The Importance of Advocating for Pro-diversity and the Inclusion of all Children in Romania

By Magda Zambet, Gradinita Rasarit Kindergarten Director

Promoting inclusive education and an intercultural approach is an integral part of Neohumanist Education’s commitment to developing universal love and keeping the growing child’s mind free of divisive groupist sentiments. The policy of our Romanian Neohumanist kindergarten, Gradinita Rasarit, is to recognize the need to actively promote the inclusion of Roma children and children with disabilities from an early age.

In European society, the Roma, often better known by other more pejorative terms such as gypsies, tigani, or zingari, are a heavily marginalized and disadvantaged population. This discrimination has deep historical roots. The Roma people emigrated from India to Europe in different waves, during the Middle Ages. Language analysis shows that Sanskrit is the linguistic root of the Romani language and it shares many words with modern Hindi and Punjabi. Genetic evidence further demonstrates the South Asian origins of the Roma. The word “Roma” comes from the word for “human being” in the Romani language, and is the word they prefer to use for themselves. The word Gypsy reflects an incorrect assumption that they originated from Egypt, as when some groups entered Spain and Europe they had first passed through Egypt, and thus presented themselves as having come from Egypt. Other words, however, such as “Țigani, zingari, zigeuner, tzigane” have their origin in the Greek word “Atsiganoi” which means “untouchable” and have very negative connotations. Often derivatives of those words are used to refer to anything that is messy, dirty, uncivilized, uncouth, so for obvious reasons, the Roma that are fighting for the rights of their people prefer that allies use the word Roma.

Some Roma were already nomadic performers in their homeland, while others were craftsmen of various trades, such as spoon makers, metal workers, basket weavers etc. However, the Middle Age craftsmen’s guilds did not allow the Roma to practice their trades and open shops in the towns. Thus they developed either an itinerant lifestyle, or they practiced their crafts on the outskirts of the villages. In addition, in Romania, the Roma people were enslaved, bought and sold between landlords as property during the Middle Ages. This is one of the factors that contributed to Romania having the highest percentage of Roma people in Europe, about 3.5% of the population. The word “Romania” however, does not refer to the country’s Roma minority, but rather to its history as an outpost of the Roman Empire. The scars of slavery and xenophobia are deep and intricately related to the modern, disempowered and marginalized situation of the Roma people.

The other issue of marginalization that we also felt the need to consciously address is that of people with disabilities in Romania. During the Communist period, the Communist ideology claimed to have solved all problems, as problems were due to the unjust economic system that Communism had solved. People with disabilities were an embarrassing contradiction to this premise, and thus they were hidden from view. Parents were forced by pressure of circumstance to abandon children born with disabilities into state institutions, often located in remote, rural areas, far from population centers, where they experienced severe neglect, often dying before even reaching adulthood. Those that were not abandoned were educated in special schools for the “mentally deficient” and the professionals working with them were trained in “Defectology”. Only after the fall of Communism, were ideas of inclusion introduced. Indeed, Gradinita Rasarit, was the first private kindergarten in Bucharest to integrate children with special needs into the classroom alongside typically developing peers. In the beginning, parents were so unfamiliar with special needs that they were concerned that such conditions may be contagious.

The stereotypes and prejudices that lead to these types of marginalization are transmitted and perpetuated from generation to generation, often unconsciously and usually beginning in early childhood. That is why we felt it was important to explicitly recognize and value diversity both in society and in our kindergarten, as an essential part of the mission of Neohumanist Education in early childhood. This has led our team to continually reflect and clarify our concepts in order to better understand how early educational services can deal effectively with issues of cultural diversity, without reinforcing stereotypes.

Children can easily assimilate prejudices and negative attitudes towards different groups from their social surroundings. In addition, in this period of life, children learn what it means to live together, how similar and yet how different we are, which behaviors are socially acceptable and which are not by interacting with elders and adults. They learn social norms and imbibe cultural imprinting. To practically apply inclusive education in our kindergarten, we keep in mind in the first place, how to create a welcoming, friendly environment for children with special needs. In addition, we offer positive experiences of friendship with disadvantaged children as well as with grownups and children that are from ethnic minorities. To encourage acceptance and openness towards people from other ethnic groups, we also learn to value and appreciate the cultural dimension (i.e. the specific traditions, customs, crafts of that minority) which can assist in promoting inclusive attitudes, but what we emphasize the most is facilitating friendships. If this aspect is not consciously given attention, many children in private education, such as in our kindergarten, may easily grow up in a rather closed and socially homogenous environment, without natural and positive contact with a diversity of people from other ethnicities or social classes or with different abilities. Without practical experiences that expand the child’s circle of love, inclusive ideas about “loving everybody” can remain only abstractions for children, and they may still be vulnerable to succumbing to stereotypes and prejudices.

Inclusion and interculturalism is a component of daily reality in our kindergarten. We work to plan and organize from this perspective. We work to encourage learning through collaboration, communication and cooperation. Trust and reciprocal respect are also nurtured in this process. In our kindergarten, children perceive the differences between them as something natural, as long as the adults close to them also have a relaxed, positive attitude towards differences and are aware to avoid transmitting their own biases. This means it is important for teachers to take on the life-long work of self-reflection and awareness to overcome the conditioning that they themselves received. At the same time, children need to be supported in perceiving all other children in the kindergarten as having the same feelings as they do, and to socialize and relate to them free from negative conditioning. We have developed specific tools to help children to better empathize with children and adults that are different. Some of these tools, such as Persona Dolls and Life stories, were developed and shared during the “We All Have a Story” project.

We encourage other Neohumanist schools to similarly analyze the local context and understand which issues of discrimination and marginalization are most relevant to their community. Then, we suggest developing strategies to directly address and counter these issues so that children do not simply absorb the stereotypes and prejudices that they will encounter from multiple sources in society. Some of the messages may be explicit, but many are indirect. As children seek to classify, organize and interpret their world, they are particularly interested in understanding who is important and who is unimportant. They make assumptions based on who is the most visible. It is important thus to assess our early childhood learning environments to understand which types of diversity are visible and which are invisible in our learning materials, and to ensure that they are presented with diversity in positive, thoughtful ways.