Making Room for Diversity in Your Program: Q&A with Valerie Rhomberg

When you walk into a program that cares for newcomer children, it is common to see multiple cultures and languages represented in the physical child care environment, as well as through the people in it:  the staff, the children and their families.  Multiculturalism is supported and embraced in countless ways.

But what about diversity? Isn’t it just another word for multiculturalism?

Not necessarily, according to Valerie Rhomberg, Manager of Academic Programs at Mothercraft College and co-author of “The Affective Curriculum: Teaching the Anti-bias Approach to Young Children”.

Diversity goes beyond multiculturalism and looks at 12 areas where people may have biases: age, race, gender, class, ability, appearance, culture, family composition, belief, sexuality, language and lifestyle. Taking it one step further, the anti-bias approach addresses removing diversity-related biases—and moving forward into accepting everyone no matter what their background.

Accounting for all areas of diversity and ways to overcome biases are not always integrated formally or informally within child care settings—especially in the settlement community.  Which begs the question: is there room for all of them in your program?

We recently had the opportunity to speak with Valerie, to gain insight and better understand her perspective.  Here are some of the highlights from our interview:

How does the concept of multiculturalism differ from diversity?

The word diversity can mean so many things to so many different people, and not only to someone working in the child care field. However, my viewpoint is that most people see the word “multicultural” and look at it more from the ethnicity perspective.

Having a multicultural child care setting addresses diversity with regard to things like language, culture, food, clothing holidays and traditions. But, if you look at diversity from the perspective of all the different variations that exist within people, globally, then multiculturalism is just one specific part of it.

To me, anti-bias is the most inclusive term, because it asks you to address biases connected to culture and all the other diversities—including language, age, family form, class and belief. There needs to be an action component to move forward into accepting everyone, no matter what their background. An anti-bias approach asks us to be proactive and to take action when faced with unfair treatment. If we connect the word diversity to anti-bias, then it becomes a very strong word, as it includes supporting fairness for all the differences that exist globally.

Do children see these differences, and is it important to discuss diversity at a young age?

Children see differences from the time they are born. For example, if a newborn is accustomed to the mother’s breast and suddenly they are given the bottle, they are going to refuse the bottle.  That is an indicator that the newborn has an awareness that it is something different and doesn’t want to deal with it.  So the initial reaction to anything that is different on the part of young children is either they’ll exclude or they’ll make a funny comment if they don’t know what to do.  Or, if they’re really young and don’t have the language, they’ll give you a certain look that says,  “What is this? Tell me about it.” If you say nothing, then you are giving the first message that there is something wrong. If this is the continued message they are receiving from you whenever they are questioning a component related to human differences, they will eventually acquire what we call “internal shame”.  They are going to become afraid to talk about it, because everything else they talk about gets answers. But if this particular subject gets no answers, they’ll think there is something wrong with it.

From my perspective, the younger the children are when they are provided with knowledge of aspects of differences related to people who live on this planet, in an age appropriate way, then the more able they are, as they get older, to stand up for themselves and for others.

How do children learn about diversity?

There’s a ladder.  First you expose children to all the differences that exist. Through that exposure comes awareness and through the awareness comes familiarity.  And through the familiarity, children acquire a comfort level with differences, and can slowly achieve empathy toward someone who reflects, or is connected to, one or more of the diversity areas.  Once they have achieved empathy, they should be able to take action when unfairness either against themselves or someone else occurs. But without the exposure you can never get to the action piece. And, of course, they need adult modeling to be able to actually acquire the action taking skill.

With children older than two and a half, I can ask open-ended questions to catapult them into awareness.  For example, when doing puzzles I may say, “How did you manage to get all the pieces in?” and they’ll answer, “I used my hands.”  Then I can continue with, “So do you think that someone with no arms would be able to do puzzles?  Let’s try it.”  Or when reading a book about families, I can ask a question such as, “Do you think there might be families that have only one mom or dad, or two moms?”

So, through their responses to open-ended questions, I can hear their perspective and know what areas I need to work on to get them to the acceptance level.

But for infants and toddlers you do need an environment that reflects global diversity, because that is the exposure part. Make children aware there are babies with brown skin, black skin, white skin, blue eyes, curly hair and so on—and it’s gradual because infants can only take in so much.  I’m giving the example of faces, because children are really interested in faces. Then they can look at you when you show them pictures and you can say things like, “Yes, his skin is black and yours is white.” It’s your body language in combination with your tone of voice that is going to create the awareness that these differences are all okay and acceptable.

So what is the best way to integrate diversity, including multiculturalism, in a program?

It has to come naturally out of the interests of the children, and that is called the transformational curriculum.

The caregiver can set up the environment so that there will be natural questions, because an object is put in the room.  That’s the time to talk about it and, if the children are young, to try some experiential types of learning opportunities.

And if you are doing it intentionally, you can pull the materials you need should the conversation go this way or that way.  So, in a very natural way, you are following the lead of the children, but you are extending and supplementing.

What if there are newcomer parent misgivings around certain areas of diversity?

You have to look at who these newcomers are, what are their similarities and differences, and how do I help.  Some come into the country with limited or no exposure to certain areas of diversity, and they may find these new concepts challenging to understand and accept.

So the question becomes, given the population that you are serving, how to help everyone begin to have an understanding of each other… and begin to have acceptance, as opposed to just tolerance?

It may take awhile to come around to a different way of thinking about someone who, for most of their lives, they may have been told not to associate with for various reasons.

It’s important to ask parents why they feel so strongly about the issue, to clarify and see where the parent is coming from, and to work with them.

What if the children come with biases?

Children may come in and say, “My mommy and daddy say this”…and it is totally opposite to what they have heard in the program. A possible answer could be, “This is how your mommy and daddy look at it, but there are many ways of looking at it, and other people look at it from this perspective.” There isn’t only one way that is the right way—and that’s the bottom line.

What is a caregiver’s role and responsibility in teaching diversity and multiculturalism to children? 

Our attitudes drive our behaviours and our behaviours are the action that we take… so, where do we get our attitudes from?  They come from our values and our values come from the experiences we’ve had up until the present point in time.  That includes our families, education system, religious affiliations, travels and so on. So, whoever is working with children who are very young, have a great influence on their attitudes towards others.

And, anyone working with young children always needs to be aware of the messages they are sending around what is acceptable and what is valued. Therefore, the first thing you need to do is to examine yourself and your own biases and ask, “What can I do to empower myself to become more comfortable, so that when I talk about these things the children won’t pick up my own discomfort level?”  And that’s hard.

It’s difficult enough to address these issues, but it will be even more difficult if you are unsure of where you are, why you are where you are, and how you can move forward.

But, from a professional perspective, this is the responsibility of each caregiver.