Friends sitting at a table, studying and laughing.

6 Ways Your Child Can Benefit From Classroom Diversity

When we hear the word diversity, most of us tend to think only about race or ethnicity. But diversity comes in many shapes and forms: gender, socio-economic status, religion, even learning styles [6].  Each of those things makes us different and gives us the opportunity to teach others something new. In this article, we’ll look at the enormous benefits your child can gain as part of a diverse classroom.

School is for Learning

The main purpose of sending children to school is to allow them to learn. But we tend to think inside the box when it comes to learning. We immediately think about science, English, or psychology – that’s what my kid will be studying at school, right? Of course, but that’s not where the list ends. They’ll also gain important knowledge about the way the world works: by mingling among other children, your child can become better at communicating, understanding different people and different points of view; they can learn to be more relaxed and confident in different situations. And what better place to do that than in a diverse classroom?

How Does Diversity Make it Different?

You might be asking yourself – but wouldn’t they be learning all those things just as well in a homogenous classroom? Won’t they still get to hear a lot of different opinions and learn some important social skills?

Not quite.

While it’s true that any sort of interaction with others will aid your child in developing their social skills, the extent to which they’ll do that depends largely on their environment. Imagine this: it’s the first day of school. Your son comes back home, delighted to tell you all about his new friends. It turns out they’re all boys of the same race, same ethnicity, same religion, whose parents make roughly the same amount of money you do, living in the same neighborhood, listening to the same music, reading the same books. It’s perfect friendship!

But fast forward a couple of years.  You might start noticing that your child is having a hard time dealing with conflict, differences of opinion, and adapting to new situations. This could well be because they have never experienced anything different from what they’ve known their whole life. And as they grow up, there will be more and more of these situations, and the more your child is familiar with them, the easier it will be for them to navigate their way through this ever-changing world.

Not only that, but they’ll also be able to get a more complete perspective on any challenging situation if they are aware of all the different opinions a person can have in a given situation. This will help them when it comes to solving real-life problems by finding more (and better) solutions.

What Else Can be a Benefit?

Besides developing social skills important for the future, this is what your child can also learn in a diverse classroom:

  1. Empathy and Tolerance
  2. Feeling Safe
  3. Cultural Understanding
  4. Political Involvement
  5. Gender Equality

Empathy and Tolerance

Since the beginnings of civilization, there have been stereotypes. But the main thing that allowed those stereotypes to spread was the fact that different nations were separated by very strong borders, and there wasn’t nearly as much mingling as there is today.

In psychology, there is something called contact theory [2]. This theory has been proven time and time again, and the idea is this: (negative) stereotypes can be broken if different groups come into direct contact with one another, but only if:

  1. That contact occurs on the basis of equality
  2. in a setting that offers common experiences and objectives, and
  3. it happens frequently and intensively [2].

You may have already noticed that the classroom setting can provide all three of the necessary conditions [2]. This means that it’s a perfect place for different groups of children to come into contact and begin to understand one another. Once that happens, they’ll be able to develop tolerance for those different from them, and also empathy.

Empathy means being able to feel exactly the way someone else feels. You would probably agree that the more we understand someone, the easier it becomes for us to “walk in their shoes”. The basis of almost any large-scale conflict today is the fact that we don’t understand one another. We cannot connect to those of different origin, skin color, or religion because we don’t know what they are like outside of our TV screens and what  politicians tell us. So why not prevent all that misunderstanding simply by allowing our children to develop friendships in a context of diversity?

Feeling Safe

Did you know that students report feeling much safer in school and life in general, if they have been educated in diverse classrooms [6]?

This shouldn’t come as a surprise – we don’t fear what we’re familiar with. We would feel more scared going into anyone else’s house and finding it completely in the dark, rather than going into our own unlit house. We would have no trouble feeling for the light switch and walking in complete darkness from room to room.

It’s the same with people different from us, and I don’t just mean of different ethnicity. Up until the end of the 18th century, it was believed that atypically developing people were a danger to society and should be confined. But today, in the 21st century, we’ve adopted the principle of Integrated Classrooms, and thanks to that, many children with Autism Spectrum Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder can go to regular classes with their typically developing classmates. And it’s not only beneficial for children who deal with ADHD and ASD to interact with their typically developing peers [1], but it can also be beneficial for their peers as well.

However, that didn’t just happen overnight. It took a lot of explaining and contact with those developing atypically to understand that the more they interact with other people, the better off they will be and the more they can be helped. From fear, we went to understanding and love. We started feeling safe among those different from us, because we had the opportunity to see them and talk with them.

Cultural Understanding

The only way to truly understand a different culture is to talk with someone who comes from that culture. Just look at all the craze for Japanese anime that’s taken hold in recent years. There are some who conflate anime with traditional Japanese culture and style themselves accordingly – in dress, mannerisms, etc. But if you were to describe these people’s actions to the people of Japan, they’d very clearly assure you they are not remotely like that. Reading books and watching movies about different cultures is a great alternative, but nothing beats genuine human contact.

If your child decides at some point in their life to go overseas for studies, work, or for any other reason, they’ll fit in much more easily if they’ve been in contact with different cultures prior to their departure. But if all they have ever known is people similar to them, they are bound to experience “culture shock” – and adapting to their new apartment or workplace will be that much more difficult.

Political Involvement

Studies as well as personal experiences of teachers, show that if the teacher is willing to let the class discuss different political issues, the number of people engaged in the conversation and the variety of different opinions will be much greater if the classroom is diverse [5]. If everyone comes from the same background, there isn’t much to discuss – everyone more or less agrees on the same points and they don’t go too much further than that.. But this approach is what tends to lead to people not being interested and not understanding the current political climate, and, as a result, often not voting. It is much better for a country’s political health if everyone is involved, not just a handful of people with the same opinions. If we can discuss different issues with one another, we’ll be able to learn more, understand more, challenge ourselves and the others’ opinions, and arrive at much better ideas and conclusions.

And who knows, maybe that’s what will prompt your kid to one day run for president!

Gender Equality

Speaking of running for president, isn’t it about time more women ran? Skeptics might say, “but that’s just because women aren’t interested in politics and don’t have that much experience!” Such false assumptions clearly indicate the necessity for more discussion and encouragement about individual life choices while we’re growing up, and our schools need to support questioning of outdated gender stereotypes and challenge us to try doing things differently [8].

Attitudes can change if we talk to each other more. Research tells us that friendships tend to develop between same sexes, same socio-economic backgrounds, same ethnicity, same race [4]. How does that allow us to grow, then? If boys spend time with boys and girls with girls with no contact up until the age they’re looking for romantic relationships, how will we understand and support each other?

We could start with extracurricular activities – book clubs, political clubs, sports clubs, IT clubs. They are a great way to promote more contact between genders, ethnicities – all kinds of differences, really. It makes it easier to realize the discrepancies we’re a part of and start working on making them better [4]. How can we teach our girls to shoot for the stars and our boys to be respectful, if all they’ve ever known is the company of one gender? That’s how we separate children into groups, and that’s how they learn to identify themselves with their gender, instead of their humanity.

Final Advice

A report from 2012 noted that  “80% of Latino students and 74% of black students attend majority non-white schools” [5]. It would be a mistake to assume that everyone would feel better surrounded by like-minded people. Only if we talk with people from different backgrounds and opinions, can we learn to be more accepting, more understanding, more creative, and even create better opportunities for ourselves. And while this shouldn’t just be the case in classrooms, classrooms are an ideal place to start.

So my advice for you as a parent is: don’t shy away from diversity. Don’t force it, but inspire your child to support those different from them. Inspire them to learn from others. After all, “the friend of my friend is a friend” is especially true when it comes to schools: if one child is making friends among other ethnicities and learning styles, their friends will start doing that, too. And one by one, we may even reach the day when this article becomes completely unnecessary, because everyone is friends with everyone [4].

One child said it best: “There are a lot of ways things and people could be misunderstood. In order to eliminate them, we must be listeners and learners” [3].

 

References:

  1. Chan, J.M. & O’Reilly, M.F. (2008). A Social Stories Intervention Package for Students with Autism in Inclusive Classrooms. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, Vol.41, 3, pp. 405-409.
  2. Janmaat, J.G. (2012).  The effect of classroom diversity on tolerance and participation in England, Sweden and Germany. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Vol.38, 1, pp. 21-39
  3. Lee, J.J. & Hoadley, C.M. (2006). Ugly in a World Where You Can Choose to be Beautiful”:Teaching and Learning About Diversity via Virtual Worlds. Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Learning Sciences, pp. 383-389.
  4. Moody,  J. (2001). Race, School Integration, and Friendship Segregation in America. American Journal of Sociology, Vol.107, 3, pp. 679-716.
  5. https://blog.ed.gov/2016/04/the-value-of-classroom-diversity/
  6. https://online.queens.edu/online-programs/medl/resources/benefits-of-diversity-in-school
  7. https://www.millennialdialogue.com/blog/the-gender-gap-in-political-interest
  8. https://www.vox.com/mischiefs-of-faction/2017/4/10/15239998/womens-representation-congress-america

 

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