Why an inclusive child is more likely to become a good leader

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This article is a DRAFT contribution to the Wonderchums Collective Manifesto – add your comments, changes and improvements to become a co-author. THANKS!

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Coming out of the pandemic there are many children who were isolated from their peers, family and friends. This is especially true of children with disabilities, whose families reported they felt socially isolated from their peers (1) and unable to return quickly to social activities such as playdates due to health precautions and increased social anxiety. 

The opportunities for inclusive play might have been dampened, but the importance of inclusiveness as a future skill for all children is ever more heightened in our current context.

In a world of uncertainty, anxiety and isolation, having the capacity to include, empathise, communicate and, in turn, lead others who might be different to oneself will be essential to thriving… if not surviving.

But how can we raise kids to be inclusive as though their lives depend upon it, you ask?

Why inclusion skills are essential to their future

An important leadership skill is empathy, or ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’ (2). But, it is not only the capacity for understanding and sharing in others’ feelings that counts: it’s the capacity for action

This is where the skill of inclusion comes in. Inclusion is the act of embracing difference amongst people and giving voice and energy to their uniqueness and strengths; potentially achieving a sum that is greater than the parts. 

Experts predict that our kids will experience around five career changes in their lifetime (that’s career, not job) (3). This is in part due to the rapid development of AI that will continue to displace repetitive jobs. In turn, the function of education—and indeed raising children—will be to strengthen what Mark Tucker describes as those ‘distinctly human’ things that AI cannot do well: ‘… the act of kindness, the intuitive grasp of another person’s outlook… the human bond… the creation and development of a team that goes from success to success’ (4).

‘Can you create and lead diverse teams?’ the AI screener will ask.

Being able to collaborate with others who are different to oneself is a core skill today and for the future. It’s been repeatedly shown that diverse teams perform better in business and in innovation (5). Further to this, research shows that leaders who create diverse teams that are reflective of real-life are much more likely to have better designs, be more innovative and financially successful (6). 

Contemporary teams operate with decentralised authority, and children who grow up actively practising inclusion are better equipped to share their visions and handle conflict resolution within these teams. 

Understanding and valuing individual strengths allows leaders to build better teams and form stronger connections with those around them. By identifying unique talents, leaders can consider the bigger picture and assign suitable roles and responsibilities based on skills rather than trying to fit people into moulds.

How do we raise more inclusive kids, so they can thrive as leaders of tomorrow?

1. Start at home

Teaching empathy starts young and can be learned experientially at home. Parents are children’s first teachers, and their attitudes and discussions about diversity and inclusion inform a child’s understanding that they then carry into school (7). Start simply; use picture books and conversation.

2. Help them grow the muscle

Empathy is about being included and inclusive; both are essential elements to belonging and helping others to belong. Like a muscle – it grows with use. The Disability Royal Commission (2020) highlighted that ‘a person’s experience of inclusion during their early years may have lifelong positive effects throughout their life whereas early experiences of exclusion may have lifelong negative effects’ (8). Creating scenarios in which children have the opportunity to both be included and practise being inclusive enables a full experience of inclusion to shape skill growth.

3. Build diverse friendships

Having friends from different social groups, clubs, cultural or ethnic backgrounds, or with differing abilities helps kids grow to be more accepting of others and learn to play with a diverse mix of children. Experiencing inclusive friendships as a child is shown to be a predictor of future inclusiveness (9) and can shape Australian society. ‘Bridging’ or authentically and meaningfully connecting with people who are different from you (10) is a Future of Work skill that can be nurtured from childhood. Help your child avoid in-group thinking and cliques by involving them in various settings and communities from a young age.

4. Keep modelling, then transfer

Diversity and inclusion can be modelled in contexts that kids actively observe – the classrooms, shopping centres, parties and social settings. Stop and think, how often do you interact with others who are not like you? How do you improve your own inclusiveness? As parents and educators, we can actively establish constructive ways for children to be inclusive in their play environments, such as being mindful of others who are not involved and inviting them to be part of a game or a birthday party.

5. Study inclusion, too

Classroom activities such as reading stories that celebrate difference form a foundation of understanding for real-life play. The simple fact that we are all different but our sameness is more important, is a powerful message to convey to children. Research shows that the tool of ‘extended contact’ is effective in increasing positive attitudes to disability over an extended period of time even without direct interaction (11). This is where storybook reading and small group discussion are used to immerse children into thinking about and understanding diversity and inclusion through human characters and stories of their real lives.

6. Teach kids to celebrate strengths

When kids start to realise being different brings empowerment, it helps to build recognition for diverse strengths. As in adulthood, children demonstrate a myriad of strengths (12) but many of these may be little known or not easily seen. Every child brings something great to the game or to a friendship. When kids learn this, they become more open-minded and creative about how all kids can be involved.

7. Help them be courageous

At first, it takes courage to be the kid who advocates for inclusion, either by example or by leadership. Encouraging your child to take small steps to lead inclusion when you are around will give them the courage to act independently when it matters, perhaps standing up to bullies or helping change habits of group-think that inadvertently exclude children who are different.

8. Draw on experiences

All individuals experience exclusion at various points and this may cause negative feelings of loneliness or isolation. Teaching children to relate to others through their own experiences helps foster empathetic connections and the ability to relate to others, skills that are important for children and integral for adults. It is how good leaders are formed. 

What’s happening in the playground today predicts your child’s leadership skillset tomorrow

For all children – with and without disability – early childhood is a pivotal time to influence attitudes towards, and experiences of, inclusion.

Children who are nurtured with the skills of empathy and inclusion will become stronger and more effective leaders who build more innovative teams comprised of individuals representative of society. Inclusion starts at home in early childhood and impacts every aspect of life from the playground to the boardroom.

Do it. Start the inclusion journey with your child today.

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Article contributors (have your added name here): Joanne JakovichKelly Stewart, Molly Scholes and… you?

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This article is a DRAFT contribution to the Wonderchums Collective Manifesto, a handbook supporting Storytime Conversations to Change the World.

As a draft, it is OPEN to comment, change, improvement and evolution. Please make suggestions in the comments below.

Join the Wonderchums Collective to be more deeply involved in our mission: creating magical stories and characters that help kids (along with their grownups) build their unique strengths and in turn, grow a kinder, wiser, more inclusive world.

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