Early Childhood Education

Antibias/Multicultural Education


The United States is a nation of many peoples: many races, cultures, religions, classes, lifestyles, and histories. It is also a nation where access to the “inalienable right” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” has not been equal for all. The white, male European immigrants to the New World established institutions and laws that advantaged them while disadvantaging many other groups based on race, gender, and class. Since the founding of the United States, people have worked to make real the goals of a democratic, free republic that originally served only one part of the society. The increasing cultural diversity and accompanying racism, discrimination, and poverty create particular challenges for early childhood educators who wish to honor the professional mandate to foster every child’s full potential and to prepare all children to function effectively as members of a democratic society.

Antibias and multicultural education has been a significant force for addressing these challenges and has profoundly influenced early childhood curriculum and practice. The hybrid term of “antibias/multicultural education” (Ab/Mc) reflects the roots and evolution of the multicultural movement as expressed in the antibias curriculum created for young children.


Multicultural Education

The multicultural education movement grew out of the Civil Rights Movement and the War on Poverty. It first emerged during the 1970s, spearheaded by several African American scholars, notably James Banks, Geneva Gay, and Carl Grant (e.g., Banks, 1996). Its philosophical roots reflect the work of early African American scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Carter Woodsen, which exposed the myths of equality that prevailed in the White version of the history of the United States. It also had roots in the intergroup education movement of the late 1940s and early 1950s, when some of the classic studies of young children’s racial awareness and attitudes toward self and others were conducted.

The original objectives of multicultural education included sensitizing all individuals to ethnic and racial differences, increasing individual awareness of cultural traditions and experiences, helping all individuals value their own race and culture as worthy of existing on an equal basis with mainstream American values and experiences, and ensuring that all children have access to high quality education. Multicultural education challenged existing education approaches to diversity, which denied the validity of cultures other than the dominant European-American one.

Multicultural education advocated an approach of “cultural pluralism” and supports the right of every group to maintain their unique cultures while also equally participating in and enhancing the whole society. Cultural pluralism offered an alternative to the “melting pot” ideology, which had claimed that all people would be amalgamated into a new breed of American, but, in truth, meant that immigrants were expected to assimilate completely into the dominant European American society created by the “founding fathers.” Cultural pluralism also undermined the ideology of “color blindness,” which challenged white superiority but, at the same time, denied the cultural orientations of many groups and their experiences of racism. Early multicultural education was often described as the “salad” approach in which children could maintain and develop their own cultural values, traditions, languages, and lifestyles while also learning to be equal participants in the larger society.

During the 1980s, a wide range of multicultural practices emerged. Sleeter and Grant (1988) organized the different approaches and the political messages they embody into a typology of multicultural education. They articulated the following categories: (1) education of culturally different children, adapting programs for specific racial and cultural groups to encourage academic achievement and assimilation into the mainstream; (2) single group studies, formerly called “ethnic studies,” focused on the literature, art, history, culture of specific ethnic groups; (3) human relations, enhancing positive intergroup relationships and reducing prejudice; (4) multicultural education, emphasizing the positive, adaptive value of cultural pluralism and encouraging children to be competent in more than one cultural system; and (5) education that is multicultural and reconstructionist— promoting profound social, economic, political, and educational changes to foster equal relationships among all groups. The antibias curriculum approach (Derman- Sparks and the ABC Task Force, 1989) is an application of the social reconstructionist approach to early childhood education.

In the 1990s, the scope of multicultural education broadened from the original focus on race and culture to more closely align with the early childhood antibias approach. Multicultural theorists began to implicitly or explicitly include a focus on social class and economic discrimination. The feminist movement influenced multicultural theorists to include gender as a dimension of inequity that cut across race, culture, and class. The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Educational Act in 1990 led to increasing numbers of children with disabilities being “included” in regular classrooms, and disability issues were woven into multicultural curricula. More recently, wider recognition of the hate crimes targeting gay men and lesbian women has led to sexual orientation becoming a theme in multicultural education, an addition that has caused controversy both within and outside the field. In addition, the ethnic groups included as part of multicultural work has broadened to reflect the increasing number of such groups as Mexican and Central Americans and Asian/Pacific Americans living in the United States. Moreover, increased hate crimes and discrimination targeting Arab Americans and Muslims after the September 2001 attack on the World Trade Center has called on multicultural educators to include these issues as well. Some writers (e.g., Ramsey, 2005) have further expanded the definition of multiculturalism to incorporate the ecological justice movement because environmental degradation (e.g., the concentration of highly polluting factories and destructive agricultural practices) has a disproportionate effect on poor communities and countries of color. They have also incorporated discussions about how hyper-consumerism (e.g., the media-inspired competition to purchase the latest clothes and cars) exacerbates the disparities between economic groups and undermines interpersonal and intergroup relationships.


The Antibias Approach

The 1989 publication of Antibias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) introduced the concept of antibias education to the field of early childhood care and education. It stated that antibias education is “an active/activist approach to challenging prejudice, stereotyping, bias and systemic “isms,” grounded in the premise that it is necessary for each individual to actively intervene, to challenge and counter the personal and institutional behaviors that perpetuate oppression” (Derman-Sparks and ABC Task Force, 1989, p. 3). As outlined by the authors, the goals of antibias curriculum are to: (1) nurture each child’s construction of a knowledgeable, confident self-concept and group identity; (2) promote each child’s comfortable, empathic interaction with people from diverse backgrounds; (3) foster each child’s critical thinking about bias; and (4) cultivate each child’s ability to stand up for her/himself and for others in the face of bias. These goals are reflected in the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) accreditation standards. However, the specific tasks and strategies for working toward these goals depend on children’s backgrounds, ages, and life experiences.

Motivation for developing the antibias approach arose in the 1980s from dissatisfaction with the prevailing practice in early childhood education of “additive” or “tourist” multicultural education. In this simplistic form of the multicultural approach, curriculum “visits” cultural groups other than the mainstream, white, middle-class culture from time to time, while the content and teaching styles of the “regular” curriculum continues to reflect only the dominant culture. Classroom activities focus on special times, such as a holiday celebration, or an occasional “multicultural” event or unit. Materials used during these special multicultural “excursions” from the regular curriculum are frequently inaccurate, set in the past rather than present, focus on countries of origin rather than the current experience of various immigrant groups, and are presented from the perspective of the dominant culture. Consequently, even with good intentions, a “tourist” multicultural approach results in exposing children to inaccurate information, has little relationship to the children’s lives, and sends the message that the dominant culture is normative (Derman-Sparks and ABC Task Force, 1989).

Three core concepts underlie the antibias educational approach. First, it is impossible to teach about diversity without paying attention to the societal systemic power dynamics that assign advantage or disadvantage based on race, gender, class, physical ability, and sexual orientation. These dynamics influence children’s developing ideas and feelings about themselves and others and affect every educator’s sense of practice with children and families. Second, research about young children’s identity and attitudes should inform curriculum. Third, antibias education should utilize principles of constructivist theory and an activity-based pedagogy, which treats learners as active participants in their own learning and requires teachers to scaffold learning experiences to mesh with children’s ideas and stages of development. Constructivist classrooms engage children in interactive activities that support active learning about their daily life experiences.

In the years since the antibias approach was introduced, teacher experience has deepened, extended and fine-tuned its conceptual and pedagogical frameworks. Several subsequent books reflected this growth. (e.g., Bisson, 1997; Pelo and Davidson, 2000). In addition, educators in several other countries (Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Japan, South Africa, The Netherlands, The United Kingdom) are also building theory and practice as they explore what antibias education work looks like in the context of their particular history, population demographics, and cultures (see Van Keulen, 2004).


Current Themes of Antibias/Multicultural Work

Antibias/multicultural (Ab/Mc) education work continues to develop its theory and practice. One theme is the inclusion of more aspects of diversity, as previously discussed in the section about the history of multicultural education. A second theme is the explicit incorporation of critical pedagogy, which has profoundly transformed the scope and methodology of Ab/Mc work (Nieto, 2004). Critical pedagogy emphasizes that teaching and learning occur in specific historic, cultural, and social contexts and power dynamics; and promotes children’s capacity to engage in critical thinking about their lives and society. It includes the following goals: to (a) affirm students’ cultures without trivializing them; (b) challenge hegemonic knowledge (i.e., the knowledge that is constructed by the dominant group that assumes that they know how the world works for all people); (c) complicate pedagogy so that there is not only one right way to teach; (d) challenge the simplistic focus of tolerance forms of multicultural education on self-esteem as the operative factor in breaking bonds of oppression; and (e) encourage “dangerous discourses” that name and challenge inequities.

A third theme in antibias/multicultural education is a push to critically examine the identities and socialization of white people and to more explicitly develop curriculum that addresses these dynamics for children and adults (Derman-Sparks and Ramsey, 2006; Sleeter, 2001; Tatum, 1997).

A fourth theme is the promotion of teacher reflections on how their own cultural and economic backgrounds and the societal structures of power and advantage influence teaching beliefs, styles, and interactions. Accordingly, effective teacher pre- and in-service training uses a critical pedagogy approach that engages adult learners in experiential and peer learning and in a process of change (Derman-Sparks and Phillips, 1997). It also promotes teachers’ openness to unfamiliar views and experiences, their ability to challenge one’s owns assumptions, and a passion for social and economic and political justice (Ramsey, 2005).

A fifth theme, based on the experience of several decades, is reflected in the understanding that effective antibias/multicultural education requires more than individual efforts within centers and classrooms. It involves community-building and local and national organizing for institutional and political changes that are grounded in a vision of a new society that includes all people equitably. It is centered on the complexities and conflicts inherent in all people’s experiences, with a primary goal of liberating people from oppression by challenging the societal, economic, and political structures that maintain these inequities.


Antibias/Multicultural Education in Practice

Diversity, oppression, and social justice may seem to be a world away from young children. However, children are constantly absorbing information about power, privilege, and stereotypes in their families, schools, and communities and from the media. The challenge for early childhood educators is to find meaningful and hopeful ways to nurture young children’s positive identity, cross-cultural respect and skills, and capacity to recognize and challenge prejudice and discrimination.

Ab/Mc education is not a set curriculum but rather a framework of goals, principles and strategies. How it is practiced depends largely on the setting: the population of the community and school; the backgrounds and experiences of the teachers and parents; and the specific children in a particular classroom. For example, in a community that has suffered long-term discrimination, the emphasis might be on fostering positive identities and self-worth, while encouraging children and families to play more assertive roles in the community and larger world. In contrast, children who are racially and economically privileged may need to see their own lives in a broader and more critical perspective and to challenge their sense of superiority and learn how to listen to others rather than always express their own views. Therefore, teachers need to be able to work closely with families and know how to gather information about children’s communities.

Ab/Mc perspectives and themes can be woven into all curricular themes and teaching practices. The following examples are a few of the many possibilities. The specific themes generated in a classroom should reflect the interests of specific children, families, and teachers. For example, the theme of “family” can embrace all aspects of physical, cultural, economic, and gender differences, as well as the diversity of family composition. The themes of “community” and “work” should incorporate blue and pink-collar workers, artists, and community activists as well as professional jobs. Stereotypes of people with disabilities and women and men should be challenged by showing them in a wide range of activities. Activities such as roleplaying (e.g., shopping) can be constructed to draw children’s attention to inequities in the outside world.

In such classrooms, art materials include the range of human skin colors in paint, crayons, paper and play dough and are available to children at all times. The aesthetic environment includes art from all the children’s home and community cultures. Music and movement activities expand children’s ideas about how different people make and move to music and show how music and dance are ways to express resistance to injustice (e.g., protest songs). Dramatic play props reflect all the children’s family culture as well as those in the children’s larger community. Photos and posters illustrate diversity of people, families and home environments. Teachers pay attention to issues of power and bias that emerge during children’s play and use these as teachable moments.

Discussions about classroom rules and conflict solving provide opportunities to reflect on how people see the world differently and how they need to find commonalities and compromises to live together. Children’s comments and questions about the many aspects of diversity as well as incidents of discomfort or bias provide valuable “teachable moments” upon which to build learning activities.

In sum, contemporary multicultural/antibias educators have identified the following goals to help children navigate the contradictions and challenge the inequities of contemporary society in the twenty-first and subsequent centuries:

• Develop strong identities—as individuals, as members of communities, of a country and as living beings on this planet.

• Develop a sense of solidarity with all people and the natural world.

• Become critical thinkers.

• Become confident and persistent problem solvers so that they see themselves as activists rather than simply feeling overwhelmed by the challenges of the world.

• Ensure that all children gain the academic skills that will give them access to the knowledge of our society, the power to make a difference and hope for their future. Educators and families must push for excellent schools in all communities, especially those with high rates of poverty, and help all children understand that academic skills are a source of power that can be acquired without giving up their identities and critical awareness of the world. To these ends, many early childhood professional and leaders (e.g., National Association for the Education of Young Children) argue that antibias/multicultural and bilingual education are essential to quality education.


Controversies and Challenges

As well as being accepted as a part of the early childhood education canon and having many advocates and practitioners, antibias/multicultural education has also become a source of controversy and target of criticism from both the left and the right. Advocates themselves have disagreed on its parameters and priorities. Some argue that the original focus on race, ethnicity, and culture should remain primary, because adding other aspects of identity and oppression dilutes the work on racism, which they consider the most intransient oppression in our society. Others insist that expanding the focus strengthens the work because it enables people to understand the core dynamics and intersections between the various forms of systemic and interpersonal oppression, and creates the possibility of collaboration among larger numbers of people. Criticism also comes from people who believe that Ab/Mc work is less relevant to children of color than to white children. Some argue that children of color need to focus on their own identity and group’s issues, while others think it is essential to make Ab/Mc education relevant to a range of cultural communities. Some critics from a more progressive stance argue that multiculturalism obscures the real underlying causes of inequality, thus undermining rather than advancing social and economic change.

The most vehement political opposition has come from conservative groups who have targeted both the work and some of its leaders. Opposition includes the argument that Ab/Mc education’s focus on cultural pluralism is divisive to the nation, and that education should keep its focus on assimilating everyone into one national culture. Another argument claims that Ab/Mc education distracts from, rather than enhances, academic learning. A third insists that the topics of Ab/Mc education belong only within the family. Some critics highlight the inclusion of rights for gays and lesbian people as evidence that Ab/Mc education is anti-Christian or anti-American. Antibias/multicultural educators argue that this backlash is best understood in the context of wider social conservatism directed against people of color, gays, lesbians and transgender people, immigrants of color and people on welfare. It reflects the tension between those who want to press forward toward creating a more open and equitable society and those who insist on maintaining the old lines of racial, cultural, gender, and class power. This conservative backlash is an indication that the dialogue must be expanded to include people who feel threatened by educational reforms.

In addition to resistance from various quarters, several obstacles within the educational system can derail the full implementation of antibias/multicultural education. Teachers often do not have the time to fully study current social, economic, and political issues and to develop related curricula. They may also lack the confidence and skills to tackle potentially contentious or controversial issues. Administrators may pressure teachers to adhere to the standard curriculum to ensure that children pass mandated tests. Community members and parents may resist the implementation of Ab/Mc education as too radical and contrary to traditional values or as a frivolous distraction from academic curriculum. Despite the many existing resources and evidence that it can be woven into all curricula, Ab/Mc education is still all too often relegated to occasional “add-on,” “tourist” activities or simply dismissed all together.

Another impediment to the implementation of Ab/Mc education is the lack of substantial research related to it. Very little empirical information exists about the extent to which teachers’ curricula and practices actually reflect multicultural perspectives. Moreover, aside from anecdotal data from teacher observations and documentation (e.g., Pelo and Davidson, 2000; Whitney, 1999), little information is available about how children respond to Ab/Mc activities and whether or not these efforts have any lasting effects on children’s ideas about the world. There are many challenges specific to carrying out this research, including designing longitudinal research that enables reliable measures of the effects of Ab/Mc work on children’s development, including cognitive changes and relationships with family and peers, within the context of diverse family and community settings. This lack of research is not unique to early childhood settings; overall there has been very little research on the implementation and effects of multicultural education at all levels. However, this type of research is needed to continue to develop the field and to demonstrate to skeptics that it is a worthwhile endeavor. See also Constructivism; Disabilities, Young Children with; Feminism in Early Childhood Education; Gay or Lesbian Parents, Children with; Pedagogy, Activity-Based/Experiential; Race and Ethnicity in Early Childhood Education.

Further Readings: Banks, J., ed. (1996). Multicultural education, transformative knowledge and action: Historical and contemporary perspectives. New York: Teachers College Press; Bisson, J. (1997). Celebrate! An anti-bias guide to enjoying holidays in early childhood programs. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press; Clark, K. (1995). Prejudice and your child. Boston: Beacon Press; Derman-Sparks and the ABC Task Force (1989). Anti-bias curriculum: Tools for empowering young children. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children; Derman-Sparks, L., and Phillips, C. B. (1997). Teaching/learning anti-racism: A developmental approach. New York: Teachers College Press; Derman-Sparks, L., and P. Ramsey. (2006). “What if all the kids are White"? Antibias multicultural education with young children and Families. New York: Teachers College Press; Nieto, S. (2004). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education. 4th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon; Pelo, A., and Davidson, F. (2000). That’s not fair: A teacher’s guide to activism with young children. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press; Ramsey, P. (2005). Teaching and learning in a diverse world. 3rd ed. New York: Teachers College Press; Sleeter, C. (2001). Culture, difference and power. New York: Teachers College Press. CD-ROM; Sleeter, C., and Grant, C. (1988). Making choices for multicultural education: Five approaches to race, class, and gender. New York: Macmillan; Tatum, B. D. (1997). “Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” and other conversations about race. New York: Basic Books; Van Keulen, A., ed. (2004). Young children aren’t biased, are they?! How to handle diversity in early childhood education and school. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: SWP; Whitney, T. (1999). Kids like us: Using personal dolls in the classroom. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

Louise Derman-Sparks and Patricia G. Ramsey