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Friday, December 2, 2022

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Assistant professor in counseling and school psychology Jennica Paz Assistant professor in counseling and school psychology Jennica Paz

How to Talk to Children About Racism and Unrest

Counseling and school psychology faculty member Jennica Paz offers advice on parenting in the national current moment
By Michael Klitzing

“Educators should be at the forefront of this cultural revolution by working to dismantle systemic and oppressive actions and ideologies.”

As race in America continues to dominate the news in the wake of the death of George Floyd, it may be difficult for parents to know how to explain current events to their young children. But Jennica Paz, assistant professor in counseling and school psychology at San Diego State University, says discussing racism with kids—and instilling anti-racist values at a young age—is extremely important.

The SDSU News Team spoke with her about what children understand about race and racism and the importance of uncomfortable conversations.

What do we know about how children process and understand discrimination and racism?

The process of awareness of racial and ethnic identity and attitudes typically emerges in children beginning around two to three years. At first, they may display heightened awareness to overt physical differences. Depending on the range and depth of exposure to diverse peers, media and culture, children will begin to make some solid connections as to what is familiar versus unfamiliar to them. You can expect a lot of questions when they are around something unfamiliar. By the time a child is kindergarten-ready, they are often able to identify their own ethnic and cultural group or groups, and are cognitively on their way to being able to develop their multicultural lens.

What should parents do to keep children on the right track?
Current research has found that when exposed to prejudice and overt or covert racism, children as young as three years old may very well accept or embrace such ideologies, despite cognitively not being able to fully understand their consequences or the feelings behind them. We want to get to a place where terms such as anti-racism are normalized, and principles of equity and justicetruly for all—are woven into the curriculum for our students starting in pre-school. Parents may begin at birth by regularly incorporating books and television shows with diverse characters and music from diverse artists into their daily lives. These intentional practices, paired with actively calling out and correcting racist behavior, will empower children to humbly engage with peers of different backgrounds.

What are some ways educators — and even parents — can have authentic conversations with children about what is happening? 

The extent of the information you share and level of detail you provide should be matched with the child’s developmental age and cognitive ability. No matter the age, start by asking the child what it is they already know or think they know about the situation. This provides an excellent opportunity to see what their level of understanding is about the issues. Just as with other crisis events, we want to be intentional, factual and direct with what we share.

This means avoiding euphemisms or sugar-coating the situations. For especially vulnerable youth, it is okay to leave out gruesome details, but the core of the issues should still be relayed.

Next, check back with child for understanding. Ask them to say back to you in their own words what they learned and if there is anything they still feel confused about. If they ask a question you do not feel you have the answer to, that’s okay. Be transparent and say that you are not sure but can find out and then learn about the information together. Feeling uncomfortable talking about race is a privilege, it means you have not had to endure and live through it.

You train school psychologists here at SDSU. How does that fit into the equation?

As a trainer of future school psychologists, it is my duty—ethically and morally—to promote fairness and justice, to model accepting responsibility for actions and cultivate healthy school, family and community environments. Our school psychology program philosophy is grounded in coursework and practical experiences that serve to prepare school psychologists to be systems change agents in culturally-diverse schools. Our program seeks to support students with building the necessary skills to function as advocates, change agents and consultants in the schools by providing a broad array of culturally appropriate assessment-intervention services.

What role should education professionals have given the current social climate?
Educators should be at the forefront of this cultural revolution by working to dismantle systemic and oppressive actions and ideologies, and support the development of critical and anti-racist thinking through modeling and pedagogical activities. Now is the time to shed a few layers of privileged ways of thinking, and get vulnerable. Introspect and discover those blind-spots. Approach this process with a sense of cultural humility and intentional openness rather than willful ignorance. Learn more specifically about anti-Blackness, and commit to active anti-racist ally-ship.