The Science of Hair: A Lower School Lens for Exploring Diversity

There is something about hair that young children cannot resist—twirling their hair, braiding each other’s hair, tugging on curls, touching a fresh cut—especially when it is different from their own. They are naturally curious, tactile learners, and on any given day in the lower school, they can be heard making comments to each other like: “Your hair feels so soft today,“ “Why do you have braids like that?” “I love rubbing your head.”
These types of comments and gestures come primarily from simple observation, but they can be uncomfortable or unwelcome for the recipient. This was sometimes the case at Tower Hill School (DE) among students of color, and while any specific issues were handled on an individual basis, I discovered that hair presents a meaningful opportunity to open up conversation about diversity among lower school students. 

Anti-Bias Education in Lower School

Traditionally, social justice work has focused around discussions with older students. Yet renowned Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji’s research, along with that of countless others, suggests that prejudices form at an early age—and they can be unlearned. Working with young students can build a common foundation for dialogue and make a significant impact down the road.
As a lower school librarian, I use the anti-bias literature-based AMAZE program to combine age-appropriate children’s literature with skill-building lessons to help start conversations about equity and inclusion. This early childhood program focuses on four key concepts: Creating Safety and Belonging, Understanding Me and You, Valuing Families, and Building a Community. Topics I have approached within this framework include skin color, socio-economic differences, gender bias, family dynamics, and feelings.
I also facilitate Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity workshops for faculty and staff members in lower through upper school with my school’s director of social justice, Dyann Connor. After hearing from a few parents that students were impulsively touching children’s hair, Connor suggested that we incorporate a lesson about hair into our lower school inclusivity curriculum.
First I looked for children’s picture books about the science of hair. I wanted my lesson to come from a scientific standpoint, addressing any unconscious bias students may have about people who are different from themselves. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the books I was looking for, so I decided to develop my own lesson.

Creating an Original Lesson

Like any teacher implementing an original lesson, a plan needs to be formulated and executed. It states a clear objective, activates prior knowledge, addresses various learning styles and—especially with younger children—has a palpable feature allowing students to conceptualize their learning. Touching and feeling are part of how young children learn.
As a complement to my presentation titled “Knock, Knock, Whose Hair?” which covers some hair basics like color, follicles, and keratin, I decided to travel to a local beauty supply store to purchase an assortment of hair extensions that would represent various hair types and textures. I wanted the children to be able to manipulate and experience the hair on an interactive board. I felt that if they had the opportunity to express their curiosity with an appropriate medium, it would discourage the undesirable act of reaching for a classmate’s hair.
Students who had not yet participated in the lesson had a number of reactions to the hair board:
“That looks like witch hair.”
“The salt-and-pepper hair is the softest.”
“The blond braid is like Rapunzel hair.”
“Wow! Look at those red curls!”
Before my lesson, students would come into the library and ask me about the hair board with a look of apprehension. Now when they come to the library, they are familiar with the hair board and love it. It is not unusual to them anymore, which is the heart of all inclusivity work. Once differences become familiar, children are more accepting.

Ann Sullivan, left, is lower school librarian at Tower Hill School (DE), pictured with director of social justice Dyann Connor. Credit: Kirk Smith

Part of a Larger Program

This lower school lesson about the science of hair is just one small facet of our school’s larger social justice program.
“Teachers throughout school participate in anti-bias, equity, and inclusion work in their classrooms and are encouraged to incorporate this essential teaching into their classrooms,” Connor says. “This can be done in many ways, including adding a wide variety of perspectives to the content taught and inviting students’ to bring their full, authentic selves to the classroom through their stories and personal narratives.”
“We have workshops, presentations, clubs, events, and conversations for students in every grade level, as well as parent groups encouraging diversity and inclusion at our school,” she adds. “The program continually evolves to meet students, teachers, and parents where they are in their own personal journeys.”

Tips for Being Proactive Versus Reactive

Parents have expressed their appreciation for our proactive approach to students touching their children’s hair, for it wasn’t just about hair; it was also about diversity, tolerance, kindness, and inclusion. If you are considering creating your own lesson about diversity, here are some tips:
  • Look for patterns in your students’ behavior.
  • Find time to start a group conversation before an issue grows.  
  • Partner with diversity experts in your school or community.  
  • Consider which grades are most appropriate for the topic. I found that first-graders were just right for the lesson about hair.
  • Take kids’ questions for what they are; most times, they are just naturally curious about something that is different, and talking about it is productive.
  • Incorporate age-appropriate literature into the discussion.
  • While librarians are often tapped to help add multicultural literature to schools, they can also be the conversation facilitators.
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Ann Sullivan

Ann Sullivan is lower school librarian at Tower Hill School (DE).