Following an 18-month study, Paul Connolly argues that racism in the very young must be tackled head on RESEARCH has consistently demonstrated that children can be racially prejudiced from the age of three onwards, but it has been less successful in showing how schools can address this problem.
Teachers often tackle the issue indirectly by encouraging young children to recognise and value cultural differences through the use of a range of multicultural teaching materials.
Such approaches have a key role to play. However, my own research suggests that much more direct approaches are necessary with children as young as five.
The research focused on three parallel receptionYear 1 infant classes in an English, multi-ethnic, inner-city primary school. I spent a year-and-a-half in the school largely observing and interviewing the children during all parts of their school day.
The data collected and reported in Racism, Gender Identities and Young Children reveals that racism has come to influence and shape the lives of these young children to a disturbing degree.
One example involved a friendship group of six-year-old boys trying to justify why they would not let Asian boys play football with them. When I challenged one boy who explained that it was simply "because they're Pakis", the other boys developed alternative explanations including: "because they can't run fast" and "because they're small".
What this and many other examples in the book show is that these young children are doing far more than just repeating what they have heard at home. They are actively involved in adapting and developing their own prejudiced attitudes in order to justify their behaviour.
Overall, what my research shows is that young children's racist ideas are intricately bound into their particular experiences and social worlds.
Thus Asian boys are "cissy" and cannot play football or fight, Asian girls are "ugly" and "smell" and African-Caribbean boys and girls are "strong" and "good at sport".
All of these attitudes, among others, were clearly expressed by the five and six-year-old children. They provided one of the means with which they came to interpret and understand the world.
Because of the deeply-rooted nature of these attitudes, attempts by the school to celebrate the Hindu festival of Diwali actually increased the racism of some children. The racist attitudes that the children had developed ensured that they interpreted the celebration negatively.
While multicultural initiatives have an important role to play, my research therefore shows that they cannot be pursued in isolation. There is a need to complement these by directly challenging the racist attitudes and behaviour of the children.
The data clearly indicate that children as young as five and six are capable of thinking through the consequences of their attitudes and behaviour and understanding that certain things are wrong.
Rather than just chastising a child who is racist, therefore, time is needed to explain to him or her why their attitudes or behaviour is wrong.
Stories can also be used with the class as a whole to encourage children to explore and discuss the negative effects of racist name-calling and the exclusion of others.
According to the Macpherson Report on the murder of Stephen Lawrence, "our education system must face up to the problems, real and potential" which exist in relation to racism within society.
The data reported in my own book not only testify to the importance of this statement but also the need for such initiatives to begin with children at the start of their school careers.
Dr Paul Connolly is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Ulster. His book, Racism, Gender Identities and Young Children, is published by Routledge, price pound;13.99.
THE LANGUAGE OF HATE
Kylie: (white girl, 6): "I didn't like the Indian Diwali things."
Zoe: (white girl, 5): "All they do is get their sticks and done that..."(gesturing)
Interviewer: "Why don't you like Diwali?"
Kylie: "Cos it's Pakis! I don't like Pakis."
Zoe: "I don't like Pakis!"
Kylie: "They're horrible."
Zoe: "I like the show but don't like them doing the dancing!"