Common for public school teachers and police departments, anti-bias training is more unusual at the preschool level. An early-education program located in the heart of Seattle seeks to change that.

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The standard mantra in early education is kindergarten-readiness — that is, preparing children to be able to sit patiently, listen quietly and start absorbing academia, pronto. But Pike Market Child Care and Preschool, where families pay based on what they can afford, has always been a bit different.

Three years ago, the nationally accredited program tucked into a quiet corner of Seattle’s iconic farmers market began asking teachers who spend their days on art projects and storytelling to ponder the ways unconscious bias might be affecting kids. There was no precipitating incident, just director Ilene Stark’s gnawing sense that the academic inequities she’d witnessed among elementary school students could be nipped through early education.

With a $75,000 grant from the Satterberg Foundation, Stark began hiring trainers to work with her staff and students on recognizing bias and its effects — a common enough practice for public schools and police departments, but somewhat unusual at the preschool level.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab 

“Young children recognize race early on and they have questions, so this age is a great opportunity to become comfortable with diversity,” Stark said. “We want children to feel proud of their home and their family identity, and I wanted all of us to think about the ways racial or class inequity intersects with our teaching.”

Her sense that bias shapes the experiences of even very young children has  scientific underpinning. In 2016, pioneering research from Yale University’s Child Study Center found that when preschool teachers were told to look out for “challenging” behaviors, they focused on black boys.

Interestingly, the study also found that African-American teachers tended to hold black children to higher standards of behavior than their white colleagues did — “toughening them up for a world that’s going to be tough on them,” the educators later explained to lead researcher William Gilliam.

Gilliam’s study, which was spurred by his own questions about persistent racial discrepancies in preschool suspension rates, has since led to laws banning expulsions and suspensions for students at that level in at least 15 states, he said, as well as and the federal Head Start program, which works with more than 1 million children nationwide.

At Pike Market preschool, results from Stark’s three-year effort are evident the moment one steps inside her quiet warren of art studios and story corners: “Each child will recognize unfairness, have language to describe unfairness and understand that unfairness hurts,” states a sign posted on a wall near the entrance.

“Each child will express comfort and joy with human diversity, accurate language for human differences and deep, caring human connections,” reads another.

Quite a mouthful for the 60 children – none older than 5 – who attend. But it makes sense to them in practice. At Pike Market preschool, discussion of racial differences is as normal as debating the ideal height for a Lego tower.

On a recent morning, four kindergarteners-to-be worked on self-portraits, peering into small, stand-up mirrors near their artwork.

“Why do we have mirrors? So we can know which color our skin is,” said teacher Jamilah Johnson, rummaging through the colored pencils in front of her. “My skin is very dark – I think my color is ebony. What we want to do is find the color closest to our skin tone.”

A girl held an orange-hued pencil called “melon” up to her face.

“See, it matches!” she said.

“Is this chocolate?” asked a boy, attracted to the name, though it did not match his skin at all.

Johnson nudged him toward a lighter shade.

“This color is called almond,” she said, pulling out a pencil. “Is your skin lighter or darker than that? Is it ‘wheat?’ Or ‘toast?’ Ok, peach.”

For Johnson, such conversations have been a revelation and distinct change from what she recalls of her own childhood. When an anti-bias trainer brought in Band-Aids matching a black girl’s skin tone, Johnson admitted, she teared up with relief.

“It’s great to hear this is happening. Even in little tiny things like Band-Aids, white folks have a position of privilege, and many have never thought about it,” said Gilliam, hearing about Pike Market’s approach from 3,000 miles away on the East Coast. “This work is really about all of us — teachers and police officers and even baristas — knowing what bias is and how it ticks within us.”