How Children Learn Bias

By Stephanie Filio

How Children Learn BiasBias does not stem from fact, so the concept can be abstract and difficult to grasp. Bias is the manifestation of deeply rooted connections our brains have made between our experiences, things we are told, and grouped concepts from our environment. Preconceived (and often misconstrued) thought patterns, such as bias, can make us behave in irrational ways.

Take my own personal story of bias: I often associate wooden spoons more with discipline than with cooking. When I cook today, I prefer to use plastic utensils, just because they have a stronger association with kitchenware for me. I don’t even think about it; it just seems to make more sense. Think that’s crazy? You might not if you also grew up in a house where wooden spoons were used to keep your hands out of the cooking dinner or to correct a sarcastic remark. In my childhood home, wooden spoons were a highly effective parental disciplinary tool. Obviously, this example of bias is not as serious as bias about people is, but even bias as simple as the bias I hold toward wooden spoons can be incredibly destructive to a growing person, creating a lifetime of misinformation and missed opportunities.

Any cognitive reasoning, such as bias, is the result of attempting to understand new material and figuring out where to place it for long-term storage. How much and in what way we process information is largely dictated by our cognitive and developmental capacities at the time. When our understanding is limited, our brains attempt to fill in the holes, too often with incorrect information. Once committed, our incorrect filler information takes a lot of effort to change. During childhood, when our understanding and logic are still expanding, we are especially susceptible to developing these faulty fragments. Luckily, kids spend a lot of their time in schools, where educators can create an enriching and open environment that battles the development of a biased mindset.

Back to the Basics
To understand how someone develops bias, we have to understand how a person develops their logic in the first place. After all, concepts such as racism, bias, and prejudice are just ruminated opinions brought on by thoughts. One of my favorite theorists, Jean Piaget, identified four stages of cognitive development in children. Using these developmental stages, we can develop a framework for a positive acquisition of healthy open-mindedness to counteract the development of bias and prejudice.

  • Sensorimotor (ages 0–2). In this stage, children start to find awareness of their environment and objects. They are exploring their environment with each sense and learning what things are based on reactive information. This is where little people are touching, pulling, grabbing, rubbing, and tasting everything around them to gain data.
  • Preoperational (ages 2–7). This major stage in development brings about a higher awareness of knowledge as children begin grouping objects and information together. Children early in this stage may draw inaccurate conclusions based on a lack of logical sense. For example, a dog and a bunny are both furry, so you can call them both dogs, until you incorporate data on sound. When sound is incorporated, dog gets its own separate category because of its bark.
  • Concrete operational (ages 7–12). Analogies and more concrete logic can be understood with specific and narrow concepts. Play is still very important, since this is a time when children can understand the difference between reality and fantasy. Science class is often a favorite during this stage, because concepts such as cause and effect and conservation are newly understood. Labs are like a personal magic show!
  • Formal operational (ages 12–adult). In the adolescent years, kids have more understanding about abstract thoughts and decision-making. Universal concepts such as justice are strengthened in this stage, and possibilities can be weighed with reason. Personality and moral affiliations are being secured, bringing on those strong teen stances we have come to know and love!

As children grow, there is so much at work that influences their worldview. At different ages, children have varying deduction skills that they inherently use to categorize people, often by assigning desirable or undesirable labels, such as competence or reliability, to a person or group. This process can radically change intrinsic or extrinsic perceptions children have of themselves and their role with other people. When we provide children skills to explore and interpret the diverse world around them, we help them diminish bias by giving them more opportunity to have broader categorization.

  • Allow exploration. From birth until adulthood, there is no better lesson for a child than learning how to be a lifelong learner. Giving students opportunities to explore their environment in enriching ways will help harness a lifestyle of fearless exploration. When the classroom inspires discovery (as opposed to personal assumption), students take that quality with them when they leave school. In- and out-of-school field trips, curious teachers with a zest for learning with students, and lessons that have student-led experiments offer abstract thinking opportunities.
  • Exposure. In addition to exploration, children benefit from meaningful and purposeful exposure to diverse things and thoughts. After all, the world is much larger than their own backyard! Exposure to world cultures and geography not only helps children reduce biased thoughts about people and places they don’t know, it also helps them set their sights higher! Some obvious and subtle methods of exposure include video chatting with people from around the world, allowing students to see and feel foreign money, decorating your space with global transportation maps, and encouraging students to share their own cultures and identities.
  • Debate and questioning opinions. To conquer bias students might encounter at home or in the community, they have to know how to hold a healthy debate. Lessons that encourage students to question what they are told help them do the same when their brain is considering new or contradictory information. Offering experiences where students can have debates, act as moderators, and have roundtable discussions helps students find their voice and their logic. It can seem chaotic at times, but with practice, students can create a respectful discussion culture in the classroom, where they begin to look at information through a nonjudgmental lens.

What biased thinking lacks is a true sense of collaboration. Observation through a single viewpoint excludes the diverse perspectives of others. By teaching growing children that all people, places, and things are multidimensional, we cut off opportunities to adopt biased thinking. Open-ended belief systems give students room to continue learning without a need to come to a finite conclusion with limited understanding. Creating this humanitarian environment in the classroom offers a model of open-minded behavior. Unbiased learners can then work in harmony with their expansive environments, have richer relationships, find further-reaching opportunities for growth, and feel free to use any kitchen utensil with ease!

Stephanie FilioStephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.


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