Preschool Children's Classification Skills and a Multicultural Education Intervention to Promote Acceptance of Ethnic Diversity

By Bernstein, Jeffrey; Zimmerman, Toni Schindler et al. | Journal of Research in Childhood Education, Spring-Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Preschool Children's Classification Skills and a Multicultural Education Intervention to Promote Acceptance of Ethnic Diversity


Bernstein, Jeffrey, Zimmerman, Toni Schindler, Werner-Wilson, Ronald Jay, Vosburg, Jill, Journal of Research in Childhood Education


Abstract. Previous studies on the ethnic awareness of young children have identified a developmental sequence of ethnic understanding based on cognitive-developmental theories. The present study extends earlier findings by using measures that include classification tasks. Nineteen preschool participants were randomly assigned either to an intervention group or a control group. The children were pre-tested to obtain a baseline measure of their classification skills (i.e., classified by age, gender, race/ethnicity). Following the pre-test measures, children in the experimental group participated in an eight-week intervention program designed to reduce racial/ethnic stereotyping. Increases in classification skills were observed in the experimental group at post-test. Upon conclusion of the eight-week intervention, children in the experimental group were less likely to sort photo cards by race/ethnicity and more likely to sort them by gender and age. These results suggest that interventions for preschoolers can e xpand young children's ability to classify individuals on multiple dimensions (i.e., age, gender, race/ethnicity).

Each individual is different from the next. Many characteristics, including ethnic background, determine the degree of that difference. In light of the diversity of race and ethnicity in our communities, it is worthwhile to explore how preschool-age children view individuals from races and ethnic backgrounds unlike their own. It is also important to examine whether children, early on, have biases and stereotypes that influence their view of these individuals.

Research has established that children are aware of ethnic differences at a young age (Aboud, 1988; Flavell, Miller, & Miller, 1993; Katz, 1976). From an early age, children who live in culturally integrated surroundings or who are members of ethnic minority groups recognize that U.S. society is composed of many diverse groups. Through television, books, and school they have been exposed to the lifestyles and expectations of the Anglo American middle class. Furthermore, based upon firsthand experiences, these children may even be aware of the existence and effects of racial discrimination.

Many American children, however, grow to adulthood unaware of and insensitive to the experiences of other cultural groups. In order to increase the potential for harmony between diverse groups of people, it is necessary for children to possess a cultural awareness that extends beyond their immediate experience (Ramsey & Myers, 1990). Multicultural education and its contemporary, anti-bias curriculum, are built on the assumption that it is the responsibility of adults working with young children to acknowledge these differences in a positive, accepting way and to overtly teach appropriate responses to children's inquiries or discomfort regarding differences (DermanSparks & the ABC Task Force, 1989). To understand how children develop attitudes about race and ethnicity, it is useful to review the literature on prejudice and stereotyping, cognitive development, classification, and intervention strategies.

Review of the Literature

Racial Prejudice and Stereotyping

Allport (1954) referred to prejudice as an antipathy based on faulty and inflexible generalizations. Prejudice may be directed toward a group as a whole or toward an individual because she/he is a member of that group. Ashmore (1970) defined prejudice as a negative attitude toward a socially defined group. Dorvidio & Gaertner (1986) referred to prejudice as a faulty generalization from a group characterization (stereotype) to an individual member of the group. In early writings on prejudice, Allport (1954) stated that it is within a child's first six years that social attitudes are formed. One of Allport's central premises is that children are unprejudiced until their parents or society teaches them differently. More recent work, however, has failed to confirm this hypothesis. …

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