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September 2, 2021

Setting Young Black Girls Up for Success

Developmentally appropriate strategies to implement in the early childhood classroom. 
Social-emotional learning
Setting Young Girls Up for Success (thumbnail)
While Black boys are being marginalized, ostracized, and pushed out of school at young ages, one demographic of students experiencing similar outcomes is not getting enough attention: young Black girls.  

Why Focus on Black Girls? 

The research is clear: Early childhood education lays the foundation for future success. However, too many Black preschool girls are disproportionately experiencing failure early. Take, for instance, Kaia Rolle, a six-year old African American girl in Florida who was arrested at school for throwing a temper tantrum.   
African American girls are subjected to harsher school discipline policies than girls of any other race—they are six times more likely to be suspended, pushed out, or expelled than their white counterparts. Black preschool girls are punished for behaviors that are developmentally appropriate because their behavior is seen by adults as intentional. This is often because they are perceived to look older than their age and act more mature.  The term “Adultification” is used to describe the way adults often view African American girls as older than they are and place adultlike norms on these young children; thus, they are seen as less innocent.   
These assumptions and beliefs contribute to the learning barriers faced by many Black girls.  
While the pandemic has highlighted systemic injustices that impact the opportunities afforded to African American children, dismantling the inequitable experiences young African American girls face will require focusing not only on policies, but also on providing developmentally appropriate strategies that can be implemented immediately in the early childhood classroom.  

Five Strategies to Promote Early Success

The following five strategies for teachers and leaders aim to counter the practices that prevent access to learning for African American girls by focusing on creating positive social-emotional and academic opportunities during the early years. The strategies come out of participatory action research, conducted by me, asking young Black girls and their families what they needed from their teachers to feel they belonged in the classroom and school community. 

1. Evaluate Your Knowledge

Reflect on implicit biases and assumptions that might impact your teaching practices and take the time to acquire knowledge about and understand developmentally appropriate expectations for all young students. 
For example, as noted in my research study, a three-year old African American girl was punished by her teacher for falling out of her chair. However, all young children are developing gross motor skills at three years old. By resorting to punishment, this teacher took an unnecessary and potentially harmful action. Knowledge about typical development would help to eliminate biases; instead of punishing, a teacher could use that knowledge to devise an action plan that would model and scaffold expectations.  
Reflect on whether the behavior a young student is exhibiting is intentional or developmentally appropriate. Then, assess the frequency of the situation. Develop an action plan, which in the case above could include utilizing flexible seating options.   

2. Engage Students and Their Families

As Tom Berger stated in his Edutopia article, “How to Maslow Before Bloom, All Day Long, school leaders and teachers must meet students’ safety and belonging needs before academic needs. 
Take the time to build positive relationships with each student in your classroom. This can be done by addressing the child and her family in the morning with a simple, “Hello,” and asking about the child’s weekend or favorite hobby outside of school. That knowledge can then be incorporated into the daily curriculum.
During my research study, one family mentioned that a teacher thoughtfully incorporated a mystery reader into instruction. Families were invited to read a story to the class using any format that worked for them: they could prerecord themselves reading, Zoom into the class to read, or read in person. This signaled to the students and their families that they were a respected and welcomed part of the community. 

3. Empower and Encourage

Take the time to get to know each girl’s strengths. For example, when I talked with the family of the overactive three-year-old, they said that their child’s teacher and an administrator’s actions were disheartening because they didn’t take the time to model behavior, but instead jumped to conclusions. The family further stated that their daughter was in a different category of gross motor development than her peers. She was enrolled in gymnastics and could climb a rock wall without any assistance. Instead of punishing the child for this advanced development, the school could have used that strength to empower her—encouraging movement with flexible seating or a medicine ball. 

4. Expose and Extend 

Expose young Black girls to rich content and extend learning opportunities. This can be done by incorporating diverse children’s literature into lessons, exposing students to arts and culture, and introducing students to new places and people. If you aren’t able to take young children on field trips, then bring the content to them. Incorporate UDL guidelines into your early childhood curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices. Provide opportunities for all young children to acquire content through multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression.  

5. Reinforce Expectations

Take the time to teach expectations and avoid punishing a young child who is learning these expectations. During my research, it was said that a Black girl was punished by her teacher for yelling across the classroom to communicate with her friend. Instead of handing out a consequence, the teacher could have walked over to the child, whispered the expectations, then modeled what they looked like. Remember, teaching and modeling expectations is an ongoing process. Intentional teaching involves repeated exposure, time, and careful modeling and scaffolding. 

Protect the Joy

The strategies listed above are not meant to serve as a Band-Aid approach—they are meant to serve as conversation starters on how to protect and cultivate the joy for learning that many African American girls enter into prekindergarten with. These strategies are meant to engage administrators and early childhood educators in intentional reflection about the assumptions and beliefs that promote barriers to learning and development for African American girls.   
All young children should be allowed to play, explore, and learn without being prejudged based on their race, gender, appearance, or personality. Understanding typical development and behavior, reflecting on biases and assumptions, and utilizing UDL principles are just a few steps to ensuring that young Black girls experience opportunities to succeed during the early years.   

Bweikia Steen is an associate professor of education at George Mason University, where she also serves as the early childhood internship coordinator. Her research focuses on exploring developmentally appropriate practices that promote social, emotional, and academic success among children of color during the early years.  

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