A group of kindergarten or first grade students and their teacher in the classroom, sitting together in a circle on the floor. The children are 5 to 7 years old. They are all wearing masks, back to school during the COVID-19 pandemic, trying to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The teacher is holding a digital tablet and a boy is looking at it while clapping his hands.

Navigating bias in the classroom

Children deserve to be in a safe, positive classroom environment where they feel comfortable while learning. But many factors can limit the opportunities for Black students, from implicit bias to outright discrimination. The bottom line is, Black students in the U.S. are not receiving an equal or equitable education. 

The facts

  • Black students are suspended at four times the rate of their white classmates, starting in preschool 
  • Black students are twice as likely to be expelled as their white classmates
  • Black students are more likely to miss school and have absent teachers 
  • Black children, especially boys, are more likely to experience “adultification bias” resulting in less nurturing by their teachers and harsher discipline 

These numbers are distressing and are driven by many factors outside of any individual’s control including socioeconomic disparities that impact access to schools with intimate classroom sizes, challenging curriculums, and quality teachers, all of which are key factors in student achievement. But what do you do when you feel like your child is receiving poor quality education because of racism in the classroom? 

Addressing racism in the classroom

It can be extremely painful and angering to sense that your child is being treated differently in the classroom because of their race, particularly because it’s not always clear what to do when your child’s teacher may not be conscious of their actions. Here are some ways to address racism in the classroom before and after it occurs.

Before the start of the school year

Before the school year starts, or when your child gets a new teacher, you may want to ask them a few questions about what they are doing to address racism and bias-proof their classroom. Talking with other parents at the start of the school year about some of your concerns can help you identify and address issues together as a group and can take the pressure off you as just one person. 

If you do feel comfortable speaking to your child’s teacher directly, try asking the following questions: 

  • Have you participated in anti-racism training and/or what are you doing to address your own biases?
  • How will you talk about race in the classroom?
  • How will you create an environment that welcomes difficult or uncomfortable conversations? 
  • How will you ensure students feel comfortable coming to you with their concerns? How are you fostering trust in the classroom? 
  • What will you do if you notice racism from students? How do you plan to set standards for what is not acceptable? 
  • How will you check in throughout the year to make sure students are being treated equally? 

There are many helpful resources that you could provide to your teacher if they have trouble answering any of these questions.

When to escalate 

If you are noticing that your child is being treated differently in the classroom and you’re having trouble getting through to their teacher, try speaking to the school’s principal or to other parents at your school. 

If your child’s teacher is struggling to understand how racism is at play in the classroom and you’re noticing it, other parents are probably noticing it too.

Talking to your child about race 

While it’s completely normal to feel protective of your child and hesitant to talk to them about the ways that their race may impact them in the classroom (and beyond the classroom), tackling these issues head-on can be a helpful way to signal to your child that you’re there to talk about any issues as they come up. 

The way you go about initiating these conversations will be dependent on your child’s age. Start by making sure the books you read together have characters who look like them and by asking them open-ended questions about their experiences in the classroom and with other students. 

Conversation strategies 

Lastly, try these other suggestions when talking to children about race:

  • Empowering them to speak their feelings and experiences
  • Educating them on gaslighting and validating their experiences and worthiness
  • Be honest about the reality of race in society
  • Be mindful of the histories they’re being taught in school


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