SEL as an Entry Point to Tough Conversations With Kids About Race

January 25, 2024
Brittany Sommer Katzin, Ed.M.
Sparkler Learning
Together with experts on identity, race, and bias, Sparkler Learning, Noggin, and Paramount’s Content for Change created Discussing Race with Young Children, a Step-by-Step Activity Guide to help spark safe, age-appropriate conversations with children ages 2-6. The building blocks of the guide are aligned with CASEL’s 5 core competencies for social and emotional learning (SEL). Here, Brittany Sommer Katzin of Sparkler Learning reflects on why it’s important to have these conversations.

Being a parent of young children is not easy: There are daily challenges (like sniffles, tantrums, and sibling rivalries) and more difficult situations (like conflicts with friends and monitoring screen time). Then there are the seemingly impossible questions children ask that make us wonder: How do I respond to this

I’ll never forget when my preschooler asked me: “Why do people hate Black people?” This past fall, after seeing the news, my first grader asked: “Do people want to hurt us, too, because we’re Jewish?” 

There are countless parenting moments when it would be useful to have a script or at least tips on how to get started.

As it turns out, I’m not alone: Most of us feel unprepared to have conversations related to race and racism.

Our colleagues at Paramount recently surveyed more than 15,000 families, representing a broad cross-section of America, to understand how families are talking about identity and belonging, similarities and differences, race and racism. They found that nearly one out of three Hispanic and Black parents are talking about racial discrimination by the time their children enter kindergarten, while white families are waiting. 

In a follow-up study, the researchers asked parents how prepared they felt to have this conversation on a scale of 1 to 5, and all parents reported feeling unprepared: Black and white parents both gave a preparedness rating of 2.4 out of 5.

Although we don’t feel ready, it’s our responsibility as parents (and as educators) to have these challenging conversations. We know from decades of research that children notice differences and begin to internalize biases before they even turn one. There’s also plenty of evidence that hatred and crimes based on identity are not going away. In November, The FBI reported that there were 11,634 hate crime incidents across America in the previous year. In homes, streets, schools, restaurants, synagogues, mosques, parking garages, and even playgrounds, Americans are under attack because of their identity (their race and ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender, and ability).

The largest number of hate crimes was related to race and ethnicity—but the number of crimes related to religion surged in the last year. And last month, the Anti-Defamation League reported a 337 percent increase in antisemitic incidents in the previous two months, as well as an increase in reported incidents of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hate.

Source: FBI Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program: Bias Motivation Categories for Victims of Single-bias Incidents in 2022

As a young Jewish girl, my family encouraged me to read books and talk about the Holocaust, because talking about it would help to ensure that it never happened again. Today, only 47 percent of young Americans say they do not believe the Holocaust was a myth.

Similarly, too many Americans aren’t talking about race-based hate. Some might think that after the 2020 murder of George Floyd, more families would address issues of race and racism with children to promote understanding and prevent repeated hate crimes. However, researchers at Stanford University found that after Floyd’s murder, white parents became less likely to talk about race with their children.

Parents’ natural impulse to protect their kids is understandable, but avoiding hard conversations is not protecting them. Rather, it is inadvertently inviting kids to process what they observe on their own, and to draw their own conclusions about big topics like identity, belonging, and hate.

When we avoid words that make us feel uncomfortable or avoid answering children’s hard questions, our kids don’t have the opportunity to develop the skills to understand and describe what they notice. It not only engenders harmful stereotypes, but it also prevents children from being able to identify and fight injustice.

Back to my conversation with my preschooler about race-based hate: I did my best to give an age-appropriate answer. What I came up with was something along the lines of: “Some people were taught to be afraid of difference and hate people who are different.”

Children naturally recognize similarities and differences. Talking about and even celebrating those differences is something that children can learn as they grow. Not only is it possible to talk about similarities and differences, but it is also beneficial to young children, and it can be done in developmentally appropriate ways.

Early conversations about similarities and differences can help children learn to engage with peers across differences and it can have other important effects, such as reducing levels of aggression, helping children to learn about their own ethnic and racial identity, and helping children to dispel stereotypes.

For those who may be worried they’ll say something wrong or for those who are unsure of where to start, Discussing Race with Young Children, a Step-by-Step Activity Guide is designed to start (and grow) conversations with children ages 2-6 about similarities and differences, racism, and bias. It’s available in English, Spanish, and Chinese, both online and as a printable PDF.

The guide is rooted in illustrations and activities that parents and caregivers of all races and backgrounds can use to navigate these conversations with children. Aligned with CASEL’s 5 core competencies, the activities in the guide can help children learn to build self-awareness, manage feelings and behaviors, make caring and constructive choices about their behavior and actions, establish and maintain healthy relationships, and empathize with others.

When we talk with and listen to our kids — about any and all topics they have questions about — they will grow to feel safe sitting with discomfort. We can talk with them in age-appropriate ways about what is happening in our world—the good and the bad—so they grow up to be informed and active citizens, helping to make our world a better place.

The views in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CASEL.

Brittany Sommer Katzin, Ed.M. is the Chief Programs and Partnerships Officer at Sparkler Learning and a mom of three little children who ask big questions. She earned her BA in child development at Tufts University and her Ed.M. in human development and psychology from The Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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