Improving young children’s attitudes towards cultural diversity


Sectarian attitudes are a long-established feature of the divided communities in Northern Ireland. Professor Paul Connolly and colleagues at Queen’s University Belfast set out to discover at what age children first pick up such negative attitudes and what can be done about it.They undertook innovative baseline research, including a survey of 350 children aged 3-6 selected randomly from across the region, as well as in-depth qualitative case studies of young children’s social worlds.

The researchers found that children as young as three years old held sectarian attitudes, but that the situation was not hopeless and that early education programmes had the potential to make a positive difference.

Working in partnership with Early Years – the organisation for young children in Northern Ireland and the US-based Peace Initiatives Institute, a major new programme was developed and piloted for 3-4 year olds called the Media Initiative for Children: Respecting Difference Programme. Using robust evaluation methods, the research team were able to demonstrate that it had a positive and measurable impact on young children’s attitudes and awareness.

Over the last 10 years, and with the evidence of these evaluations, the programme has been rolled out to all pre-school settings in Northern Ireland and many in the Republic of Ireland. The programme is also being expanded for 2-year olds and also older children in primary schools at Key Stage One. This body of research also helped attract funding and agreement with the BBC to produce two locally-made television series of Sesame Tree – the Northern Ireland version of the popular US children’s programme Sesame Street that is now broadcast across the UK on CBeebies.
More widely still, the team are now beginning to work with external partners to support the development of similar early education programmes in other conflict-affected societies, including Colombia, Serbia and Israel.


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