IF WE WANT TO TEACH INCLUSIVITY TO CHILDREN, FIRST LET’S LOOK AT THE WORLD THEY SEE

A. Engage with Childhood Discovery: The First Point of Worldview Distortion

Recently, in my pursuit of unconventional cinema, I came across a set of heartwarming stories that believed in the power of an unconventional and distorting worldview. More so, a child’s view: looking through the glass and playing with the spectrum of light so you can sometimes fill in with your own colours to reproduce a known image. I felt a sense of bliss while connecting to the naive characters who were positioned in a gritty reality, yet they journeyed through those worlds with fascination, stories, hope, and imagination. As mature adults, we develop a biased perception towards the kind of sensibility and intelligence that this world naturally demands for effective survival and aspirational choices. In effect, this often pulls away our attention from an important phase of exploration in a person’s life: the stage where innocence, joy and creativity are predominant guides to our vision and consequential actions.

Before the age of wisdom, comes countless moments of awe and wonder. Carl Sagan once shared how his intense affair with astronomical science began with his restless childhood quest to learn about stars1. Despite engaging with elder minds around him on the nature and reality of stars, young Carl failed to gather a satisfactory understanding of the shimmering bodies in the nightsky. He pursued his imagination by means of illustrative drawings. Until one day, he came across the book called Secret of Stars and discovered that stars are actually suns with perhaps their own galaxies and planetary systems. For the curious boy with a telescope, thiswas a pulsating idea that stirred his emotions and flung opened the scale of cosmic universe before his eyes. His worldview changed forever. 

In one of my recent cinematic experiences, I got to visit a relatable psychological expedition of two siblings from Nepal who landed in Sikkim in search of refuge, in the simplistically charming film Pahuna, meaning ‘the little visitors’. In an attempt to escape unrest in their own country, three children end up getting separated from their parents and live an independent life for a brief period. At an astoundingly young age, Amrita and Pranay take care of their infant brother Bishal in a distant land where they not only manage to build their shelter and cook food but also unravel myths and speculations of the Church (a place they recognised earlier as the one filled with monster priests who oppressively make children forget their own Gods and culture). Their worldview changed when priest turns out to be a friend.

I traced a similar character’s journey in the thoughtfully crafted Chippa, where the eponymous 10-year-old boy wander in a distinct underbelly region of Kolkata streets during midnight and subverts the decadence and hopelessness of his reality through his powerful fairytale like imagination. Having a flair for compelling conversations and endless freedom, Chippa lets his mind dream of becoming a footballer, policeman and a taxi driver at the same time. In his interactions with people he crossed paths with, we would find no space for concepts like boundaries, nationalism, elitism, caste, or gender. By conveying the lesson that life has just begun to self-absorbed adults, Chippa reinforces faith in his own vision that do not allow him to get affected by the widespread human suffering and misery. It reminded me of what Spielberg’s classic filmmaking delivered several years back in The Empire of the Sun.    

Such mediums of storytelling are a subtle presentation to portray the inevitable innocence that guides human understanding at such an age. Without connecting with the voice of that innocence where the loci of child’s perception locate itself, we fail to make real sense of their beliefs and actions, and process of unlearning becomes a trivial effort.

B. Be Prepared: Adversity and Severe Conflicts is not Rare at a Young Age

While being aware of the ugliness and chaos of the outside world, there is always a relentless pursuit by protective individuals to shelter children in their early stages, keeping their sight and thoughts preoccupied with joyful moments and aspirational beliefs. Unfortunately, a huge population of children barely touch this liberty due to certain big differentiators operating in the world they inhabit.

First Big Differentiator: Social Identity

Hostility due to social and gender identity is still highly prevalent within the Southeast Asian context. Psychologically and emotionally, it leads to a sense of world alienation for children who end up being at the receiving end of this hostility. Consciousness about social identity manifolds in public, as children start becoming insecure about their skin, their hair, their name, their clothes as well as their voices2. In rural and tribal regions of India, caste and gender inequalities play a significant role in shaping a child’s sensibility unless there is a timely intervention by school at an early stage.

Things complicate further for children when there is an implicit bias on caste or gender associated with teachers and staff at schools- the only space where learning can possibly surmount the discriminatory lines of belonging. Globally, close to 139 million girls are out of school in various countries due to family pressures, poverty, and other societal obstacles3. In India, discrimination often gets uglier with intersection of caste and gender roles preventing children from getting equal opportunities in schools. States like Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand have earlier reported cases where lower caste students were ill-treated, neglected, or abused by teachers and principals. These dynamics when prolonged during primary and secondary schooling can produce minds with poor socialisation and lack of positive life skills to grow. Therefore, it is no surprise that a state like Jharkhand with high tribal population has a 70% dropout rate among school children and also remains one of the poorest regions in the country4.

Second Big Differentiator: Economic Identity

Unfavourable conditions are not just restricted to developing countries. Contrary to conventional belief that economic prosperity leads to better societies, U.S statistics estimate that 1 in 7 children in the country experience child abuse or neglect. Neglect is the most common form of child abuse, followed by physical abuse, sexual abuse, and psychological abuse5. But a question we must ask ourselves is what kind of children would be far more susceptible to such negative impacts?

In 2018 with nearly 1 in 6 children living in poverty, child poverty rate in America was estimated to be 16% which is nearly one-and-a-half times higher than that for adults ages 18-64 (11 percent) and two times higher than that for adults 65 and older (10 percent) 6. Furthermore, significant relation between poverty and race has been supported through statistics and research on various development indicators. On the other hand, the widespread struggle with respect to child poverty in developing countries has been an ongoing subject of debate in the world of policy, academia, and civil society. In a recent report, OECD stated that the majority of developing countries in its cluster have children more likely to be under poverty than the general population7.    

Income becomes a differentiator in several ways despite both developing and developed countries investing in welfare programs. Raghuram Rajan in his new book The Third Pillar talks about the growing phenomenon of residential segregation in the modern U.S society: the intense fragmentation of communities by their income groups because certain high class areas like Chicago do not provide space to families with low financial capacities. Such policy induced disparities further widens the gap of inclusion as poor children experience lack of opportunities to get into quality education schools and have better social interactions8.

Third Big Differentiator: Migrant Identity

Migration plays out to be a big differentiator for children by deepening their universal longing for home and acceptance. A large population in this world remain footloose, migrating within the country or between countries. In India, public schools of urban cities cater to children who migrates from villages and have families working in construction and other informal spaces. This gives us a sense of the cultural diversity and inequity one can expect in public school classrooms as children from different regions and states are likely to be in the same space. It becomes way more challenging to ensure inclusion when the parents are seasonal or temporary migrants due to unavailability of settlement and economic means.

Moreover, international migration becomes a significant factor in lives of children belonging to poverty stricken or conflict-ridden regions. In 2019, among the world’s migrants there were nearly 29 million refugees and asylum seekers who got forcibly displaced from their own countries. An additional 41 million people in 2018 were internally displaced due to conflict and violence, with an estimated 17 million being children9. Despite intense migration rates being prevalent over the years, little research has been documented on the deeper psychological and emotional impact of displacement and migration on children of different age groups. Although, studies have established that severe losses and disruptions due to violence and social conflict lead to high levels of anxiety and psychological trauma, strongly visible in child refugees from Syria, Somalia, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Afghanistan.  In one way or the other, sustained impact of migration can be related to how a child feels when they lose their shelter at a young age. Natural disasters like earthquake and hurricanes also lead to miserable homelessness for millions every year and such children also find themselves unravelling chaos and instability for longer periods of their life. A study by UNICEF and Save The Children on the psychological impact of Nepal Earthquake in 2014 is a notable work that demonstrates the aftermath effect of disaster on the perception of child 10.             

C. Initiate Dialogue with Children: Ask Them Questions and Let Them Stay with it

Scientific temperament is being widely recognised as one of the most essential 21st century skills.  Technology, social media, and Internet are massive mediums of information exchange, but they turn out to be equally capable to act as a smokescreen of biases, notions and ideology driven opinions. Amidst a sea of information exposure, the impulsive tendency to find immediate answers to satisfy one’s belief or viewpoint is inevitable when there is no emphasis on greater reflection and non-judgmental inquiry towards complicated questions. If we just look around or open our social media accounts, the paramount need of scientific temperament for new generation of learners will become way clearer perhaps!      

As discussed in the previous section, the children will possess an established worldview built by their observations and experience. The adult to intervene in this worldview could be a teacher, guardian, or parent but in the end they all will end up playing the role of the educator. In the process of initiating dialogue, it is necessary for an educator to be mindful of this worldview, it is necessary that we don’t just stand like a conventional teacher and dictate new knowledge but actually sit with them at the same level, facing their eyes, and talk about experiences that led to this worldview. The right questions for children will emerge out of these experiences, and depending upon the state of psyche and behaviour, the exercise would aim at a fine balance of individual coaching as well as group learning like in classroom.

Because in their raw, initial state, children will differ in their nature and sensibilities as well as cooperation capacity, for which compassion and trust of the educator becomes indispensable. Only when you have heard their voice, your questions will reach their ears to let dialogue take place. The use of dialogue can become far more effective in the mother tongue of the child, as supported by several studies that establish how children learn better in their own language. Therefore, it is valuable to consider keeping the cultural language of the child an integral part of learning process.       

There is dearth of research on how young children understand inequalities, however, ample evidence exists that young children see “race and gender, endorse pride and happiness with their race and gender group, and endorse positive and negative stereotypes about multiple groups” 11. Therefore, our approach to conversation on such topics will differ based on child’s identity. For example, black children, white children, and children of Mexican immigrants would have varied perception of the self and the other when it comes to race and ethnicity. The same applies to the approaching conversations on such topics with boys, girls, transgender youth, or children who do not identify within a gender binary. At the same time, it is important to reframe these conversations as a normative and consistent part of parenting and teaching.   

While being actively conscious of the existing perception and social identity of child, adults should not let difficult questions on identity go away before they become confusing potholes for these minds. Pick questions that can make them think on certain matters deeply. For instance, why black women should make as much as white women or how can we give opportunities in a fair and morally just manner for both disabled and non-disabled people? And when these questions have been asked, let them undertake a personal inquiry before jumping to conclusions immediately or using means of fear or conformity to fabricate opinions. When questions are difficult, children need to stay with them and that’s where scientific temperament cultivates. This process of sustained inquiry should enable children to ultimately develop identity literacy- “the ability to interpret a racial or gender encounter, reappraise the biased narrative, and to help them know how to effectively cope with or resolve with experience “12. Instead of knowing, the directed goal of understanding these concepts will help them question perspectives and be less conditioned by dominant narratives. An example can be seen in the teaching methods of mathematics Professor Eric Gutstein. At University of Illinois, he made his students investigate significant social themes based on active dialogue in classes where topics included, among others, racism in housing prices, mortgage rejection rates, and police practices; living and working conditions for immigrant farm workers; representation such as maps and changing demographics of region. By reading the world with mathematics through these projects, children gain the sensibility to examine relations of power, resources, and exclusion to identify discrimination and unjust actions 13.            

D. Invest in Safe Learning Spaces to meet the Experiential Gap of Child

An introspective question for adults here is when do we truly establish safety for a child? More so, how do we perceive safety for their growing self and in what ways we believe it will help them eventually if all that world demands are resilience and lack of dependency. But as we understand the extent of psychological and physical challenges that a substantial population of children go through that early, it might be worthwhile to examine the invaluable need for a safe space to pursue authentic learning. Not to create temporary utopias for young minds but to rather develop spaces that transmit the experience of safety in particular. Safety that is equally psychological as it is physical, filled with empathetic listening, trust in questioning, and the culture of companionship.   

Between the adult and the child, there would always be an experiential gap to challenge the efforts of connecting in a humane way. With parents, this gap might be relatively less prevalent but all other spaces including one’s own home can easily turn out to be a disenchanted territory unless there are sincere efforts put in to create a sense of belonging and acceptance. It is a powerful and arduous endeavor to make such a space but indeed worth striving for in order to enable children to experience wholeness in education. Wholeness in which a child imbibes the willingness and ability to cope with his surroundings and relationships while being understanding of one’s own self.

In guiding the path to inclusion and belonging, three prominent spaces can play a pivotal role and therefore can be the focal points of establishing safety: home, classroom, and community learning spaces. Home is closest to our personhood and often children are deprived of this gift for many years, leading to irreparable damage. But as much as possible, a specific focus on protecting children from abuse, neglect and violence is crucial especially by strengthening parental care. In special cases where such an intervention is extremely challenging, classrooms and community learning spaces can play a far greater role, offering not only refuge but genuine human support to lift spirits. The Community Library Project is one such wonderful example of creating positive places for children to engage with deeper education and hone their readership with peers.

Teachers and mentors can turn out to be extraordinary support systems in creating safe spaces. It is vital to invest in government and nonprofit programs that have a focus on enabling children to build emotional resilience, capacity for self-reflection and lifelong engagement with subjects to question worldviews. Classrooms and many such community spaces within schools need to encourage healthy socialization by giving peers enough opportunities to co-educate each other. To dissolve group identity and teach individuality, educators can repurpose their pedagogies in several ways as suggested by both researchers and practitioners 14:

  • Encourage gender neutral playing
    • All play develops skills and competencies. Whether it is about dolls or cars, use different toys to grow both masculine and feminine side of their personalities.
  •  Have a bias for action and demonstrate:
    • Be a role model. Show your children that everyone can help with household chores.
  • Teach them to understand and respect their bodies:
    • Use body exploration as an opportunity to encourage self-care and self-confidence. Sports and Movement Art can be excellent means to educate on something this sensitive.
  • Use classroom as a space to clarify identity concepts:
    • Besides sexism, marginalised girls are viewed through the lenses of stereotypes. Show children that the history of marginalised people is also made of heroes, princesses, and queens.
  • Let feelings come out:
    • Encourage expression and engagement with all kinds of emotions to cultivate empathy
  • Expose them to the power of diversity:
    • Encourage an appreciation of wide range of characters and cultures through various mediums of storytelling.” 
E. Promise Uncertainty and Teach Inclusion as Hope

Let us come back to the childhood discovery, from where our conversation took its first steps. An extraordinary cinematic experience taught me one of the most extreme versions of this discovery, when a few days back I watched this film called Capernaum. From the very first frame, it immersed me into the moral question that would keep coming back to us whenever we will be a witness to the worst of human acts and imbalance of natural world: Is it fair to bring our children to existence when it can be hauntingly painful? The protagonist of this story, 12-year-old Zain, made me contemplate this proposition in the most profound manner when he ended up suing his abusive poor parents in Lebanon for a life of utter misery. His hostile eyes echoed the voices of perhaps millions of young lives who somewhere deserves to question the hard truth. Questions like these can baffle even the most optimistic advocates of human rights; internally it is powerful enough to suffocate our conscience and turn the presence of air around us into an inescapable poison.

The state of human condition will always be in flux- there will be a continual longing for home and love in every corner and diverse lives will have their own struggles. From aspirational urban citizens to indigenous forest dwellers, from girls in authoritarian regime to black lives in white dominated neighborhoods, from lost refugees to alienated transgenders, this struggle can only be understood through an education that aims to not just help children live life but understand it. To deal with his own fate and circumstances, the child needs to realize that often world seen is not the world desired, therefore, it’s time to examine your values. “It’s time to get rid yourself of your current presuppositions. It’s time to let go. It might even be time to sacrifice what you love best, so that you can become who you might become, instead of staying who you are”.

In his best seller 12 Rules of Life, psychologist and public speaker Jordan Peterson gave important lessons on accepting life as suffering and pursuing meaningful actions to find happiness and fulfilment 15. A key takeaway for me was to teach young minds that “human beings are intrinsically fragile. We can be damaged, even broken, emotionally and physically, and we are all subject to the depredations of aging and loss. This is a dismal set of facts and it is reasonable to wonder how we can expect to thrive and be happy.” It is only through emotional empathy and wholeness that one can gain the capacity to feel the experience of the other. Even in all this diversity, there will always be a universal in terms of faith and emotions and children must learn to understand and apply them in various contexts to educate themselves. Despite initiating dialogue and keeping them in safe spaces, you have to ultimately promise children uncertainty of existence, but at the same time teach inclusion as hope for tomorrow because in the end every soul around us is simply in search of a home.

References:

1 The demon-haunted world: science as a candle in the dark, Carl Sagan

2. It’s never Too Young to talk about race and gender, Anderson R.E

3. UNICEF Statistics

4. UDISE Data

5. The State of America’s Children,

6. Children’s Defence Fund

7. Child Poverty 2020, OECD – Social Policy Division – Directorate of Employment, Labour and Social Affairs

8. The Third Pillar, Raghuram Rajan, 2019

9. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, Trends in International Migrant Stock: The 2019 Revision Migrants by Age and Sex. United Nations, New York, 2019.

10. Children’s Voices One Year After the Nepal Earthquake, UNICEF, and Save The Children

11. Brown, C. S. (2017). Discrimination in childhood and adolescence: A developmental intergroup approach.         

12. Stevenson, H. C. (2014). Promoting racial literacy in schools: Differences that make a difference.

13. Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by Numbers, Eric Gutstein

14. How to Educate a Child on Gender Equality, Believe Earth

15. 12 Rules of Life, Jordan Peterson

Cover Graphic by Srishti Gupta

Author Bio

Farhan is an Associate Consultant at Sattva and primarily works on projects focused on Program Strategy and Research Advisory. Farhan brings experience in academic research, data mining and competency of problem solving, statistical analysis and research frameworks. At Sattva, Farhan has worked on projects focused on organisational development, setting up systemic processes and change management with Raintree Foundation. His experience also lies in quantitative research driven engagements at Sattva, having done extensive data analysis for Longitudinal Migrant Workers Tracking under GFEMS (Global Funds for Endling Modern Slavery) and Agricultural impact of Pest Management Practices for Wadhwani Foundation. In addition, he has also been involved in Sattva initiatives and Thought Leadership focused on Thematic areas of Education.

Prior to Sattva, he engaged with the Teach For India on both field support and as a part of their Strategy & Learning team. Farhan holds a BSc in Applied Statistics & Analytics and PG Diploma in Liberal Arts from Ashoka University (YoungIndia Fellowship). He is passionate about storytelling and creative arts, and actively tries to understand the ways in which stories can be used as a means of education for children.

Published by The Delek Archives

This project intends to archive instances of identity and religion-based discrimination in schools. It will map policies, surveys, curriculum evaluation and self-reflections; with a larger goal to providing a vision for justice, equity and inclusivity in school education.

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