Embracing the rich resource of cultural and linguistic diversity

Published on Tuesday, 16 February 2021
Last updated on Thursday, 11 February 2021

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Early childhood education experiences are often a child’s first encounter of education outside the home, and an inclusive learning environment that embraces and supports the child and their culturally based skills, talents, abilities and values are of paramount importance. A child’s ideas about and responses to diversity are influenced by what they see and hear around them.

Swedish academic, Professor Gunilla Dahlberg recommends a ‘pedagogy of welcoming and hospitality’ to everyone working in early education. This enables early childhood centres to create quality learning environments where children can grow and learn freely, knowing they are loved.

Early childhood is the time when children first become aware of differences among people and start to form opinions and attitudes about these experiences. Even small babies are aware of differences in skin colour and children as young as three-years-old start to use racial cues as a basis of categorising people.

By engaging young children on topics of cultural diversity, educators can help them to value differences and reject prejudice as well as helping them develop positive attitudes about themselves and others.

At an early education and care symposium held in Australia in 2019, Dr Stefania Giamminuti set out a provocation to participants by asking how they might contribute to systemic transformations and cultural re-imaginings of ECEC settings.

Referring to Reggio Emilia’s powerful impact on Australian early childhood education settings, Giamminuti suggested a re-imagining of ECEC services as ‘spaces for the common good’, embracing the possibility of an ‘ethic of alliances’. To be ethical means being compassionate and caring, being respectful and reflexive, and being willing to listen and learn from others.

Throughout Te Whāriki the importance of a child's wellbeing is recognised as an essential aspect of a child's learning and development. Te Whāriki notes that the wellbeing of children is linked to a child's sense of belonging, which is supported through a respect and recognition of their culture and family background.

Through working in partnerships with parents and supporting their cultural background, educators are able to support children in their sense of worth and belonging, which promotes their overall wellbeing.

Children are more likely to feel at home if they regularly see their own culture, language and world views valued in the early childcare education environment. This includes sharing the Māori language and culture with immigrant children and their families to help them understand and connect with Aotearoa.

Cultural diversity and educators

The National Association for the Education of Young Children, (NAEYC) an American not-for-profit which represents the interests of  early educators and children, encourages educators to see and understand their own culture in order to see and understand how the cultures of children and their families influence a child’s behaviour.

Educators are prompted to think about their own upbringing.

  • How did your family’s expectations affect what you did?
  • Were your parents, siblings, and other relatives close or distant?
  • Were they strict, lenient, or somewhere in between?
  • Were your school’s expectations any different?

All of this, and more, contribute to how you view the behaviour of the children you teach.

NAEYC’s position statement Advancing Equity in Early Childhood Education, suggests the following measures can help educators create culturally inclusive environments:

  • Reflective practice to achieve equitable learning opportunities.
  • Communication of the value of multilingualism to all families.
  • Embracing the primary role of families in children’s development and learning.
  • Taking proactive steps with measurable goals to recruit and retain educators and leaders who reflect the diversity of children and families served and who meet professional expectations.
  • Appreciation that learning is a social process profoundly shaped by culture, social interactions, and language.

To appreciate what each child can contribute to the class, it’s important that educators learn about each family’s cultural values. Helping children to see themselves in the pedagogy, curriculum, environment, and materials around them enables them – and their families – to feel welcomed and valued.

Additionally, one of the best ways to support young children’s own secure identity development, and at the same time expose them to diversity and tolerance, is to take the children into the community and to bring the community into the program.

Supporting bilingual children

Supporting bilingual children in early childhood education is vital especially as home languages play a significant and continuing role in the construction of identity. Here are some useful tips to embed in your practice:

  • Ensure all names are pronounced correctly. In some cultures, it is considered impolite for a child to correct an adult, so it is important that educators ask about names and titles.
  • It is essential that judgments are not made about children’s language and cognitive proficiencies based only on their use of the English language.
  • Invite parents to ask questions and have their concerns respectfully addressed.
  • Explore ways to support families to understand the value of maintaining their first language. Make available up to date information such as bilingual resources in formats that are accessible for families.
  • Reassure families that children will learn English as an additional language from English speakers in the early years setting.
  • Work with bilingual early childhood professionals whenever possible to support children to feel secure in the early years setting and to assist communication with families.
  • Demonstrate a respect for diverse cultures and languages by learning greetings and asking families to teach you key words and the names of familiar objects in the child’s first language.
  • Show respect for the cultural backgrounds of families by taking time to discuss their cultural practices and routines such as:
    – The child’s sleeping patterns
    – Feeding, eating and toileting expectations
    – Behaviour guidance and beliefs about discipline

In the process of embedding cultural inclusion as an everyday reality, it is important to avoid cultural tokenism. Consider posters, artefacts, artwork, flags and welcome signs with multicultural perspectives, and ask the questions: Why are they there? Are they reflective of educator’s genuine attitudes towards inclusion and equity?

To help encourage cultural and linguistic diversity in your service, CareforKids.com.au has published a handy list of inclusivity practices.

References and further reading:

Ministry of Education: Te whāriki

The Education Hub: Culturally responsive pedagogy in ECE

For All Children: Embedding cultural diversity in early childhood education

CELA: Cultural competence

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