Gaius Julius Phaedrus was a 1st-century Roman fabulist and the first to write a collection of Aesop's fables in Latin. He once said, “Things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many; the intelligence of a few perceives what has been carefully hidden.”
What drives the way we think and our perceptions of others when we meet them? When we consider differences we use certain vocabulary and language. Specifically the words prejudice, discrimination, stereotyping and bias are elements that can drive our emotions, thinking and behaviour.
To have prejudice towards another person is to pre-judge them. It is to have a preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience but rather as a result of our own experiences or influences. It is a person’s inner thoughts and feelings which do not always result in action. Discrimination takes this prejudice and puts it into action. As humans we are programmed to look for patterns and this may account in part to our weakness in demonstrating prejudice and discrimination at times. In spite of the steps taken to reduce prejudice and discrimination from society, they remain prevalent throughout the world. We have witnessed the impact of this in recent months with the Black Lives Matter movement across the globe.
In “Teacher they called me a ____! Confronting Prejudice and Discrimination in the Classroom” (1995) Dr. Debra A. Byrnes indicates that children are not immune to forming prejudicial stereotypes or discriminating against others. As she explains, “children begin developing attitudes about various groups in society as early as ages three or four. Initially such attitudes are quite flexible. However, as children grow older such attitudes become more difficult to change”. Prejudice is learned in the same way other attitudes and values are learned, primarily through association, reinforcement and modelling. Through the messages they receive in the world around them, children may learn to associate a particular group of people with poverty, crime, violence and other unsociable characteristics.
A study in 2012 found that, for young children, being taught prejudiced ideas overwhelms any of their positive experiences when it comes to attitudes toward other groups of people. Children aged six years who are told by an adult that another group of children is "mean" evaluate that group negatively even if they have a positive interaction with the supposedly mean children. By the age of ten, however, children are more likely to rely on their own experiences with the "mean" children to make judgments.
The findings from the research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (March 2012) challenge how schools teach diversity and prejudice. "Our work suggests that older children are going to be more influenced by their own experiences, so it's not enough for us to lecture to them about equality and diversity-related issues," commented study researcher Sonia Kang, a psychologist at the University of Toronto. "We need to help create situations and environments that foster positive experiences among children from all backgrounds."
Kang argues that adults can shape expectations of prejudice and stigma in young children. She suggests that negative warnings about discrimination in early childhood could backfire. Instead she recommends teachers and parents focus on the positive aspects of diversity. It is important that children do not shut themselves off from the possibility of positive relationships with members of groups different from their own.
We have diversity within our school community at Yateley Manor. Granted the diversity is not as great as in some of my other schools but nonetheless our ‘family’ makeup is from a huge range of backgrounds and cultures. It is important that adults within our community recognise any prejudice they may be adopting. By permitting ourselves to recognise these emotions we are able to put them aside, celebrate diversity and essentially recognise others around us for who they are.
Our practice is to praise achievement for all children, to celebrate differences and engender in children aspiration, irrespective of any differences. It continues to be ‘work in progress’ but we are committed to teaching children that difference is not a factor on which to judge somebody.
“Parents and schools should place great emphasis on the idea that it is alright to be different. Racism and all the other 'isms' grow from primitive tribalism, the instinctive hostility against those of another tribe, race, religion, nationality, class or whatever. You are a lucky child if your parents taught you to accept diversity.” (Roger Ebert)