Voices from the Field

March 26, 2021

Breaking Down Stereotypes in the Pre-K Classroom

This month, we talked to Ms. Belle Bayron from Children’s Campus at Southpoint about addressing stereotypes in the pre-K classroom. Children begin to learn about stereotypes during their earliest years, and even begin to recognize them by the time they enter pre-K. You may have some ideas of common stereotypes children start to recognize, such as the belief that only boys can play with tools and playing dress up is for girls. However, pre-K teachers like you can disrupt belief systems based on stereotypes as trusted adults in the child’s life. In this interview, we ask Ms. Bayron about stereotypes she’s noticed in the classroom and how she addresses them.

What are some examples of stereotypes seen in pre-K classrooms?

Many common stereotypes center around different racial or ethnic identities or gender and can affect children’s development, academic performance, and even career choices as adults. Ms. Bayron listed some examples she has heard in her classroom, and further in the interview, we talk about ways she has talked to children about those stereotypes.

  • Boys wear construction hats.”
  • “Dolls are for girls and cars are only for boys.”
  • “Why is your hair short? Girls should have long hair.”
How can you turn these conversations into teaching moments?

“When I hear my students talking and acting based on stereotypes, I always make it a point that I’ll step in and will join their conversation, [because] I want to hear their thoughts and ideas.”

Often times, children do not know that what they’re saying is a stereotype because these ideas are taught to them by other trusted adults, T.V. commercials, books, and more. Listening to the conversation to see what prompted them to say or act on it can help guide the conversation toward inclusivity.

“Many times I was asked why I am wearing a blue shirt with a collar, why do I have short hair, why am I using a big and thick backpack, why black sneakers and a lot more! […] Working in pre-K you must have an answer ready with you all the time, and when they [ask] I always take this opportunity [as an] open window to start talking to them.”

Ms. Bayron says the conversation with the child about why she’s wearing a blue shirt if she’s a girl might sound like this:

Teacher: “I am glad you asked me why I am wearing a blue shirt with a collar. Blue is one of my favorite colors and I have a few shirts that look like this.”

Student: “I like blue, too, but blue is for boys. My mommy says I can wear a blue shirt and my sister can wear pink.”

"What matters is that you're happy."

Teacher: “Your mommy says you can wear blue and your sister can wear pink. I respect your mommy’s opinion, but I think girls can wear blue just like you! All of these colors are beautiful for everyone and are for everyone to enjoy. We all can wear any color of shirt, dress, shoes or backpack. Green, yellow, orange, purple, white. It doesn’t matter what color shirt you wear, what matters is that you're happy."

Have these conversations been successful in breaking down stereotypes?

Yes! The scenario above is based on a real conversation with a child in Ms. Bayron’s class. The child started coming to school in shirts in different colors and was happy to enjoy all them all. Not every stereotype can be broken down in one conversation, but by challenging these ideas in the classrooms and pointing out why they are not fair judgements to make, children will learn to be inclusive during play, believe in their own abilities, and feel confident about what they like without fear of comments based in stereotypes.

Have parents brought any concerns about stereotypes to your attention?

Ms. Bayron has had many different experiences with parents that both upheld and challenged stereotypes, which shows us that disrupting these beliefs is a lifelong effort and people of all ages are still learning. One example of a stereotype she has seen is bringing blue cupcakes for boys and pink cupcakes for girls on their child’s birthday. However, most of her experiences have been family members asking her about their child’s desire to do an activity or wear clothes that differ from common gender stereotypes. For example, asking her thoughts on a boy wanting to take ballet classes since “ballet is for girls,” or a boy wanting to play kitchen to pretend to bake with his sister at home.

What are effective ways to help families confront their own biases?
  • Create an unbiased atmosphere.
  • Hold parent seminars about stereotypes and talk to their children about inclusivity.
  • Lead with child’s happiness. Allow the children to make their own choices and see how much happiness it will bring to them (dress, shoes, colors, games, books etc.).
What is the benefit of addressing stereotypes in pre-K?

“There are benefits [of] addressing stereotypes in pre-K both individually and as a whole.” For children individually, addressing biases expands their knowledge about what they and their peers can do, regardless of their gender. Having a deeper conversation with their teacher may also help them feel more comfortable coming to their teacher in the future with questions about stereotypes.

“One of the classroom benefits is that students will encourage other students to speak up.” If they know their teacher will support them when they challenge a stereotype mentioned by another classmate, they might feel more confident in standing up for themselves. Another benefit is having more influence than T.V. shows and commercials since children trust their teachers and stereotypical beliefs can be challenged in the moment.

How have you broken down stereotypes in your classroom?

We hope this has provided helpful insight on talking about stereotypes in pre-K classrooms. Though it may not always be easy, the best way to disrupt stereotypes is to have conversations that lead to changed behavior and beliefs about different groups of people. 

If you want to share your own tips or stories, leave them below in the comments! They may be featured in our next issue.