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Working With Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Families


Working with children and families from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds poses special challenges to early childhood educators. To meet the needs of all members of the school community, efforts should be made to ensure that the school system as a whole and each of its components (including individual classrooms) strives to achieve “cultural competence."

What is Cultural Competence?


Cultural competence is a term that describes what happens when special knowledge about individuals and groups of people is incorporated into standards, policies, and practices. The process of achieving cultural competence is one that leads not only to an appreciation of families and their unique backgrounds, but also to an increase in the quality and effectiveness of services, producing better outcomes. For schools to be described as culturally competent, they need to:

  • Have a set of values and principles that recognize diversity;
  • Demonstrate behaviors, attitudes, policies, and structures that enable them to work effectively cross-culturally and value diversity;
  • Conduct self-assessment to ensure sensitivity to cultural characteristics;
  • Be committed to manage the "dynamics of difference;"
  • Learn about and incorporate cultural knowledge into their practices, and
  • Adapt to diversity and the cultural contexts of the communities they serve.

Why is cultural competence important?


Within an educational setting, cultural competence means finding ways to infuse knowledge and appreciation of other cultures into daily practice. Very often, early childhood classrooms are filled with students from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, but the unique features of these different cultural communities is not well understood by educators and therefore not well integrated into classroom and school-wide practice. Establishing cultural competence is an ongoing and long-term process that demands enthusiasm and curiosity about other cultures and a willingness to adapt educational practices to mirror the values and special characteristics of children and their families.

A few examples of how cultural competence can impact learning:

  1. In some cultures, a certain facial expression may be sufficient to get students’ attention and quiet down the noise level in the room; in others, shouting and verbal bantering is the norm.
  2. Gentle hands-on-hands guidance during play can be comforting and effective for some children and very disconcerting and upsetting to others. Levels of comfort with these types of interaction can also be affected by whether the nurturing adult is male or female.
  3. In some homes, children are encouraged to look down or away when being spoken to by adults. This culture-specific respectful behavior can easily be mistaken as a show of defiance if not understood in a culturally competent context.

Keys to Developing Effective and Collaborative Relationships Within Culturally Diverse Communities


Establishing effective collaborative relationships is a process that involves sharing, flexibility, and a commitment to building and sustaining open lines of communication and understanding. As part of a Recognition and Response system, these relationships can be established through honest self-reflection and having an open mind about what factors might be contributing to a students’ success and struggles in the classroom. The following steps can be helpful:

  1. Reflect upon the specific cultural values that are embedded in your understanding of a student's behavior and different factors that might contribute to his or her performance in school.

    • Ask yourself whether these characteristics are contributing to your understanding of what services and supports this student might need to succeed in school.

    • Explore any cultural characteristics that might be different from those of teachers and other students, and be sure that they complement (or at lest, do not interfere with) the child's full participation in the learning community. Examples of issues to be considered might be: where and when children sleep, when and if children should have recommended or required immunizations, and discipline issues such as time-out and spanking.

  2. Find out whether the families being served recognize and share your values and assumptions and, if not, how their views differ from yours. Be sure to listen carefully, have an open mind, and reserve judgment.

    • For example, the family of a four-year-old allows her to stay awake well past what you might think to be a reasonable bed time (e.g., 8:00 p.m.) because her father does not get home from work until 10:00 p.m., and she is off to school before he wakes up in the morning.

    • Susan McBride (1999) reminds us that information should be provided in languages that are readily understood by the family members and that translators and interpreters should be on hand as needed to promote family participation in a child's education. Developing a "survival vocabulary list" in the native languages of the families in your classroom can also be a welcome offering, especially when it is tailored to and shared along with discussions of childrens' progress in the general curriculum.


This article was originally published by RecognitionandResponse.org, copyright © 2007-2008 National Center for Learning Disabilities, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.


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