June O’Sullivan: Embracing Inclusion and Diversity so it becomes the way we do things around here.
Inclusion begins from the premise that if you build an inclusive approach you will encourage diversity. That means making inclusion “the way we do things around here”, not tokenistic efforts to align with an event, festival or celebration but having the values of inclusivity embedded at every level of the organisation. In other words, basing your thinking on creating an environment where everyone understands what equal access actually means and it is done with dignity. In other words building an ambitious, aspirational and empathetic Early Years service which can transform lives and where no one is left behind.
Working with small children is a perfect place to begin to examine what is meant by inclusion and diversity. Children are open books – keen to learn and quick to model and role play what they see happening around them. That means they can learn good behaviour as quickly as poor behaviour. This puts pressure on all of us working in the Early Years to have a clear understanding of what inclusion means for us, and how it is translated into a service that encourages diversity of people, ideas experiences and opportunities.
Understanding the concept of inclusion and diversity
Many people are worried by the concept of inclusion and diversity and often think of it in terms of race and gender but inclusion is much wider and deeper than that. It is an attitude of welcome and openness and a willingness not to judge on surface issues. It means not being fearful of the unknown but looking at things in a way that is honest and intelligent. In fact, showing the same willingness as the children to embrace new and unknown experiences and situations. What we know is that without an ethic of inclusion, it is easier for settings and the educational ecosystems to become unhealthy and harbour issues of power and marginalisation and exclusion. For example, the reason LEYF is a social enterprise is to ensure we can support children from disadvantaged families and communities who are often the first group to be marginalised and excluded from accessing quality Early Years education and care.
In terms of inclusion, it means thinking firstly about structural fairness such as fees, available hours, where you operate nurseries, the food you serve, and the willingness to support children with SEND. It surprises me that even now in 2022, parents still tell us we are the first setting to agree to take their child with additional learning or medical needs.
Translating your own values of inclusion
When it comes to practice, it is not about having a festival event or running a kindness event but translating your own values of inclusion that often align with your context. For example, sometimes we hear people say they have no black dolls or books with black children because there are no black families in the area. There are similar arguments for children with disabilities or families where there are two mums or two dads but that is to miss the point and fail to recognise that we are preparing our children to become global citizens, with inclusive attitudes that allow them to be open and welcoming to all new experiences in the future. We do not need to proselytise but we need to create a safe environment where we can explore new thinking through resources, activities and open and expansive conversations. There are many books that introduce diversity in an accessible and fun way such as Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell or The Family Book by Todd Parr.
Our new book, 50 Fantastic Ideas to Encourage Diversity and Inclusion provides a large range of regular nursery activities that are underpinned by the values of inclusion. Like anything, when you understand clearly what you are intending to teach, the message can be interwoven and powerful without saying much at all. Whether you are baking a pomegranate cake and opening up a conversation about another country to exploring yourself through a fingerprint activity, painting feelings or developing a parent support network, all these activities build inclusion when they are understood by adults as ways of including and involving children and their families.
Activities that are designed for a wider conversation and may be seen as more radical include Drag Queen Storytime or taking part in Pride Month to celebrate the LGTB community.
These opportunities may need more thought in terms of communicating your intent with parents, staff and children. Having done all of these activities, we were humbled by the thoughtful and empathetic responses they elicited.
Creating an inclusive environment
The United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals (2015) identified SDG4 as ‘Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’. It’s an admirable ambition and introduces lifelong learning. This is critical in our world of Early Years because many staff working in the sector have not had the opportunities to learn and deeply feel the lack of status and sense of exclusion from the wider educational system. Creating an inclusive environment means we pay attention to the children but we also pay attention to staff. How do we make staff feel? How do we reward them? How do we campaign for their rights as teachers? Is our attraction, recruitment and retention approach inclusive? Do we think about how and where we advertise? For example, when we were building a campaign to support more men into childcare we discovered we needed to think about where we advertised, the language we used and the images we used on posters and ads. In this report, we explore children’s views about whether the gender of the staff impacts their choice of activities.
The political importance of Early Years
It is often forgotten that working with small children is highly political. We touch on some of the big political and philosophical issues of social justice, fairness, poverty, health and the purpose of education. The political importance of Early Years is still not well understood by the public or sadly the sector itself. For example, we know from the Heckman Equation (2015) that access to high quality Early Years education can make a huge difference to many disadvantaged children’s learning and their future economic, social and emotional success. Inclusion is another big subject which falls into this big political agenda – especially when you consider how understanding and supporting inclusion builds the diversity essential for peace, tolerance, human fulfilment, and sustainable development.
50 Fantastic Ideas to Encourage Diversity and Inclusion by June O’Sullivan and Nausheen Khan is available via Amazon. Purchase your copy here.