Black History Month is only the beginning when providing cultural context for youngest learners

February 23, 2018 by Cindy O'Dell

Assistant Professor Hawani Negussie, Ed.D., has reminders of both education and Africa in her Irvine campus office, including a quote from Nelson Mandela: "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."

Black History Month is nearly over. But for Hawani Negussie, incorporating that history into the education of children isn’t.

“It shouldn’t be a tourist-like, once-a-year visit. Then children of color can know they matter every month,” said Negussie, assistant professor of early childhood education at Brandman University.

Negussie said that is particularly important for the youngest learners she specializes in, those up to age 8.

“Socio-cultural theory says if we teach children in the context of where and who they are, they can identify with the curriculum. When they’re removed from who they are, it becomes a foreign idea. The brain has to work harder to connect those ideas,” she said. The goal should be an equal platform that reflects all children, all the time.

The more that happens at a young age, she said, the more those children invest later in preserving cultures and languages, adding benefits both the child’s sense of self and the world.

It’s also important to remember that the month’s highlighted history is America's history and an extension of the history of Africa, her home continent, she said. Connecting children to the many cultures of Africa and elsewhere also provides context to their lives.

The right decision

Negussie grew up in Ethiopia and came to the U.S. for her undergraduate education, following in the footsteps of her mother who graduated from UCLA and then returned to Ethiopia. Although inspired by her mother’s work with women and children, she didn’t start school intending to specialize in early childhood education.

She was nearly finished with all her requirements for a bachelor’s in psychology when she was invited to talk about Ethiopia’s coffee production in a grade school classroom.

“Something just clicked,” she said. She switched to child development and minor in psychology. “It chose me. I’ve never looked back. It’s one of the best decisions of my life.”

She’s worked with children with severe disabilities, homeless children, children and families dealing with severe trauma and illness and directing a child care program at the corporate level. She turned to academia and teaching at the college level inspired by her father, a longtime professor. “My father taught me that books and education are gateways to realizing who you are and who you’re going to be.”

Now she’s shaping courses at Brandman that will give early childhood educators a better understanding of child development. “I think Brandman is a great opportunity (for those already working in child care). They can work full time and go to school,” she said, noting that few would be able to quit work and attend a more traditional university.

Knowledge is critical

All students, but especially young children who may be less able to explain their behavior, need teachers who understand their behaviors and can communicate with parents about it. “We need to give them (early childhood educators) the tools so that they move beyond thinking the child is the problem. We have to do better as a field.”

That includes helping all children learn a global perspective. “Children live in the world we create for them. It can be big, or it can be narrow,” she said. Pointing toward her office filing cabinet, she said, “You can fill the first drawer or the whole file cabinet. Black children, in particular, don’t always get enough information about who they are.

“Going back to this month and what it means … being equitable is the key – listening to who they are and who their parents are matters. Assimilation is OK when we don’t exclude but bring who you are in that culture as well. Once you forget, you forget.”

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