How to Talk to Kids About Racism and Police

Schools do students a disservice when they fail to teach them about difficult issues.

Camilo Hunica

Editor’s Note: In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. In recent years, that number is closer to just three years leading a classroom. The “On Teaching” series focuses on the wisdom of veteran teachers.

On a Friday afternoon in early June, educators from a community-education project called Abundant Beginnings held an online workshop for kids between the ages of 3 and 5 and their families. My own preschool-age child was 30 minutes away, at her grandmother’s house, but I tuned into the San Francisco Bay Area group’s Zoom call. This was a week after protests against police violence had spread from Minneapolis across the nation, and I needed help. I’d shown my daughter photos of protesters, but I struggled to answer the questions that came next about why the police had killed George Floyd. For that, I needed the guidance of skilled educators.

Early in the workshop, two facilitators used simple words to describe a protest scene. They were in conversation, modeling age-appropriate language. Soon, we were introduced to the “white-supremacy fairy.” This fairy, we were told, is known to land on shoulders, including, sometimes, those of police. “It’s telling them white people are better than other people,” one facilitator said. “They’re whispering into the police officer’s ear, and their boss’s ear, and their boss’s boss’s ear. That boss is called the system. And they’re telling them to do the wrong thing.”

Across the country, young children are turning to the adults in their lives to help make sense of racism and policing. The uprisings sparked by Floyd’s death kicked off in May, when many schools had already shut down for the summer, and much of the work of explaining this movement has fallen to families. But as schools prepare to reopen, conversations about police violence may move to classrooms—both real and virtual.

Howard Stevenson, the Constance Clayton Professor of Urban Education at the University of Pennsylvania, helps educators and families address race with children. Families of color have long sought him out as they confront race-based inequities around discipline and curriculum at school, he says. But this summer’s protests have led to a significant uptick in requests from white families and educators. “Since George Floyd died there has not been a week yet when I haven’t spoken to a new school,” Stevenson told me in mid-August. “For us it’s been nonstop.” Adults often have to examine their own assumptions and biases before they can facilitate conversations about police violence, he said—especially given that 79 percent of public K–12 teachers are white.

For students, too, prior experience of police violence will differ vastly between homes, schools, and communities. Some may have witnessed a family member’s negative run-in with police, or live in a neighborhood that’s regularly patrolled. “In a low-income community, school is not the place where young people are learning about the police,” says Micia Mosely, founding director of the Black Teacher Project, a leadership-development program based in Oakland, California. Some students have had bad experiences with the police themselves, even within their schools; the viral footage of 6-year-old Kaia Rolle being restrained by police and removed from her Orlando grade school in February was a reminder that many administrators partner with law enforcement, sometimes to discipline terrified children.

Teaching all young children about police violence requires some understanding of structural racism. Educators have to reject any instinct to lie or sugarcoat, says Francie Latour, who co-directs Wee the People, a Boston-based social-justice project for kids between the ages of 4 and 12. Her organization offers a workshop called “What Is Racism?” to schools in the city and its suburbs, some of which have student bodies that are largely Black and brown and some of which are predominantly white. The workshop is used with children as young as kindergartners. In it, the facilitators start by challenging an idea that many young children have—that racism simply means being unkind to someone because they’re Black.

Instead, Latour tells them, “It’s a big unfairness in the world, and our job is to get really good at noticing the many ways that racism shows up, because sometimes it’s hard to see.” Sometimes it’s about having a freedom denied because you’re Black. It can also mean having some doors open effortlessly because you’re white. The group reads a book called Milo’s Museum, about a Black child who goes to a museum and notices the lack of cultural contributions from people who look like her. It’s a tool that helps young people understand that racism can be embedded in institutions and culture. “Before we read the book, we challenge kids, ‘Okay, we’ve got our binoculars on. See if you can tell us who is racist to Milo,’” Latour told me. “They struggle with it because that’s all they’ve been taught: It’s a deliberate action by a bad person.”

Latour also talks with children about how historical events set the stage for where we are today. She and her co-director explain the racial hierarchy that 15th-century Europeans created to justify slavery. Kids understand sorting, and they understand lies, she said, so they get it when they are taught that people from Africa were categorized as being less than human, despite those categories having no basis in fact. “We’re in the business of telling kids the truth,” Latour said. “It’s absolutely possible to speak with kids honestly about things that we find deeply uncomfortable.”

Even in the earliest grades, young people have the building blocks they need to understand what adults might perceive to be complex social forces. In Latour’s workshops, facilitators ask children to share something that’s happened in the past week that they thought was unfair. Every hand shoots up. “Kids have a hardwired, innate sense of fairness,” Latour said. “It’s the job of adults in kids’ lives to connect that strong sense of fairness to issues of justice in the world.” Children can also weave ideas about sameness and difference into their play. Dena Simmons, assistant director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, models how the topic could be introduced to kids: “‘Let’s talk about different textures. Let’s talk about different patterns,’” she offers as examples. “Differences don’t need to be bad,” she told me. “They can make the interaction even richer.”

Even more complex ideas can be introduced with concrete examples. Latour uses a bicycle to explain systemic racism, pointing out that handlebars, pedals, brakes, and wheels all work together to make it move. “You can show a child a picture of a bike and all of its different parts and say, ‘When we say system it’s a fancy word for lots of things that work together to do one thing,’” Latour said. The racism embedded in our culture and institutions can be harder to spot than the components of a bike. She tells children, “The reason it’s so hard to see is there are lots of different parts of our lives that are working together to keep this lie going, this lie that being white is better.”

Adding joy and a sense of agency helps kids absorb weighty messages, these educators said. Some stressed the importance of emphasizing the beauty and pleasure in being Black, so that young people don’t associate the problem of police violence or racism with Blackness itself. It can also involve music and movement: The Abundant Beginnings workshop was led in part by a musician called Teacher Aunty Monica from the Bay Area music and storytelling program BoomShake, whose songs and drum-supported chants were interspersed throughout the dialogue. At one point, the facilitators’ conversation shifted from police and white supremacy to talk of how family members and neighbors can keep each other safe, and a chant drove home the lesson: “We keep us safe!” The pivot away from the problem and toward a solution offered an age-appropriate lesson in alternatives to policing.

Still, it can be tough to discuss serious topics with children, especially in a complex way that works for both students and their families. Liz Kleinrock, who taught for seven years at a public charter school in Los Angeles, told me she addressed racism and policing with her fourth-grade students in the fall of 2016. Over the summer, there’d been two high-profile police killings of Black people, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in the Twin Cities.

Kleinrock tried to get her students to move beyond simplistic statements such as “All lives matter” and to understand why such a declaration was potentially hurtful, particularly to the handful of Black students in class. But sometimes the nuance she encouraged got lost on the way home. She said she heard from the mother of a student who had a police officer in his family. The child’s takeaway from class had been that all police are bad. Kleinrock explained that her message had been about bias and abuse of power, and the parent was eventually satisfied. But the exchange helped Kleinrock see that her students needed an opportunity to reflect back to her what they were hearing. “The next day I had to go in and re-teach part of it to make sure kids weren’t walking away with these blanket statements,” she said.

Stevenson, the University of Pennsylvania professor, said it’s never too early to start these discussions. Adults can make the conversation age appropriate by approaching it as they would any other complex topic, such as unsafe touch, strangers as a potential threat, or what to do in case of a fire. “I would rather prepare them early for things and scaffold it,” Stevenson said, referring to how educators craft lessons so that students learn progressively more complex information or skills over time. “You don’t have to say everything” in the first conversation.

Talking to students about the basics of racism and policing early on can help them develop complex thinking, and that, in turn, will help them understand tricky issues—like those related to the criminal-justice system—with nuance. Last year, Wee the People hosted a workshop called “What Are Jails For?” in an effort to get families talking about mass incarceration. Facilitators asked kids about the purpose of jails, and got responses about superheroes and “bad guys.” Then the leaders displayed mug shots of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Upon seeing the photos, the kids wondered why these “good guys” had been taken to jail, a place they believed was reserved for people guilty of committing a crime. When given the opportunity, children learn to hold contradictions.

Schools do students a disservice when they fail to teach them the messy truth about this country’s history and how it shapes the present, Latour said. The world got to be this way because people made it so—and when educators don’t communicate that to young people, they limit students’ ability to imagine something better. “They can’t unmake it or remake it if they don’t see that it’s made.”

This article is part of our project “On Teaching,” which is supported by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Panta Rhea Foundation.