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Our Ethical Responsibility to All Children: A Conversation with Brian Silveira

By Margie Carter

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“ … as our country sits in moments of reckoning in so many ways, we find ourselves at NAEYC with a welcome opportunity to do our own reckoning—to look in the mirror and honestly assess and question our progress and our shortcomings.”

Rhian Evans Allvin, CEO, NAEYC

Despite the outrageous corruption, unethical practices and encouragement of racism in the highest levels of leadership in the United States, we can be proud that within the leadership of our professional organization, NAEYC, comes a call for us to collectively examine our own understandings and practices. What a great way for us to become part of the solution for the serious ailments in our country. This call to do our own, internal reckoning is a breath of hope from NAEYC and represents tireless work on behalf of a growing boots-on-the-ground cadre in our profession who are not willing to settle for playing it safe, avoiding controversy and failing to deepen our understandings of how our professional code of ethics requires us to confront biases and systemic barriers that create inequity.

Along with this call comes a growing body of resources on promoting equity, within and beyond NAEYC. Moving from anti-bias goals to those of true equity requires critical analysis. One of the most exciting resources under development is a position statement, Advancing Equity and Diversity in Early Childhood Education, which after requesting input from around the country in several drafts can now be found at https://www.naeyc.org/resources/position-statements/equity. Consider how this might become a valuable tool for your work.

In a powerful blog post, NAEYC CEO Rhian Evans Allvin wrote of the importance of defining what we want to stand for as professionals and outlined things NAEYC has come to understand and stand for. Among her points:

  • We are for elevating a new diversity and equity position statement and related resources.
  • We are for helping early childhood educators promote equity in early learning settings, even in the context of a diverse society that has not yet resolved its structural and institutional inequities.
  • We are for working to resolve those inequities.

Writing with specific reference to racial equity gaps, Allvin says, “Our society created the circumstances that created the gaps; we are, therefore, collectively capable of eliminating them.” What a hopeful call to action. I am so eager for this to go viral!

But, alas, too often the busy lives of teachers and administrators mean that such calls to action go unheard, and indeed, valuable resources are unrecognized or under-utilized. Examining ways to better use resources for professional development lends itself to a fruitful discussion. Likewise, we can frequently spotlight examples of how a commitment to professional learning shapes daily practice and makes our work more fulfilling. 

An Interview with Brian Silveira

Getting to know teachers with a strong commitment to social justice reminds me of the power of our work to shape a new generation that understands how inequity reduces the humanity of all of us. One such teacher is Brian Silveira, whose classroom I have enjoyed visiting at Pacific Primary in San Francisco, and whose thoughtful self-examination and commitment to ongoing learning is instructive. I have seen Brian effectively challenge the thinking or actions of others, and struggle through and learn from challenges offered to him, despite the discomfort. This is the kind of work that eventually breaks through the personal barriers, fears and misunderstandings that uphold the systemic structures of power and inequity.

Brian not only works on anti-bias issues with the children, families and teachers of his school, but more broadly as he offers workshops in his wider community and at professional conferences. Nationally he is the co-chair of the NAEYC Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender interest forum, and he is part of an equity leadership cohort in San Francisco. He also supports the work of the men’s interest forum and the diversity and equity forum.

A few years back, I got to know Brian when he participated in one of our study tours to New Zealand. Impressed with his deep listening as well as thinking, I spontaneously invited him to participate in a fish bowl exercise for our group. He demonstrated how to actively support a teacher puzzling over an observation of children’s play, what their intent might be, and how to support that with ongoing teacher actions. Everyone could clearly see how Brian seeks and respects children’s perspectives as he demonstrated the same with a peer and teased out deeper meanings.

Margie: I’d love to start with your thinking about our ethical responsibility to all children, especially in light of the excerpts from Rhian Evans Allvin’s blog I cited earlier.

Brian: Thanks Margie! I consider the new Advancing Equity in ECE position statement a call to action, a way for NAEYC to hold itself accountable. I always start with the first principle of our Code of Ethical Conduct when thinking together with colleagues and parents: “Above all, we shall not harm children. We shall not participate in practices that are emotionally damaging, physically harmful, disrespectful, degrading, dangerous, exploitative or intimidating to children. This principle has precedence over all others in this Code” (NAEYC Code of Ethical Conduct and Statement of Commitment, reaffirmation and update 2011).

Each year in September, as my team is readying the classroom for the year ahead, we are already thinking about what steps we will proactively take in order to assure that we develop trusting and loving relationships with our children and their families. Adrienne Rich once wrote, “When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.” 

As a white, gay male teacher, parts of my identity make me sensitive to families who are also queer identified. I know I also have blind spots regarding aspects of others’ identities different from mine, and therefore I need to consider any biases or assumptions I may have. So, while I strongly believe in equity for all children, families and people, my blind spots can create a disconnect between my beliefs and how what I say and feel impacts someone else. Therefore, I must have myriad strategies for being aware. 

Per your opening remarks about this time of reckoning we are living through, these days I am especially moved to take a stance and to do this work with teachers, children and families. In my 30-plus years of working with children, this feels like the most divisive, dehumanizing time for many families, and we need to raise children who think critically and ally themselves around important causes that impact their community.

I want the families in my classroom to know that we are committed to creating a safe environment full of love, play and learning that is inclusive and reflective of the children and families in our care. For parent orientation this year, we played a clip from novelist Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” Chimanda describes how people of color, as the result of a narrow and biased view of them, are often reduced to a single, stereotypical story filled with often negative assumptions. I invited parents to share something about their identities that they wished people knew about them. It was powerful to hear the raw struggles and hopes that each of our parents carry with them. This set the tone for understanding the commitment we as teachers make to work hard to make sure that no child will have a single story.

Everyday Practices

Margie: On a practical level, I know that you think carefully about the environment you set up for children and the role of books and images as windows and mirrors and springboard for conversations. Tell us a bit more about that idea and share some examples.

Brian: One example in my classroom is our effort to create play spaces that encourage cross gender play. Big and small swatches of fabric become capes, dresses, baby carriers and picnic blankets in the dramatic play area. I have an archway in the classroom between dramatic play and the block area to encourage cross-gender play. I also have fort-building materials in the dramatic play area. Hollow blocks and fabric become walls, floors and ceilings for houses and forts. 

I actively seek out books to add to my library and find colleagues and parents to think about the appropriateness of the books and how I might use them. I recently introduced a book about a Muslim girl to my classroom. (“Under My Hijab,” by Hena Khan.) I do not currently have any children or parents who wear a hijab, but I have a strong stance and opinion about how we percieve and consequently treat our Muslim communities in this country and I want this to change. I recently brought the book up as a topic for dialogue with colleagues at my school, and we revisited some terms that we have been exploring together— term like bias, micro-aggression and xenophobia helped us think about prevalent attitudes and provided a wider context for our conversation” (The terms “Bias, micro-aggressions and xenophobia,” are described in the NAEYC Advancing Equity statement). 

Margie: Beyond the physical environment, I know you think carefully about the social-emotional environment that makes up your classroom culture. When you have anti-bias goals, right from the start, you are thinking about shaping the group culture to encourage comfort with acknowledging how we are alike and how we are different; how good it is to talk about these things so everyone feels safe and belongs, no one feeling that differences means bad or not normal; using every opportunity to cultivate curiosity rather than judgment to create comfort with asking questions and help formulating them as a “wondering about.” (“I wonder why...”, “I wonder if...”) Brian, can you describe some examples of how you work to establish a classroom culture of curiosity, wonder, empathy and inclusion?

Brian: The language we use in our environment is also important in breaking gender stereotypes. So, for instance, when girls are observing bugs in the garden, I call them scientists; when boys dress up in dramatic play, I mention how pretty the fabric they chose is. One of my first circle times each year, I intentionally wear a skirt to ensure that each child knows that it is safe to explore play outside the boundaries set forth by toy manufacturers that peddle sexist-themed toys in blue and pink. I have learned that the first time I offer a provocation like this, it is always important to contextualize my intention in presenting a new and possibly controversial concept to my children. The first time I wore a skirt, the children screamed with laughter and tried to pull the skirt off of me. Clearly my desire to create a safe place to express oneself was dashed in that moment. The next time I did it, I had a more carefully thought-out plan. I wore pants and a shirt to circle time and told the children that I brought my skirt to school and that I wanted to wear it to circle time, but I was afraid that someone might laugh or tell me that I cannot wear it because I am a boy. What a difference that made. The children assured me that I can wear whatever I want to school and that they would not laugh. When I put it on the children told me that my skirt looked pretty. Then, halfway through the year, a parent told me that their child wanted to wear a dress to school. I checked in with the child, and he wanted to lead a circle time before he wore the dress to school. What he said brought tears to my eyes. “Hi everybody, I have a dress and I want to wear it to school. I want to feel safe like Brian did when he wore his skirt to school.”

Margie: In some of your self-reflections, I have heard you mention your concern about addressing anti-bias goals throughout the year, not just as part of an occasional curriculum activity. To me this is a mindset you are suggesting,not only a planning component. From your stories about introducing books and bringing a skirt to circle time to put on, I see you periodically plan provocations to explore aspects of the four anti-bias goals, but I also know you are always on the lookout for emerging opportunities to explore dispositions of curiosity, fairness and inclusion.

Brian: Yes, and because children are expressing their knowledge and questions about the world through play, opportunities present themselves quite often. Recently, some children were building a structure out of blocks and announced to me, “It’s a jail for homeless people.” I was struck by this statement. My heart was heavy because I realized that I had not talked about homelessness with the children although we pass by people without homes each week on our field trips around our urban neighborhood. 

I thought about what this might mean for our children who encounter people in our city without homes in their daily life. What messages are they getting from their teachers, other adults and the community about this complex issue? Do they think that people without homes are bad guys and need to be in jail? Are they afraid of them and feel that jail would protect them? Whatever the reason, I was thrilled to go deeper into the subject with them.

I sat down near the block builders and asked them more about their structure. “Why are they in jail?” I asked. “Do you think they are bad guys?”

The group thought about it for a while and replied, “Homeless people get help here.”

“I see,” I said. “You know jail is not the place homeless people go to get help. They go to hospitals and food pantries.”

More thoughts from the children: “The jail is for bad guys and it is on the bottom; homeless people go upstairs for help.” 

Later, during morning meeting, I asked the children what they knew about homeless people. Most said that homeless people do not have food or money. I wanted to expand the children’s ideas about homeless people, that they need food in order to survive and that they may have a job and some money, but not enough to afford a place to live. I wanted them to know about services and that homelessness is often a temporary thing, and that when people get shelter, things get easier for them. They have a safe place to sleep, a toilet, and a shower to get clean. I tried to convey that sometimes homeless people have had very scary things happen to them and because they do not feel safe they might act in ways that feel scary to us!

I invited Abigail, Elliot’s mom, to talk about her job as a social worker who works with the city to assist people without shelter. She told us her office has helped 50 people every month get off of the streets. She showed pictures of people who were experiencing homelessness and shared their stories. Because the topic was so meaningful to them, the children were riveted for 40 minutes.

After the conversation with Abigail, we invited the children to build in the dramatic play area. I did not tell them what to build, but they told me that they had built homes for people who need them, including pillows and fabric for blankets. 

Some days later, I invited another parent who used to be at our center to tell the children about her experience being homeless. She wanted the children to reflect upon assumptions people have about homeless people. She also wanted them to know that homelessness can be a temporary thing and that people often just need a little help. She is someone the children know, so it was particularly powerful for them to hear what she had to say.

The children wanted to do something for homeless people, so we participated in the One Warm Coat Project, collecting coats and delivering them to Huckleberry House, a non-profit that focuses on homeless youth in San Francisco.

Finding Connections

Margie: Such an inspiring story, Brian, along with all the practical examples you have offered us of how you see your ethical responsibilities to children with a social justice lens. You are connecting ideas with real people and experiences. I am guessing you bring some deeper critical theory to your anti-bias work. I remember, last year you mentioned that the rise of the #MeToo movement pushed you to think about the responsibilities, not only the vulnerabilities, of men in working with young children. 

Brian: As a man in the ECE field, I have a profound respect and gratitude for all my teachers and mentors, most of whom are women. I had the great fortune to develop as a man and an educator from great thinkers, role models and educators. Over many years they have helped me develop a lens for doing equity work.

I want to support and mentor men who choose this field as a profession, not because this field needs men, but because men desperately need the social, emotional and feminist ideas in order to teach and break through the stereotypes and toxic masculinity we live with. When men complain that this field does not pay well enough for them to raise a family, they are playing to the notion that men are the only ones who need to provide for a family. What about the women who have been working for poverty wages for decades? Why were we as men not outraged even before it might have affected us personally?

I do believe that men have a lot to offer the field. We can start by modeling gender equity and responsibility to the children and colleagues we work with. The #MeToo movement can be a roadmap for some of our actions. Helping boys and girls understand the idea of consent can be powerful coming from a male role model. Checking our male privilege can help us make the world a more safe and equitable place for our children and families. I am always impressed when straight men add LGBTQ families to their curriculum conversations, or when white male teachers make racial equity a priority in their classrooms.

Margie: Yes, taking a stand as an ally across identity boundaries builds trust and a challenge to the status quo. I think what you are also suggesting, Brian, is that an understanding of intersections between patriarchy, racism, heterosexism, and feminism helps us move beyond simplistic one-issue thinking. Seeing the interconnections between how systems of power always give a leg up to able bodied, white, straight men, exposes bias as a system beyond personal prejudice. A white man may not be personally biased, but still receives benefits from this racist, sexist system that governs so much of our lives. When we offer young children a variety of positive role models that counter stereotyping, when we coach them to mediate fear with empathy, to value different perspectives as a component of fairness, we empower them to create a more just and equitable world.


Allvin, R.E. (2018, May 1). Embracing Equity: Helping All Children Reach Their Full Potential. Retrieved from https://www.naeyc.org/resources/blog/embracing-equity-helping-all-children-reach-their-full-potential

Freeney, S. and Freeman, N. (2016, March). Focus on Ethics: Ethical Issues—Responsibilities and Dilemmas. Young Children, (71)1. Retrieved from https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/yc/mar2016/ethical-responsibilities-dilemmas

Advancing Equity and Diversity in Early Childhood Education: A Position Statement of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Position statement. (2019, September).



A Conversation About Homelessness: Abigail Stewart-Kahn talks with children in the Polar Bear room at Pacific Primary School in San Francisco

Abigail: (Elliott’s mom, a visiting social worker.) I have a question for all of you. What does home mean to you?

Charlotte: It means if you have a family in it and something that can keep the rain out of your house.

Annika: It has your stuff. It’s where your family is.

Ethan: Home is love.

Cora: It keeps the rain out. If it rains you go in your house.

Abigail: How would you feel if you didn’t have a home?

Edison: I’d feel sad.

Isla: Sad.

Annika: Really sad.

Charlotte: I’d miss my family.

Abigail: Some people are homeless with their families and some without.

Sebastian: I’d feel sad because the people who don’t have a home might feel sad.

Abigail: That is why I decided to do this job, because I also felt that way and I wanted to help people. It is like your song, “What Can One Little Person Do?” The first thing we can do to help people who are homeless is to understand and learn. So, we are going to read this book, “Sam and the Lucky Money,” about a boy who decides to give his lucky money to a man who he meets by chance on the street. The man is dirty and doesn’t have shoes or socks even though it is cold.

After reading the book the children talk about the homeless man in the book.

Abigail: One of the questions Elliott had was, “How do people sleep on the street?” Has anyone ever seen someone sleeping outside? 

(Everybody raises hands.)

Abigail: I’ve seen people sleep in tents, in sleeping bags, on the ground. But do you think it is comfortable to sleep in a tent on the street in San Francisco? It isn’t like camping in a forest. Elliott asked me, “Why are people who are people who are homeless angry or sad?” What do you think?

Maya: Because they don’t have a home and they don’t have enough money and so they cannot buy a home. 

Zachary: They might not have anything.

Elliott: You can have two feelings at the same time, you can feel angry and sad. 

Annika: Sad they’re missing their family.

Brian: One question that sometimes comes up is, “Why do people sometimes look dirty or smell bad?”

Abigail: I want to show these pictures, because I feel like I can answer those questions that way. This man is a veteran. So, he fought in a war for America. And when he came back home he didn’t have anywhere to live and he had a lot of sadness from the war, and that made it hard for him to work. He said, “The worst part of being homeless is that no one says good morning to him, and he could never get clean. It was hard to find a shower. That’s why people who are homeless are sometimes dirty. They are not bad, they want to take a shower just like you. 

Annika: When I grow up I’m going to build houses and give them away for free.

Abigail: We need everyone. If you are an artist, we need you because we decorate our shelters with beautiful art work. If you like math we need you, if you are a construction worker, we need you. And if we all help out in little ways, we can end homelessness.


Author Bios

Margie Carter is a long-time contributor to Exchange, the co-author of numerous books with Deb Curtis and most recently with Ann Pelo,
“From Teaching to Thinking:
A Pedagogy for Reimagining Our Work.” Carter is a founding member of the Harvest Educators Collaborative. As she moves into retirement, she takes great heart in supporting educators to move into leadership to disrupt the current paradigm for early childhood education and shift practices toward a vision of restorative justice and true equity.


Brian Silveira is a classroom teacher at Pacific Primary School in San Francisco and co-facilitator of the LGBT interest forum at NAEYC. He focuses on creating environments that support, understand and acknowledge each child’s unique family structure and culture. He believes that teachers are in a position to help children grapple with issues of inequity and to be social justice heroes in their communities and in the world.