For young children, learning the power of words, personal boundaries and social dynamics is a crucial part of their development. In my first-grade classroom, students are in the thick of learning to read and write. And just as actively, they’re learning how to communicate with others.
They experiment with tone, diction, intent and body language with one another and with the adults around them. It’s an expected, developmentally appropriate part of learning how to coexist with others. Sometimes, as in the common cases of name-calling, teasing and excluding, that experimentation can be painful.
Addressing unkindness is part and parcel of working with young students. But not all unkindness is the same. It can be particularly detrimental when the hurtful language relates to race, gender, religion or other aspects of a child’s identity. These are microaggressions: small, subtle, sometimes-unintended acts of discrimination.
Microaggressions reinforce stereotypes in surreptitious ways. They must be addressed in a way that recognizes that they’re different from typical, 6-year-old unkindness and that makes the distinction clear, understandable and actionable for students.
It can be hard enough for adults—particularly adults with privileged identities—to recognize microaggressions. But it’s crucial we address them. At their core, these are coded messages of disapproval that are based in identity: comments and actions that echo larger, structural bigotry, telling marginalized people they don’t belong, that they are less than. Children start internalizing these messages while they are still developing their identities.
Before talking with students about microaggressions, it’s essential to establish an identity-safe classroom. Students need to feel safe and supported. In my class, when we do discuss microaggressions, I remind students of conversations we’ve already had about representation. I remind them that, when we’re reading together, we always ask, “Whose story is being told here?” I also reference the discussions we’ve had around more overt racism: how being called a racist may hurt, but it doesn’t compare to actually experiencing racism.
Naming the difference between microaggressions and other hurtful comments is a transparent way to support children in their efforts to be anti-racist, thoughtful, courageous upstanders.
There is a classic social emotional activity known as “the wrinkled heart,” wherein a teacher holds up a large paper heart and solicits examples from children of times their own hearts were hurt. Each time a student shares a story, a small part of the heart is crumpled, until it’s a tiny piece of wadded-up paper. When the opposite is done next—they share times they’ve been lifted up by words and actions—the heart is slowly unfurled until it is eventually whole again. But the lines remain, still faintly etched into the heart, mended but perhaps never fully healed.
When we’ve done this activity in my first-grade classes, students are eager to share times their feelings have been hurt: “A friend said I was stupid” and “A kid made fun of my glasses” are typical examples. Once, a black student shared a time she’d been excluded from a playground game by a white friend because her “hair had too many beads.”
While some other black students in the class expressed that they too had endured similar experiences, most of her peers were unaware of the deeply rooted pain of black people’s hair being a nexus of microaggressions. Another child—this one white—said he’d heard you’re not supposed to touch black people’s hair but wasn’t sure why. In another class, a Persian girl said she didn’t like it when she was called by the name of her Indian friend and expressed annoyance that they got mixed up so much.
It doesn’t take much to, at the very least, kickstart a conversation about who experiences lots of microaggressions and who doesn’t. When children are verbalizing that they sometimes feel interchangeable or that their bodies don’t feel private, it’s time to step in, support them and make plans for how we as a community can work to fix some of these issues.
A critical difference between microaggressions and other instances of hurt feelings is the impact—a steady, slow-burning, detrimental accumulation of biases played out with words and actions. How these discussions go is hard to predict, and there are roadblocks along the way, but it’s essential to return to the core questions: Who is most hurt by a particular action or statement, and why? How does power play into it? And how do we react, as a perpetrator, a target or a bystander?
Resources are scant for directly engaging young children on the topic of microaggressions. It’s up to teachers, educators and other adults to design and implement a curriculum that specifically addresses the dangers of microaggressions and lays out a path to reverse their course.
One excellent starting point is children’s literature. Michael Genhart’s Ouch! Moments: When Words Are Used in Hurtful Ways, illustrated by Viviana Garofoli, addresses microaggressions explicitly. Other books tell the story of what it means to be on the receiving end of them:
- Having people treat you as a curiosity—Don’t Touch My Hair, written and illustrated by Sharee Miller
- Being misgendered—10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert, illustrated by Rex Ray
- Having your name mocked and mangled—The Name Jar, written and illustrated by Yangsook Choi
Texts like these help children confront the reality that what seems like a minor hurt can take on a new level of damage when it reinforces stereotypes.
A useful follow-up activity is to describe a few different hurtful moments—some microaggressions, some not—and ask students to reflect: Are these moments identity-based or not? What messages do the microaggressions convey? How could we intervene if we came across these situations? Supporting students who experience these moments is crucial. And it’s imperative to give all students the tools, vocabulary and context to recognize why a particular comment might be extra hurtful—and set the expectation that witnesses should try to be upstanders.
This may seem like a lot for younger students to chew on, and it’s not always easy to make these distinctions and definitions clear. At the same time, however, naming the difference between microaggressions and other hurtful comments is a transparent way to support children in their efforts to be anti-racist, thoughtful, courageous upstanders.
Instinctively, children tend to understand what is kind and what isn’t. It’s almost second nature for them to separate empathetic and loving behavior from actions and words that are pernicious and hurtful. What’s more nuanced, though, is to figure out that sometimes those harmful words or actions hit all the harder because they carry the added force of structural inequity.
As our students work out how to be together, they should be the beneficiaries of as many words, concepts and strategies as we can give them.
Turner is a writer, musician and former educator.