Social Justice: Start Early, Start Now
More than half of the 74 million children in the United States are children of color, and they are served by learning systems that are gravely inequitable (Haywoode, 2020). Because of this inequity, social justice must be embedded in the field of early care and education. Nationally, Head Start programs were one way to address social justice. Head Start was designed to disrupt the cycle of poverty that is transferred from one generation to the next across the nation and to promote social justice in those areas where educational opportunity was denied. Since the inception of Head Start, the field of early childhood has expanded to many options such as family child care, group child care, school districts early childhood programs so how do we ensure all programs are centered around social justice.
Social Justice starts early and should be embedded in early education teaching practices and should be a critical component included in staff development and teacher training programs. To ensure everyone is understanding social justice in the context of early childhood, we need to develop a common language to guide our work. It is also essential to offer professional development and training around this common language, as an intervention to address the early childhood achievement gap or the opportunity gap.
Some children and their families have fewer opportunities when it comes to high-quality education. Research calls this the opportunity gap. According to Mooney (2018) This gap takes into consideration the circumstances in which people are born – such as their races, ethnicity, ZIP code, and socioeconomic status- determine their opportunities in life, rather than all people having the chance to achieve to the best of their potential. The opportunity gap draws attention to the conditions and obstacles that young students face throughout their educational journey. It is therefore accurately placing responsibility on an inequitable system that is not providing the opportunities for all kids to thrive and succeed. These disparities have an impact on their learning. The opportunity gap can be considered a significant contributor to the achievement gap. The Achievement Gap is about the opportunities and disparities of children living in poverty (lower socio-economic status) and the barrier they face on their educational journey.
It’s More Than “Fixing The Child”
Based on the data, we must be intentional with our approach to addressing the learning and achievement gaps. It must be more than “fixing the child” but taking a deeper dive into the systems and practices that affect their academic success and advancement. To begin this journey, we must have a common language that answers the question, what is social justice. Social justice in education is described as a commitment to challenging social, cultural, and economic inequalities imposed on individuals arising from any differential distribution of power, resources, and privilege. As reflective practitioners and leaders, how are we ensuring this is being implemented in our programs. Since social justice has many layers, let us take a deeper dive and look closely at some of the layers to help gauge our practices.
Let us focus on one of the layers of social justice – equity. Before we discuss equitable practices, it is imperative to understand the differences between equality and equity. We must have a common understanding that “Equality is giving everyone a shoe, but equity is giving everyone a shoe that fits” Equity is making sure that every student and family has what they need for the child to be school ready and academically successful. It is imperative to know that this cannot be done by providing every child and family the same resources as a one size fit all approach. We must meet every child and family where they are; we must adjust our practices for them not expect them to change to fit into our practices. As a reminder, we can’t fit square pegs in round holes. Being equitable is being intentional in providing them the right resources and support to be successful. To develop a culture that is inclusive of social justice practices, we must examine our practices, review our policies and procedures, and look at the professional development and training that is being offered.
Embedding Social Justice in Professional Development
In Reimagining Our Work (ROW) Initiative, which launched in the summer of 2020, small groups of people come together as a study-for-action cohort. In this cohort, there are four principle charter statements that guide the work. Principle #3–Center our work on social justice states, “Because we believe that fair, equitable, and culturally diverse learning experiences are an essential birthright of young children, we commit to cultivating practices that align with and honor children and families, both culturally and linguistically. It goes on to say that it is a priority that educators share children’s and families’ racial, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic identities. Our commitment to social justice calls us to shape our discussions, our studies, and our decision-making with a robust range of cultural perspectives, languages, and abilities. Anchoring all our work is the commitment that the people who teach and care for children must oppose racism and actively build anti-racist efforts into their teaching practices.”
According to (Sykes, 2014), Our behavior at the classroom level is the most direct tool we have when it comes to instilling the quality of social justice in the children we teach.
“Teachers have a unique opportunity to counteract unhealthy influences in a pupil’s early childhood. They have the power to affect a child’s life for better or for worse. A child becomes what he experiences. While parents possess the original key to their offspring’s experience, teachers have a spare key. They too can open or close the minds and hearts of children.” (Dr. Haim Ginott, 1993)
Being intentional in setting up the classroom environment is imperative. An environment should value the families, culture, and language of the students represented in the classroom and accept human differences.
To help teachers implement social justice in their classroom, organizations, programs, schools, higher education institutions, and community-based programs must provide relevant and on-going professional development that will help teachers connect the dots and move from theory to practice. Professional Development must have objectives that embed social justice. The sessions must be designed to facilitate crucial discussions on equity, diversity, racism, anti-bias, inclusion, and cultural competence.
According to the National Association for the Education of the Young Child (NAEYC), culturally competence is a core component of high-quality early childhood education programs, and it is incumbent upon states to ensure that they are attending to the critical questions and implications of diversity, equity, and cultural competence at every stage of the development.
Another way to address social justice in professional development is addressing the Critical Race Theory (CRT). This concept is a theoretical and interpretive mode that examines the appearance of race and racism across dominant cultural modes of expression. This topic could be implemented with higher education staff that are preparing future teachers. It could also be used with a variety of trainers, professors, and consultants trainers, working with the early childhood workforce.
Professional development is creating awareness, common language, and an understanding and practice, that we can integrate into our teaching practice. That will help us address what is causing the gap in achievement. As early childhood professionals, we must be committed to centering our work in social justice. It is our professional and ethical responsibility to ensure that we are providing children high quality and equitable programming.
Reflective Thoughts on the Core of Social Justice
We cannot afford to take early childhood for granted and think that social justice is not a big deal for young children. We must take a deeper dive into social justice and address what goes on beneath the surface and produce outcomes that will help alleviate the learning and achievement gap. In the book, Doing the Right thing for Children, the author expressed that we must get to the core of social justice. “You must identify the fibers of your own moral fabric in no uncertain terms. When you do this, you empower yourself to act from more than sound logic. You empower yourself to act from the heart. From this position of strong moral ground, and as a leader, you can do the right thing for children by promoting and exemplifying social justice in early childhood education to the maximum benefits of all.
Center on the Developing Child (2007). The Impact of Early Adversity on Child Development (InBrief). Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.
Fernald, A., V.A. Marchman, & A. Weisleder. 2013. “SES Differences in Language Processing Skill and Vocabulary Are Evident at 18 Months.” Developmental Science 16 (2): 234–48.
Ginott, H.1993. Teachers and Child: A Book for Parents and Teachers New York: Collier Book. MacMillian Publishing Company, 1993
ROW Charter, 2020. ROW Initiative. Exchange Press. www.exchangepress.com/ROW.
Sykes, M. 2014. Doing the Right Thing for Children: Eight Qualities of Leadership. Redleaf Press
The Difference between Equity and Equality Retrieve from https://www.theodysseyonline.com/the-difference-between-equity-and-equality?ref=pn
History of Head Start www.acf.hhs.gov
Mooney, T., 2018 Why We Say “Opportunity Gap” instead of Achhievement Gap” https://www.teachforamerica.org/stories/why-we-say-opportunity-gap-instead-of-achievement-gap