A Q&A with Harvard University lecturer and speech pathologist Rebecca Rolland.
Children sitting together. Photo by Charlein Gracia on Unsplash

Inclusion is the hot topic for society these days, and it may be a focal point for parents and educators as children return to the classrooms. But, what does inclusion truly mean and how do you teach it? Rebecca Rolland, an education lecturer at Harvard University and a speech pathologist at Children’s Hospital Boston, offers guidance to parents and educators here. 

First, how would you define inclusion as I think we all have a different definition of what it means.

Rebecca Rolland. Courtesy photo

Inclusion means helping kids celebrate differences of all kinds in the people they see around them. When we’re inclusive, we move beyond just “tolerating” the people around us, and we start enjoying and appreciating the ways they’re different from us. We also help those around us live together harmoniously, and help each person feel they belong to a community.

What have you learned from your research on teaching children about inclusion?

So often, we think that kids will just “get” inclusion without being taught. Then we’re surprised when they exclude others or make uncaring comments. Really, kids (especially young ones) tend to have a preference for the familiar. They need help expanding their “palate” and appreciating differences.

How can parents teach children about inclusion?

This starts with modeling in your own lives. How do you talk about and interact with people who are different from you, in race, religion, ethnicity, and even in beliefs and temperament? You can also set the stage for these conversations by talking about how difference is a positive. Ask kids what they like about foods and holidays that are unlike theirs. If you can, help them meet other kids from many different backgrounds.

What about teachers or caregivers? How would they take inclusion?

Teachers and caregivers have a great opportunity to do all the above. They can also start by modeling an attitude of interest and curiosity about differences. Instead of “that’s different, so it’s weird,” they can teach kids to think, “That’s different, and it could be interesting.” Take the time to teach about the histories and traditions of many different cultures. Talk about how we all think and learn differently.

What are the benefits of teaching children about inclusion?

The benefits are great —  in the moment and over the long term. I talk about a “double promise.” The first promise is that, in the moment, children will likely have better relationships. They’ll be kinder to each other, learn more, and have more empathy. The second promise is that, over time, they build their openness to others and their flexible thinking. These are the skills they’ll need to thrive in a diverse society.

Are there misconceptions about teaching children about inclusion? What are they?

We often tend to think about lecturing kids about inclusion. We think of teaching moral lessons, and we hope kids learn. But kids learn much more about inclusion by actually practicing it. That means by interacting with people who aren’t like them and learning how to work through any challenges that come up.

What did you find surprising during your research? 

I found it surprising to realize how much our attitude matters. Kids pick up on the ways we talk about inclusion, and especially on how we are or aren’t including others.  That means, if we have trouble with inclusion, or if we grew up in households that didn’t emphasize it, it can be helpful to recognize that and work on it. Think about it like going on a journey with your kids.

I think that, in a country and a world that is so polarized and divided, this is one of the most important topics we can talk about!

San Diego Moms is published every Saturday. Have a story idea? Email [email protected] and follow her on Instagram at @hoawritessd.



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Ellen Bullock