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Editorial columns

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Diversity aids in developing healthier kids

A class full of children with diverse strengths and needs reminds me of my backyard garden. Tender tomatoes jostle against huge melons. Purple eggplants offset green peppers. Cucumber saplings nest under tall mustard plants. Small shrubs and grass snuggle against a huge tree. Butterflies, bees and birds take turns to feed on the sunflowers.

This diversity is what makes my garden beautiful, harmonious and wholesome. Similarly, a classroom full of children from diverse backgrounds and strengths helps foster understanding, empathy and compassion.

As an educator for more than 25 years, I have observed that when they reach adulthood, children who grew up in an inclusive, diverse community are more compassionate, are open to taking the other’s perspective and find it easier to adapt to new and novel surroundings.

The inclusion of children from diverse backgrounds is steadily increasing across schools in the USA. This diversity encompasses cultural, linguistic, academic and socioeconomic domains. What a wonderful, natural environment to bring up children as global citizens.

The resulting pool of cultural capital promises enormous possibilities – for preventing bullying, for reducing stereotypes and prejudice, for widening perspectives and for promoting citizenship.

Why not tap on this rich resource to enhance cross-cultural understanding, which requires a conscious effort by parents, teachers and other community members?

Children observe, learn from and emulate adult behavior. Exposing children to a diverse environment and modeling a keen interest in learning more about the diversity in our society can go a long way in shaping children’s attitude toward diversity.

However, this requires us to come out of our comfort zones and open our minds to new, different sensory experiences. It cannot happen if we are rigid about what we do and how we do it.

Just as bringing up children in overly sterile environments weakens their immune system, lack of exposure to diversity is likely to lead to misconceptions, distrust and intolerance. This in turn leads to exclusionary practices instead of inclusionary ones.

What can parents, teachers and community members do to promote inclusion and celebrate diversity?

Here are some things that I do as a teacher.

•I welcome diversity.

•I open my mind to learn from my students.

•I infuse passion into what I teach.

•I am flexible in how I teach and what I teach.

•I make a conscious effort to ensure every child is engaged in learning.

•I vary the levels of expectations.

•I collaborate with families, colleagues and community members.

•I encourage family perspectives.

•I keep in mind the community that the children come from and will belong to in the future.

And here are some things that we have done as parents:

•We made friends with families belonging to other cultures.

•We learned, spoke and read multiple languages, thus encouraging our child’s curiosity.

•We experimented with different cuisines.

•We sent our child to a neighborhood school where children across backgrounds and socioeconomic strata attended.

•We stocked a wide range of books which presented different perspectives and encouraged our child to read them as well.

Diversity is enriching. Let us welcome it. Let us embrace it. What do you do to foster inclusion of diversity in your homes, schools and community?

Rama Cousik is an assistant professor of special education at IPFW. She wrote this for The Journal Gazette.

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