An evidence-based program to combat racism in primary schools developed by the Australian National University should be rolled out across the country, researchers recommend.
The Speak Out Against Racism (SOAR) program was piloted in schools in NSW and Victoria with statistical and qualitative evidence showing a change over time in student prosocial skills, racial literacy and overall reduced racial discrimination in schools.
Associate Professor Naomi Priest, who is based at the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods, said it was an opportune time to introduce an anti-racism program in more Australian schools.
"We need to make sure children and young people are not harmed by the enormous effects of racism. And with the events in the US and even here around police brutality, it's in the media all the time," she said.
The SOAR program was aimed at students in year five and six as this age group are at a key time in their development of their own sense of identity, moral reasoning and their understanding of the world around them.
Teachers underwent a two-day training program exploring the ideas of race as a social construct within a historical context.
The teachers then delivered an eight-week curriculum of work, guiding students in discussions about their identities, ways to think about differences between people and exploring concepts of prejudice, empathy and fairness.
Associate Professor Priest said the program aimed to give teachers and students the ability to recognise racism and equip them with actions they could take when witnessing racism as a bystander.
"It's important in this work to not retraumatise children who experience racism but to create a safe space for those conversations without singling students out or making them feel more visible."
The program encourages classes to design an anti-racism charter and to form groups to lead a project in the school community. The school is also given an audit process to examine racism at an institutional level.
Last year the same researchers conducted a survey of 4600 students in years five to nine which found 40 per cent of students from a non-Anglo or European background had experienced racial discrimination from their peers.
Research has linked experiences of racism, both as a victim or witness, with poor health outcomes including increased blood pressure, chronic inflammation, poor sleep and mental ill-health.
"Racism is a public health issue. It's going to impact on children for the rest of their lives and we need to have programs like this to support everyone to recognise and reject racism.
"I think what is unique about SOAR is that it's this sustained program. It's going beyond a one-off event or a one-off fact sheet but it's an ongoing learning opportunity for the whole school and the whole school community."