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Visible Differences: Creating a classroom culture of appearance inclusion

BY Dr Jade Parnell

As a teacher, it can be worrying if there’s a visitor or new child in class who looks different. Questions such as “why do they look that way?” or ‘what happened to them?” are often moments we want to avoid- but we don’t have to. Here are some strategies for your toolbox.

Chances are if you’ve come here you’re either a teacher or someone who is interested in being more appearance inclusive – or both! Either way, you have come to the right place.

We know that people are all different in the way we look and who we are. At the Centre for Appearance Research, we work with many people who look different to societies ‘norm’- in order to create more supportive and inclusive environments. In my doctoral research, I aimed to promote inclusivity of all diverse appearances among young children and this included not only understanding how children’s attitudes develop towards appearance but listening to teachers and how they think appearance diversity is best promoted with children.

Many teachers worry that they are going to say the wrong thing and offend someone, or they tell us that they don’t have enough information.

Actually, the worst thing you can do is avoid important topics related to the way people look, just like avoiding inclusion in relation to ethnicity, disability, gender, and sexuality. Here are some tips will help you build confidence in leading the way towards inclusive practice.

1: Start conversations early

And by early, we mean- address visible difference early on in the conversation, and when children are young.

Let’s take the situation above- a visitor who has a visible difference (also called an appearance altering condition), it can be helpful to acknowledge this as early as possible and explain using facts and information, what the condition is, without assuming how life is for that person. Check with the person how they would like to be addressed and introduced. You could say something like: “You might notice that Benjamin looks a bit different. He has vitiligo- a skin condition where white patches develop on the skin/ a condition where the skin loses its pigment in patches… it doesn’t hurt, it’s just the way it is. Benjamin – can you tell us about where you are from and your hobbies?”. Kids are curious. They really want to know, so let’s respond to that curiosity, and open up opportunities to engage.

Evidence shows children can begin developing stigma towards those whose appearance doesn’t fit in with what we see in most media (e.g., being white, able bodied and thin etc,) by 4 years old. So it is important to begin age-appropriate conversation and representation early. When children ask genuinely inquisitive questions, use it as an opportunity to start a discussion with them. For more guidance on responding to children’s’ questions – you can access this teacher toolkit.

2: Weave representation into teaching

Inclusion isn’t always about what we say, it’s about what we do as well. It’s important that we include a range of appearances in the images, toys and books you use whilst teaching. When using images, videos and resources in class, actively look for ones where there are people of different shapes, sizes, cultural background, abilities, and some with visible difference. This can be done subtly so as to not draw attention to anyone in the class that may also have similar characteristics. It is important that children in your class feel safe and seen but also something which is often overlooked is the importance to include a range of appearances that are not represented in class, as children will be less likely to be familiar with these. Watching a video where someone has a visible difference and having an open discussion about it makes it much easier to have a conversation when you have the new student in class. Picture story books are an excellent way of representing diverse appearances and humanising the people with various conditions.

For a useful game that has this representation, check out ‘Everybody’s Different’ the boardgame here.

3: Check the terminology you are using

Language is something teachers are often worried about. They tell me: “especially nowadays when we’re all striving to be very politically correct and fearing offending people, but I think knowing what language is appropriate and what you can and can’t say…”

Although language is constantly changing, here are some guidelines:

  • The way people identify with their condition varies. There is no one ‘right way’. The only way to ensure that you get it right for that person is to ask that person, or listen to the way they introduce themselves, and reflect that.
  • This might look like: “Jenny has a cleft lip” or “Max had an accident that means he uses a wheelchair”. Use no-judgemental language and avoid adding adjectives of pity or negativity
  • Some people identify strongly with their condition, but otherwise, in general, using ‘a person with [condition]’ is appropriate.
  • There is more detail on language in the free teachers toolkit and (if you haven’t already), it is recommended you check out the work of Carly Findlay a writer, speaker and appearance activist.

4: Celebrate our uniqueness

It is beautiful in itself that we are all unique and this should be celebrated. This doesn’t have to be a dedicated lesson, but flows through each and every thing you do in your classroom, Celebrating our strengths can look like “isn’t it fantastic that when we all bring our strengths to a team, we can achieve so much more than doing things on our own” or pointing out the many different and varied flowers in a garden, or different types of dogs in picture story books. Emphasising how boring it would be if we were all the same is a quick and easy way to celebrate diversity. Positive affirmations can really go a long way in this and remember the students can mirror your own behaviour, so try to practice what you preach!

5: Set up a support group

Support groups can help build confidence and champion appearance inclusivity, why not put together a support group with your fellow colleagues to champion inclusivity? This can become a safe space to talk about these topics. No one gets everything right first time but opening up a dialogue with colleagues can help.

You are already doing a great job

Teaching can be demanding and this is one of many things to consider as the role of a teacher but you’re doing a great job and any steps you can take, big or small to being an appearance inclusive teacher and person will not only benefit you but also your students and particularly those who are often underrepresented.

Meet The Author,
Dr Jade Parnell

Dr Jade Parnell is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Appearance Research, based at the University of the West of England, Bristol, UK. If you are interested in the work of the Centre for Appearance Research, please follow us on Instagram and Twitter (@CAR_UWE) and Facebook (Centre for Appearance Research). Also, check out our podcast: Appearance Matters: the podcast!

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