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Diversity and Cultural Awareness

Diversity and Cultural Awareness
Natasha Crosby Kile, MS
December 28, 2018

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Editor’s note: This text-based course is an edited transcript of the webinar, Diversity and Cultural Awareness, presented by Natasha Crosby Kile, MS.

Learning Outcomes

After this course, participants will be able to:

  • Describe diversity and culture.
  • Define cultural awareness.
  • Identify the stages of cultural awareness.


What we know is that diversity and culture are all around us. Everywhere we look we see some sort of diversity and some aspect of culture. It's our job to introduce our little ones to the wonders of this world and to make sure that the wonders of the world are seen as opportunities for growth and learning, instead of scary things that may be unknown. Teaching acceptance of one another despite our differences is one of the greatest lessons that we can provide to our children. Really teaching children that we're all created equal and that we're all deserving of love and acceptance and belonging. Teaching children that our differences are okay and that's what makes us unique and special is an important part of our job as early childhood professionals. This helps make sure that we're raising children that are equality-minded.

“A lot of different flowers make a bouquet.”

              - Muslim Origin

This quote is of Muslim origin. If we really have this as our mindset, especially for our classrooms, and we teach our children this kind of mindset and really nurture this in them then we can create this environment where all are welcome. All are wanted. All serve a purpose. We're all some sort of different, beautiful flower in this gorgeous bouquet that makes up our society.

The first thing we're going to do is an activity. I want you to take out a piece of scratch paper and a pen and take a moment to write down all of the words that you can think of when you hear the word diversity. Take a moment and do that right now. What words flash across your brain when you hear that word diversity?


Did any of these words make it to your list? Orientation, different qualities, ethnicity, beliefs, people's home lives, abilities, differences in people, certain background qualities or upbringing, values, race, special, ethnicity. What about language? Did that that make your list? Family structure. There are all of these kinds of components to diversity when we think about what diversity is. Diversity is more than the big four. You know, the big four races that we tend to think about. Diversity is every single thing that makes us us. This is a good starting list.

Diversity includes:

  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Religion
  • Age
  • Abilities
  • Language
  • Appearance
  • Family structure
  • Sexual orientation
  • Upbringing
  • Opinions
  • Beliefs
  • Values
  • Socio-economic status

All of the things that make us different from one another we consider diversity. We're talking race and what ethnic group people identify with. Our gender and gender roles play a part in that as well. What religion do we affiliate ourselves with or order our religious beliefs. Our age plays a role in diversity. I know that, for me, when I first started in the field of early childhood, I was extremely young and lots of people said, they're not really going to take you seriously until you're about 30. So, I'm almost 40 now and I'm still waiting for that, but age definitely plays a role.

Our differing abilities. Notice that that doesn't say disabilities. It's about our differing abilities. Our language. Our parents. What's important as far as the clothes that we wear, how we do our hair, do some women wear makeup and some women don’t. Family structure. What type of family set up do we have? Is it a single parent household? Is it a household with two fathers or with two mothers? Is it a household where we've got grandparents raising grandchildren? That's very common nowadays.

What about sexual orientation? That also is a type of diversity as well. The upbringing that we have experienced plays a role in our diversity and how we're different from others. Even if you and I have the same race and identify in the same religious affiliation and we're the same gender, our upbringings, being different, makes us diverse from each other.

What about opinions, political affiliations, beliefs, and our values? What do we really hold dear as a person, what's important to us? What's important to our family? Socioeconomic status also makes us diverse. There's an entire library of research on poverty as a culture, including what it looks like and the cycle of poverty and why that's so.

These are some of the things that we'll talk about today when we talk about diversity. To me, the coolest thing about diversity is that it makes every single one of us unique. What each person considers their special qualities can be included in the elements of diversity. It's not as if it's this definition that we're all trying to fit into. In fact, it's the opposite of that. It's about breaking out of that box, breaking out of that mold and saying, hey, this is what makes me special and really celebrating that.

Diversity cannot be taught directly. Diversity is not something that we're going to sit children down and give them a lesson on. That's not necessarily how you learn it. It's not a curriculum. It's not necessarily a lesson plan. It's really important for us as early childhood professionals to realize that diversity is not Cinco de Mayo. It's not Black History Month and it's not Chinese New Year. It's also not people dressing up in costumes, wearing headdresses or eating tortillas. All of these are really stereotypical and counterproductive to what we're trying to really teach children which is to think about people as people in their current state.

Diversity, instead, is a continuous approach. It's something that goes on and on every single day. It's a process and it's about working with children, parents, families, and colleagues every day. When you think about working with parents and families, it’s important to remember that they have a lot of diversity in them because they are referring back to their upbringing. They're referring back to how they're raising their children. As early childhood professionals, it's really important that we're very patient, that we're very accepting and understanding because our families, just like our children, are looking for somewhere to belong. The early childhood program should be a place where the parents and their children belong.

Since diversity is an ongoing process, it means that children in our programs must learn about many things.

1.     Children need to learn about their own backgrounds. Before we can celebrate other people and be accepting and be welcoming, we really have to make sure that we are learning about our own backgrounds and where we come from.

2.     Children also have to learn about the backgrounds of people who are different from them. If we only celebrate or only discuss cultural diversity during holidays or through stereotypical events or things like that, we actually are participating in continuing of misinformation and even the misrepresentation of certain cultural groups. It's important that we're making sure that we're representing groups from other cultural representations to the children in appropriate ways. It's also important that we're making sure that we're doing so in an appropriate way.

3.     We've also got to make sure that children see themselves, their families, and their communities represented throughout the classroom and center. Figure 1 shows an example where the children did a “Who lives in your home?” graph.

Bulletin board with house shapes and colored squares to depict the family members living in the child's house

Figure 1. Who lives in your home? graph.

You can see here that they have different colored squares and the children have their own homes. The children glued the color of a square on for each person that lived in their family. You can see in the house with the blue circle that this little guy has a mom (or a stepmom) and a dad (or a stepdad) in the family. He's also got a pet. He's got three brothers as well. Then in the house in the red circle, the family has three pets. I wonder what those pets were? They've also got a dad, a mom, and a sister. You can see how all the individual families were different and it really gives the children an opportunity to see different family structures and how their classmates may be different from them.

4.     Children must continually be exposed to activities, materials, and concrete experiences that challenge stereotypes. Why is it important that we challenge stereotypes? It's important because we've got to make sure that children understand that just because someone walks with a walker or walks with a cane or is in a wheelchair or wears glasses or is a female that none of the stereotypes always apply. None of the stereotypes are guaranteed. Children often have very simplistic views of people and situations, so, it's important, especially when we're talking about diversity, that we're educating children to look at the person as a person instead of the person as a disability.

5.     Children have to learn to enjoy, appreciate, and seek out differences. Children are taught and they learn by visual discrimination, which includes being able to pinpoint visual differences and visual likenesses.

A poster with photographs of of the children's eyes for the children to guess whose eyes are whose

Figure 2. Who am Eye? graph.

You can see in figure 2 how they did a “Who am Eye?” graph where they took pictures of all the children's eyes and then the children tried to guess whose eyes were whose. Something like this would be a great activity to do with any age child. Even toddlers could try to pick out whose eyes were whose. But, really, it's about helping children learning to appreciate and seek out those differences and not be scared of the differences. Seeing differences, as I said, is not something that teachers should be afraid and it's not something that's bad when children point out a difference. It's how we handle it as early childhood professionals that make it either a positive or a negative experience for kiddos.

6.     Children have to learn, above all, that intolerance is never acceptable. We have to teach children that every single person is worthy of love, worthy of acceptance, worthy of belonging and that every single one of us has a place in this world. It is our role to make sure that everyone in our classroom feels like they belong.

With my own two hands poem by Ben Harper printed on a poster with ahnd images

Figure 3. Poem by Ben Harper.

Figure 3 shows a poem by Ben Harper and it says, “I can change the world with my own two hands. Make a better place with my own two hands. Make a kinder place with my own two hands.” If we really make sure that we're teaching children to be accepting of one another, to be not only tolerant but accepting, truly accepting, of other people's differences and, really celebrating the differences that other people have from us, then with their own two hands, they can make a better world and I truly believe that.

We know that children learn through their experiences. They need to learn about themselves through being exposed to people. They need to have role models in the center and visit with people in the community who are like them. One activity that my children used to really like to do is face-lacing. What we would do is take close-up pictures of their faces and then we would make those into lacing cards. We would also do up close pictures of their parents' faces and they really liked that. That's also really great for when they're having separation anxiety and things like that. You also might do family posters and I'll show you an example of one of those later on. For toddlers, we've also used those family posters as placemats. They would eat on them and then we could sanitize them afterward. Other items include teacher-made books and friendship dominoes so that different pictures from children in the class can fit together. We also made people puzzles. We would take pictures of the children in activities doing things together and then cut them out with a die cut machine or cut them into puzzles. The children could then put them back together. It's a really great way for them to see versions of themselves, people that look like them, people who are in school like they are and really start to associate in that way.

In order to learn about and really be comfortable with people who are different, children also need to have direct experiences with people who are different from them, whether that’s other children in the program, teachers, or people in the community. It's important that we understand that if we're only representing one race, one ethnicity, one religion, one ability, or one language, that we've got to find ways to expose children to people who are different.

As an early childhood professional in Arkansas, I worked quite a bit with a program in a part of the state that was primarily Caucasian. When I went into their program to assess them on the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale (ECERS), I noticed that they did not have any type of diversity in their materials. They only had white baby dolls. There were only Caucasian families in the puzzles. There weren’t any multicultural costumes or dress up items and no multicultural food. When I spoke with the director and asked where their diversity was she responded by saying they were representing the culture of the children they served. It was true that every child that went to that program was Caucasian. It was that part of the state. However, it's so important that we expose children to people of other races, of other cultures, and other ethnicities so that when they're later on introduced to someone from a different ethnicity, someone with a different ability, someone from a different religion, that they don't see it as a negative or something to be afraid of because it is an unknown. The exposure part of it is really important. It doesn't necessarily mean that every baby doll in the center has to be representative of the children you serve. It's very important that we make sure that we're incorporating children of other races as well and families of other origins and that type of thing. The more we expose children to all types of people, the more equipped they'll be to accept people who are and are not like themselves, which is important later on in life for really teaching acceptance. The more that we learn about ourselves, the more than we can learn about others, of course.

How Do We Teach about Diversity?

So, if diversity is not a lesson plan and it's not a curriculum and it's not people dressing up in costumes and headdresses and things like that that we've said, then how do we teach about diversity? It's very important to remember that children are programmed to notice those differences. That's how they learn colors. That's how they learn shapes, letters, and more. Again, it's going back to that visual discrimination.  We’re talking about visual discrimination, not in terms of discriminating, but in terms of recognizing details and likenesses and differences within visual images. That's essentially how we learn how to read later in life. Visual discrimination is what tells us that T-H-E and T-H-E-N are two different words. It's important now for shapes, colors, letters, and all of those kinds of things that we would hope that children can identify. But, later in life, later academically, visual discrimination is absolutely required for reading. It's required for writing. You've got to have visual discrimination when you're doing mathematics. Later in life, they'll use visual discrimination for science as well. Visual discrimination is not a bad thing. That's how we're programmed.

What we have to do is make sure that when children notice that their friend's hair is a different texture than theirs or that their friend's skin is a different color than theirs, that we approach it from a celebratory way. We approach it in a way that it's a very positive thing and that it's something to celebrate our differences just like we celebrate our sameness.

We teach about diversity in that it's a normal part of children's development and a healthy opportunity for us to incorporate acceptance and diversity into the classroom. Take those opportunities. During my first year of teaching, I worked with a lead teacher who didn't really feel comfortable addressing the topic of race. We had a primarily Caucasian class and we had one African American little boy. His father was a hairdresser and he asked if he could come in and show us how to cut hair and show the children. I thought, oh my gosh, how cool is that. One of the little boys in the classroom said, “But how can he cut his hair 'cause his hair is so different?” He was referring to the African American little boy’s hair. The teacher really shied away from that conversation. That was such a teachable a moment and a great opportunity for the teacher to say, “Yeah, you're right, his hair is a little bit different, but guess what, he gets haircuts and you get haircuts. That's just the same.” Instead, she shied away from it and I think was really kind of hesitant to even discuss the topic. We lost a teachable moment that day. But we have to understand it's a really important part of the process and it's a positive thing for children to point those things out.

Include Children’s Books about Diversity

One of the ways you can teach about diversity is including children's books about diversity. I've given you some of my favorites here.

  • I'm Like You, You're Like Me: A Book About Understanding and Appreciating Each by Cindy Gainer and Miki Sakamoto. This is a really colorful, inviting book where you can learn about diversity through hair that's straight or curly, families with many people or few people, and bodies that are big or bodies that are small. It's all about the ways that people are different and people are alike.
  • What's the Difference? Being Different is Amazing by Doyin Richards is another one of my favorite ones. This is a book about diversity and acceptance. It talks about how what matters most is not our differences, but what we do together as friends and families and colleagues, and as citizens. It's perfect for sharing as a family or as a whole group classroom activity.
  • The Great Big Book of Families by Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith. I really love this one as well. This book features all kinds of families and how they live together. Each kind of open face of the book is one aspect of home life from houses and holidays, schools, pets, and feelings. It has family trees in it. It's really humorous. The illustrations are humorous and what I found is that kids love, love, love to go through this book and try to find families just like theirs.
  • The Colors of Us by Karen Katz. This is about a little girl named Lena. Lena's going to paint a picture of herself. She wants to use brown paint for her skin, but when Lena and her mother take a walk through their neighborhood, she sees that there are many different shades and tones of brown. This book is written from an artist’s point of view and talks about how there are so many different colors in the palette. I thought that was really interesting and my kids really used to love that book.
  • Global Babies board book by the Global Fund for Children. This one is so cute and it's all about meeting babies from around the world. There are babies from Guatemala to Peru to South Africa. It shows how they're held by their mothers and their fathers. It shows what they eat and all of those things that infants and toddlers would find very, very important. If it has to do with food, infants and toddlers are all about it.
  • Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman. This is a great one because Heather's favorite number is the number two. She has two arms, two legs, and two pets. But guess what? She also has two mommies. When she goes to school for the first time, though, someone asks her about her daddy, but she doesn't have a daddy. So then, something happens when Heather and her classmates draw pictures of their families. No one is drawing the same. It doesn't matter who makes up a family, the teacher says, the most important thing about a family is that all the people in it love one another. Very sweet book.
  • Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña. This is about a little boy named CJ and every Sunday he rides the bus with his grandma. He's a little concerned and curious as to why he and his grandma don't drive a car like his friends do. How come they always get off of the bus on the dirty part of town? Each question that he asks his grandma is met with an encouraging answer that helps him see the beauty and the fun in their routine and the world around them.
  • Love by Matt de la Peña. This book is all about how love looks a lot different in different situations, but it's all love. A couple of lines from the book are, “In the beginning, there is light and two wide-eyed figures standing near the foot of your bed and the sound of their voices is love. A cab driver plays love softly on his radio while you bounce in the back with the bumps of the city and everything smells new and it smells like life.” It's a very heartfelt book and it's about the bond between people and how we can show each other love in so many different ways. It might look different, but it's all love.


I’m going to share information on some activities that we've done in my classroom. We have had conversations about color and we had conversations about the fact that no one is actually white or black or brown. There are hundreds and hundreds of variations and beautiful colors. Figure 4 shows an example of some of these colors.

A variety of skin tone colors squares aligned in three rows of nine colors

Figure 4. Colors of skin tones.

Skin Tone

Some of the things that we've used are the skin tone or flesh-toned paint, crayons, and construction paper. All of those are really great materials to use. One of the other things that I've done is I went to the store and got some of the paint chips from the paint department in different flesh tones. I really allowed the children to take those and hold them next to their skin to see what is their actual color. The coolest thing about that is that a lot of times, the paint has beautiful names, such as mahogany, cinnamon, sandalwood, peach, and bellini. You don't have to explain what a bellini is, but they enjoy hearing all these rich, descriptive, beautiful words for the color of their skin. It's really an empowering activity because the children will say, oh, I'm mahogany or I'm cinnamon or I'm nutmeg. This was something that my kids really used to love to do. After we were done with the specific activity, we would put them in science and that would be a science game that they would go and choose to play to find out what color they were.


Three artwork examples of self-portraits created by preschool children

Figure 5.  Examples of self-portraits.

We also did a lot of self-portraits, often at specific times of the year. Self-portraits allow children to express their own view, their own view of themselves, and to celebrate their differences and what makes them special. I don't know if you've noticed but, at every age children love to look at themselves in the mirror. There's always some sort of reaction when they're looking at themselves in the mirror. They've got these great expressions. They're making faces and they're learning about themselves. They're learning observational skills, expressive communication skills, and reflective skills. They are reflecting on what they see and on how they've changed. They're building a positive self-image and self-concept. Self-portraits really emphasize the unique and individual characteristics and features of each child. A child might be looking in the mirror and think, oh, look at my nose. When I turn like this, it looks kind of like a big nose. Look at my beautiful eyes and all of those unique characteristics. They really allow children to embrace their individuality and their uniqueness. They have to first learn how to love and accept themselves before they can learn to love and accept others. Self-portraits are a really great first step for that.

Graphing Similarities and Differences

Graphing similarities and differences can help children celebrate each other and the diversity in the classroom.

Who lives in your house poster with chart selections for a variety of family members

Figure 6. Who lives in your house? graph.

Figure 6 shows another example of the Who lives in your house? graph that you might be able to do with your kiddos. On this one, you can see mom, dad, brother, sister, grandparent, other, which is a nice option, and then pets as well. You'll see my family poster here in a minute. I believe that pets ought to be in there, for sure, because they are part of the family.

Family diversity poster with children's statements designed to descrive families

Figure 7. Family graph.

In figure 7 is an example of a family graph. This graph is more of a comparison chart about families. The first column shows families that have: daddies, brothers, mommies, babies, cousins, grandpas and grandmas, sisters, pets, aunts, and uncles. The children were asked what to put in each column. The second column shows families can live in a: house, tent, apartment, hotel, condo, camper, cave, and a tree. There are lots of options for different homes there. The last column shows things families are: loving, hugging, teaching, helping, giving, and caring. That's something fun for them to do, to graph their similarities.

Children's artwork chart to favorite color distribution across the class

Figure 8. What is your favorite color? graph.

Another graph is What is your favorite color? In figure 8, you can see where the children did their self-portraits and then graphed their favorite color using their self-portraits. They put their self-portrait under their favorite color. The children could see, oh my gosh, your favorite color's purple, my favorite color is purple too.

Tally chart and graph to depict favorite pizza distribution across the class

Figure 9. Our favorite pizza graph.

Figure 9 shows our favorite pizza graph. Many people don't think of pizza when they think of diversity, but it's definitely a way that we can see our differences and our sameness. We've got lots of friends in this classroom that like cheese pizza. This also incorporates some great math and science skills as well.

Children's artwork chart to depict eye color distribution across the class

Figure 10. What color are your eyes? chart.

Figure 10 shows a What color are your eyes? chart. In this one, they've got something similar to self-portrait here where they have their eye colors and they drew their faces.

Children's artwork chart to depict girl and boy distribution across the class

Figure 11. I am a… graph.

In figure 11 you can see a graph about whether they're a boy or a girl. This one also included a different kind of a self-portrait with their names on it. The children put their self-portrait under which gender they are. It’s important to be sensitive in the gender area. If you happen to have an older child or a child that's identifying as gender neutral, you would want to make sure that you have a category to involve and include all children.

Diversity and Belonging

Celebrating and welcoming diversity allows children to feel like they belong in the classroom. Belonging is a fundamental human need. It relates to feelings of being valued, being accepted by others around us, being respected, and being cared about by others. It's important that we make sure that children are shown that they belong by having things set up for them.  This includes a cubby, their own cot, a place for their belongings, and a place on the wall where they can hang their art. Those are all ways that we show children that they belong in the classroom, but we also need to show that they belong by making sure that they're represented and that they're celebrated for their individual and unique qualities.

A poster of family pictures for the teacher to build a sense of belonging in the classroom

Figure 12. Family poster.

For children to develop a sense of belonging, they must see them themselves, their families, and their communities represented. Figure 12 shows an example of a family poster that I have for myself. This is displayed in my classroom so my kids know that this is my husband, Mr. Adam, and my daughter, Lizzie. Then there’s a picture of me at an event and a picture of two of my other children, Scamp, and Brody. I would have these posters for every single one of my children. That way they knew that their family was represented and respected in the classroom. It also really helps if they're having a sad day because they can go over to their family poster and feel like they get to talk to someone and see a familiar face.

We also want to make sure that children are represented in books in the classroom as we've talked about a little bit. I gave you some examples for those. Also represent the children in artwork, dolls, cooking utensils, environmental print in their languages. One of the other things that we had was what we called a trash word wall.  It was an environmental print wall. We would have families bring in a piece of food packaging or something from home that we could put on the wall that was some sort of environmental print. It was interesting to see the different things that families would bring in. Some kids would say, oh yeah, I eat Fritos at my house too. Oh yeah, that's cool, I like Hamburger Helper. It was all based around the alphabet, of course, but it was really a great opportunity for kids to see what other families do and what other families eat. We also had some children bring in some items in a different language. We had some children that had recently traveled to Mexico and they brought some treats. Some of them were the same kinds of treats that we have here in the United States, but they just had different language on the packaging. That was really interesting. Photographs can be so powerful and very moving. I always find it better to use real photographs versus clip art, even though clip art is really cute. Children tend to gravitate more towards those real photographs of themselves and others.

Participating in activities that support and encourage diversity is important. The reason that we do all this and the hope for down the road is that it will really help children develop their understanding of culture.


Some people might ask, what is culture? Well, culture is our way of life. It's our attitudes, our customs, our values, and our beliefs that make us different from one another and distinguish one group of people from another group. Culture is actually something that's learned. It's cumulative, so it's over time. It's normative and it affects how we view the world, others, and ourselves. Culture is not just about race or ethnicity. It's about all of the areas of diversity. Culture is all of the things that are important to people and encompasses all of those areas of diversity. Families have different cultures. Different religions have different cultures. It's very important that we understand exactly what culture is. Ultimately, culture is the lens through which we see our world. Our culture colors the way that we see every single thing. It impacts all kinds of things. This is a quote from Stephanie Quappe and Giovanna Cantatore.

“A fish only discovers its need for water when it is no longer in it. Our own culture is like water for the fish. It sustains us. We live and breathe through it.”

That's really true. Our culture is literally the breath that we breathe and every single thing that we do runs through this map in our brain of our culture. It affects how we interpret things. Sometimes it affects how we see and how we hear things and how we take some things that people say.

Cultural Awareness

That leads us to cultural awareness and that's being cognizant of your and others' culture as well. Cultural awareness is appreciating that each culture is dependent upon one another and is equal in importance. No one culture is more important than the other. No one culture is better. No one culture is right and no one culture is wrong. Our culture is exactly that, it's ours, and it's ours to choose and it's ours to hold and to be proud of.

Cultural awareness is practicing mutual respect for others whose culture and experiences are different than ours. Sometimes that's hard. I've worked with families that had vastly different viewpoints on disciplining their child than mine, vastly different than what I thought was appropriate. Within certain bounds, I have to respect that and expect that they're also going to respect that I have different opinions as well.

Cultural awareness is developing connections with one another across cultures. Really connecting with people despite the fact that your cultures are so very different, despite the fact that you have different views, different values, and different beliefs.

It's also identifying and removing any barriers that we might have to including and understanding all cultures. You have to understand and recognize your own biases so that you can make sure that you're not being prejudiced or intentionally leaving out a certain group, but also so that we don't pass those biases along to our children.

Why Is It Important?

So, why is cultural awareness important? We know that culture influences all parts of our lives. It's the language that we speak. It's the food that we eat, the way that we dress, and our opinions. It governs our social interactions, our customs and, basically, our entire identity. Our cultural orientation is really present in all that we do. Without understanding the culture and viewpoints of others and ourselves, we tend to sometimes make assumptions when, in reality, culture is a complex weave of all of the experiences and all of the cultural groups that we consider ourselves to be a part of.

We need to understand each other's cultural backgrounds to make sense of viewpoints and opinions. For me, a shorter way of explaining it is, you really have to think about where another person's coming from. For example, we had a family in our program who saw that we had the book Heather Has Two Mommies. This family was very upset about that being on the bookshelf. That was contrary to their personal beliefs and they felt like they did not want their child exposed to that. We had to have a conversation explaining that it is representative of certain populations that we serve without breaking confidentiality, of course. We had to explain that we were not going to remove that book because we're all accepting here at this program. Sometimes, people aren't okay with that. But you, as a program, have to make up your mind as far as what you're going to support and what you're not going to support. It's very important that we understand that culture is not static. It's dynamic and, actually, we can change and kind of interweave within cultural groups depending on situations and experience.

Cultural awareness helps create understanding and acceptance of others. It's important that we get to this place where we realize that people are different than us and that's okay and we celebrate that. It also gives us a better understanding of our own culture and how it may be perceived by others. It's very important that we understand how other people might see us and there may be some things we might want to change if we saw and understood more fully how other people saw us.

Challenge Stereotypes

It's important that we challenged stereotypes. Like I said before, children often have really simplistic and very primitive stereotypes about people based on their limited personal experiences or based upon what they've heard or what they've been told. We have to be sure to challenge these stereotypes like gender roles. This could be having a puzzle of a male nurse and understanding that males can be hairdressers and females can be construction workers. Challenging stereotypes of race, religion, language, socioeconomic status and then also any of those other categories that we said fell under diversity. Cultural awareness is really a journey. It's not something that happens overnight. It's something that happens over a period of time. It's important to understand that. We've got to make a conscious effort to understand and unless we challenge stereotypes then we may assume that our views and beliefs are true and are privileged over the views and beliefs of others which tends to expand upon those prejudices and, sometimes, those biases that tend to come up.

Stages of Cultural Awareness

We've got several stages of cultural awareness that we tend to go through on this journey that we talked about. The first one is the blindness which is when we're unconsciously unaware. Then we move on to sensitivity where we're consciously unaware, on up to competence, consciously aware, and proficiency where we're unconsciously aware. We'll unpack these a little bit and explain what these are all about.

Blindness sensitivity competence and profiency are illustrated as the stages of cultural awareness

Figure 13. Stages of Cultural Awareness.

Stage 1. Blindness – Unconsciously Unaware

The first stage, also known as blindness, is where you're unconsciously unaware. At this stage, we're only aware of our own way of doing things. We're often unaware of the impact of cultural differences. We're not aware that we may be stepping on other people's toes. So, we might be saying or doing things that are really offensive to other people and literally have no idea. We're likely to be in this stage if we've not had much interaction with people of a different culture. This is where that word ignorance comes in because literally, some people are just ignorant to the fact that not everyone is like them and a lot of that has to do with a lack of experience and lack of exposure to different types of people and different types of family structures and things like that. In this stage the key phrase is, we don't know what we don't know. A lot of times when we're in this stage we literally do not know that we don't know that we're hurting people's feelings.

Stage 2. Sensitivity – Consciously Unaware

Then we move on to the sensitivity stage where we're consciously unaware. In this second stage, we're becoming aware that there are some cultural differences. We're noticing now that this family is different than ours or this person believes a different way and this person has different values than I do. We're beginning to pick up on the ways that we might be infringing upon the cultural beliefs of others. This is where we might still be stepping on some toes, but we're becoming aware that we're doing so. We're no longer ignorant about the fact that we might be upsetting people or offending people. We are in the stage of becoming aware of that, but we don't necessarily know how to fix it yet.

Stage 3. Competence – Consciously Aware

That takes us to competence where we know. At the third stage, we're aware of those cultural differences. We accept them. Not only do we accept the person and their beliefs, but we see the potential benefits of other people's values and beliefs. We may even choose to adopt some of these values or norms of these other groups. Oftentimes, the more that you're exposed to different groups and to people that have different viewpoints than you, you might choose to take on some of those beliefs. This is especially true if you're really coming to it from a place of having an open mind. This is how a lot of different religions were formed. This is how a lot of people interact and get to know people that they might not have ever even thought that they would have a relationship with, but once they give it a chance and they actually start to adopt some of the other groups' beliefs and values.

Stage 4. Proficiency – Unconsciously Aware

Then you move on to proficiency, which is the last stage of cultural awareness where we're unconsciously aware. In this stage, we're fully aware of those cultural differences. We accept them. Not only do we accept them, but we actually welcome them. We do so without even having to really think about the process. It's not as if we're telling ourselves, okay, we've got to make sure that we're being cognizant of other people's viewpoints. We've got to make sure that we're being aware and not being offensive. It's almost that it's just kind of subconscious. So, at this point, accepting others' cultures and types of diversity comes naturally. This is, oftentimes, a very difficult stage to get to because it's not a natural thing. It doesn't happen overnight. As we said, this cultural awareness process is really a journey. It's something that you can't just magically do and it's something that people can't really teach because it's all about experience and really being open-minded and open to the beliefs and values and culture of others.

So, by understanding diversity (all of the things that make us different, unique, invaluable, and individual), culture (the beliefs and values that as a group we take on), and cultural awareness, we can ensure that we're really making this quality learning environment that is displaying, supporting, encouraging, and representing children's healthy self-image as well as acceptance of others. This helps children have not only a healthy image of themselves but a healthy image of those around them and other children in the classroom, even though they have differences. This also allows children to be accepting of those differences and celebrating them.

Early childhood programs must plant these seeds in the critical early years of life in order to eradicate intolerance and discrimination in the future. As early childhood providers and early childhood professionals, we have this incredibly unique opportunity. We've got this opportunity to teach children to love each other, to teach children to be kind, and to teach children to be accepting. We've really got an opportunity to potentially change the world. You know, what if 10 years from now, what if 15 years from now, we could completely say that discrimination and prejudice were obsolete because early childhood programs had made a point to teach children to be accepting of others and to be aware of other cultures. It's a huge responsibility, but as early childhood professionals, I think that we can do it. I think that the way that we do it is by making sure that we're culturally aware ourselves first so that we can adequately prepare children to be culturally aware and sensitive as well. Thank you guys so much for being with me today and I hope that you enjoyed the presentation on diversity and cultural awareness.


Questions & Answers


How would you recommend that people ask families to come into the center and help share about their culture, just like the little boy whose dad cut the hair and he wanted to come in? Some teachers don't really feel comfortable asking parents about things like that and may not know how to go about it. Do you have any suggestions for that?


A lot of teachers do kind of shy away from that. I think as early childhood professionals, we've really got to view parents as partners and one way we can view parents as partners and really involve them and draw them into the classroom is by asking them to come in. I've had an Eastern Indian family come in and do traditional Eastern Indian dance for my classroom. I've had a Hispanic family come in and cook a traditional Mexican meal for us. I've had the little boy whose dad came in and cut his hair. It doesn't have to be something that's traditionally multicultural. It could be just a mom who works at a vet and brings a puppy dog in. Sometimes Caucasian families feel like they don’t really have any culture to share. Every single family and every single parent has something that they can share and bring to the partnership and I think it's important that we encourage them to do that.

The way to ask about that is to simply pull that parent aside and say, you know what, I know you're really, really good at X, Y, and Z. I would love for you to come into the classroom and talk to the children about it. I think they would absolutely love to hear about it. Don't be surprised if the parent meets your request with disbelief like I'm pretty sure the kids don't really care about what I do. Just reassure them and let them know that, yes, in fact, the kids are actually highly interested in everything that their parents do and that we would really just love to have them come in. Then the first time one parent does it then you advertise that to the other parents and say what a hit it was and, before you know it, you've got other parents wanting to do it.


You talked about how you went to a classroom that was predominantly Caucasian and talked about adding in some things, but there are a lot of areas that may be predominantly one culture or race, any other suggestions on how to introduce different cultures when you have an area that is predominantly one?


I think you've got to know your audience first. You've got to know where you're at and what's acceptable for your program. As a teacher, if you're hesitant to add in other cultures, I say start small. You might start with adding a couple of books to the bookshelf. Once those set in, maybe you add a couple different baby dolls. Then after that, you can add some multicultural food boxes that you bring from home. Do it a little bit at a time so that the kids aren't shocked and so it’s integrated more naturally. For me, I think honesty is the best policy and I'm kind of a straight shooter. I would send a letter home to the parents and say I don't know if you know, but exposing children to different cultures and different groups of people is best practice. It's best for their development. Here's what we're going to start doing in our classroom. If I got some flack back from that, I would just really try to make sure that I was educating parents as far as why it's important. You might try to do some parent training. You might send home informational leaflets or something like that so that they could understand the purpose behind it and that it's not just for nothing. It's not just to do to do it, but that it's really serving a purpose. If you have parents that are hesitant from a race viewpoint or something like that that, you might approach it from the visual discrimination point. We're really working on a skill called visual discrimination and this is going to help your child later with reading and writing and arithmetic and all of those important things. Sometimes approaching it from that way will help parents welcome it.


Eslan, A. & Lorz, A.  (2009).  Cultural competence and awareness training.

Durden, T., Escalante, E., & Blitch, K. (2014, September). Culture Matters—Strategies to Support Your Young Child’s Social and Cultural Development. NebGuide G2242. University of Nebraska–Lincoln Extension, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Wardle, F. (2011). Diversity in early childhood programs. Early Childhood News.  Retrieved from


Crosby Kile, N. (2018). Diversity and Cultural Awareness. – Early Childhood Education, Article 22871. Retrieved from

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natasha crosby kile

Natasha Crosby Kile, MS

Natasha Crosby Kile, MS is a Program Coordinator for Bentonville Schools in Bentonville, AR, and works as a certified trainer, writer, coach and consultant for both the University of Arkansas and Arkansas State University. Natasha has over 25 years of experience working in the field of Early Childhood as a teacher, supervisor, trainer and mentor. She holds a Bachelor's of Science in Child Development from the University of Arkansas and a Master's of Science in Childhood Services from Arkansas State University. Natasha has served as a leader in many areas including serving on the board of Arkansas Early Childhood Association. Natasha has a passion for training early childhood professionals and finds herself right at home in a group of 5 to 5,000 teachers that are eager to facilitate the growth of young children and support their families. She is a distinguished expert, and was named Arkansas Early Childhood Professional of the Year in 2012.

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