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Anti-racism – a key element for empathy and advocacy in the early years

date November 23, 2023Dr Valerie Daniel


In this article Dr Valerie Daniel shares her views on how anti-racism is a key part of empathy and advocacy in the early years.

I have been thinking so much about this recently, I think “It must be great to wake up every morning knowing that you will not face prejudice because of the colour of your skin, that would make me so happy!” and then it hit me, if it were a natural aspect of your life it would not be given a second thought because it would be as unconscious as normal breathing. Then I thought, if something is as unconscious as normal breathing, can you really relate to anyone for whom breathing is characterised by airway obstruction and dyspnoea? When something is not a part of your human experience, can you truly empathise?

two toddlers one being empathetic

Let’s look at empathy. We tend to think of it solely as a cognitive function, i.e. ‘walking in another person’s shoes’. We know that this may only be possible if the way history unfolded was in reverse and the transatlantic slave route went in reverse and black people had invented the printing press thus having the resources to create disinformation and relay misinformation that has stubbornly persisted through the ages despite incontrovertible evidence to the contrary regarding those they enslaved. I think we can safely say that this is not really possible, but what is possible is emotive empathy; feeling with someone else. Feeling their pain on a heart level.

We are biologically wired to respond to the emotions of other human beings, however, we have been socialised to ignore or suppress uncomfortable feelings. In fact, one of the biggest social arguments against anti-racism is feelings of uncomfortableness. Cognitive empathy allows for self-protection because you can’t be expected to know something that you can never know on a head level but emotive empathy does not give you that leeway, much to the dismay of those who don the costume of anti-racism solely for professional purposes. Empathy is a conscious choice and it is a skill we can attain and improve. In working with young children, it is arguably the most important skill for an educator to have.

teacher high-fiving pupil

True emotive empathy changes you as a human being. It affects you on a heart and mind level, and when your heart and mind are open, it is very difficult to be selective in our human connectedness. We feel with others and sitting by on the side-lines becomes impossible and we are motivated into empathetic action.

As educators we should be advocates for the children entrusted into our care.

  • If we are not motivated by emotive empathy and empathetic action, can we be true advocates for all children?
  • Are we conscious of the way we influence the lives of children both positively and negatively?
  • Are we aware of the damage that we can do as educators when what we think and feel does not align with what we say and do?
  • Do we understand the ways that our core beliefs and values can sneak past the professional prison that locks away and protects our private sense of self?

All our children deserve empathetic and emotionally intelligent adults who are not in denial of the anti-blackness culture that breeds widespread inequality for black and brown people and their children. Adults who understand their biases and that they hold stereotypical perceptions about others.  Adults who face the fact that what they think they know about others is based on incomplete and imperfect information.

Our profession should be underpinned by the foundation of ‘first do no harm’. Believe it or not, some people are fully invested in education that mistreats black and brown children and curtails their potential and some people couldn’t care less!  A job is a job and they are in it to get paid. Well, it is overwhelmingly clear that empathy and advocacy for all will not feature strongly in their role as educators. For people who are not this way inclined, the escape clause if they do not choose emotive empathy and empathetic action, is that if it is not their intention to do harm and they are unaware that they are doing harm then they cannot be held responsible. If you worked in a restaurant and it was absolutely not your intention to give your diners salmonella poisoning and you were unaware that you have consistently been the cause of the cross contamination that is making your diners ill, are you free from taking responsibility for this? Should it just be allowed to continue? As educators we have to consider whether the teaching profession is for you if you do not strive to be self-aware.

My other question is: “If you approached how you work with children, without the ‘thinking mind’ that allows you to assume what you think you know about a child based on the colour of their skin or their social status, would harm for any child ever be an issue?” I aim to be a Bronfenbrenner kind of girl, I want any child I work with to know that I am irrationally crazy about them. I need them to know that they matter and I need to know that the influence I have on their life is uplifting and positive. I want them to remember me as a force for good in their life.

woman teacher with happy children

About the speaker

Dr Valerie Daniel

Dr Valerie Daniel is a qualified teacher with over 30 years’ experience, with the last 14 years in the role of a Maintained Nursery School headteacher. Valerie is a Doctor of Education, a trained systems leader and leadership mentor for other headteachers and leaders in the Early Years sector.

Dr Valerie Daniel has delivered a host of webinars for Kinderly which are now available to view on demand on our CPD and training platform Kinderly Learn.  You can become a member for less than £2 a week on our annual plan!

You can also catch Dr Valerie Daniel on the The Voice of Early Childhood podcast – available from 22nd Jan 2024.