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You Belong Here: Speaking Inclusively in Early Childhood Settings

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teacher in classroom with children

Every child deserves to feel respected, wanted, and connected to the life of their classroom. Those are basic elements of a sense of belonging. No child thrives while being excluded or ignored.

The words we use in our programs and classrooms can have a powerful effect on a child’s feeling that they belong with us. Even our most casual comments can welcome them to our community—or create barriers to belonging.

This blog looks at a few of the things we can do to speak inclusively in our work with preschoolers.

Get their names right

I’ll never forget the moment when a child showed me how important this is. One of our multilingual families spoke clear, accented English, but I somehow misheard their 4-year-old’s name and said it incorrectly for weeks. At parent conferences in November, I finally realized my mistake. “I’m so sorry,” I told her. “I’ve been saying your name wrong all this time.” She looked away, frowning hard, and burst out, “You just – don’t – KNOW!” She was clearly trying not to cry. All along, her mother had been urging her to be patient with me because I didn’t know better. It was a lot for a preschooler to bear.

Adult family members, who are themselves learning second or third languages, may cut us some slack as we learn to say their names. But a child’s name, spoken as they want us to speak it, is their identity. If we get that wrong, we’re not off to a good start in helping them feel included.

There is no need to ask a child, “Can I call you [something else] instead?” Even if they were to say that’s okay, it’s not. Any child will have trouble feeling they belong in a place where the adults won’t call them by their name.

Delete some slang

Words such as crazy, psycho, spastic, and lame seem to be part of everyday speech these days. But in our classrooms, it’s never a good idea to describe everyday situations with slang related to physical or mental conditions or disabilities. Often, the user means to be humorous, as in “That trike is acting crazy today.” But the terms tend to carry negative feelings or judgments as in “Well, that’s lame.”

If a child or one of their family members actually has a disability or mental illness, hearing the words used in this way is a barrier to feeling included. Other children may also pick up on the negative attitudes, which can keep them from seeing the full humanity of classmates and others with disabilities. So if the trike is wobbly because it has a broken axle, we can just say so. If we don’t like a situation, we can say, “I sure don’t like that.”

Refer to the whole group with inclusive language

Early in my teaching years, I referred to my class as “you guys” until a preschool girl reminded me, “I’m not a guy.” I had to work hard on the habit of getting the group’s attention with words such as “class,” “everybody,” or “children.” In some communities, “you all” would have worked. Using phrases such as “boys and girls” actually accentuates differences at a time when the goal is to address the group as a unit. And a child who is questioning their gender identity can feel alienated and frustrated by continually hearing teachers use that gender binary.

Some programs have classroom names that can be adopted as group identifiers: “We are in the Sunflower Room. So when I say, ‘Sunflower class,’ it means ‘all of you at the same time’.”

Phrases such as “all of us” or “each and every one” can also help enhance children’s sense of belonging to the group.

Respect family differences

It’s important to express ourselves in ways that respect and include any child’s family situation or structure.

If a program has a tradition such as “Breakfast with Dad” or “Mom’s Night at School,” children who don’t have either or both parent are likely to feel left out, even if the teacher tells them they can invite someone else. To address this problem, programs can give neutral names to family-and-friend events, such as “Very Important People Night” or “Muffins with Your Preschooler.”

Father’s Day and Mother’s Day are traditions society has created to appreciate specific people. When early childhood programs have children make gifts or cards for parents, those whose parents are out of the picture can feel at a loss. Instead, some programs plan more universal appreciation activities, such as gifts for any significant adult or family member.

We should also remember that some children don’t “go home.” Maybe they are staying at a domestic violence safe house or some other temporary living arrangement that doesn’t feel like home at all. Frequent talk about “going home” can remind them that they can’t “go home” and must return to what could be an unhappy, uncomfortable, or even unsafe situation.

It’s possible to use words that subtly include all the children: “Sunflower class, please open your backpacks. Put the pink card you decorated in there. Show it to your grown-ups when you see them today. We want them to know that’s their invitation to Doughnuts at School!”

Incorporating more inclusive language can be challenging for educators. But if it helps children feel that preschool is a place where they belong, it’s worth the investment of time and energy.

Jean Mendoza

Jean Mendoza

Jean Mendoza holds a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from University of Illinois, a master’s degree in early childhood education from the University of Illinois, and a master’s in counseling psychology from Adler University of Chicago. She served on the faculty of the early childhood teacher education program at Millikin University and worked with children and families for more than 25 years as a teacher, social worker, and counselor. She recently collaborated with Dr. Debbie Reese on a young people’s adaptation of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz). Her long-standing interest in children’s literature is reflected in her reviews of children’s books with Native content, which have appeared in A Broken Flute and on the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature. Jean and her late husband, Durango, have four grown children and six grandchildren. She lives in Urbana, Illinois.

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Child Care Center
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2024