together we grow

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion- It Starts in Early Childhood

In this episode of The Preschool Podcast, we reconnect with Prerna Richards, Coach, Consultant, and Founder of Together We Grow. Prerna discusses how early childhood education plays a critical role in developing children’s sense of acceptance, compassion and, inclusivity for others.

  • Diversity-the understanding that each individual is unique and recognizing our individual differences.
  • Inclusion-the act of including someone or something as part of a group.
  • Equality-having access to equal opportunities, no matter the race or socioeconomic status. 
  • Equity-making the playing field level.

Ninety percent of the child’s brain is built from birth to five. We, as educators, have to do things intentionally so that the adult who’s teaching can give the children what they need.

Prerna Richards, The Preschool Podcast

How Can Educators Incorporate Diversity, Equity and, Inclusion into Their Practice?

Consider your ongoing culturally appropriate practices. Educators may remember the term “developmentally appropriate practices,” however, this does not take into consideration diverse cultures, identities and, beliefs etc. As educators, we need to consider if our current practices are appropriate for all children.

Show up and be your authentic self. Discuss your experiences and your expectations and inclusive vocabulary to help build an anti-biased educator. 

Be an upstander. Rather than being a bystander when you see or hear something that is not inclusive, do something rather than being a passive bystander. This can create a chain reaction and give other people opportunities to say and do something- making a huge change.

Look for free resources. If you’re not able to attend workshops and webinars, take a look at your community for free resources such as free webinars, podcasts, social media resources, community engagements etc. to learn from others and reflect on your own practice.

Building self-esteem, confidence and, pride in children at a young age will carry on into their adulthood. By building this up early, this shows that children are valued, included and, accepted regardless of their race, gender, beliefs, income, and more. It’s vital that educators create an inclusive and accepting classroom to change the future of our next generation.

Learn More from Prerna

Want to check out Prerna’s free webinar with HiMama on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion? Check it out here along with the certificate and show notes. Ready to start the conversation of diversity, equity and, inclusion in your classroom? Prerna recommends Incredible Me! to get the conversation going. Prerna also has a lot of great resources on her website too!

Episode 269 transcripts

Prerna RICHARDS:

If we really have to change the conversation and if we don’t want to be talking about this in the next 50 years, our only hope is early childhood so we can raise the next generation with a different mindset so we don’t have to be educated and realize that, “Oh my god, I’m functioning from this place, but come from a more open space.”

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: 

Prerna, welcome back to the Preschool Podcast!

RICHARDS:

Thank you. Thank you, Ron. I am so excited to be back. Thank you for the invite!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, always excited to have return guests on the Preschool Podcast. That means that you’re a hit when you come back. Not to say all guests aren’t in a hit, but you must be really in demand to be able to come back the Preschool Podcast.

RICHARDS:

Oh, that makes my heart happy just to hear that.

RON

Good, yeah. You’re loved by the early-childhood education community. And so we love to have you on the Preschool Podcast. And for those of you who don’t know Prerna, she’s the CEO and founder of Together We Grow. And we’re going to talk to Prerna Richards about diversity, equity, equality and inclusion. So, excited to talk about this topic, which is very important and so relevant to early-childhood education and the impact that can happen at that stage of life.

But before we dive into that, Prerna, for those of our listeners who don’t know you, can you just tell them a little bit about your background and what you’re up to with your work?

RICHARDS:

Great, thank you so much. Yes, it is a very relevant topic and I’m so happy that you’re creating the space to have this meaningful conversation. A little brief intro about me: I’ve been in the field of early childhood for 36 years, being a teacher, director, vice president of the division, and most recently started my own business, Together We Grow. Three years ago, in fact – we celebrated our third anniversary, August 1st. So, that’s a milestone.

And what have I been up to since the last time I was here, has really very interestingly been focused with DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion]. And I love how sometimes the universe – not sometimes, quite often – the universe just aligns everything.

And so I got very lucky to attend a certification course from the University of South Florida in May. And it was a seven-week commitment on DEI. And Ron, it was amazing because we had 140,000 people from around the world attending the certification. And what they talked about was how to bring design into our businesses. And my business is early childhood.

And so everything that I was observing was, “How can we make this intentional? How can organizations think about aligning their strategic goal with the DEI goal? And how can it go beyond the training so that it becomes a real part of our schools, our programs, our classrooms? And what does that look like?”

So, that happened. And then since then… this, by the way, is my 19th time since February talking about DEI. So, it’s amazing that so many people want to have this conversation. I find that encouraging.

RON

Yeah, that’s awesome.

RICHARDS:

Isn’t it? Like, actually people want to talk about this. And the other thing that I’ve started doing is, several organizations are saying, “Okay, let’s go beyond the training and let’s have consecutive trainings; let’s have coaching attached to it; let’s really do the work.

And there’s also now talk of research, which I’m super excited about, that maybe we’ll start doing some research aligned with DEI. I’m cooperating and working with somebody who wants to start a Headstart space. So, I’m really keeping my fingers crossed and that’s going to come. And we’re going to learn something. Who knows with the research, where it’s going to take you and what you will learn.

RON

Yeah, that’s great. Much like early-childhood education, love it. Okay, and let’s start off on the basics, Prerna. Can we start off just asking you how you would describe or define each of these words around diversity, equity, equality and inclusion, just so we kind of start off on the same page?

RICHARDS:

Yeah, thank you. That is so good that we’re putting that out. I’m not going to read – I don’t actually have any notes in front of me – but I’m not going to do the formal dictionary definition. But I’m just going to share what it feels like to me when I hear that word.

So, for “diversity”, I think of diversity as understanding that each one of us is unique and individual. Whatever that means, wherever that brings us from – different cultures, different countries, different race – it doesn’t matter. But the big, big word of diversity to me just means that each one of us is a unique individual and just really recognizing that each one of us adds value in our own space.

For “inclusion”, I think of inclusion as an emotion. So, when we think of inclusion as an emotion, it’s a feeling. Either people feel included or they don’t feel included. So, we could go all day long and say, “We’re an inclusive organization; we’re an inclusive personality; I’m an inclusive person.” It doesn’t matter. If the other person doesn’t feel included, then it didn’t generate the emotion and we were not inclusive. So, it’s something we experience.

With “equality”, I think of equality as having access to equal opportunity. So, at least the access exists so that if somebody wants to take advantage of that, it’s there. And with “equity”, sometimes people get “equality” and “equity” mixed up. So, I want to give an example for both of these.

“Equity” to me is really making so everybody has the opportunity. So if, for example, we were talking about being in a training room right now, equality would mean that everybody had a chair to sit on. But equity would be that if the person who needed to sit at the end of the table was allowed to sit at the end of the table because maybe they needed more space or maybe they had a wheelchair, that we made it so that that opportunity that we gave them helped them to succeed.

And maybe I’ll give another example because sometimes people really get these two mixed up. I think, of equity as the fertilizer. Let me explain. So, if I was a gardener and I was growing a garden with different fruits and vegetables, I would know that some plants need this fertilizer and some plants this fertilizer. For example, hydrangeas love acid soil and roses don’t. So, for equality is giving soil to all the plants. But the equity piece is giving the hydrangeas the acid soil that it needs so that it can blossom, so that it can bloom, so that it can succeed.

And that’s what equity to me is. Like, what are we doing in our classrooms and our families? So, equal access is one thing and making things available. But how are we flexing it, how are we adjusting it so that each person can bloom and blossom and succeed in their space? I hope that makes sense.

RON

Yeah, it’s great. And there’s actually a good example that I’m aware of, as well. So, I did my MBA at Harvard Business School. And they realized that women were participating less than men in the classrooms. And participation is a key part of the program. And so they did some research to find out why that was.

And it was kind of a good example of equality in terms of everybody in the classroom had the equal opportunity to participate but men were somewhat more aggressive and more comfortable participating in the conversations. And so the professors had to behave differently in order to provide equity for the women in that situation.

RICHARDS:

I love that example. And we have that in common – we both have an MBA.

RON

Yeah, cool. Yeah, something I’ve talked about it in the past on the Podcast is encouraging more folks in early-childhood education to learn about business. Lots of good skill sets there. So, let’s now talk about why these things matter for early-childhood education and how we can make them part of early-childhood education. I know you mentioned the word being more “intentional” about it and going beyond training, for example, which I think is a great place for us to start, potentially.

RICHARDS:

So, I think it absolutely belongs in the field of early childhood because we all know [that] 90% of the brain is getting wired [between the ages of] birth to five. 90% of the human being that we’re going to become as an adult, the foundation is made when we are little. So, that is no different when it comes to having self-esteem, pride and confidence.

That is a human basic right, that we should all be allowed to live life to our full potential and not feel less-than, which is what, if you don’t feel included, that’s the emotion that it generates, that, “I’m less then and I’m different and I’m self-conscious and I’m embarrassed,” and all that other emotions that come up that come in the way of becoming successful in this world.

So, if that is the case, if everything is getting wired in the early years, then we’ve got to do things intentionally so that the adult who is teaching can give the children what they need. But the problem with this is that if the adult doesn’t have, then they can get what they don’t have. So, the adult has suffered in life because it is not inequal [sic] from their perspective or they didn’t have equity. How can they do it for children? Because they don’t know what it felt like to receive it because it wasn’t role modeled.

And this is why it has to be more than just a training because the training cannot change mindsets. And one of the things that stood apart to me when I did this certification course from Florida was that the way they framed this – and I had not thought of it like this – they said, “If you have a human brain,” which I’m thinking we all do, we have a human brain, we have biases. And the biases are unconscious. Biases are subtle. Biases could be that we are even unaware of our own biases.

And when we feel threatened, or when we go into our survival thing, or when we feel scared, or when we feel insecure, we revert back to our biases. Like, those biases become our mode of communication, our mode of understanding and our mode of seeing the world because it comes from the place of fear.

I think if we really have to change the conversation… I’m in my fifties right now. And if we don’t want to be talking about this in the next 50 years, our only hope is early childhood. So, if we can raise the next generation with a different mindset so we don’t have to then have it be educated and realize that, “Oh my god, I’m functioning from this place but come from a more open space, come from a more let-me-learn-more space, maybe I don’t know everything. Maybe I can ask questions like, Tell me more, and understand different people’s perspectives.”

So, that’s why I was adding the word “intentional” beyond training because it’s having to change mindsets. And I have a good analogy on mindsets, Ron. Would you like me to share that? So, the thing with mindsets is that we do it without even realizing.

So, back in the [1990s], we used to have a cell phone. And we were living in Hawaii at that time. And back in the 90s, we had this brick of a cell phone. I don’t know if you ever had that growing up or in your life. The cell phone look like a brick: it had a big antenna coming out of it and it had big numbers to punch.

And we got that as an emergency phone for our car. My husband and I got that for our car and it lived in the glove compartment. But I don’t think I ever used it. Like, I wouldn’t know how to charge that, I’m thinking back. And I’m even thinking it was so awesome and we were so with it that we had a cell phone in our car for emergency. Like, it was the best thing.

And then we’ll move forward to [the year] 2000. And you have the Nokia phone. And we all remember the commercial and the sound is etched in our brain. And we were so excited to get the Nokia phone, that it did so many more things than that brick phone did. And here we are in 2021 and we have a smartphone in our hands. And we can [use] Google Map and we can take pictures and we can research. And it’s all this, in our hands.

I don’t know about you, but my mindset has changed about that brick phone that I was so excited about. You couldn’t pay me enough to go back to that because I’ve seen better and I’ve seen differences. So, you have to change with the times. Maybe how we talked about DEI before maybe needs an upgrade.

RON

Yeah, I like that analogy. That makes a lot of sense. What we were okay with 20 years ago isn’t what we’re okay with today. And things are changing, I like that. And so if we get into more the daily practice of an early-childhood educator [ECE], how can ECE’s incorporate these important aspects into the classroom? And even if they’re unable to spend, have the time or capacity to do training sessions and get up to speed on all the resources that are out there? And there’s a lot of great ones. Any thoughts there?

RICHARDS:

Yeah, I think that’s a really good question because you know… somebody listening, what can you do in your classroom? What can you do in your family? So, one of the things that NAEYC – which is the National Association [for the] Education of Young Children – just it over the summer, which is another one of those things that aligned, everything was aligning… NAEYC had a developmentally appropriate play summit, which I also got to attend in June.

And I loved how they framed it for the classrooms. They were saying… if anybody is familiar with in NAEYC, their tagline forever used to be, “developmentally appropriate is best practices”. Now they’re changing the tagline and now they’re saying, “Best for who?” Because they are realizing that what we think is best for some may not be best for everybody.

So, they’re changing it to now “high quality practices”. Not “best practices”, but “high quality practices”. And just for anybody listening who’s not familiar with this terminology of “developmentally appropriate”: “developmentally appropriate” really means, “age appropriate, individual appropriate”.

And so that’s the equity piece that’s coming in: “All three-year-olds need this, all four-year-olds need this. But what is that individual needing?” And also now they’re changing it, instead of just having “DAP”, which is “developmentally appropriate practices”, they’re now making it “CAP”. So, “culturally appropriate [practices]”. And “LAP”, “language appropriate [practices].

So, it’s almost become like “DCLAP”. DCLAP is a good way for me to remember. DCLAP: “development, cultural, language appropriate practices”. So, what does that exactly mean in a classroom or in a family? “Culture” is more than just the big buckets of, “I’m from India and maybe somebody from Asia and Mexico.” Not the big buckets of culture but every family has their culture; the classroom has their culture; every organization has their culture.

And if we can become sensitive to that… so, for example, if you walk into a building, if you walk into a classroom, you can sense the culture. What is the social culture of this environment? Does it feel inclusive? Does it feel welcoming? Does it feel warm? Does it feel open-hearted?

And those are things that have to happen in the classrooms, in the families, so that children can grow up knowing that there’s other ways of doing things. And other ways of doing things doesn’t make them good or bad or wrong.

So, one of the practical ways how you can do that as an educator, or as a parent, I would say, or as a grandparent – I’m a grandparent – in your own families, is showing up with your authentic self, talking about your experiences, talking about, “In this family, we respect everybody. In this family, we come from a place of kindness. In this classroom, we are collaborative and cooperative and not competitive.”

So, introducing them to the vocabulary that feels more inclusive and more inviting. So, showing your authentic self and allowing the space for children to be their authentic self. We’ve all seen this when children from immigrant families come into our classrooms and they don’t want to bring food from home because it smells or looks different and they don’t want to be embarrassed and they don’t want people to make fun of them.

This also happens with accents. I probably have an accent right now. People feel shy for speaking up because they have an accent. Or it could happen if people have different sounding names. I have that, too, so check lots of boxes for me.

So, if we can have educators who can become mindful of this, that, “Okay, maybe they [the students] are feeling self-conscious, how can I put them at ease?” And if somebody brings food from a different culture, going towards [them] and saying, “Tell me more about it, it looks different,” instead of allowing other children to say, “Eww, ahh, what is that?” An educator should go towards it.

I also like to frame this as two words that I’d heard that I think I’ve adopted: “upstander” and “bystander”. So, when something is happening around you, you could be a bystander and just watch it. Or you could be an upstander and speak up for that person. And I don’t have to have a big title, big crowd. One me, individual, one small person can speak up, be an upstander in every space that I can.

RON

Yeah, those are really excellent points. And Prerna, before we run out of time, I want to ask you one more question, which you mentioned to me earlier that you felt really strongly about instilling pride, confidence and self-esteem in young children. How does that relate to this conversation around DEI?

RICHARDS:

So, these are strong emotions. When we have self-confidence, when we have self-esteem and we have pride, we have been shown that we are included, that we belong. And we can grow up with that and we don’t have to feel less-than.

So, some practical ways how educators and teachers could do this is have conversations, have games about noticing similarities and differences. Sometimes, as adults, we have a sense that children don’t notice color, children don’t notice differences, but they do. And they notice how we react to them. They notice how we avoid them. Or they also grow up thinking that, “Oh, this is a topic I shouldn’t bring up because it’s a taboo. We don’t talk about this.”

But go towards it, play games of similarities and differences. Venn diagrams are fabulous games to play because you have two circles and then the circles overlap. So, if you are doing a Venn diagram on oranges and apples… but I’ll do it with my granddaughter because I did it with her, if I had a visual I would show you.

We drew a circle for Ava and I drew a circle for me. And she listed all the things about her, that she is short, she has brown hair and she has lighter skin. And then she noticed that I have a darker skin and I have red hair and that I’m taller.

And the thing in the middle was that both have brown eyes and we both love the color blue. But more than that, we both love each other. So, when we can play games of similarities and differences, we allow the space for children to have uncomfortable conversations.

Making family trees with families is another example of how we can make children feel included who come from different, diverse families. But it doesn’t matter who is genetically related to you, but who in this big wide world loves this little human being that is in their corner of the world?

So, making family trees, making books about ourselves. There are so many ways that we can help children feel good about who they are and no matter the color of their skin and the hair. And also introducing to them this vocabulary word of “melanin”. It’s only because of melanin. If you have less of it, your hair is lighter and your skin is lighter. If you have more of it, it’s darker. It’s nothing that we had in our control. It doesn’t make you less-than.

It’s an understanding that we are more alike as human beings than we are different. And if we could go towards that, I think we could create a kinder, gentler world around us. And children sure deserve to grow up in that world, don’t you think?

RON

Yeah, absolutely. And what better place to focus than our youngest children, who are the future? So, a very important subject matter and something that we could certainly – and will continue to – talk about on the Preschool Podcast.

Prerna, before we wrap up, one more final thing which is around the ongoing professional development and learning of our audience. Any recommendations for affordable, accessible resources for their continuous learning beyond this podcast conversation?

RICHARDS:

Oh, so many children’s literature comes to mind, so many. That’s a very good book that I love is Incredible Me! [by Kathi Appelt]. There’s another one that’s called The Wonderful Things You Will Be [by Emily Winfield Martin]. And having, like, a vision board for the children, having a plan for the children.

So, children’s literature, there’s lots and lots of good. And if anybody’s interested, they can reach out and I can send you a big, long list of books. I wish I had it in front of me. I’m thinking of my training bag right now, where all the books I have are in there. Yes, children’s literature is where I would start with because children’s literature helps to have the conversations that are very tough and difficult. I don’t know, I find that is the biggest resources, Ron: children’s literature.

RON

Yeah, think that’s a great point. And on that, if folks do want to get in touch with you or learn more about your work with Together We Grow, where can they go to get more information or to get in touch with you?

RICHARDS:

Thank you for asking that. www.TogetherWeGrow.online. And I, by the way, do have resources for DEI for your classrooms and for your family that you can download for free. It’s under the Resource tab. www.TogetherWeGrow.online. And also on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube. I have a YouTube channel with the same name.

And I would love to hear from anybody who is wondering, “Should I have a staff meeting with this? Should I have a training in my own program with it? What can I do? What are my next steps?” It’s not so scary. We can do this; we can do this. We can have the tough conversations.

RON

Alright, well, you heard it. Get in touch with with Prerna. You can do it, she can help you. Check out Together We Grow, www.TogetherWeGrow.online. Prerna, pleasure as always. Thank you so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast!

RICHARDS:

Thank you, Ron, enjoyed it. Thank you so much!

Kiah Price

Kiah Price is a Social Media Specialist at HiMama. Prior to HiMama she was an Early Childhood Educator in a preschool classroom in Toronto. She is the Jill of all trades at HiMama from dipping her toes in Sales, Customer Success, Operations, and Marketing! She enjoys sweating through spin classes, hot yoga, and biking along the waterfront trails in Toronto. She loves traveling and trying new foods and wines across the globe- 29 countries and counting!

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