Our faith teaches us we are all God's children, created in His image, but we don't always treat others that way! It's not easy to accept and respect the "different" people in our lives – and facing the wider challenges of racism, sexism, and other prejudices in our society can be overwhelming.
Kids deal with intolerance, too. Some personally experience bigotry – or their loved ones do. Others observe intolerance on television and in social media or witness it in the adults around them. To children, such behavior might seem acceptable and even expected.
You can help your students understand that God wants us to show respect and kindness to all – even those who are different. Here are some suggestions for fostering a spirit of acceptance in your classroom:
Watch out for your own biases.
Everybody has them – even teachers. And being a good role model for our students means facing and fighting those personal prejudices. So check in on your expectations occasionally. Maybe some kids are ready for you to challenge them more academically. Maybe you're expecting too much of others. Perhaps you're giving a particular student too many chances on behavioral issues – more than he needs. You might have fallen into a habit of calling on or giving responsibilities to the same few students. Question your assumptions and try something different with your kids. (Hey, they could surprise you!)
Place intolerant behavior in the context of faith.
Because children don't understand the significance of bigoted behaviors, they may decide it's okay to imitate, encourage, or ignore them. Your students need your guidance to connect faith principles to this real-life issue. Always react to intolerant behaviors and make it clear they are wrong, but use gentle correction. (Remember…many behaviors are learned from family and friends.) Share scripture passages and church teachings about tolerance, and help kids see how they apply to situations in their lives. Stress the idea that God loves us all and wants us to treat each other lovingly.
Celebrate our differences.
Exposing your students to varied holiday traditions and ethnic foods helps them appreciate differences, but you can go deeper. Teach about the history, art, literature, and beliefs of other cultures. Use media to show contemporary life in other parts of the world – and in diverse areas of our country. Bring in speakers or other guests who are willing to share and talk about their cultures. If your subject matter doesn't lend itself to these kinds of activities, encourage acceptance of "local" differences. (Express equal interest in athletes and mathletes. Attend the activities and events of various groups. Notice something special in every child.) Celebrate differences, but point out similarities, too. Emphasize that people are more alike than they are different.
Use diverse materials.
Of course, it's a great idea to teach your students about noted historical and contemporary people of different races, genders, religions, nationalities, etc. In addition, using materials that include diverse "ordinary" people can have a positive effect on kids' attitudes about others (and themselves!) Fortunately, educational materials feature greater diversity than they did in the past, but you may still run across content that include stereotypes or other misconceptions. Take advantage of the teachable moments these situations offer you. And don't forget about all the extras in your classroom like bulletin boards, free reading books and magazines, games, and toys. Kids need to see diversity everywhere.
"Make" kids work and play together.
Some of the value of educational group activities is lost if students always get to choose their own partners for group work. When a teacher puts groups together or uses a random selection process, kids have to work with people they may perceive as "different." (Even minimal differences like bus riders vs. walkers, lunch table assignments, or varied hobbies can seem significant to children.) Required teamwork gives kids a chance to know others better and to see they're not so strange after all. It also shows them how differences can mesh together to accomplish something great. Occasionally mixing it up for games can be effective, too. Having fun together breaks down barriers and builds relationships.
Provide service opportunities.
Encourage service activities and involve your students in them whenever you can. Of course, service is important because it provides opportunities to show God's love to others. It also has the added benefit of exposing children to people who might seem very different: the elderly, the sick, the needy, the lonely. Serving these "others" helps kids develop empathy and inspires them to see Jesus in everyone.
That kind of faith-based open-heartedness forms a foundation for the respect that lies at the foundation of our society’s moral fiber. Fostering such an attitude in students will affect the climate in your classroom and prepare your kids to tackle intolerance in other parts of their lives.