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Building Allies Against Exclusion and Oppression

Teaching Young Children to Take a Stand


There is little argument that we live in violent and challenging times. The media abound with stories of bullying, harassment, hate crimes and school violence.  Addressing these issues with young children may seem overwhelming. We might ask, “Aren’t they too young to understand and respond to such complex societal issues?”

This chapter represents an answer to this question as follows: It is never too early to raise issues of social justice with children, and it is possible to do so in ways that are both age-appropriate and engaging. Learning the vocabulary of social justice and beginning to see oneself as an ally in the face of oppressive behavior are both possible and desirable goals for children as young as pre-school. 

I will share here ways of using children’s literature, music and movement to explore these issues with children and to empower their teachers and care-givers to commit to this important work.



Who among us hasn’t been left out at some point? The party to which we weren’t invited, the people sitting together at lunch who made it clear we weren’t welcome at the table and the more subtle exclusions of disregard and invisibility are all painfully familiar to many of us.  How can this be explored with young children? I propose several strategies:


Cycles of Exclusion

  1. Ask students to write down a time they were excluded and a time they excluded someone else. 
  2. Then have them write what their feelings were in each of these situations.
  3. Make a list on the board or on chart paper of “Feelings When I Was Excluded” and “Feelings When I Excluded Others.” 
  4. Discuss the two lists, and how they are the same and/or different.

Although the feelings in both lists are not necessarily the same, they are usually negative. Students who were excluded report feeling hurt, scared, embarrassed, angry, rejected, sad and worthless. Those who did the excluding may report that at first they felt powerful or triumphant, but later felt guilty, ashamed, or bad about themselves. Use the discussion as an opportunity to talk about how exclusion feels and why students exclude others.


Exclusion Tableaus

  1. Have students share, in small groups (3-4), their exclusion stories.
  2. Have each group choose one of the stories to represent visually.
  3. Have them construct a tableau (I call it a snapshot) of what the exclusion looked like. It might be two children talking with their backs to a third, or perhaps two children whispering about another.
  4. Then have them imagine what an inclusion tableau would look like and how they could represent them.
  5. Have each group share their tableaus with the rest of the 
  6. class, moving from their “Exclusion Tableu” to their “Inclusion Tableau.”
  7. Have students discuss what they noticed about each and how the tableaus made them feel.
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