Supporting Positive Racial Identity Development in Early Childhood Classrooms

by Shannon B. Wanless and Patricia A. Crawford

At the Pitt School of Education (SOE), the Center for Urban Education (CUE) has energized faculty and staff to think more deeply about the role of race, stress, and income in student success. Many of us who focus on early childhood education have taken this emphasis to heart and begun to navigate this new territory in our work. As such, we are beginning to ask CUE-inspired questions in early childhood research and practice in the SOE. For example:

“Do children really think about race in early childhood?”

“Can teachers’ hopes of creating a colorblind classroom actually do harm?”

“What would a racially and culturally responsive classroom look like in early childhood?”

“What do teachers and parents need to be able to support their children’s development of a positive racial identity?”

“Are we, at Pitt, sufficiently preparing our pre-service teachers to address urban issues in their future early childhood classrooms?”

The first issue we realized as we began to bring urban education and early childhood education together is that early childhood researchers and practitioners are not talking about race very often. It seems to be assumed that young children are not thinking about race yet, when in fact, previous research shows they form ideas about race at a very young age.

[Photos courtesy of the OCD Understanding PRIDE in Pittsburgh report.]

So, to bring race to the forefront of early childhood conversations, Pitt SOE faculty and students have published two articles this year, in Young Children, the most widely read journal for early educators. Faculty members Shannon Wanless and Patricia Crawford wrote about how to use children’s books in the classroom to help children see their own race in positive ways, to build their understanding of people from races that may not be in their classrooms, and to initiate conversations about race with children, which can sometimes be uncomfortable to engage in without a tool like a book to facilitate the process.

Doctoral students Ira Murray and Adam Alvarez described recent research about the importance of understanding the urban contexts that many children live in, and figuring out ways to build on the assets these children bring to the classroom, particularly in ways that promote their own positive racial identity development. [You can also read about Murray and Alvarez’s work more in depth in their article in this issue of PittEd.]

And in summer 2017, CUE continues to advance the conversation about race and early childhood with practitioners in Pittsburgh. Their CUE Summer Educator Forum (CUESEF) will focus on the early years and will give early childhood educators a chance to learn and grapple together about the role of race in their classrooms.

 The Early Childhood Faculty Group (UPECC) meets for a holiday potluck in December 2016 at the Office of Child Development.

The second issue we quickly discovered is that there is a lot more to learn about how race operates in early childhood. A partnership began between CUE, the Office of Child Development (OCD), and the SEED Lab (Supporting Early Education and Development) to address this issue with a focus on research. After gathering data from teachers, parents, and community leaders, the partners published a report on the current state of Positive Racial Identity Development in Early Education (PRIDE) in Pittsburgh, and identified recommendations for moving forward. The report was announced and distributed in fall 2016 at a press conference led by Mayor Bill Peduto and Pitt’s Vice Provost and Dean of Students, Kathy Humphrey. Program are research proposals are under review to continue PRIDE work in Pittsburgh.

In a related study, Wanless is taking a deeper look at local early childhood classrooms, and analyzing observational data to see what teaching practices are already being used and where are there opportunities to do more. She is currently putting together a manuscript, and has been accepted to present at AERA and SRCD about the subject.

[Photos courtesy of the OCD Understanding PRIDE in Pittsburgh report.]

Finally, research on race and early childhood is happening within the larger School of Education as well. The director of the early childhood pre-service teacher education program, Assistant Professor Anna Arlotta-Guerrero, and doctoral student, Jennifer Briggs, have paired together to collect data from our pre-service teachers to examine their beliefs, practices, and ways to enhance our teacher training in the years to come.

In addition, moving forward, SOE faculty members that focus on early childhood have banded together to create the University of Pittsburgh’s Early Childhood Collaborative. This group is already generating collaborations and opportunities to learn across departments. Based on the broad interest in urban education in the SOE, it is exciting that more early childhood-focused projects are on the horizon. Stay tuned!


Shannon B. Wanless is an assistant professor and director of The SEED Lab. Patricia A. Crawford is the associate chairperson for the Department of Instruction and Learning and an associate professor in the early childhood and language, literacy, and culture programs.