Technology and Teen Sleep Deprivation

Independent School Management

Vol. 16 No. 2 1/24/17

PSN eletter vol15 no2 slee

For the past few years, there has been notable research on how technology (e.g., digital devices, laptops, television) disrupts student sleep patterns—and student success (or not) in school. A recent meta-analysis of 20 studies, Association Between Portable Screen-Based Media Device Access or Use and Sleep Outcomes, published by JAMA Pediatrics, sheds more light on this “major public-health concern” for students. Attention-stealing devices like televisions, computers, MP3 players, and cell phones are largely to blame.

The study, covering more than 125,000 children, determined there was a “strong and consistent association between bedtime media-device use and inadequate sleep quantity, poor sleep quality, and excessive daytime sleepiness.” Almost 90% of teens have at least one device in their bedrooms, and most use those devices in the hour before going to bed. Such children are twice as likely to not sleep enough and 40% report poor sleep quality, compared to children who have no access to those devices at bedtime. Students who had access or used media devices before bedtime were also more than twice as likely to experience excessive sleepiness in school.

According to another study from the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), 95% of those surveyed reported using electronic devices just before sleep. People under the age of 30 are the worst offenders—especially teenagers aged 13 to 18. Texting an hour before sleeping is prevalent, for example. While Baby Boomers on average read, send, or receive five texts in the hour before sleep, Gen-Zers typically text 56 times in that hour. Many students feel a sense of attachment to their phones and other digital devices, and view technology as a lifeline that they can’t live without. Unfortunately, when using such devices disrupts their sleep, this leads to anxiety, depression, and other maladies.

Another problem reported by researches is that exposure late at night to the “blue light” created by computer and other screens causes sleep-phase delay. The lit screens impact (via the retina) the portion of the brain that controls the body’s circadian cycle, sending the message that it’s not time for sleep yet. A study in the Journal of Applied Physiology suggested that performing “exciting” computer activities, like a playing a video game, may suppress melatonin production, the so-called “sleep hormone.”

The NSF recommends that teens get 8.5 to 9.25 hours of sleep every night of the week. However, the average teen gets about 7.5 hours of sleep each night; 62% of 9th–12th graders report inadequate amounts of sleep.

Sleep deprivation is of particular concern to schools. As mentioned above, research shows that a lack of sleep leads to:

  • poorer school performance (lower grades),
  • inattention,
  • negative moods,
  • health risk behaviors (e.g., substance abuse, thoughts of suicide), and
  • increased incidents of adolescent-related car accidents.

Academic leaders must be aware of these problems and educate parents about the impact of sleep deprivation on their children.

The NSF and other sleep experts make the following recommendations for parents.

  • Take technology out of the bedroom. For example, mandate that all cell phones in the house are recharged at night in a room other than the bedroom. Don’t allow a TV, laptop, or other device in a teenager’s bedroom after a certain hour.
  • Reserve the last hour before bed for nighttime rituals like brushing teeth, showering, etc. Pleasure reading is also a wonderful way to unwind as well.
  • Make your child understand that the lack of sleep can cause them to be less creative, forgetful, do poorly on assignments, and fall asleep in the classroom. Sleep deprivation has also shown to cause acne, weight gain, and other health problems.
  • Establish a consistent sleep schedule, every day of the week. Don’t let teenagers stay up late nights or “sleep in” on the weekends.
  • Make sure your child gets enough exercise. An hour of playing tennis, for example, is far better than an hour in bed playing video games.
  • Monitor your child’s schedule. Is he or she overwhelmed with school responsibilities, sports, clubs, perhaps a part-time job at the expense of sleep? Perhaps lessening the number of these activities can rectify the situation.

The dynamics around sleep, student performance, student well-being, and the student’s evening time are complex. Talk with parents to ensure that your students receive an adequate amount of quality sleep—and a better experience at your school.

Teaching Good Study Habits, Minute by Minute

Edutopia

 

Nobody said that raising an adolescent was easy, and schooling one is even more of a challenge! Parents are taking on a lot of school responsibility, and let’s face it — things are different than they used to be. How are parents supposed to know how to handle the homework load without some guidance?

Take studying, for example. If you are a parent of a struggling or resistant learner, you’ve probably heard more than one person suggest, “She just needs to study more.” Most kids think this means filling in a study guide or rereading a chapter. But many don’t learn by writing or reading. Their strengths lie in the visual, kinesthetic, musical, or social realm. How, then, are we to help our children develop their studying skills?

The task does not have to be daunting. In fact, it can actually be simple and effective!

GETTING STARTED

Determine when tests will happen.

Use school websites, email, planners, etc. to help you and your adolescent pinpoint an effective way to get tests on the calendar.

Set a goal.

Work with your student to determine how many days of studying he needs, and make a session-minute goal (one minute per grade level) and a target for him to study twice daily. An eighth-grade student will set the timer for eight minutes each session, a tenth-grade student for ten minutes, and so on.

Determine the study material.

Notes, study guides, worksheets, or quizzes from the chapter or unit are all good choices. Textbooks are easily accessible, but study material from them may be difficult to identify.

Ask and answer.

Have your adolescent ask and answer her own questions, or for those of you with social students, you can join in and ask the questions. If she gets through the material before the time is up, start over!

Do it again.

Set aside the same time increment before bed, and repeat the entire exercise.

If you do the math, a sixth-grade student will study twelve minutes every day for five days, and will have put 60 minutes of no-tears studying into his pocket!

MINUTE-BY-MINUTE STUDY STRATEGIES

But is the question-answer strategy really the best way to study? No single way works for everybody, as each child has a different set of strengths and preferences when it comes to internalizing information. Here are some other ways to use this time (also provided as a downloadable PDF to print for your students):

1. Flashcards

Turn those questions and answers into flashcards and have your adolescent quiz herself. The simple act of flipping the cards around and putting them into piles of “mastered” and “needs practice” may be enough to keep an active kid moving. Some kids are motivated by timing themselves. Flip those flashcards around, have her read the answer, and try to reproduce the question for a bigger challenge.

2. Categorizing

Use the flashcards to organize the information by categories, put them in some kind of order, or match them up in pairs. The idea is to organize them differently each time so that your student can make more than one connection in his brain for the information.

3. Word combining

Language lovers won’t mind creating sentences with vocabulary. If the test is vocabulary-heavy, start by either writing or speaking the sentences with one word in each and then moving to two words, then three, etc.

4. Song lyrics

Ask a musical or rhythmic adolescent to take the lyrics of her favorite song and rewrite it to include as much of the required information she can. This may take multiple sessions to accomplish, but once it’s done, she can sing it over and over again.

5. Picture notes

During the study session, have a more visual adolescent draw pictures of his notes on flashcards, paper, or a whiteboard, and then describe them.

6. Talk-through

Many adolescents are highly social. If yours is, too, have her go through flashcards or a study guide and explain each aspect in as much detail as possible without reading from the printed information.

7. Picture walk

Have him use the visuals provided in the textbook, online text, worksheets, notes, etc. to explain information either out loud or in writing, depending on his preference.

8. Mnemonic devices

Have her rhyme or create sayings to help her remember information. Creating acronyms or sentences with the first letters of words can also be fun for students who like to play with language.

9. Oral visualization

Read a portion of the notes or worksheet and have your student describe what comes to mind visually.

10. Perspective talk

Talk or write about the material, pretending to be somebody or something else.

11. Superhero letter

Have a word-smart adolescent write a letter to a superhero explaining the material and why the information should be important.

Ultimately, studying comes in dozens of forms, and it’s important to help your adolescent figure out what’s going to work for him or her. Whatever her strengths, whatever his level of comfort, start there. Keep it short. Keep it simple. Keep it painless. And watch what happens when studying becomes a familiar routine — and when students see the fruits of their efforts.

Why 70 percent of kids quit sports by age 13

The Washington Post

Posted on January 7, 2017

June 1, 2016

According to a poll from the National Alliance for Youth Sports, around 70 percent of kids in the United States stop playing organized sports by the age of 13 because “it’s just not fun anymore.” I have three kids, all of whom play sports, and my oldest is about to turn 13. I may not have understood why this was happening a few years ago, but sadly, knowing what I know now, the mass exodus of 13-year-olds from organized sports makes perfect sense to me.

“It’s not fun anymore” isn’t the problem; it’s a consequence of a number of cultural, economic and systemic issues that result in our kids turning away from organized sports at a time when they could benefit from them the most. Playing sports offers everything from physical activity, experiencing success and bouncing back from failure to taking calculated risks and dealing with the consequences to working as a team and getting away from the ubiquitous presence of screens. Our middle-schoolers need sports now more than ever.

Here are the reasons I think it’s become less fun for kids to play sports, and why they are taking an early retirement.

It’s not fun anymore because it’s not designed to be. As children get closer to high school, the system of youth sports is geared toward meeting the needs of more competitive players, and the expectations placed on them increase. Often the mentality is that most of the kids who quit at 13 are the ones who wouldn’t make a varsity team in high school anyway. Those who stick around find that being on a team means a greater commitment of time and effort. It also means being surrounded by people who care very much about the outcome. This, consequently, brings with it the potential for experiencing disappointment or being the cause of it. There is nothing wrong with any of that, and it can teach incredibly important lessons about hard work, resiliency and character — but it’s not for everyone.

Our culture no longer supports older kids playing for the fun of it. The pressure to raise “successful” kids means that we expect them to be the best. If they’re not, they’re encouraged to cut their losses and focus on areas where they can excel. We see it in middle school orchestra, where a kid who doesn’t make first chair wonders if it’s worth continuing to play. If a seventh-grader doesn’t make a select team for soccer, she starts to wonder if maybe it’s time to quit altogether, thinking that if she’s not hitting that highest level, it might not be worth doing?

For the small minority of kids who are playing a sport at an elite level and loving it, the idea of quitting in middle school is probably unthinkable. But for everyone else, there are fewer opportunities to play, a more competitive and less developmental environment in which to participate, and lots of other things competing for their time after school.

There is a clear push for kids to specialize and achieve at the highest possible level. Increasingly kids are pressured to “find their passion” and excel in that area (be it music, arts, sports, etc.). There are certainly kids for whom this is true, but it is not the norm (despite the expectations of college admissions officers). For many, there’s a strong argument against this trend, because the message is essentially to pick one thing and specialize in it (to the exclusion of pursuing other interests). For young athletes, early specialization can be harmful in terms of long-term injuries, and it does little to increase one’s overall the chances of later collegiate or professional success.

Perhaps more importantly, the underlying message that “I have to be the best or I’ve failed” is deeply harmful to kids. This is absolutely mirrored and reinforced in school, where the environment is increasingly test and outcome-driven. Sports could be pivotal in teaching kids how to fail and recover, something that educators and parents see as being desperately needed. In privileged Washington, D.C., suburbs such as Fairfax and Montgomery counties (and in others like them, across the country), teenagers find themselves stressed to the point of developing anxiety and depression. We see unhealthy coping behaviors and increased rates of self-harm and suicide. This is not a sports problem, it’s a culture problem.

There is a cost to be competitive and not everyone is willing or able to pay it. For kids, playing at a more competitive level can mean having to prioritize their commitments and interests and work tirelessly. It also means they have to be able to deal with the pressure of participating at a higher level. These can be positive things — provided the environment they’re playing in is a healthy one. But there are other factors that contribute to a young athlete’s ability not just to compete, but to be seen as competitive, and I question how healthy these things are for families.

Training year-round, expensive equipment, individual coaching, camps, tournaments and participation on travel and select teams in many places are no longer really considered “optional” for success in youth sports, at least not heading into high school. The investment of time and money that these things require is substantial. That contributes to an environment where kids of lower-income or single-parent families are simply shut out of the game.

And, of course, it’s just the age. At 13, kids generally find themselves with more (and more challenging) school work. Most are also encouraged to start choosing what interests them the most and what they’re best at. There’s no longer time for them to do as much they did in elementary school.

Some of the major social and emotional changes that 13-year-olds experience also predispose them to making decisions such as quitting sports, especially as that environment becomes more competitive. The CDC describes it on its developmental milestones page as a “focus on themselves… going back and forth between high expectations and lack of confidence.” Kids become more focused on — and influenced by — their friends, many of whom are also walking away from organized youth sports.

Any discussion about being 13 also needs to include social media, smartphones and the Internet. According to the Pew Center’s Internet Research Study, most U.S. kids receive their first cellphone or wireless device by the age of 12. Between the ages of 13 and 17, 92 percent of teens report being online every day, and 24 percent are online “almost constantly.” As kids become teenagers, their priorities change. How they socialize, study and spend their time changes with them.

These things collectively represent a perfect storm. There are no easy answers here. The system of youth sports is set up to cater to more elite players as they approach high school, leaving average kids with fewer opportunities. Our culture encourages specialization and achievement, which actively discourages kids from trying new things or just playing for fun. And all of this converges at a time when they’re going through major physical, emotional and social changes as well as facing pressure to pare down their interests and focus on school.

So why do 70 percent of kids quit organized sports at 13 and what can we do about it? I would argue that most kids leave because we haven’t given them a way to stay. And perhaps more importantly, until we dismantle the parenting culture that emphasizes achievement and success over healthy, happy kids, we don’t stand a chance of solving this problem.

Julianna W. Miner has three kids and lives in suburban Washington, D.C. She teaches Public Health at a college she couldn’t have gotten into because she made bad choices in high school. She writes the award-winning humor blog  Rants from Mommyland and spends too much time on the Facebook.

The Unspoken Rules Kids Create for Instagram

Photo

CreditJake Michaels for The New York Times

The challenge of growing up in the digital age is perfectly epitomized by the “bikini rule.”

“You can post a bikini or bathing suit picture only if you are with your siblings or your family in the picture,” said one middle-school girl participating in a focus group on digital media. In other words, don’t try too hard to be sexy, and you will be O.K. in the eyes of your peers.

By high school, the rules change. At that stage, a bikini picture often is acceptable — and even considered “body positive” in some circles.

As an educational consultant, I lead workshops on digital media at schools around the country, giving me an unusual glimpse into the hidden world of middle and high school students. While parents sometimes impose rules for using social media on their kids, the most important rules are those that children create for themselves.

And these often unspoken rules can be dizzying.

Girls want to be sexy, but not too sexy. Be careful which vacation photos you share so you don’t brag. It’s O.K. to post photos from a fun event, but not too many.

In one focus group I held recently with seventh-grade girls in an affluent suburb, all the girls were avid Instagram and Snapchat users. It was clear that they understood the dynamic of presenting a persona through the images they posted. It was also clear that they had a definite set of “rules” about pictures.

Aware of their privileged socioeconomic status, they talked about how it would not be O.K. to share vacation pictures of a fancy hotel. They used an example of a classmate who had violated this rule. Like many unspoken social rules, this one became vivid to these girls upon its violation.

As part of a school project, the girl had displayed pictures from a vacation at a foreign resort. Her classmates considered that an immature form of “bragging.” They said other kids had gone on even “better trips” or lived in “amazing houses,” but “knew better” than to post about it.

The same girls identified another peer as “too sexual,” a judgment that some of their parents even encouraged. A few of the girls said that their moms did not want them to hang out with her because she “acts too sexy.” One of the girls expressed this very sentiment in a group text that included the peer in question, causing hurt feelings and conflicts.

Middle school can be an especially complicated time for girls. They are experimenting with social identity, while their always-on digital world intensifies the scrutiny. Many want to be seen as pretty (and even sexy, in some ways), but they also want to be seen as innocent and “nice.” This is an impossible balancing act. Parents can help by suggesting more empowering alternatives to posting bathing suit pictures.

Another group of seventh graders (mixed gender, in a different community) shared with me the rules around how many pictures to post from an event. They had a sense of what was acceptable and what was not. Posting one to three images was O.K., they said, but they all agreed that it was “obnoxious” to “blow up people’s phones” with a huge stream of images from a party or event.

These images can lead to feeling of exclusion as well. Imagine watching a party unfold, in real time, on Snapchat or Instagram — when you’re not there. This experience can be absolutely devastating to teens and tweens. When I asked these particular seventh graders about this, they said that it happened all the time — and that it can be hard to deal with.

With their lives constantly on display, it’s challenging even for well-intentioned kids to avoid making others feel excluded. Their “rule” for this was that “it is better not to lie or make excuses” if you are with one friend and another friend wants to hang out. It’s better to be honest and say, “I have plans” than to lie and say, “I have too much homework,” and then risk sharing images of yourself out with friends later.

Parents often feel as if their children’s smartphones are portals to another world — one that they know little to nothing about. A study released last month found that fewer than half of the parents surveyed regularly discussed social media content with their tweens and teens.

But parents need to know their child’s peers have created their own set of rules for social media, and they should ask their kids about them. What are you “allowed” to post — and what seems to be off-limits? Is that “rule” the same for boys vs. girls? Why or why not? Can you show me an example of a “good” post (or a “bad” post)? Does social media ever stress you out (and can you give yourself a break)? How can kids in your group make group texts or social media nicer for everyone?

In a study published last summer, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that the pleasure centers of teenagers’ brains responded to the reward of getting likes on Instagram just as they do to thoughts of sex or money. Just as parents try to teach children to have some self-control around those enticements, we also have to talk to them about not falling victim to behavior they’ll regret when craving “likes.”

As parents, we don’t want our kids to make a big mistake online: writing something mean in a group text, posting a too-sexy picture or forwarding one of someone else. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 24 percent of teenagers are online “almost constantly,” so it’s essential that they know how to handle themselves there.

Getting your child to articulate the unspoken rules can be the first step in helping him or her be more understanding with peers. When we observe our children harshly judging others who have a different sensibility about how to use social media, they need us to set aside our judgments about their world and to help them cultivate empathy for one another.

Want to Raise Successful Daughters? Science Says Nag the Heck Out of Them

Inc.com
For tweens, eye-rolling and backtalk really means, ‘Thank you for the helpful advice. I shall endeavor to act accordingly.’

Someday, my daughter is going to kill me for this one, but it’s a story that will vindicate parents everywhere.

Researchers in the United Kingdom say parents’ super-high expectations for their teenage daughters–especially if they remind them constantly of those expectations–are among the most important factors in predicting whether young girls will grow up to become successful women.

As a university press release put it: “Behind every successful woman is a nagging mom? Teenage girls more likely to succeed if they have pushy mothers.”

Nag more, fail less.

The researchers at the University of Essex found that girls whose “main parent”–that’s usually the mother–consistently displayed high parental expectations were far less likely to fall into the traps that made the girls less likely to succeed in life.

Specifically, these girls were:

  • Less likely to become pregnant as teenagers.
  • More likely to attend college.
  • Less likely to get stuck in dead-end, low-wage jobs.
  • Less likely to have prolonged periods of unemployment.

The researchers, led by PhD candidate Ericka G. Rascon-Ramirez, studied the experiences of more than 15,000 British girls aged 13 and 14 over a 10-year period.

Of course, avoiding the prime pitfalls doesn’t necessarily mean that girls are destined to become the Sheryl Sandberg, Katie Ledecky, or Sara Blakeley of their time. But it does mean they’ll be more likely to preserve their opportunities to succeed later.

And that, dear parents, is the point at which your work is done–when your children’s success becomes much more a factor of their desire and work ethic than yours.

Rolling eyes? That means it’s working.

Nice study, some readers might reply. Have you actually tried being the parent tasked with nagging a 13- or 14-year-old daughter? News flash: Whether we’re talking about boys or girls, it could quickly deconstruct into a cacophony of eye rolls, door slams, and sullenness.

It’s not a lot of fun, I’m sure. (Regular readers will know that my daughter is only a year old, so I haven’t had the pleasure myself, yet. For more on how to raise successful kids, you can read my free e-book, How to Raise Successful Kids: Advice From a Stanford Dean, a Navy SEAL Commander, and Mark Zuckerberg’s Dad.)

But parents can take solace in one idea the researchers entertained: The more it seems hectoring them is like pounding on a brick wall, the more it might be working.

“In many cases, we succee[d] in doing what we believ[e is] more convenient for us, even when this [is] against our parents’ will,” writes Rascon-Ramirez. “But no matter how hard we tried to avoid our parents’ recommendations, it is likely that they ended up influencing [our] choices.”

In other words, if your tween or teenage daughter rolls her eyes and says something like, “Arrrrggghhh, Mom, you’re so annoying,” what she really means, deep down in her subconscious mind is: “Thank you for the helpful advice. I shall endeavor to act accordingly.”

Stacking the little voices.

There’s also some stacking going on, meaning if you set expectations in daughters’ heads that they should go to college AND they should not get pregnant as teenagers, they’re more likely to make it to age 20 without having a child than they would have been if you’d only pushed the “don’t have a baby until you’re old enough to be ready” message.

As my colleagues at Scary Mommy, where I first heard about the study, put it:

“Sure, having a healthy sense of self-esteem and believing that you have options is great, but not getting pregnant just because you ‘don’t want to hear it’ is fine with us, too. Whatever. Just make it not be so.”

I don’t know about you, but even as a man in my 40s, I sometimes hear my parents’ cautionary words–or even my grandparents’–when I go to do something I probably shouldn’t. My grandfather passed away in 1984, but if I ever overdo it on dessert, it’s his voice I hear calling me out for it.

And assuming this study holds value for boys as well–there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t–that means I have my parents’ habit of consistently expressing their high expectations to thank, at least in part, for my success.

So thanks for the nagging, Mom and Dad. And to my darling daughter, believe me, this will be harder on me than it is for you.

Raising My Daughter To Be A Warrior Of Love And Justice

The Huffington Post

In my family, we ain’t raising no princess.

09/16/2016 

EVAN ZISLIS
JunoWarriorChild

My daughter started taking martial arts when she was five years old. I think it’s helped teach her confidence, self-discipline, and self-reliance. Life isn’t always cream puffs and unicorns. When dire circumstances warrant acute awareness, hyper-focus, and rapid response — kids trained in resilience are far more likely to endure hardship and advocate for peace with poise.

In my family, we ain’t raising no princess. We’re revolutionaries and unyielding warriors of justice. We do our research. We know where our food comes from. We’re intentional and informed with every purchase. We talk about environmental preservation, human rights and civil liberties. We look at labels and shop almost exclusively second-hand. We vehemently reject playground and corporate bullies seeking to profit on the backs of the little guy. In our house, we relentlessly root for the underdog and those doing the right thing. In our community, we show up with blood, sweat, tears, gluten-free chocolate chip banana bread, and baskets of homegrown organic veggies for those struggling to survive the day.

At our dinner table, no topic is taboo. We name the elephant in the room and promote discourse on all things controversial. We respectfully provide opportunity for everyone to express opinions, vet ideas, and workshop viable resolutions. When something makes the hair on the back of our necks stand up, we talk about it. We understand that safety is an illusion and control is a fairy tale; that on any given day, precious life is precarious, hanging in the balance like a feather on the wind. We reject hate-talk and dismiss fear-mongering. We embrace the practicality of living every moment — because life’s too short to pretend it’s not.

“Everybody dies” is a common mantra in our home. Not for fear of death, but as a compassionate reminder that in life there is no permanence. Our soulful six year old has given elaborate burials to expired honey bees found in our garden, respectfully thanking them for their invaluable contributions and wishing them safe passage to future endeavors. Living an active outdoor lifestyle in the heart of the Colorado Rockies, she’s become an avid student of wildlife biology, horticulture, and ethnobotany. True to her namesake, our astute Juniper is diligently learning the nuances of the food chain, life cycles, and the interconnectedness of all things.

We don’t have television. Juno’s exposure to cliché Disney princesses has largely been limited to the fiery, redheaded archer Merida from the movie “Brave.” Our favorite bedtime stories are about hardship, adversity and redemption, where the heroine needs no rescuing. Books like “The Paperbag Princess,” by Robert Munsch reveal protagonists’ inner strength and self-determination we want to nurture in our own daughter. Parents looking for inspiration can check this greatbook list (for older readers) with female characters who promote the kind of bravery and perseverance we should all seek to cultivate from an early age.

As a professional organizer and author, it’s my job to help people simplify, discover clarity, and become inspired by a rewarding life of purpose. You bet your ass my wife and I will be raising our daughter to be an independent thinker, a compassionate warrior, and a paragon of stewardship and integrity. Simon Sinek brilliantly reminds us, “Leadership is not about being in charge. Leadership is about taking care of those in your charge.” In my home, we’re far from perfect and that means approaching every heart-felt effort with humility and a commitment to personal growth. Will Durant’s famous interpretation of Aristotle states, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

At six years old, Juno’s well on her way to understanding that intentional habits grounded in compassion, generosity, and getting after it like a warrior — will reliably deliver hard-won results now and for the rest of her life.

Teaching Young Children About Bias, Diversity, and Social Justice

Edutopia

spiegler-teachyoungchildsocialjust-notstock

When my daughter was three years old, I taught her the word “stereotype.” She was just beginning to string words together into sentences, had determined that pink was definitely not her favorite color, and asked (demanded, actually) why all the “girl stuff” was pink and the “boy stuff” was blue. Because there’s no three-year-old version for a word describing why colors are gendered in our society, I figured that planting the seed might yield fruit soon enough. And somewhat surprisingly, I was correct.

Who’s Different and What’s Fair

As a society and within our educational institutions, discussions about bias, diversity, discrimination, and social justice tend to happen in middle and high schools. We’ve somehow decided that little kids can’t understand these complex topics, or we want to delay exposing them to injustices as long as possible (even though not all children have the luxury of being shielded from injustice).

However, young children have a keen awareness of and passion for fairness. They demand right over wrong, just over unjust. And they notice differences without apology or discomfort.

Racial identity and attitudes begin to develop in children at a young age. Two- and three-year-olds become aware of the differences between boys and girls, may begin noticing obvious physical disabilities, become curious about skin color and hair color/texture, and may also be aware of ethnic identity. By the time they’re five and entering kindergarten, children begin to identify with an ethnic group to which they belong and are able to explore the range of differences within and between racial/ethnic groups. In terms of bias, by age three or four, white children in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Europe show preferences for other white children. Further, current research suggests that children as young as three years old, when exposed to prejudice and racism, tend to embrace and accept it even though they might not understand the feelings.

The good news is that bias can be unlearned or reversed if we’re exposed to diversity in a positive way. Harnessing young children’s desire for fairness and using it as opening to discuss bias and discrimination is not a hard leap, but one that needs to be made explicitly and with instruction. They are also not afraid to comment on observed differences. Decades of research indicate that even if parents and adults are not talking about race or other differences, children still notice differences and prejudice. If we choose not to teach or talk about it, children’s notions about race and differences will go unchecked and likely become further entrenched in their minds.

It’s also important that adults in children’s lives do not perpetuate the idea that we should be “colorblind” to racial differences or shush them when they notice someone with a disability. Sometimes adults do this out of their own discomfort with talking about differences, or because they think noticing differences somehow makes you biased. We want to encourage children to notice differences because they do so naturally, yet at the same time, honor people’s identities without judging or discriminating based on differences. In other words, noticing people’s differences is natural, but when adults assign judgments or value to these differences, bias can develop in young children.

5 Elementary Strategies

Elementary school is a time ripe for these discussions. Provided that teachers have the right tools and resources and use developmentally appropriate language and activities, teaching about these concepts can be rich and engaging for children, laying the groundwork for more sophisticated understanding when they move into the tween and teen years.

Here are five concrete ways of bringing discussions about bias and diversity into the elementary classroom:

1. Use children’s literature.

There’s a wealth of children’s books that can be read aloud and independently to approach the topic of bias, diversity, and social justice. Whether it’s about people who are different than your students (window books), an affirmation of their identity (mirror books), or one that exposes bias or shares stories of people who stood up to injustice, reading books is a core part of the elementary classroom curriculum and therefore a seamless way to address the topic.

2. Use the news media.

Find topics and news stories that bring forth these themes, discuss them in the classroom, and build other reading, writing, social studies, and math lessons around them. Relevant news stories that highlight bias and especially those where someone stood up to it and justice prevailed — like the nine-year-old boy who was banned from bringing his My Little Pony backpack to school because it was the source of bullying, or the story ofMisty Copeland becoming the first African American appointed as a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater in its 75-year history — are terrific teachable moments.

3. Teach anti-bias lessons.

We know that all educators face a plethora of daily demands. But because children’s social and emotional development is a key part of the elementary curriculum and because much of the teasing, name-calling, and bullying is identity-based, it’s helpful for the classroom climate to set aside a time every week for an explicit lesson on this topic. Social and emotional skill development lessons are the foundation, and then teachers can move to lessons on identity, differences, bias, and how bias and bullying can be addressed individually and institutionally.

4. Give familiar examples.

Take advantage of children’s interest in books, TV shows, toys, and video games, and use them as opportunities to explore diversity, bias, and social justice. Whether it’s about toys and gender stereotypes, a New Jersey girlwho was tired of seeing books only about white boys and dogs, or discussing a new line of dolls with disabilities, you can provide openings for children to see how bias takes place in media and the everyday objects that they use.

5. Explore solutions.

Re-think the concept of “helping others” (through service learning projects or other volunteer opportunities) to include discussions with children about the inequities that contribute to the problem and consider actions that can address it. For example, while it’s useful to provide food to homeless people, we want to deepen the conversation to convey a social justice perspective and a wider lens with children. Therefore, discuss the stigma and stereotypes of homeless people, learn about unfair housing policies, and reflect on solutions that will reverse the problem in a lasting way and encourage students to take action.

Start Early

Recently, several prominent national education organizations (including theNEA, AERA, AFT, and NCTE) have called for addressing equity in schools and society, specifically recommending that we need to highlight the “systemic patterns of inequity — racism and educational injustice — that impacts our students,” and that educators and school leaders “receive the tools, training, and support they need to build curricula with substantive exploration of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination.”

We need to begin this process with our youngest hearts and minds in order to have a lasting impact. What are your thoughts? How do you approach social justice issues with elementary students? Please share in the comments section below.