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Meeting the Needs of Multiracial and Multiethnic Children
By Francis Wardle, Ph.D.

Early childhood programs continue to make strides in meeting the needs of an ever more diverse population. Changing attitudes, along with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), have resulted in the inclusion of children with a wide range of disabilities in our early childhood programs. Multicultural education, anti-bias programs, gender sensitivity, response to welfare reform, and provisions for the needs of homeless children and children with terminal diseases are other examples of our response to this diversity. But many of our early childhood programs still do not fully meet the unique needs of multiracial and multiethnic children and their families (Morrison and Rodgers, 1996).

According to Root (1996), the number of multiracial babies is increasing faster than the number of single-race babies. Since 1989, there have been over 100,000 biracial (black/white) babies born every year; a total of over a million first-generation biracial babies have been born since then (Root, 1996). This increase in biracial births is also true among non-black/white and biethnic babies, such as white/Hispanic, Hispanic/Asian, and white/Native American. This article will address the needs of all young children whose biological parents come from two or more traditional racial/ethnic groups (Cruz-Janzen, 1997) and discuss the terms multiracial and multiethnic.

Multicultural Education
Multicultural books, college classes, and training and conference sessions have been slow to address the needs of a bi-racial population (Cruz-Janzen, 1997). A central reason for this lack of multicultural education results from the initial need for racial diversity, gender equity, and access for children with disabilities in the early childhood classroom. Second, many believe that children with a mixed heritage do not constitute a distinct cultural group, and therefore should not be treated separately (Bullivant, 1993; Thorton, 1992). Additionally, children of mixed heritage living in the United States have historically been assigned the single race of their parents of color (Cruz-Janzen, 1997; Daniel, 1996; Morrison and Rodgers, 1996).

Complicating the entire question of the multiracial and multiethnic heritage in this country is the nature of the U. S. Bureau of the Census categories, and the fact that multicultural educators have, by and large, followed these categories (Wardle, 1996). (It is important to note that the United States has its own unique way of dividing people by race and ethnicity.) America's population is broken into five exclusive categories: African American, Native American, Hispanic (Latino), Asian American, and white. Multicultural educators then develop programs, activities, environments, and interactions to support children who fit neatly into each category (Banks and Banks, 1993).

Children Who Don't Fit
It is well documented that racial and ethnic identity, and the concepts associated with racial and ethnic diversity, are developmental tasks that begin in early childhood (Derman-Sparks, 1989; Phinney, 1991; Poston, 1990). It has also been well documented that a central part of a child's sense of positive self-esteem is based upon a child's racial/ethnic identity; a child with high self-esteem does better in school (Matiella, 1991; Ogbu, 1987; Phinney, 1991).

Limited research is beginning to show that multiracial and multiethnic children not only have identity needs that are different from single-race children, but that they are suffering in our programs because their unique needs are not being met (Bowles, 1993; Brandell, 1988; Cruz-Janzen, 1997; Poston, 1990; Wardle, 1992). Using this evidence, it becomes clear that the early childhood community needs to address the needs of multiracial and multiethnic children and their unique families. These children include biological, multiracial, and multiethnic children in blended homes, foster homes, adoptive homes, and a variety of biological homes.

Racial and Ethnic Identity
Before we can discuss how to support the identity development of multiracial and multiethnic children, we must decide what that identity is. Interracial parents tend to view the identity of their children in one of four different ways (Morrison and Rodgers, 1996): 1) my child is black (or the identity of the parent of color); 2) my child is a human being with no specific racial identity; 3) I'm not sure, so I'll let my child decide; and 4) my child is proudly multiethnic or multiracial.

Many psychologists believe multiracial and multiethnic children have a particularly difficult time determining racial identity in this society (Bowles, 1993; Gibbs, 1989; McRoy and Freeman, 1986). Further, more and more of these experts, along with interracial and interethnic parents, believe that children who identify with both parents’ heritages and cultures from an early age will have fewer identity problems (Benjamin-Wardle, 1991; Bowles, 1993; Brandell, 1988; Cruz-Janzen, 1997; Daniel, 1996; Funderburg, 1994; Morrison and Rogers, 1996; Wardle, 1991).

Early childhood educators need to find ways to support the healthy multiracial and multiethnic identity development of these children. They need to develop programs, find resources, and work very closely with interracial and interethnic parents. But first they must develop and attend specific staff training programs.

Staff Training
A program that wishes to meet the needs of multiracial and multiethnic children should start with staff training. This training should cover a variety of topics which include the following (Wardle, 1996):

  • Staff attitudes toward interracial and interethnic marriage, and multiracial identity;
  • A world view of people of mixed heritage (Eldering, 1996);
  • Ideas/techniques on how to support the healthy development of multiracial and multiethnic children;
  • Working with interracial and interethnic parents;
  • Finding and creating resources;
  • The concept of race in this country and throughout the world;
  • The history of multi-racial and multi-ethnic people in this country, including multiracial heroes;
  • Curriculum ideas, field trips, and classroom visitors.

The training should be provided by someone knowledgeable and sensitive to the topic and supportive of a multi-racial child’s right to his or her total heritage, such as a person who provides multi-cultural education for your program or a person who teaches at the local college level. Training can also be accomplished by attending a session at an early childhood conference or by contacting someone in your area with this particular expertise. Finally, there may be someone on your staff who would enjoy making multi-cultural education his or her special area of interest.

Like traditional multi-cultural curriculum, multiracial and multiethnic content must be integrated into the overall classroom curriculum. This type of integrated curriculum avoids the tourist approach to diversity (Derman-Sparks, 1989). Content to be included in the curriculum should include the following areas (Morrison and Rogers, 1996; Wardle, 1993, 1996):

  • Inter-racial families—two-parent, one-parent, foster, adoptive, blended;
  • Multi-racial heroes;
  • Inter-racial/multiracial books;
  • Racial/ethnic identity development and self esteem;
  • Mixing of traditions, nationalities, languages, and religions;
  • Teaching about culture, race, and diversity;
  • Classroom materials;
  • Responding to bias and harassment;
  • Federal and school race forms;
  • Field trips and classroom visitors.

Images of Interracial Families
Multi-racial and multi-ethnic children believe they are invisible (Cruz-Janzen, 1997). One reason for this belief is that they do not see themselves in books, posters, articles, newsletters, communication boards, people sets, curriculum materials, advertising materials, games, magazines, TV, videos, and newspapers. They need to see positive images of themselves and their families.

To increase multi-racial visibility, look for books that include these families. Create posters, artwork, and bulletin boards that include multi-racial and multi-ethnic children and adults. Make sure posters, school-home connection pieces, magazines, pictures on the wall, calendars, etc., reflect these children and their families. Ask families and relatives to bring in their own art work and suggest where multi-racial and multi-ethnic resources can be obtained. Find or make doll sets, puzzles, activity books, family journals, etc. Programs also need to pressure educational supply companies to provide curriculum and classroom materials for these children.

Single-Race Activities and Celebrations
One of the most difficult challenges for multi-racial and multi-ethnic students is the single race/ethnicity activities that occur in many early childhood programs: St. Patrick's Day, Cinco de Mayo, Black History Month, Chinese New Year, Jewish holidays, Kwanzaa, various Native American ceremonial days, etc. The solution to this dilemma is two-fold: 1) celebrate these and other events in an inclusive way where all children can participate, learn, and enjoy the activity and 2) support multiracial and multi-ethnic children's celebration of each part of their heritage. Of vital importance is that the child is not expected to put down part of his or her heritage to celebrate another part. A multi-racial child celebrating his or her African American heritage during Black History Month, for example, must never be expected to belittle his or her white heritage. This act will cause lasting negative effects on the child's self-image (Bowles, 1993; Brandell, 1988; Wardle, 1992).

Responding to Bias
Multi-racial and multi-ethnic children receive a variety of harassment, from benign questions that want to know, "Well, what are you, anyway?" or "Are you Hispanic or Indian (Asian)? I can't tell," to more direct bias regarding their combined background. Teachers need to respond to these incidences quickly and sensitively, while simultaneously providing accurate information to other children. One of the great strengths of having multiracial and multi-ethnic children in a program is that it exposes all children to the richness of diversity and challenges the concept of single categories and groupings.

Multi-racial and multi-ethnic children should not continually have to justify who they are, and they should not be required to select a single racial or ethnic group because others may be more comfortable with these labels. We need to help our children appreciate the diversity and complexity of all people.

Curriculum Materials and Activities
A central way children develop ethnic and racial identities is through expanded opportunity to explore their own unique physical features. This exploration can be accomplished by incorporating into the early childhood classroom mirrors; different colors of paint, crayons, and felt pens; dramatic play materials; hair combs, barrettes, and ribbons; and a variety of dolls, superheroes, and miniature people that represent different ethnic backgrounds. Early childhood professionals can encourage children to develop ethnic and racial identities by giving children the opportunity to paint, draw self-portraits, and write about their family and heritage (Morrison and Rodgers, 1996; Neugebauer, 1987; Wardle, 1987).

Early childhood professionals must continue to meet the needs of an ever more diverse population. Serving the unique needs of multi-racial and multi-ethnic children and their families is a particular challenge because of past history in this country, the lack of information and materials, and the reality that most multi-cultural books and training programs are only just beginning to view the needs of these children. As early childhood professionals, we need to take a lead in supporting the healthy identity development of this ever-increasing population.

Francis Wardle, Ph.D., is director of the Center for the Study of Biracial Children in Denver and an adjunct professor at the University of Phoenix (Colorado). He also serves as a national consultant for Bright Horizons.


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