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Opening the Culture Door: Valuing Diversity

Opening the Culture Door: Valuing Diversity
Barbara Kaiser, MA
February 23, 2021

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Editor’s note: This text-based course is an edited transcript of the webinar Opening the Culture Door: Valuing Diversity, presented by Barbara Kaiser, MA.


Learning Outcomes

After this course, participants will be able to:

  • Explain the role culture plays in their life and in the lives of the children they teach.
  • Identify how culture influences their teaching style and learning and behavioral expectations.
  • Describe how to make their teaching and environment more culturally responsive.


I believe that culture plays an enormous role in everyone's life. The more we understand it, the more open we can become. You most likely have many children from many different cultures and families in your group. Many of them may speak different languages. Adapting your program and your teaching style to reflect these differences is key. Appreciating and understanding diversity, as well as recognizing and respecting what every child brings to the classroom, is the first step in valuing diversity and limiting the structural and systemic inequities that we face today.

Creating a caring and equitable community of engaged learners starts with understanding yourself, your values, potential biases, and the culture of the children and families that you work with. It requires using a range of teaching approaches to ensure that all the children have the support they need. Every child in your class should feel recognized and valued.

What Is Culture?

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, culture is “the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon man's capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.” It starts and is brought down from generation to generation. Therefore, it includes all the experiences that a child's parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents have had.

Culture is also “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group.” Additionally, it is “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes a company or corporation.” Even your school or childcare center has a culture. It is important to identify what that culture is when you are working with children because it can reflect the needs and understanding of the children and families that you work with.

“Every individual is rooted in culture”

Many people do not stop and think about their culture and how their heritage might be impacting the way they think, act, and interact. Here are the five sociological criteria of culture that have been identified: 

  • Language
  • Values
  • Traditions
  • Norms
  • Identity

Figure 1 shows a graphic that demonstrates how culture shapes not only our values, but also our gender roles, family structure, how we dress, what we eat, what we believe is proper etiquette, approaches to disabilities, child-rearing practices, and even our expectations for children's behavior.

Graphic of components of culture

Figure 1. Graphic of components of culture.

Cultural Elements

From a positive perspective, this is how culture creates diversity. Here is a list of all the aspects that are a part of culture:

  • Norms
  • Values
  • Rules of Etiquette
  • Social Patterns
  • Gender Roles
  • Socio-economic Status
  • Prejudices
  • Attitude to Weather
  • Religion
  • Customs
  • Timing/Rhythm
  • Political System
  • Economy
  • Family Structure
  • Gestures
  • Language
  • Role of Nature
  • History/Heritage
  • Child Rearing Practices
  • Family Structure
  • Territorial Space
  • Colors
  • Textures/Shapes
  • Spatial
  • Architectural Styles

When you look at this list, does anything stand out? Are you surprised to see how much is impacted by culture?

One aspect of the list I want to point out is gender roles. This is because, in many cultures, it is the male figure that is the disciplinarian of the family. Additionally, many early childhood educators and teachers up until the 5th grade are women. If there is a child who comes from a culture in which that is the case, it is hard for them to take women seriously when they try to guide their behavior. I have often encountered children who have just smiled and laughed because they did not take discipline coming from a woman seriously.

Another point from the list I want to discuss is architectural styles. Have you ever thought about how culturally impacted those are? Even within the United States, the architectural styles in the south are different from those in the northeast. We need to see the connection between culture and the natural elements that people need to live with. It makes a difference and has a definite influence.

Culture Is Absorbed

Another interesting aspect of culture is that it is not taught. Culture is absorbed and passed down through generations. Many of us are unaware of how culture impacts all of the things that we do on a daily basis. Overt culture is easier to see. Here are some examples of that:

  • Language
  • Religion
  • Philosophy
  • Customs
  • Family practices

The covert pieces can make it hard for us to understand where children are coming from when it comes to their behavior and the way they interact with others. Here are some examples of covert culture:

  • Behavior
  • Perceptions
  • Social learning

Cross-Cultural Competence

Cross-cultural competence is “the ability to think, feel and act in ways that acknowledge, respect and build on ethnic, sociocultural, and linguistic diversity.” In order to be a cross-cultural competent teacher, you need to be self-aware. You need to understand yourself, your own culture, biases, and level of curiosity regarding how interested you are in getting to know other cultures.

You also need to have an open attitude and awareness of others. You want to be able to appreciate differences, as well as similarities. You also need to develop knowledge of the cultures of the children and families in your group. This does not mean you have to speak every language present in your group. However, it does mean that you need to understand and get some awareness. Research is easy nowadays. Find out some important things about the cultures that the children in your group represent. Also, be able to adapt your communication and teaching style to different individuals, groups, and cultures.

How can you become more culturally competent?

Becoming more culturally competent is not a simple process. Here are some points to remember regarding this:

  • Employing self-reflective strategies 
  • Developing cultural awareness to prevent and correct all implicit and explicit biases
  • Having a strong understanding of culture and diversity
  • Forming strong relationships with parents and families
  • Eliminating all discriminatory discipline practices

Early childhood classrooms are far from homogenous, so it is important to develop and refine the skills and attitudes necessary to work effectively with all children and families. This includes children in families that are different from your own. In some cases, you might live in a community where everybody looks, sounds, and seems the same. However, every family has a culture. Do not take for granted that just because everyone looks the same that they are coming with the same cultural values.

Cultural competence is a continual process. The first part of it is about inwardly focusing on self-reflection to support awareness of yourself and your biases. The next stage is to understand the culture of others and to move towards an outward focus. This can help with learning about other cultural influences. When we do this, we take a step towards eliminating discriminatory practices among the children themselves.

Understanding Your Own Culture

In order to understand other people’s cultures, you must first understand your own. Self-respect, self-reflection, and introspection are a big part of being a caring and open early childhood educator. Research conducted with early childhood educators suggests that as teachers gain greater awareness of their own culture and beliefs, they begin to feel more comfortable and successful connecting with children and their families. As a teacher, it is essential for you to know your culture in order to understand the cultures of the children and how it influences their behavior, learning style, and interactions with one another. This is the only way you can give every child in your group the skills they need and the opportunity to succeed.

Understanding your culture and how it influences your expectations

How does your culture affect your life? You need to ask yourself what lens you are looking through when you work with young children. Think about your values and how you express them. Cultural influences are everywhere. This could include the time of day you decided to take this course or if you are lying on a couch or sitting at a desk. Your relationships, sense of right and wrong, how you make important decisions, how you respond to a child's behavior, and how you plan your day is influenced by your culture.

Take a moment and answer these questions about yourself:

  • How would you identify yourself through a cultural lens?
  • In what way do you think your culture has influenced who you are today?
  • What is important to you about this aspect of yourself? What makes you proud and what gives you pain?

We are members of many cultures. For example, I am a woman. This is cultural depending on your religion and your connections with others. You will want to identify many cultural lenses. In what way do you think your culture has influenced who you are today? What is important to you about this aspect? What are you proud of? What is sometimes hard to accept about your culture, and who you are, and the role it plays?

What do you remember about how you were raised?

Think about how your cultural background impacts your teaching style, as well as your expectations and appreciation of children's skills and abilities. This refers to how we relate to children. Our expectations and goals are all part of our cultural heritage.

Without meaning to, our goals can create a chasm between us, the child, and the family. What are the family's goals for the child? What do they want their child to achieve while they are with you? It is often that we do not ask the families. We will often tell them what we think is developmentally appropriate and what they should be learning. It can even be as basic as whether or not you believe children should be in childcare and what age they should start.

This is cultural because American childcare centers normally begin when a child is three months old because that is the length of parental leave. In Canada, we have one-year of parental leave. Therefore, it is a real choice whether or not we want to send a child to childcare before they are one year old. We should think about how it impacts our idea of childcare and why we chose this profession.

How has your upbringing influenced your thinking about children’s behavior?

  • As a child, how were you expected to behave at home?
  • What were the adult-child relationships like in your family?
  • What behavior was expected in your school?

Look at how you were treated as a child. How were you expected to behave? Did you behave that way? What was a relationship between an adult and a child like in your family? Did your opinion count? Were you part of the discussion? Did you do what you were told? Take a minute and think about how that might have influenced how you view children in your job.

Thinking about your cultural beliefs and experiences

Do you remember how you first learned about your ethnic identity? How did you discover it? What is important to you about that aspect of yourself? Also, have you ever experienced prejudice or discrimination for any reason?

One of the most important aspects to consider is if you have traveled to another country or region that you had never been to before. You may not have been able to read the signs or understand anyone because everything was in another language. How did it make you feel? Did you feel safe or confused? Did you feel like you needed to ask people questions but you did not know how?

Now, think about how children feel when they come to childcare or your classroom for the first time and they are coming from a culture that has different values or a different language. How do you help them feel comfortable and recognized in those surroundings? I am conscious of this because I am a first-generation American. My parents were of German-Jewish heritage. Until I reached my mid-20s, I felt like a stranger in a strange land. I knew that my family spoke a different language. My mother had an accent and although she spoke English, she did not write very well. I was always embarrassed when I needed to bring a parental note to school because there would be mistakes. We also ate different food. I never had a hamburger on a bun or fried chicken until I went to friends' houses.

It is important to understand how this impacts the kids we work with. We also need to think about these questions:

  • Do you and your parents agree about ethnic, cultural, and religious issues?
  • If your beliefs are different, how did they evolve?
  • What will you teach your children?

Cultures Change

Culture is dynamic and changes according to the contemporary environment. When you come into contact with other cultures, that is when children’s ideas of what culture is changes. We need to look at the impact of these kids meeting people from different cultures for the first time. How are they embracing the differences, especially those from the majority culture? How are they embracing the differences of the minority culture? Here are some other points to remember about the changing of culture:

  • When they come in contact with other cultures
  • Across generations
  • Children’s experiences in schools and communities
  • To what degree do you still hold to your family’s values and beliefs?

Implicit Racial Biases and Social Inequities

You can begin to get a glimpse of your own assumptions regarding implicit racial biases and social inequities if you take a moment to think about it. We often do not put up our antenna when we interact with someone from a different gender, race, ethnic group, religion, nationality, age, or family. However, even experienced teachers are unlikely to realize how their unconscious attitudes shape these expectations. Implicit racial biases and societal inequities influence how a child’s behavior is perceived and how it is addressed.

By looking at your own culture and thinking about it, you will be able to identify some implicit biases that you take with you. They exacerbate inequalities and are the root of many protests that are happening in today's world. They also exacerbate the inequities related to COVID-19 and how it is impacting people of color more than others.

Implicit Bias

Implicit bias is the automatic and unconscious stereotypes that drive people to behave and make decisions in certain ways. It is based on learned associations between various qualities and social characteristics and categories, such as race, gender, ethnicity, age, and appearance. It encompasses both favorable and unfavorable assessments. Sometimes our implicit bias is that we think certain cultures or the way certain people look or the way certain people talk makes them something they might not be. For example, my husband is British and I always thought that people with British accents were smarter than anybody else. It does not always have to be negative.

It is activated involuntarily and without an individual's awareness or intentional control. We need to become more aware. Implicit bias develops at a very early age through exposure to direct and indirect messages. Many people consider themselves non-judgmental, but as an educator, we see children's play, their behavior, whether aggressive or compliant, their initiative, and even their ability as a result of our own implicit bias. In addition to early life experiences, the media and news programming are often-cited origins of implicit associations.

Children have the right to grow up in environments where differences are expected and respected and this does not mean that you are not seeing differences. It means understanding and appreciating them.

Key Characteristics of Implicit Biases

It is important to take time to recognize our biases and decide if they are truly valid or something we need to change, or even want to change, which is more important. We are often unaware of our own microaggressions which are more than just insults or insensitive comments.

  • Pervasive - everyone possesses them
  • Implicit and explicit biases are not mutually exclusive and may even reinforce each other
  • Do not necessarily align with our declared beliefs or even reflect stances we would explicitly endorse
  • We generally tend to hold implicit biases that favor our own ingroup
  • Implicit biases are malleable – can be gradually unlearned

Think about how you talk to people and what you are really saying. Some specific remarks, questions, or actions are painful because they have to do with a person's membership in a group that is discriminated against or subject to stereotypes. A key part of what makes them so disconnecting and disconcerting is that they happen casually, frequently, and you often do not intend to harm anybody in your everyday life. Microaggressions are generally aimed at people who are marginalized and often appear to be a compliment or a joke but contain a hidden insult about a group of people.

What is really significant here is that once you are aware of your own culture and become aware of your biases, you can actually unlearn them. You can become conscious of them and make a big difference to not express them and to hopefully not to think about them even after a while.

Bias starts as early as preschool but can be unlearned.

  • Young children are “astute observers of the social world”
  • Look at how your social biases and preferences may be influencing their interactions
  • This can be the start of racial, gender, and other biases
    • What is being said by adults around them?
    • Subliminal messages in:
      • Disney animations
      • Animations available on YouTube or TV

We know that teens and adults can demonstrate a social bias towards people from cultures different than their own, but what about young children? Do they show bias toward peers based on identity groups? A new study finds that children before the age of five, even children of color, show bias at a surprisingly young age, actually preferring white faces, white puppets, and white dolls. This says something about their own self-image. How does this happen? In addition to what children might be hearing at home or from their peers, the subliminal messages about what is good and who is good, and who is bad surround them. You have the ability and responsibility to mitigate the development of those early prejudices through your interactions with children, the books you read, your program and activities, and even the videos you might share once in a while.

The other day I had my three-and-a-half-year-old grandson over. He is fixated on "The Three Little Pigs." I thought we had the book but we did not so I found it on YouTube. What I found was a British version of "The Three Little Pigs." When the wolf came out, much to my amazement, he had an Eastern European accent and he was also very dark. If you stop and think about anything you might know about the British culture, part of why Brexit occurred was because they want to minimize or eliminate the immigration of Eastern Europeans. In general, children from the UK do not like the Eastern Europeans so viola, he becomes the wolf. If you look at the Disney animations, about 90% of the time if not more, the people who are evil will have darker skin than the others.

Be aware of this. If you happen to show it to a child or to your group, talk about it. See what they think. Bring it up so they have an opportunity to recognize that it is not so subliminal but they can become aware of it and that it is not actually reflecting what you believe or what they believe.

Addressing Social Bias in the Classroom

Rather than ignoring situations in which children demonstrate bias, you can use these situations as inspirations for story selection, activities, and projects.

  • Be aware of children’s interactions
    • Are they treating each other differently based on race, ethnicity, or gender?
  • Don’t ignore possible bias
  • Understand that addressing bias is a process

For instance, a child may project hierarchies of power in their play by attempting to dominate the materials or controlling how play occurs. They might make a child of color always be the dog as opposed to the doctor. In response, you can work with them to resolve the issue which could involve listening to the children's experiences, offering suggestions for sharing, and understanding that addressing bias is a process. Even if you would like to immediately change the circumstances in your classroom, progress may be gradual just as it may take you time to realize your biases and work through them. Young children are not going to change their pattern of thinking immediately but if you help them become aware of it, it can make a big difference.

The guiding principles from NAEYC’s position statement Advancing Equity in Early Childhood Education include recognizing that “Self-awareness, humility, respect, and a willingness to learn are key to becoming a teacher who equitably and effectively supports all children and families.”

Note that the statement above talks about equitable, not equal practice. Equitable is an adjective that means fair or impartial. Sometimes an equitable action can be equal but equitable practice means providing the support that each family needs which may not always be the same, nor equal.

As the book, Each and Every Child: Teaching Preschool with an Equity Lens states, attempting to achieve equality of opportunity without considering historic and present inequities is ineffective, unjust, and unfair. Imagine if children were taught from an early age to see and understand differences, respect each other, and believe that everyone has the right to succeed, how different the world could be. Social justice can be introduced at a very young age.

Embracing differences should be critical components of all preschool and daycare classrooms. Your bookshelf should be filled with books featuring diverse children and families and you should introduce and actively discuss topics including race, ethnicity, disabilities, LGBTQ families, and even issues such as weight and poverty to children at a young age. An anti-bias curriculum promotes value-based principles in support of recognizing and accepting existing differences. The research also shows that people prefer people that are not overweight.

Do you celebrate Father’s Day and Mother’s Day? What about the children who have two fathers or two mothers? Have you really thought about that? How do the children in your class or group integrate with children with disabilities? Do they accept the differences? Do they understand them?

We integrated children with autism in our program almost from the get-go and we also had children who were deaf. It was amazing to see how much the children accepted these differences, enjoyed their presence, and could see their talents and what the gifts were that they could bring. It is important to recognize that. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you work with young children.

  • Acknowledgments of skin color and culture are essential for legitimizing differences
  • It is what makes each one of us special
  • Enables us to offer unique gifts and opportunities to groups we are part of
  • Cultural differences enrich classrooms

Many people, including educators, have long believed it is better to act colorblind, even culture-blind. That is to not acknowledge color or culture and as often people of color say, if you are colorblind, then you do not see me. This is artificial blindness and it keeps us from recognizing, acknowledging, and appreciating those differences. It also leads to an unintentional bias toward and disrespect for those who are different. Instead, we once again have to help children learn how to appreciate the different skills and the knowledge and thoughts of their peers.

The Goals of Multicultural Education

There is a vast array of cultural differences in children's beliefs and behavior. Every child is unique and interacts differently with the world around them. These are very important goals when we think about multicultural education.

  • To teach children about other groups or countries
  • To teach children to accept and appreciate differences
  • To help children become accustomed to the idea that there are many lifestyles, languages, cultures, and points of view

Multicultural Principles for Early Childhood Leaders from the Head Start Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center (ECLKC) states, “Multicultural programming for children enables children to develop an awareness of, respect for, and appreciation of individual and cultural differences.” You are in a very unique position to potentially see children's social biases unfold as they play and work with their peers. You have a valuable opportunity to help them work through them and explore the historical and everyday experiences of people from a variety of cultural groups. These explorations may encourage the children to create a welcoming environment and appreciate the different skills, but you need to be aware of it. You need to really consciously want to be able to do that and support them from learning about it, not just ignoring it. That is just as bad as being culture or colorblind.

Are cultures really so different?

You might be thinking, are cultures really that different? Anthropologists look at culture in terms of context and individual versus group orientation.

Low context versus high context in culture

Figure 2. Low context versus high context in culture.

You can see in figure 2 that the majority of the world does not have the same cultural values as white European Americans. However, our schools and childcare centers usually teach European American values of individualism, independence, self-direction, initiative, and competitiveness. If you put these basic cultural values in the context of education, it is easy to see why some children have difficulty learning, understanding the rules, and following directions.

For example, if you look at the second item in figure 2, implicit commands versus explicit commands, you can see that white European American educators tend to ask children to do something rather than to tell children to do something. For example, how many times have you heard someone say, "Can you please put the blocks away?" to a child who comes from the other side of that, whether they are an African American, Native American, Asian, or Latino American. You are asking them a question. What we might find or feel is being defiant, if I am a white European American, might not be. I have offered a choice. Can you…? Once again it is a question, whereas what these children have heard time and time again is, "Please put the blocks away." Very, very clear and direct.

Also, the white European culture, or American culture, focuses on independence, helping oneself, standing out, and personal property (it’s mine). Aside from the word no, the next word that most white European American children learn is “mine.” Other cultures focus on interdependence and see the child as a member of a group, which can mean that they do not want to be singled out.

If you see a child who is sitting very quietly at circle time and now you are going to do a song like "Old MacDonald" and want to pick someone to be the farmer to stand in the middle of the circle and say, "Julio, you are sitting so nicely. Why don't you become the farmer?" He might be very embarrassed because in his culture it is much more about the group and he does not want to be singled out. When you are teaching, remember the last point in figure 1, white European Americans focus on the detail whereas other cultures start with the big picture.

That is a big difference in learning style. You need to be very conscious of this. Culturally knowledgeable teachers develop a better understanding of how they pass on the information and begin to adjust their behavior and instruction accordingly. Figure 2 is very important and you should keep referring to it.

The Culture of Childcare/School

The culture of childcare in the US is developmentally appropriate practice. It is grounded in white middle-class European American culture. Developmentally appropriate practice pervades feeding, napping, guiding, discipline, playing, communicating, socializing, and programming because the dominant culture values independence. We encourage children to pour their own juice, eat and drink on their own, and learn how to take care of themselves.

For some children from an interdependent culture, this is a concept that is completely alien. It often helps to set goals for the child with his or her parents so that you are not interfering but work it out together. You have to help them understand that your goals are important because they are going to go off to school and they may need to be more independent. However, you need to respect their lifestyle and their goals, in order to avoid potential cultural conflict.

Culture of school/childcare vs. values in diverse cultures

Figure 3. Culture of school/childcare vs. values in diverse cultures.

If you look at the culture of school versus the values in diverse cultures as seen in figure 3, teachers expect children to work independently and compete, whereas children believe they need to help each other. Children have to be called on one at a time. We often say, "Sit quietly. Raise your hand," but in some cultures, in order to show that you are really interested and that you are involved in the discussion, you join in. You are interrupting and always moving around. How do they deal with these expectations?

We also need to remember that for some kids, teachers tell a story about one event and arrange the facts in a very linear way. Others tell episodes or anecdotal stories where everything has to fit into the story. Stories unfold and often the children are very involved in how they unfold.

We need to look at the values and culture of our center that are impacting the children's ability to learn? More than half of America's 50 million students today are non-white and a growing number of them are English language learners or students with special needs. Children in different cultures differ in how they think about themselves and relate to each other.

When preschoolers were asked to describe a recent special personal experience, the European American children provided a very detailed description. They recalled specific events and stressed what they liked, their feelings, and their opinions about it. Instead, the Asian children instead focused more on the people they met and how they related to themselves. There are widespread well-documented disparities between the educational needs of these student groups and their classroom peers, so we need to really understand it.

Our Expectations vs. Family Values

Take a moment and think about the following question. Have you ever experienced what you thought was a child being difficult but it actually might have been a cultural disconnect?

One example of this was a four-year-old boy who every time at every meal, no matter what he was drinking, always spilled his drink. At first, we thought he was clumsy. Then we thought he wanted our attention. Then we thought maybe he did not like the milk if that was what spilled or maybe the environment was overstimulating. When we talked to the family, what we discovered was that he had recently come to Canada. In this case, he had come from a culture that was experiencing huge drought and water was like gold. Because of this, at home, he still drank from a bottle and he did not know how to drink from a cup or how to hold the cup. He realized that if it fell over, it would spill. We talked to the family and discussed how we were going to work on this at school but emphasized that we understood whatever it is they are doing at home, we respect that completely.

Recognize that there are often reasons for behavior. One way to put on a coat is to lay it on the floor, stand near the tag or hood, put your arms through the armholes, then flip the coat over their head. We think this flip method is so great. We think children should be so proud of how independent they can be, flipping their coats. However, in some interdependent cultures, the parents and the family might believe that exposure to the cold will make them sick so they do not even want them to go outside, especially if they come from a very warm climate and now he is in a much colder climate. More important than that, interdependent families probably equate putting on the coat for the child shows how much they care about him and how much they love him. When the teacher wants him to put it on himself, the child might feel that she does not care about him and that he is not important. Find out what the values are at home so that you can accommodate the children's needs. You should still teach them the skills that you feel they need to learn but keep their culture and their families in mind.

Girl and boy in block center

Figure 4. Girl and boy in block center.

Not all children share the same values. In figure 4, you can see the little girl, Kennedy, and a boy, Juan. Kennedy was playing with blocks and Juan came over and started to play with the doll she had left on the floor. Kennedy believed that because she had brought the doll with her, she was still playing with it even though she was totally engaged in building with the blocks. She started to scream at Juan and eventually hit him when he picked up the doll.

What would you do? In this case, the teacher valued independence and the rights of the individuals. She scolded Juan and told him to find his own doll to play with. From an individualist perspective, Kennedy had the right to the doll. From a collectivist perspective, the doll did not belong to anyone.

Juan thought since Kennedy was not playing with the doll and it was on the floor he could use it. When most teachers hear this story, they get upset that the teacher did nothing about Kennedy hitting Juan but they rarely argue with the thought that Juan should have asked to play with the doll. Juan did not understand Kennedy's behavior or the educator's reaction. The teacher felt that Juan had a problem with impulse control when really it was a cultural misunderstanding of who should play with the doll. This could have been a terrific opportunity to explain to both Kennedy and Juan how they were thinking and share their thoughts. Why did Kennedy get so upset?

Cultural Dissonance

When home is different from childcare, there is discontinuity and therefore more risks. Children’s talents, competencies, and abilities may not be recognized or appreciated. The dangers of discontinuity are greater when the discrepancy is large and long-lasting, especially for young children who do not adapt easily to change. Not every child does. They feel incompetent because what they have learned so far simply does not apply. Their competencies and abilities are not recognized or appreciated and they feel confused and experience feelings of isolation, alienation, and conflict just like you do at an airport when you cannot speak the language or read the signs. They do not understand the rules because behavior that was perfectly acceptable at home is suddenly and inexplicably inappropriate. Experts blame this discontinuity for the high rate of school failure among children from poor and minority families. This is where it is so important for you to work on this so the children grow up with the same opportunities and thoughts about themselves.

Because families naturally pass along the way of doing things from culture to culture, they pass along the skills that they need to survive and succeed. Each child brings with them their own set of culturally-based scripts, skills, and values into the classroom. Children naturally develop the characteristics that their own cultural values:

  • Emotional display and affect
  • Moral development
  • Gender roles
  • Cognitive abilities
  • Language

Do you think it is possible for children of other cultures to learn the skills necessary to succeed within the dominant culture and at the same time honor and value their cultural heritage? Many early childhood programs in schools are asking children to develop cross-cultural code-switching. This is often referred to as language code-switching which forces an individual to consciously override the values and behaviors of their own culture to meet the requirements of the dominant culture. It entails deviating from accustomed behaviors in one's native culture in order to engage in behavior appropriate to the foreign culture. Some children can achieve this seamlessly but for others, it is a challenge that often results in inappropriate behavior and school failure.

Children have the need and the right to feel good about themselves. Children begin to construct that identity by understanding their place in their own family and culture and by responding to how others relate to them. They form positive self-concepts by honoring and respecting their own family and culture. They have to believe that what they are doing at home is good and it is positive. If your classroom does not reflect or validate each child’s family and culture, then they do not feel comfortable. They may feel invisible, unimportant, incompetent, worthless, and ashamed of who they are. Every individual has the right to maintain their own identity while acquiring the skills required to function in society. They can do it but we need to do it with respect.

Families Know Their Child Best

When working with children, you need to always remember that a child's family is a powerful source of knowledge and their first teachers. NAEYC’s position statement in Advancing Equity in Early Childhood Education says, “Families are the primary context for children’s development and learning.” Find out what is important to each family and their goals are. What do they want their children to learn? Practices in families from diverse cultures are very rich. You need to find out what they are and understand and incorporate them into your program and routines. Children's interactions with their families often act as the archetype of how to behave around others, learning a variety of sociocultural rules, expectations, and taboos. European American children's interactions tend to be reciprocal, taking turns in talking, for example, and in contrast, Asian children often take a more passive role in the conversations so you might think that they do not know. You might think that they are very shy, whereas often African American children tend to get very involved and assertive and excited. You need to accept that that is their way of letting you know that they are very interested in what they are learning.

Families know their children best. They can tell you about:

  • Their lives, their culture, family roles, origin, support network
  • Patterns of authority, values, expectations
  • Stressors (illness, divorce, financial problems)
  • Their child’s developmental milestones
  • The nature, frequency, and severity of the challenging behavior at home
  • How they deal with it – what works, what doesn’t work

Families can tell you about their lives, their culture, their patterns of authority, and their stressors in case there was something going on at home. I think a lot of parents have many stressors, including their child's developmental milestones if they were met, how they were met, and maybe even they are different from one culture to another. Families can tell you about the nature, frequency, and severity of behaviors at home that are inappropriate, including what they do, how they deal with it, what is working, and what does not work.

We need to support consistently warm and caring relationships between families and their children. We need to respect them, their languages, their cultures and incorporate them within your teaching practices and your program.

A Mother Speaks

The following passage was written by a Native Canadian to her child's teacher. Her child is five years old.

"Before you take charge of the classroom that contains my child, please ask yourself why you are going to teach Indian children. What are your expectations? What are the stereotypes and untested assumptions that you bring with you into the classroom?

…My child has a culture, probably older than yours; he has meaningful values and a rich and varied experiential background. However strange or incomprehensible it may seem to you, you have no right to do or say anything that implies to him that it is less than satisfactory…

Like most Indian children his age, he is competent. He can dress himself, prepare a meal for himself, clean up afterwards, care for a younger child. He knows his Reserve, all of which is his home, like the back of his hand.

He is not accustomed to having to ask permission to do the ordinary things that are part of normal living. He is seldom forbidden to do anything; more usually the consequences of an action are explained to him, and he is allowed to decide for himself whether or not to act. His entire existence… has been an experiential learning situation, arranged to provide him with the opportunity to develop his skills and confidence in his own capacities. Didactic teaching will be an alien experience for him.

Will [my child] learn that his sense of his own value and dignity is valid, or will he learn that he must forever be apologetic and ‘trying harder’ because he isn't white? Can you help him to acquire the intellectual skills he needs without… imposing your values on top of those he already has?

Respect my child. He is a person. He has the right to be himself."

I think this holds true not only for Native Canadian and American children but for every child that you teach."

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) and Culture

There is a big emphasis on social-emotional learning but what we often forget is that social-emotional learning is cultural. Key skills the children need to successfully navigate school and their adult life might be very different than the cultural skills they have at home. We need to integrate and understand that children are coming to you with very different ideas of what is culturally appropriate. Figure 5 shows some of those differences.

Chart comparing social-emotional learning and culture

Figure 5. Chart comparing social-emotional learning and culture.

Eye contact is something we have all talked about and we know that in some communities, it can be a sign of aggression or disrespectfulness. But have we ever thought about the fact that in some cultures, openly displaying your emotions, whether it is happy, sad, or angry, is acceptable and even desired? In other cultures, you need to restrain your emotional display. A smile or a laugh does not mean the same thing in every culture. In some cultures, it can mean that a person is confused or embarrassed.

Touching, in white European American culture, is seen as an important means of communication but in other cultures, they avoid physical contact and the same with individual versus group orientation.

One very important piece of cultural social-emotional learning is personal space. We all have a comfort zone when someone is standing beside us or talking to us where we are capable of really listening and taking in all the information. Figure 6 shows our circles of comfort for communication and personal space.

Circles of comfort for communication

Figure 6. Circles of comfort for communication.

Everyone has this personal threat or comfort zone and when you know the child and know where to stand, you will always be able to communicate more clearly to them. If you get too close, they are not going to listen. Often if it is a matter of addressing inappropriate behavior and you get too close, they will look down and might even start to smile because they are embarrassed. We will see this as them not caring, which it is not.

If you are too far, people do not believe you are involved. When you are working with families, this is also just as important because if you are too close, they are uncomfortable, and if you are too far, they are not listening. You can see what that comfort zone is by looking at people's shoulders and their eyes. Recognize it and then calibrate. If you see that their shoulders went up, step back a little bit. Calibrate and make sure they seem more relaxed. This is where I should be standing.

The Deficit Perspective

It is important to recognize and be aware of the fact that what a child knows and what they can do when they enter your center or school is a reflection of the opportunities that child has had and the skills they have had to learn to function with their own cultural group and not an indicator of what that child is capable of doing. We really need to think about that.

Many teachers believe that European American and Asian American children are going to succeed but children from the other cultural groups are going to be difficult, loud, troublesome, less intelligent, and uninterested in school, or incapable of learning. We carry around this implicit bias. We look at this deficit perspective.

Children from minority cultures, especially those who are poor and live in urban areas, get less instructional attention and are called on less frequently. Even if they use their impulse control and raise their hand, they still do not get called on. They are encouraged to develop intellectual thinking less often. They are not asked difficult questions.

They are criticized more often and praised less frequently. They receive fewer direct responses to their questions and comments and they are actually reprimanded more often and disciplined more severely. This is research-based and something we really need to look at and think about within our own classroom. Does any of this hold true?

Teachers reveal these low expectations by watering down their curriculum and expectations. They greet failure with sympathy, not that they did not try hard enough, which tells a child she cannot succeed. They praise a child for completing an easy task, indicating that the teacher thinks she is stupid. This is where a growth mindset becomes very important. If we think or connect with the child saying, "Wow, you really did a great job on that. You really tried hard and it was really easy," the child is going to think that you do not think she can do anything more difficult. We need to recognize even giving them one more chance might demonstrate to some children that we really do not care.

Like with everything in life, there is not just one way to be more culturally aware in your daily life as well as when you are working with young children. Culturally responsive teaching is one approach that validates and affirms the cultures of each child and incorporates them in your teaching methods, content, and all the aspects of the environment. This approach also encourages educators to hold high expectations which are very important. If the educational process were culturally centered, responsive, or contextualized for other ethnic groups, they too would experience far greater academic success in school.  Culturally relevant and diverse programming requires learning accurate information about the cultures and groups of different stereotypes.

Bridging the Gap

It is important to understand the implications on both sides. You can bridge the gap. You can be part of the solution instead of part of the problem if you can provide an environment that includes everyone and is conducive to learning.  Create an environment where everyone wants to learn and cares about learning. Important questions that you need to ask yourself include:

  • Does your program recognize the influence of culture on cognition?
  • Are you looking at that lens?
  • Are you looking at your program that way?
  • Does your program reflect different learning styles that can be cultural or just personal?
  • Does your program meet the needs of all the children?
  • Are you reflecting all the children's interests no matter where they come from?
  • Does the social climate of your room reflect the needs, cultures, and developmental level of the children?
  • Does the social climate of your room create a context that makes EVERY child feel good about coming to school?
  • Does the social climate of your room focus on teaching children what TO DO?

A multicultural program goes way beyond posting pictures of people of visible minorities or having special ethnic snacks. It means knowing where your children come from, the history and customs of their family background, and providing opportunities for the skills that are important at home to be important in your classroom. It includes ensuring that adequate curriculum materials and equipment are provided that are appropriate to the children's special needs and that maintain the integrity of their own culture within art, music, dance, even drama. When you think about the cultural context of how and what you are teaching, children become more engaged, motivated, and feel connected to the learning process.

Becoming a Culturally Responsive Teacher

Culturally responsive teachers have high expectations for culturally and ethnically diverse students that understand behavior, communication, and learning from a cultural perspective. They respond from a strength-based perspective. They filter curriculum content and teaching strategies through the teacher's cultural frames of reference to make the content more personally meaningful and easier to master. In addition, they search their program for embedded racism and adjust their plans to eliminate it. Look at what you are teaching and how you are teaching it. Look for those potential microaggressions. Look for those biases that are in the books that you are reading or the videos that you are showing. Work to build children's knowledge of differences, privilege, and understanding of social justice. Build their skills to actively question and work against discrimination and bias. Other things you can do to become a culturally responsive teacher include:

  • Form authentic and caring relationships.
  • Build connections between what children already know and what they need to know.
  • Select activities that honor each child’s culture and life experience.
  • Shift instructional strategies to meet children’s diverse learning needs.
  • Hold high expectations for all learners.
  • Communicate respect for each child’s intelligence.
  • Make the implicit explicit.

What Can You Do?

Research the heroes and accomplishments of children’s cultures. Introduce culturally relevant topics. Utilize culturally authentic books, songs, dances, and other materials. Buy fruits, vegetables, and canned goods at ethnic markets as opposed to using plastic fruits. Add the empties to the dramatic play area along with dolls, games, menus, clothes, and instruments. Ask parents or families to give you different clothes that they can dress up in. Make use of the colors that represent the countries that the children come from in your displays. Invite families and community members into the classroom to share their knowledge and skills.

Instead of buying plastic food for your housekeeping corner, ask the families to photograph a breakfast, lunch, and dinner plate from their home, and then send it to you. We have all these wonderful abilities that we can do now with technology. Have parents or families send you the picture then enlarge it, print it, laminate it, and use it in the housekeeping area. This allows children to provide a real meal to one another. When you read books to children, do not translate them as you are reading them to other children who might be learning English because it interrupts the flow of the story. If you can, find the same story in another language. Then you can read that through.

Finally, ask questions such as:

  • How would you feel if…?
  • Can you say more about…?
  • Why do you think this happened?

Asking questions such as these can help the children to think about the different gender roles and expressions that they have amongst one another and appreciate their answers. You need to combine a loving manner with tough and rigorous expectations, and most important of all, believe they can all learn. Expect all children to try hard and do well and push all children to do their best.

Successful programs respect and incorporate the cultures and languages of children and their families. There are many ways to do that and it is up to you to find a way to make that important. You cannot learn the languages of every child. You cannot label everything in five different languages. But if you know some keywords, it can help children to feel more comfortable.

Instead of putting purchased multicultural posters on the wall, have children bring in artifacts of their own culture and photographs of their families. Let each child create a poster of where they come from and their families. For the interdependent or group-oriented cultures, have them work together and put many different things on that poster. Now you are truly representing all of the kids in a real way. You are not just putting up a poster of a person who does not even look like anyone people see in everyday life anymore.

It is all about language and culture and every child brings something important. We need to celebrate each child, where they come from and what they bring with them. Everything about them is important and needs to be respected.

As we end this course, I would like you to think about how you are going to balance these goals in your classroom. Identify three ways that your culture affects your expectations of how children should behave. Take a minute, really think about it. Look at your family expectations. Look at how you behaved at school and what your teachers expected of you. Then list three ways that you can make your teaching and classroom more culturally responsive. What are you doing well and what can you do better? What have you learned from this course that will enable you to really make every family and every child feel welcome in your room?


Gay, G. (2010). Culturally Responsive Teaching. Multicultural Education Series. Teachers College Press.

Gilliam, W. S., Maupin, A. N., Reyes, C. R., Accavitti, M., & Shic, F. (2016). Do early educators’ implicit biases regarding sex and race relate to behavior expectations and recommendations of preschool expulsions and suspensions. Yale University Child Study Center9(28), 2016.

Head Start. Multicultural Principles for Head Start Programs Serving Children Ages Birth to Five.

National Association for the Education of Young Children.  (2019, April). Position Statement: Advancing Equity in Early Childhood Education.


Kaiser, B. (2020). Opening the culture door: Valuing diversity. - Early Childhood Education, Article 23707. Available at

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barbara kaiser

Barbara Kaiser, MA

Barbara Kaiser is a graduate of McGill University’s Master's Program in Educational Administration and has been working with early childhood educators, children, and their families for over 35 years. She is the co-author of Challenging Behavior in Young Children: Understanding, Preventing and Responding Effectively, 4th Edition (2017), and is presently working on a new text, The Administrator’s Role in Supporting Staff, Children, and Families When Challenging Behavior Occurs, (NAEYC), which is expected to be available early winter 2021. She has taught part-time in the Faculty of Education at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec and Acadia University in Nova Scotia.

In addition to presenting workshops and keynote speeches on the topic of challenging behavior and related issues in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Switzerland, and Mauritius, Barbara was the chief consultant for Addressing Youth Violence: An Intersectoral, Integrated Approach for Western Nova Scotia, and designed a webinar series and guide to help teachers and administrators reduce and respond to bullying behavior for the Nova Scotia Department of Education. She also helped to develop teacher training video programs focused on managing children’s challenging behavior, Challenging Behaviors: Where do we begin? with Family Communications Inc. and Facing the Challenge, with Devereux Center for Resilient Children, (DCRC). Recently she has been presenting webinars and articles to support teachers, children, and their families when returning to school and childcare after COVID19.

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