ZERO TO THREE virtual series continues the early childhood dialogue on race

ZERO TO THREE hosted the first of two virtual sessions of “Continuing the Dialogue: Infants and Toddlers Face Racism Too.” The webinar was led by ZERO TO THREE’s Sarah LeMoine, MS, and Maria Spriggs, MPH. As part of this session, three child development specialists spoke about the history of developmental research, structural racism’s effects on child development and how biases are formed in early childhood.

During the introduction, the hosts include a video of a recreation of the “Doll Test,” a psychological experiment that illustrates children of color’s racial biases. View the video below:

“How Does Racism Affect Science and Children and Families?” — Cynthia García Coll, PhD

García Coll first reflects on pediatric professionals’ reliance on science in treating children. She points out that while science informs early child development work, research and the practice of science across industries has a history of racial inequities. She refers to the biology journal Cell’s 2020 editorial “Science Has a Racism Problem,” which discusses the racism ingrained in science, and calls on everyone, not just those who work in science or early childhood industries, to fight overt and systemic racism.

García Coll goes on to outline the history of science’s understanding of child development. “A Biographical Sketch of an Infant” was Charles Darwin’s account of his own son’s development with an evolutionary perspective. While limited in its scope, García Coll says that Darwin’s paper was a large contribution to the foundation of developmental sciences. His work helped us understand the importance of a baby or toddler’s context in their development and that all of their systems are interconnected – motor development, cognitive development, language development, etc., all work together. García Coll then discusses Sigmund Freud’s Psychosexual Stages of Development, which she says may not be a substantial part of our modern understanding of children’s development, but led to more focus on early childhood’s impact on the rest of our lives.

Subsequent developmental research examined and defined patterns and stages of child development, eventually diving deeper into the complexities of the effects of early social interactions, culture and family. García Coll discusses how child development research has recently begun to take into account poverty, inequality, racism and other sources of oppression. She says that these recent developments have allowed us to broaden understanding of child development and practice. While scientific research has historically focused on “WEIRD”white, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic—populations, expanding our scope to a wider range of populations will help us better serve them.

“Race—A Template to Address Difference, Bias and Disparities” — Marva Lewis PhD

Lewis begins by asking, “Why race? Why do we talk about race?” She says that with a racially-informed framework, we can ensure that we effectively help children and families from diverse multicultural social identity groups. She goes on to discuss structural racism, which the Aspen Institute defines as: “A system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with “whiteness” and disadvantages associated with “color” to endure and adapt over time.”

Structural racism has far-reaching negative consequences in all spheres of human society, including education, healthcare, justice, politics and more. For children of color, these adverse effects are apparent from birth through early childhood. CDC research shows that Black, American Indian, and Alaska Native women are “two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women.” NICU settings’ structure, processes and outcome measures, which most often disadvantage infants of color, results in racial and ethnic health disparities. And in early education, the Yale Child Study Center found that early educators’ implicit bias likely leads to the disproportionate punishment received by Black boys.

Lewis says that the concept of systemic incorporates historical trauma, which which she defines as “the historical experience of chronic and oppressive trauma of a targeted group within a society.” Lewis says that acts of physical violence or psychological terrorism that occur over generations to a group impact members of that society individually and across generations. Historical trauma manifests in parents’ everyday interactions with their infants and young children through their parenting style and internalized colorism.

Lewis concludes by calling upon researchers and early childhood professionals to create tools and means of support for families of color in order to create better outcomes for children of color.

“Racial Biases in Early Childhood and How to Reduce Them” — Kang Lee, PhD

Lee discusses scientific findings from the past couple of decades and how they help us address what he calls the “pandemic” of racism. His presentation mostly focuses on research that examines the racial biases of young children, from birth to 5 years old.

Lee discusses research that found that by age 3, children display racial biases toward their own race and against other races. These biases are common whether the children live in a diverse or homogenous society. In fact, even 3-month-olds show a bias towards faces of their own race. Lee says that this preference is due to the simple familiarity of facesbabies who mostly see the own-race faces of their families in their first few months are likely to be more comfortable with own-race faces (and less comfortable with other-race faces) in a variety of contexts.

Lee says that these biases affect children’s attitudes toward their own race and other races. Lee’s research shows that children 3-9 months old associate own-race faces with positive emotions and other-race faces with negative emotions. Another study shows six to eight-month-olds are more attentive to and more forgiving of own-race faces, and less attentive to and less forgiving of other-race faces. Racial biases that are formed in early childhood can be the foundation of adults’ racial prejudices. Lee argues that we implicitly perpetuate racial biases in our environments and pass them on to our children.

In contrast to the babies in the above research, Lee says that babies who are raised by parents of different races do not display the same biases. He concludes that the cause of racial biases in early childhood is a lack of exposure to individuals of other races.


The second part of ZERO TO THREE’s “Continuing the Dialogue: Infants and Toddlers Face Racism Too” series, focusing on actionable steps to address racism, took place January 28. You can view the recordings of both virtual sessions here: ZERO TO THREE Virtual Event Archives