Teaching DEI and Social Justice in Early Education at TCEE

June 28, 2024


By Anna Goodkind, Director of Early Education 

At The Trust Center for Early Education (TCEE), Temple Ohabei Shalom’s early childhood center for children ages 8 months through 5 years old, we believe in an inclusive, anti-bias education, which means allowing children to feel comfortable voicing their questions, and guiding them thoughtfully towards honest and reflective information about the world we live in. Teaching social justice and diversity as an early childhood educator is both important and challenging. While this is often a topic of conversation in educational settings around MLK Jr. Day, or during Pride Month, we want to make sure that we are acknowledging significant events, people, holidays, and situations but that we are also infusing social awareness, action, and empathy into our students’ learning each day, no matter the time of year. 

We believe that children need to be regularly exposed to books, images, experiences, and information about those whose backgrounds and lives differ from their own; in order to promote a healthy understanding of and relationship with the world around them children must consistently have access to books and other elements of their environment that act as both “mirrors” and “windows”—mirrors of their own experiences, and windows into the experiences of others. At TCEE, we try to make these mirrors and windows parts of daily classroom life all year long. And this is just one way we teach social understanding and empathy to the youngest members of our society. 

Just like the rest of our emergent, child-led, play-based curriculum at TCEE, discussions about identity similarities and differences, whether related to appearance, race, gender, family make-up, disabilities, language, or background, emerge from the children—their thoughts, questions, and wonderings about themselves and their environment. Some of them may notice the pronoun pins most of the TOS and TCEE staff wear on their ID card lanyards; others have thoughts and questions about books they’ve read, people they’ve seen, or clothes they or their friends are wearing. It is perfectly natural and developmentally appropriate for young children to be wondering and talking about these topics, as they begin to form their own identities and views on the world, trying to navigate who they are and how they fit into the world around them.  

Rather than shutting down this natural discussion, which traditionally leads to more feelings of discomfort and exclusion, we welcome their questions, as it shows they are working hard to learn, grow, and form their own impressions and opinions about the world. One of the things I love about our community, and one of the reasons I think that our preschool’s progressive educational style fits in so well with the values and philosophy of learning at TOS is because of the encouragement we offer to everyone in our community to question everything, and to learn through discussion—our teachers welcome the children’s questions about classroom routines and guidelines, or their wonderings about the workings of the world, and our clergy provide opportunities for children to ask questions about God, and to have healthy discussions about their connections to Judaism. 

I frequently ask the teachers to find their “why” as they are observing and reflecting on their own work; let’s all take a lesson from the children who ask “why” incessantly, who are always wondering and learning and growing; and let’s ask ourselves and each other “why” in order to truly identify our purpose in everything we do. At TCEE over the years we have determined our “why” as a community to be accepting every person for exactly who they are, and keeping this in the forefront of our mind as we interact with one another and our children. One of our core Jewish values is that each of us is created b’tzelem Elohim–we are each uniquely special and holy; honoring each child’s individuality is part of the values that we believe in as a school and as a Jewish community.  

Anti-bias topics are woven into the work we do on a daily basis—in the books we place on our shelves, the images on our walls, and the individual and small group discussions that take place throughout our days at school. The teachers guide discussions among the children about acceptance and inclusion, using age-appropriate literature to demonstrate how they are each able to be whoever they want, and express themselves in whatever ways they feel most comfortable. Some of these discussions of gender, ethnicity, and identity have continued throughout the year in natural conversation among the students, often in small groups over table top activities or meal times. 

We focus much of our social learning in preschool on teaching children to respect each other’s ideas, needs, and desires. We teach children to recognize their own needs and use their voices to share these needs with the world, and to respect each other’s bodies and boundaries, including physical and personal space. When we truly listen to our children as they tell us what they need and feel, we encourage them to listen to others, to respect one another’s needs, and to value everyone’s voice as having equal significance and power, even when others are expressing something we may not want to hear. 

We consider Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) work to be an important part of our staff’s ongoing Professional Development, and reflect on this work together at various times throughout each school year. We also value bringing this important work to the rest of our community so that we can partner with parents and caregivers to consistently educate our children across all of their environments through a social justice and anti-bias lens.  

We start each school year together as a staff with reviewing and updating our Staff Group Norms, as well as reading and discussing DEI documents (a DEI Ally Pact, and an Anti-Bias Reminder) that allow us to maintain our goals of consistently serving as allies, acknowledging our individual and shared blank and blind spots, and continuing to truly see each community member, child and adult, as b’tzelem Elohim. 

Last school year we engaged in some extended Professional Development work throughout the entirety of the school year, with both educators and families, around the topic of Gender Identity, working with an outside consultant, Erina Spiegelman. This year TCEE educators will be partnering with another local school to engage in a full day of DEI work, with a focus on racial biases, with Wee The People. We hope this workshop will provide a helpful framework for beginning our work together in the 2024-2025 school year, and will inform much of how we teach as we set up our classrooms and plan our ongoing curriculum, as well as family and community engagement. 

Additionally, this fall we will be partnering with an organization called Story Starters to engage in a series of workshops using children’s books to guide families in discussions of race, racism, and racial biases. Please read on and click the links below to find out more about this program for families with children ages 3 to 8 (older siblings welcome to participate). We hope you can join us! 

We are delighted to share information about an upcoming learning opportunity for our families this fall. Our community has been invited to partner with Story Starters to bring the Family Conversations program to families of enrolled and recently graduated students. It is not a huge time commitment, but will certainly be a very rewarding experience, for adults and children alike. We are opening the invitation to all current, future, and alumni TCEE families, as well as families enrolled in other TOS programming (BEEP on Beacon, HomeBase, ShalomBase, ARS, TOS Young Families, etc). 

Family Conversations is an eight-week program that uses children’s literature to support family conversations around race and racism. As part of this program, families receive a bundle of books and parent guides to keep, and attend family events and online parent workshops. 

The TCEE/TOS program will run from September 22nd – November 17th, 2024 with two in person events at Temple Ohabei Shalom for the whole family, and two evening virtual parent workshops. It is geared towards families with children ages 3 through 8, but older and younger siblings are welcome to participate too. Please complete the form on this page to register!