Why We Must Talk to Young Children about Economic Inequality



eswhite-1Dr. Elizabeth White is an Assistant Professor of Child Development in the School of Teaching and Learning. Her research interests include children’s civic engagement, teachers’ strategies to honor diversity in the classroom, and children’s ideas about wealth, poverty, and economic inequality.  She formerly taught pre-kindergarten and fifth grade in Atlanta, GA. In this post, she makes the case for why avoiding the sticky topic of economic inequality in ECE classrooms does more harm than good.

In the past 30 years, the U.S. has seen dramatic shifts in the demographics of students attending K-12 schools. In order to effectively navigate these increasingly diverse social environments, children must learn to interact with students from backgrounds different from their own. “Difference” is usually considered in terms of race/ethnicity, language and gender, yet less overt differences, such as social class background, matter as well. Some may argue that young children aren’t really thinking about social class or economic inequality yet, though research shows otherwise.


What does the research say?

Numerous studies have shown that young children are very aware of economic differences among peers and people in the community (e.g., Bigler, Averhart, & Liben, 2003; Chafel & Neitzel, 2005). Ignoring these differences doesn’t work because children actually develop stereotypes and make judgments about different groups on their own if they’re not explicitly addressed (Bigler & Liben, 2007). In fact, children as young as five express stereotypes about social class groups and are less likely to seek friendship with students from social class backgrounds different from their own (Weigner, 2000). Even if teachers and parents ignore social class, it is highly probable that children will notice differences in their peers’ economic backgrounds and will make judgments about different economic groups.

How do we talk to children about sensitive topics like poverty, privilege, or economic inequality?

Unfortunately, little research has tested or examined these processes in the classroom, but some experts do have recommendations for addressing young children’s ideas about social class:

  • Chafel, Flint, Hammel, and Pomeroy (2007) suggest that teachers educate children about economic inequality through teacher and student-initiated conversations and volunteer service projects.
  • Lee, Ramsey, and Sweeney (2008) describe using role-playing activities in a kindergarten classroom to engage children in conversations about economic difference. In one such activity, teachers created different sized dollhouses to represent various SES groups and gave children different amounts of money to spend at a classroom store to illustrate the consequences of economic inequality.
  • Children’s literature may also help teachers initiate meaningful conversations about social class and help children understand economic inequality and poverty (Chafel & Neitzel, 2005). Books such as “A Shelter in Our Car” by Monica Gunning or “Fly Away Home” by Eve Bunting can be used even with young children to start these conversations.

Are these strategies appropriate in early childhood?

A child’s developmental level should also be considered. For example, role-play activities may be particularly effective during early childhood because young children may experience difficulty examining broader social issues without direct personal experience. Similarly, young children’s difficulty with multiple classification skills may make learning about similarities and differences among social groups a particular challenge. They may need additional cognitive training in using multiple classification skills to understand that people from different groups may share similar characteristics and that group differences do not indicate internal differences (Aboud, 1988). Overall, teachers must recognize children’s cognitive capacity to understand such topics and design lessons accordingly.

What else can teachers do?

Teachers must also critically examine their own beliefs about poverty and privilege and reflect on their own experiences related to social class. By examining and articulating their ideas and assumptions about economic disparities, teachers may be better able to support students in this process as well.


Take home message:

The key message is that we must talk openly about economic differences in order to support children’s understanding of economic inequality and to promote friendships across different economic groups. Otherwise, children will likely adopt or endorse stereotypes that we are all working to challenge.

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Aboud, F. (1988). Children and prejudice. New York, NY: Blackwell.

Bigler, R. S., Averhart, C. J., & Liben, L. S. (2003). Race and the work force: Occupational status, aspirations, and stereotyping among African American children. Developmental Psychology, 39, 572–580.

Bigler, R. S., & Liben, L. S. (2007). Developmental intergroup theory: Explaining and reducing children’s social stereotyping and prejudice. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 162–166.

Chafel, J. A., Flint, A. S., Hammel, J., & Pomeroy, K. H. (2007). Young children, social issues, and critical literacy: Stories of teachers and researchers. Young Children, 62(1), 73–81.

Chafel, J. A., & Neitzel, C. (2005). Young children’s ideas about the nature, causes, justification, and alleviation of poverty. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 20, 433–450.

Lee, R., Ramsey, P. G., & Sweeney, B. (2008). Engaging young children in activities and conversations about race and social class. Young Children, 63, 68–76.

Weinger, S. (2000). Economic status: Middle class and poor children’s views. Children & Society, 14, 135–146.


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