Race, Poverty, and Disrupting Barriers to Early Childhood Development

by Adam Alvarez and Ira Murray

In a recent article published in Young Children, we highlighted evidence-based strategies for early childhood educators to strengthen their students’ racial identity. Although the strategies we highlighted emerged from collaborative effort between the Center for Urban Education and Office of Childhood Development, our proximity to both projects challenged us to think more deeply about the implications of our own specific research interests—educators’ identification and responsiveness to youths’ ecological challenges (Alvarez) and social and political approaches to youth development (Murray)—for young children (birth to five years old), with a particular focus on children of color and children of low-socioeconomic status (SES).

Through our careful review and analysis of the research literature on the roles of race and poverty in early childhood development, we are excited to share ways in which our research is both interrelated to and meaningful for early childhood development practitioners, researchers, parents, and, most importantly, young children. In this essay, our goal is to examine how issues related to racism and poverty can shape children’s early educational experiences and present recommendations that can help educators disrupt practices that might be harmful to children of color and children in poverty.

High quality early childhood developmental opportunities are essential for the academic and social development of children. Past research stressed that children who attend center-based and preschool programs, on average, enter kindergarten more prepared than their peers who do not. Black children, in particular, have unprecedented access to early education opportunities, driven in part by the accessibility of Head Start and Early Head Start programs. However, Latinx children—the nation’s fastest growing three- and four-year old demographic—are less likely to attend preschool, and for many children of color and children from low-SES households, the quality of early childhood education they receive may be less adequate than the educational experiences of their white and higher-SES peers.  

Inside of school, the educational experiences of children of color can be negatively shaped, in part, by implicit racial biases that some early childhood educators might hold. For example, a recent Yale University study found that preschool teachers paid closer attention to Black children, especially boys, when expecting problem behavior despite no such behavior existing. Furthermore, Yale’s study found that white preschool teachers held stronger deficit views of Black children after becoming aware of background information that could shed light on potential familial, social, or psychological stressors.

In a 2015 essay, Emma García and Elaine Weiss found that while parents of both Black and white preschool children rate their children equally on several non-cognitive measures such as social skills, persistence, and learning approaches, teachers were inclined to rate Black children lower than their white peers. The researchers also found that while Black children’s parents rated them very highly regarding self-control, teachers conversely rated Black children much lower. The variability between parents and teachers’ ratings of Black children underscores how teachers’ implicit racial biases might emerge in their views of Black children. These deficit ways of viewing Black children can negatively shape their educational experiences, as Black preschool children are 3.6 times more likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions as white preschool children—a disparity that is consistent across elementary and secondary matriculation.

Outside of school contexts, specifically issues related to poverty and living in under-resourced communities, are critically important in shaping children’s early development. Therefore, by developing a deeper understanding of their students’ realities, educators can appropriately respond to their students’ needs. Research suggests that socioeconomic status is one of the strongest factors explaining variances in child development outcomes. Researchers at Child Trends, a leading nonprofit research organization focused on children, found that over half of all nine-month old and almost half of all 24-month old children in the U.S. live in households at or below the 200 percent poverty level. As a reference point, the table below provides poverty guidelines from the federal government.

More troubling, the data suggest that, on average, developmental disparities between higher- and lower-SES children grow between nine and 24 months old, indicating the possibility that Black children’s ecological and educational environments could play a role in widening early childhood development disparities.

Recommendations for Disrupting Barriers
Educators can contribute to early childhood success by identifying and responding to needs that arise from fewer opportunities and increased exposure to overwhelming, stressful and sometimes traumatic experiences due to structural and systemic inequity. For instance, students living in poverty might depend on the benefits of school as a primary resource for food, learning opportunities, diverse peer interaction, or teacher support in helping better understand social and cultural structures of power.

Children reporting multiple traumatic experiences are far less likely to be engaged in school, more likely to miss at least two weeks of school, and almost three times as likely to repeat a grade, illustrating the criticality of supportive schools and educators. Yet, as children come to school attempting to process and cope with their challenges, educators with implicit racial biases or without the skillset to respond, may overlook or misinterpret their students’ needs, leading to reliance on exclusionary practices that may further reduce access to high quality developmental opportunities.

While all children deserve high quality developmental opportunities, young children of color living at or below the poverty line may face barriers both inside and outside of school. We offer recommendations below for educators to work toward ensuring that all young students are adequately and equitably supported in their academic and social development:  

  1. Learn from, with and about students, their communities, and families. Through developing an understanding of children’s social and cultural contexts, educators can better support their students.  
  2. Build and sustain meaningful relationships with students, families, and community advocates. For example, educators can become actively involved in community events.
  3. Study the history of students, families and communities. For instance, this might be achieved through dialogical interactions with elders in the community.
  4. Recognize and build on the many assets and strengths (what they actually possess) of students, families and communities—rejecting a propensity to focus on deficits.
  5. Learn about and develop an understanding of the social and political contexts in which students live. Through exploration, educators can come to know their students’ families, as well as the communities in which they teach.  
  6. Engage in deep self-reflection to learn about the self, the other, and the self in relation to others. Through self-awareness, educators can come to know their own potential biases and how they might shape children’s educational experiences.
  7. Develop partnerships with colleagues to actively study the research literature and collaborate on practices that best support student learning and development. For instance, educators may form small book study groups and discuss implications for their own practice.
  8. Learn about and appropriately respond to any material conditions or traumatic exposure their students might face. Through collaboration, educators can better understand their students’ realities and work in concert with their students to cope with and eliminate any unjustified barriers.

* References used in the article by Alvarez and Murray are available here.

Adam Alvarez is a PhD student and K. Leroy Irvis Fellow. Ira Murray is a PhD student and K. Leroy Irvis Fellow.