convinced of the importance of all children feeling validated in school, with a small amount of effort, it soon becomes second nature to use more inclusive language.
Giving scope for differences
Instead having a theme about “brothers and sisters” when there may be children who are only children – we can encourage children to talk about “who else is part of my family?” to give scope for each child to include those he or she feels close to – many may talk about brothers and sisters, but those that don’t have brothers and sisters can still participate in the discussion by talking about their grandparents, a beloved nanny, cousins or even family pets.
Rather than discouraging such responses by saying “yes, but they aren’t really your family” – it is healthy to allow children to define their families according to the idea that your “real family” is made of those people that you love and that love you. When discussing families and differences arise naturally, as one child talks about sharing a room with brothers and another one with a grandparent, such situations provide important opportunities for teachers to notice and appreciate the differences, positively affirming how each of our families is unique and special.
Here is an example of a thematic project on Family. You will notice that many of the contents refer simply to family rather than “mothers and fathers” “sisters and brothers” etc. This is intentional, in order to provide scope for children to contribute with details from their own families. So in place of having discussions or activities centered around “my mother and father” we can do the exact same activity about “who takes care of me in my family?” or in place of sisters and brothers “who is smaller than me in my family and who is bigger than me?” When some children talk about their sisters and brothers, this can be affirmed – but children may also come up with other creative answers even if they do not have sisters and brothers.
List of ideas for supporting the diversity of families in the classroom
Besides creating a thematic project, other specific ways of continuing to provide inclusive support for different types of families is to take use techniques such as:
The biographies of persona dolls can include different family structures which are introduced in a matter-of-fact way as different details from the child’s home life are discussed – in both happy and difficult situations.
Inviting children to make a family collage together with their family and each week having a different child’s family appreciated – encouraging the families to share pictures, write down songs or poems they like to use together, what is special about our family. It is a process of identity affirmation for both the child and family and makes each child’s reality visible to the kindergarten community.
Partnering with families
Invite families to participate in a theme about “lullabies” for example or “family traditions” and to come to the classroom to share these with the other children.
Real life stories
To share our own stories about real friends and families and their uniqueness in a way that demonstrates acceptance and inclusiveness through our narration.
Buy or make your own materials that include a variety of abilities, skin colors, sizes and ages so that children can reflect their own realities in play.