23 March, 2023 | Posted by Jacinta Murphy

Understanding Anti-Racism Day: The Racism in Education and its Impact on Children

Two hands joined together making a heart shape

In a bid to acknowledge anti-racism month and anti-racism day, the following blog will discuss racism in education and its impact on children. While all kinds of racism are experienced by many in Irish society, this piece will focus on the issue of colour, however, much of it will resonate with others. This blog post has been written by Jacinta Murphy, Early Years and Inclusive Education tutor at Portobello Institute.

Why is There a Need to Examine Racism? 

As an early years educator and lecturer raising biracial children, I can state categorically that racism is alive and well in all areas of life. As a White woman, I thought racism was gone and education was inclusive, however, from experience, I understand now that attempts at being inclusive whether at the policy level or on the ground in a school or setting often somewhat tokenistic, created by the majority with little in terms of accountability.

Veiled, subtle racism is widespread and this is a real, burning issue as racial discrimination impacts the lives of children and families on a daily basis. Stereotypical behaviours, microaggressions, and bias are often deep-seated and unconscious, but they are detrimental as they lead to feelings of inadequacy, and inferiority which in turn breeds negative feelings about identity, self-image, self-worth, resulting in a lack of self-esteem which is detrimental to personal and social development, health, and wellbeing.

In my experience, embracing culture, other than White Irish is often tokenistic, therefore to embrace inclusion and diversity and dimmish the impact of racism, educators must advocate for transformative anti-racist pedagogy and curriculum in early years settings. This will allow for critical examination and reflection regarding the consequences of race in their own lives and the lives of children and families in their settings and community.   

Inclusion is an Elusive Concept 

It is easy to bandy about the words inclusion and inclusive practice, however, educators must consider what this actually means. Inclusive education should embody equity, fairness, inclusion, and diversity advanced through the creation of a pedagogy, curriculum, and classroom which is without judgment.

Also, the concept of inclusion must be examined as it is an elusive, complex, and often assumptive concept, open to interpretation due to our life experiences. Inclusion, equality, and racism are complex issues dependent on the views of others, time and space, societal values, traditions, and cultural and religious beliefs. Therefore, educators should create open and honest dialogue and discussion to unpack and deconstruct their own cultural baggage. And I know the thought that went through your head, I am not racist or biased, however, by sheer nature, we all have a tendency to bias, so I ask you to explore this by reading more about anti-racism in books such as:

  • Anti-Racist Practice in the Early Years: A Holistic Framework for the Wellbeing of All Children by Valerie Daniel, published this year and 
  • Creating an Anti-Racist Culture in the Early Years: An Essential Guide for Practitioners by Sandra Smidt published in 2020 are good places to begin to examine practice.

This is vital and urgent as there an anti-racist curriculum and culture within education has the ability to build the foundation of an inclusive world.

In my opinion, the role of the INCO should include creating dialogue, space, and materials for reflection on race with children, families, and staff. Multi-professional working should include seeking the opinions of the various communities in order to challenge thinking, problem-solve and create a shared vision in policy and practice that is based on more than the values of the majority.  

Children Can’t be Racist, Can They? 

Early years educators are vital in broadening the minds of children and families in their setting and should act as role models as children as young as six months notice the racial difference, and at 2-4 years children can adopt bias regarding race and by early teens, children have firm beliefs about race and racism.

Attitudes are formed through relationships with parents, practitioners, and peers, curriculum including resources, materials, and displays within the setting, so it is vital that these challenge racism and biases.

Challenging racial inequality begins with dialogue clear, well-defined policies, and anti-racist pedagogy and curriculum which empowers children and adults, nurtures a positive sense of individual and group identity and belonging, and promotes the rights of all children and families.   

Policy and Practices

In my view, there is a general tendency to associate inclusion with disability and SEN, however, it is found lacking when it comes to dealing with race, cultural superiority, and racism. This must be revised as racism is eating away at well-being, and impacting mental and physical health.

Therefore, the multiple inequalities children experience should be deconstructed as a stimulus for curriculum development which allows for every child to reach their full potential, thereby influencing future prospects. 

Children and families need to see themselves reflected in policy and practice. Settings should develop an anti-racist policy to complement the inclusion policy and members of a diverse range of people should be involved in creating such policy.

Policies should reflect all racial groups attending the setting and they should be regularly accessed, monitored, and reviewed. Policies should also be viewed as working documents rather than ticking the box for inspection purposes. The views on childhood, identity, and early education are in a constant state of flux, therefore policy should reflect this.  

Cognitive skills, such as critical thinking and problem-solving, can be enhanced for children who are exposed to racially diverse environments with anti-racist policies and practices. In contrast, children who experience stereotypical behaviour and language internalise this which leads to persistent stress impacting health, well-being, and personal, social, and emotional development.

Indeed, children born into families who suffer racial inequality and stress can have lower birth weight which reflects Kendi’s (2017, p.225) theory that children born into racial minority groups are ‘stamped from the beginning’. Educators, especially in the early years, must understand the vital importance of their role to attempt to redress the balance, challenge racism and provide a truly inclusive setting. 

Books, resources, and materials can be used to explore the complexity of social justice issues with young children as they act as a stimulus to confront bias and misconceptions, thereby allowing children to make sense of the world around them.

This may prove difficult as only 1% of children’s books have a leading character who identifies as Black, Asian, and/or minority ethnic (BAME) (Flood, 2018). Yet, if practitioners are to become advocates for social justice, then resources and materials must be reviewed regularly from a critical stance. Issues such as this inadvertently form the basis of pedagogical practice regarding power, status, and social inequality, as it shows the child the views and perceptions of those around them.

In turn, this forms the child’s self-view and can lead to feelings of ‘self-exclusion’, which is how children come to understand what is valued in the world (Ball, 2017, p.207). Children and adults need to engage in relatable play and discussion which allow issues such as race, equality, and stereotypes to be confronted and questioned. This would nurture a positive sense of racial identity which is formed through interactions, experiences, and environments encountered by the child. 

Therefore, early years teams should seek to develop pedagogy, which is motivational, innovative, and empathic to allow all children and families to feel empowered in the setting, regardless of race. This would begin to undo unequal power relations relating to racism and inequality and facilitate a curriculum and pedagogy which is socially just. 

Listening to parents is key, they should be treated as a source of knowledge and expertise providing experiences within the setting which promote positive self-identity and challenge stereotypical views.

Listening and reflective practice should be part of every day in the early years setting, ‘to recognise that there is always something more to learn about child development, learning environments, practice in general’ (Hayes, 2013, p.177).

Self-reflection stimulates and encourages critical thinking on issues of inclusion, such as racism. Alongside this, it allows the educator to pause and think, allowing them to ‘encourage children to question and critique systems and social practices’ and explore power relations, attitudes, and perceptions that underpin racism (Escayg, 2019, p.13). 

What Else Can Early Educators Do? 

Educators must advocate for transformative anti-racist pedagogy and curriculum in early years settings. This will allow for critical examination and reflection regarding the consequences of race in their own lives and the lives of children and families in their settings and community. 

No person is without bias but when we reflect, recognise, and acknowledge it, then we can see the true capacity of ourselves and others. This dialogue is not just necessary for educators, but open dialogue should be scaffolded and encouraged with staff, parents and children in order to examine ‘and critique systems and social practices’ (Escayg, 2019, p.13).

Accountability and active listening are key to antiracism. Racism is complex, fast-changing, and contradictory, therefore anti-racism in education must be equally dynamic.  

Further Reading & References:

Allen, R., Shapland, D. R., Neitzel, J. and Iruka, I. U. (2021) Viewpoint: Creating Anti-Racist Early Childhood Spaces. Available at: https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/yc/summer2021/viewpoint-anti-racist-spaces. (Accessed: 20 January 2023).  

Ball, S.J. (2017) The Education Debate. Bristol: Policy Press.  

Bhargava, R. and Brown, J. (2021) Beyond Diversity: 12 Non-Obvious Ways to Build a More Inclusive Word. Washington DC: Idea Press Publishing.  

Borkett, P. (2018) Cultural Diversity and Inclusion in Early Years Education. Abingdon: Routledge.  

Central Statistics Office (CSO) (2019) CSO Statistical Release: Equality and Discrimination. Available at: https://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/er/ed/equalityanddiscrimination2019/. (Accessed: 31 October 2021).  

Choueiri, R. (2020) Impact of Racism on child development: how to develop resilience in young children and their families in current times and create a change. Available at: https://www.umassmed.edu/globalassets/pediatrics/family-navigator-program/images/session_4_-_ma_act_early_race_and_child_development-revised.pdf. (Accessed: 17 January 2023).  

Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth (DECIEDY) (2020) The Role of Inclusion Coordinator (INCO). Available at: https://lincprogramme.ie/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/LINC-POSTER-FLYER-2021-web.pdf. (Accessed: 19 January 2023).  

Devarakonda, C. (2013) Diversity and Inclusion in Early Childhood: An Introduction. London: Sage Publications.  

Ebun, J. (2017) ‘Whiteness and racism: Examining the racial order in Ireland’. Irish Journal of Sociology, 26(1), pp. 46-70. doi:10.1177/0791603517737282. 

Escayg, K.A. (2019) “Who’s got the power?”: A critical examination of the antibias curriculum, International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy, 13(6), pp. 1-18. doi:10.1186/s40723-019-0062-9.  

Fernando, S. (2017) Contemporary Black History: Institutional Racism in Psychiatry and Clinical Psychology: Race Matters in Mental Health. Cham, Switzerland; Springer International Publishing. 

Flood, A. (2018) ‘Only 1% of children's books have BAME main characters – UK study’, The Guardian, 17 July. 

Hayes, N. (2013) Early Years Practice. Dublin: Gill Education.  

Kendi, I.X. (2017) Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas. London: Random House Publishing. 

Kendi, I.X. (2019) How to be an Antiracist. London: Penguin Random House Group. 

McGinnity, F., Grotti, R., Russell, H. and Fahey É (2018) Attitudes to Diversity in Ireland. Available at: https://www.ihrec.ie/app/uploads/2018/03/Attitudes-to-diversity-in-Ireland.pdf. (Accessed: 16 January 2023).  

McMahon, C. (2020) ‘Irish in the US: ‘No one calls themselves a racist, and yet here we are’, The Irish Times, 18 June.  

Michael, L. (2019) Reports of racism in Ireland. Available at: https://inar.ie/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/2019_iReport_Final.pdf. (Accessed: 16 January 2023).  

Michael, L., Abu-Zeid O’Neill, R. and Kempny, M. (2019) Alternative Report on Racial Discrimination in Ireland. Dublin: Irish Network Against Racism (INAR). 

Nutbrown, C., Clough, P. and Atherton, F. (2013) Inclusion in the Early Years. 2nd edn. London: Sage Publications. 

Orr, D. (2021) Team for Change: A Practitioners Guide to Implementing Change in the Modern Workplace. Bingley, UK: Emerald Publishing Ltd.  

Peters, M.A. (2018) ‘Why is My Curriculum White? A Brief Genealogy of Resistance’, in Arday, J. and Mirza, HS (eds) Dismantling Race in Higher Education: Racism, Whiteness and Decolonising the Academy. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, pp. 253-270.  

Pilkington, A. (2018) ‘The Rise and Fall in the Salience of Race Equality in Higher Education’, in Arday, J. and Mirza, HS (eds) Dismantling Race in Higher Education: Racism, Whiteness and Decolonising the Academy. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, pp. 27-46.  

Robinson, K.H. and Jones-Dias, C. (2016) Diversity and Difference in Childhood: Issues for Theory and Practice. London: Open University Press.  

Smidt, S. (2020) Creating an Anti-Racist Culture in the Early Years: An Essential Guide for Practitioners. Abingdon: Routledge.  

Tusla (2018) Developing Policies, Procedures and Statements in Early Childhood Education and Care Services: A Practical Guide. Dublin: Early Years Inspectorate, Tusla. 

About the Author 


Jacinta Murphy is a senior tutor and programme lead of the BA (Ord) in Early Childhood Care and Education and lectures on our BA (Hons) Inclusive Education Practice. She explains her journey in early years below.

"I began working in early education in 1994, and to be honest, did not know what I was taking on, but the times of work fitted with my family! Little did I know that I would find my life’s passion. I was fascinated by these young people and the fact that the sector was unregulated and basically providers could do what they liked.

"I began to read on the subject and improve my practice and returned to education in 2000 to study the Montessori Method. Since then, I have not stopped learning, through study, working with children and families, and through my role as a manager/lead practitioner in rural, urban, affluent, and disadvantaged areas.  Most recently, I have completed my master's, a proud moment for me and my grown-up family!

"My experiences provide me with vast industry insight as I have experienced vast changes within our sector, frameworks, legislation, and others.  In a setting, each year brings a different group dynamic, therefore it is essential to have the ability to reflect upon and amend provisions and practices to meet the needs of children, families, and staff.  I hope that by bringing my practical experiences in the setting into my tutorials allows students to link theory and practice.

"In 2004, I became a tutor at Portobello Institute on a part-time basis. Currently, I work full-time for the Institute supporting full-time QQI Level 6 students in Child Development, Early Childhood Curriculum, Social, Legal and Health Studies and Personal and Professional Development. I am part of a vital, vibrant early childhood studies team. I lead the Level 7 Early Childhood Studies Degree and tutor on the modules such as Children’s Rights in Today’s World, Enquiry Based Learning and Communicating in Multilingual Contexts."

Did You Know?

At Portobello Institute, we help you to follow your passion and fulfil your potential to achieve the career you want. We have a range of courses commencing in Spring 2023 that will further your knowledge and career in the early years' sector.

BA (Ord) Early Childhood Studies
BA (Hons) Inclusive Education Practice
MA Early Childhood Studies
MA Inclusive Education & SEND
We also offer a comprehensive range of QQI level 5 and 6 early years and Montessori courses. 

Read More

How Do You Run A Child-Centered, Inclusive Outdoor Early Years Setting?

Interested in our MA Inclusive Education Programme?  

If you are interested in finding out more about our upcoming intake for the MA in Inclusive Education, you can reach out to our Early Years Admissions Advisor, Jennifer Matteazzi, who will answer any questions you may have. You can book a 15-minute free consultation call with Jennifer at a time that suits you here. Or you can email jennifer.matteazzi@portobelloinstitute.com or call her directly on 01 892 0031.  

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