The Importance of Being a Little More Inclusive

By Karen N. Nemeth

Inclusive preschool DLLs

How did you like the new book, The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups, by Erika Christakis?  It is so appealing that readers might not immediately realize what’s missing:  there is no inclusion of diversity. This is not a book about all preschoolers – it is a book about a certain kind of preschooler. If you are the parent of that certain kind of preschooler, you might feel this book really speaks to you. But, if you are an early childhood educator, you are going to realize that Christakis is not talking about the diverse, complex group that you work with every day. Do you know why that is not OK? By ignoring the different languages, cultures, abilities and experiences of young children and the demands this diversity places on teachers, an author belittles their importance. By writing about “preschoolers” while leaving out more than a quarter of
them, the author perpetuates the view that children who don’t fit the majority mold are outliers, not worth talking about.  Since MOST early childhood classrooms have children who don’t speak English or who don’t learn in the typical majority way, this book is also belittling most teachers. It is like saying the real world they work in is just not important enough to talk about.

What If Christakis wrote this book about preschoolers, but only talked about boys? Would that be OK? What if she only talked about mothers and female teachers because she believed men don’t have roles in the lives of little children? Would that be OK? So, why is it OK to write a book on what preschoolers need but fail to address the 25% of little kids in the U.S. that do not speak the same language as their teacher or the 15% of little kids that have disabilities, or the millions of children who come from backgrounds with health issues, violence, trauma, instability, inadequate nutrition, nonexistent early literacy and many other factors that affect their learning needs? Don’t they need to be little, too?

Will policy makers read this and think it is trendy to go back to ignoring diversity? Will foundation executives and think tank thinkers follow this assumption that all children are the same? Will legislators considering budgets for early education and care think they can go back to saving money by removing supports for the millions of young children who speak different languages or who need other adaptations to succeed? Will district and program administrators, college professors, researchers, journalists, app developers, curriculum writers, librarians, social service providers, health care professionals – anyone who picks up this book – get just a little push in the direction of not worrying about diverse learners?  Can we afford to take a step backward? In a time when we are fighting an uphill battle because our field has lagged so far behind the rapid growth of diversity, a step backward is a very bad thing.

Christakis does a wonderful job of covering key components of child development and this thought-provoking book is sure to bring about positive discussion in our field. But, she also talks about play and interaction without discussing how language barriers might affect that play and the needs of those children. She talks about how children should learn the sounds of letters and the meanings of words, how parents should interact with children and how they should participate in their child’s school, but mentions nothing about how different languages, abilities, experiences and cultures should be considered. She talks about curriculum models, assessments and outcomes as if all we need is English. She cites pages and pages of research, policy and opinion – but nothing from the great researchers of our time who have taught us so much about all of the different needs and abilities of young children. Respected colleague, R. Scott Wiley, a kindergarten teacher and blogger, reminded us this week that unexamined practice is the most dangerous thing and “we’ve always done it this way” is the most dangerous phrase in early childhood education. I cannot, in good conscience, let these questions go unexamined just because that’s the way we always wrote about children in the past.

You know I have appointed myself the “annoyer in chief” on behalf of young children and families who speak different languages.  When a new book or article appears amid lots of buzz, I am ready to zoom in, but I’m happy to have you join in the discussion on either side.  I am hoping for a future when every reader will look for, ask for…. demand… attention to the diverse needs of young children. Heaven knows, pretty much everyone who works with young children has to address those diverse needs. My position, developed with Dr. Pam Brillante, is that “all early childhood educators should be prepared to work effectively with children from Different Experiences, Cultures, Abilities and Languages (DECAL)”. To make up for past neglect, we have to push harder, demand more. Sometimes, that does seem annoying.  I’m not writing this as a review of the quality of Christakis’ book. I’m writing this to nudge reflection and discussion so future writers will move the field forward by including all little kids.  All of them. Not just the easy ones.

Christakis, E. (2016) The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from           Grownups, Viking Press.

Nemeth, K., Brillante, P. Mullen, L. (2015) “Naming the New, Inclusive Early Childhood   Education: All Teachers Ready for DECAL” Language Castle, 8/7/2015    

Wiley, R.S. (2016) “The Most Dangerous Phrase?”, Brick by Brick, 2/19/2016



  • kimberly says:

    Thank you Karen for being such a strong voice for us! The very omission of diversity makes me curious as to the who and why the book was written? Life is so much more than the cookie cutter world portrayed is this book.

  • Erika Christakis says:

    Thanks for the feedback on my book from this commenter and from Karen. I am genuinely grateful for all feedback and learn much from it. But I also want to push back a little, if I may, on the claim that i’ve written a book about a “cookie cutter world.” I don’t see that in my writing at all and have been a very strong critic of attempts – which I consider implicitly racialized- to foist direct instruction and other “accountability” measures on children in poverty and children of color. Throughout the book, I talk frequently and explicitly about vulnerable children and those with unique challenges – citing many of the statistics Karen mentions above, such as the prevalence of children in poverty, children facing trauma, children with disabilities, children with learning problems etc. Much of the books is an explicit indictment of the ways we shortchange children with the greatest needs. For example, I repeatedly call out an educational establishment in which children in poverty and children of color are twice as likely to be in classrooms rated “low-quality.” All of that said, my aim in this book was to shift our adult view of “the young child.” I wanted to appeal to a broad audience of people who are seeing children from a deficit perspective and might need encouragement to see them differently, as powerful and creative thinkers. In fact, my chapter five explicitly talks about the ways in which we are ‘losing the child’ (and the concept of childhood). This meant, necessarily, writing a book that was more generalized than some would have wanted. Nevertheless, I have tried to advocate throughout its pages and elsewhere for precisely those children who are too often denied the playful, inquiry-based, and loving learning environments they deserve. One of the key arguments of my book is that our workforce problems (poor pay, demoralized staff, lack of training and professional collaboration etc) too often result in a ‘blame the child’ mentality wherein some types of children (such as those in poverty or those who don’t speak English at home) are deemed unworthy of evidence-based curriculum full of play and joy. I see this attitude all the time, particularly in “no excuses” charter schools where little kids are grimly nodding in lockstep to a heavy diet of direct instruction. We need to solve our adult problems, rather than treating the children themselves as if they are the obstacle to good pedagogy. I have great faith in all children – and their families. I also have great respect for teachers, even as I acknowledge the extraordinary missed opportunities in today’s early learning landscape, including the important issues you have raised around bilingual education(underfunded and often misunderstood) and inclusion which, to me, are symptoms of a larger neglect of children – our neglect of them as unique, whole, and important people. Thank you.

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