Family Partnerships III: Building Programs that Reflect Families’ Cultural Diversity

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Our culture can shape how we view ourselves, our surroundings, and our place in the world.  We are often most comfortable in the cultures where we grow up and feel most accepted by those whose cultures are most similar to our own. Let’s consider our own family gatherings and how easy it might be to reflect on the questions below:

  • How do greetings work amongst family members?
  • What customs does your family have around food? Who cooks?
  • What games or activities do the children do?
  • What type of music is played? Does anyone dance?
  • What traditions or rituals are involved?

Cultural customs that may feel comfortable and familiar for someone could, in fact, cause discomfort and a feeling of being out of place for another person. Onto a bigger question – how do we feel in an environment where our culture isn’t reflected? Do our early learning programs reflect the races, cultures, languages, and ethnicities of the children and families that we serve?

In previous Family Partnerships tips, we discussed ways to gather information about families to support our programs. Some of that information helps us learn more about the languages, cultures, and customs of the families we serve. This month we will focus on how learning about families’ race, ethnicity, & culture, can strengthen our partnerships with families and improve implementation of culturally inclusive practices in our early learning programs.

Honoring Racial, Ethnic, & Cultural Identities

Thinking back to our family gathering scenario, how would we feel at someone else’s family gatherings when they have unfamiliar customs? We may enjoy exploring new customs or could feel uncomfortable or excluded as we don’t know our place in these environments. Similarly, how do we navigate cultural diversity with the young children and families we serve?

Why is it important to recognize families’ racial, ethnic, and cultural identities?

Let’s review what some of the research shows:

  • Cultural competency affects how children view themselves: Children bring their own cultural expectations, skills, abilities, and values into our programs. They also start to develop their self-concept from how others see them. To form positive self-concepts, children must honor and respect their own families and cultures and have others honor and respect these key facets of their identities too.
  • Children are aware of race and are acting on their own accord: A child’s ideas about their own race and others’ races are forming in early childhood, regardless of whether the topic of race is directly addressed, completely ignored, or actively suppressed in their classrooms1. Children as young as 3 months are aware of racial differences, and by the time they are preschoolers, they make choices, based on race, about with whom to play and how2
  • Early learning spaces lean towards highlighting white experiences, resulting in harmful consequences: Early learning environments and materials often reflect the values and beliefs prevalent in traditional white customs. When this isn’t noticed or counterbalanced with images or stories with lead characters from other cultures and races, the importance is placed on white early childhood experiences, and we miss opportunities to teach children that all races should be valued. As a result, white children may subconsciously learn that their race holds a privileged status compared to others, and non-white children may learn that their race does not3.
  • Children excel socially and intellectually when engaging with cultural education: Research shows that engaging children in culturally responsive educational experiences helps them:
    • 1) build their self-confidence and skills,
    • 2) increase their awareness, appreciation, and inclusion of diverse beliefs & cultures, and
    • 3) maximizes their academic achievement and educational success4.

Ultimately, young children are watching us and learning from us about how we handle issues of race and diversity; they pick up on what our values are and who we esteem. We need to lead by example in promoting awareness, understanding, and acceptance of races, ethnicities, and cultures similar and different from ours.

Reflecting on Our Culturally Inclusive Practices

Bringing our awareness of the importance and value of racially, ethnically, and culturally responsive practices to program can feel like challenge. We can start by observing our program’s representation and evidence of the races, ethnicities, and cultures of the families we serve.

There are several areas in which we can approach race, ethnicity, and culture with families in our early learning programs. Here are some questions to start the conversation:

  • Representation
    • Do families see themselves/their race & ethnicity represented in the visuals or pictures around the early learning program? 
    • What is our current practice for talking about appearance and bodily features? Do we create an environment where different facial features and skin tones are recognized, valued, and respected?
  • Languages
    • Are our early learning documents available for families in their preferred languages? How do we support & include families who speak other languages?
    • What supports or plan do we have in place to support multilingual children’s early literacy development? How do we work with families to support their home language learning at home? Check out our Family Engagement tip on Early Literacy for more ideas.
  • Routines & Customs – including food, clothing, music, & personal care
    • Food: Does our program explore foods from different cultures? Are families invited/involved in this food exploration? (Ex. Diverse ethnic cuisines, Kosher food, vegetarians, etc.)
    • Clothing: Does our program talk about different types of clothing and their significance, particularly as it relates to the culture and ethnicity of the families we serve? (Ex. Hijabs, burqas, yarmulkes, turbans, bindis, beards, etc.)
    • Music: Does our program listen to music in different languages? Or listen to songs that explore different holidays, traditions, countries, etc.?
    • Personal Care: Do we create awareness, understanding and respect among children for each child & family’s personal care? (Ex. natural hair, hair styles, etc.)
  • Celebrations & Holidays
    • What is our current practice for talking about holidays? What celebrations and holidays do we pay attention to & incorporate in our programs? Do they represent the families we serve? How do we include families? (Ex. Hanukkah, Passover, Ramadan, Eid Al-Fitr, Holi, Diwali, Lunar New Year)
    • Do we ask families what holidays they celebrate and how they celebrate? Would they be willing to share their holiday traditions with our early learning program? Do they share now? 
    • What is our current practice for talking about religious & ethnic clothing and appearance? Would families be willing to share about their cultural clothing & accessories? 

Looking for a handy way to begin observing your sites practices? Here is a Family Engagement Observation Form for center-based programs and another observation form for family child care programs; these can help you reflect on your welcoming environment.

Family Perspectives: We can partner with families in this process by inviting them to also observe our programs, specifically paying attention to these points listed above. How do they view the racial, ethnic, and cultural awareness, understanding & inclusion of our programs?

This approach can look like:

  1. Inviting individual family representatives to join a committee focusing on Culture & Diversity, which could handle this observation process.
  2. Preparing & discussing the importance and approach at hand with these family representatives, highlighting the values that our program has at the forefront of this process.
  3. Adapting & providing observation forms and/or checklists for family representatives to use while evaluating our program.
  4. Debriefing afterwards, both family representatives and early educators sharing their observations and impressions of how our early learning program is approaching the races, ethnicities, and cultures of the families we serve.
  5. Discussing what these findings mean for our program; specifically, what changes are needed and wanted? How can we use our programs resources and family strengths to address them? How can we work together to implement these changes?

For more ideas on identifying what family’s needs & strengths are around diversity, check out our Family Engagement Tip – Family Partnerships II: Identifying Family Strengths and Needs to Better Support Families.

What Approaches Can We Take to Teach About Race & Ethnicity?

As early educators, we are familiar with the importance of building relationships with families of diverse backgrounds and may take different approaches in doing so. Though this tip focuses on how we engage with families, let’s dig into the ways we teach children about race. Check out the box below for teaching approaches to reflect on, as shared by NAEYC.

“Color-blind” approach: We don’t directly talk about race, ethnicity, or related identities.

  • May send harmful message about not recognizing or feeling comfortable acknowledging part of identity
  • Adults here: Leave children to develop their own understandings about race, ethnicity, culture

“Color-aware” approach: We intentionally teach children about race & culture.

  • Tells children that we see and value their race & culture because it is an important part of who they are.
  • Adults here: Bring up race, ethnicity & culture in direct and positive ways, take advantage of teachable moments

Social justice approach: We empower children to play a role in acting against discrimination.

  • Help children learn how to actively recognize and act on related injustices
  • Adults here: Seek out teachable moments that specifically have to do with unfairness or discrimination

No matter the approach, children and families become aware of what and how we choose to approach race and other aspects of culture in our programs. Ultimately, we can explore and choose opportunities to infuse aspects of children’s learning & family engagement with color awareness and social justice connections. Even better? We can work alongside families to do this intentionally and with their voices in mind.

Making Changes: Implementing Cultural Practices Alongside Families

Now we have explored what culturally inclusive changes families want to see from our programs. What ideas can you start with to provide more welcoming environments for all families?

  • Can you get signs & documents translated?
  • Can you find pictures of different cultures or families to put on the walls? Are you able to purchase new books or check them out from the library that represent the children/families? 
  • Can families help provide books, pictures, share music, songs, foods, etc. with classes?
  • Can families provide clothes specific to their culture for dramatic play?
  • Can families provide empty food containers of traditional ethnic or cultural foods for the play kitchen?

For more ideas on how to collaborate with families directly, check out our related Family Engagement Tip – Family Partnerships I: Gathering Family Feedback for Stronger Programs.

Taking Action in Our Programs

Here are actionable tips and ideas for including families and their cultures in our programming:

  • Invite families to share stories in class! This can also include learning new words in their home language.
  • Be intentional with story time by including stories representing families of different races, skin tones, & languages.
  • Check out the next section on reading below for more tips!
  • Incorporate religious holidays into program calendars based on families’ religious backgrounds.
  • Make sure to include images related to family’s holidays and traditions throughout program settings.
  • Incorporate images with people of different skin tones, cultural clothing, appearances.
  • Ensure that program documents, website, and messaging aimed towards families are available in their preferred languages. 
  • Encourage families to share copies of their family pictures to include in the program’s family bulletin boards and group learning environments!
  • Invite families to bring in traditional toys.
  • Offer toys reflecting different facial features, skin tones, & hair textures.
  • Invite families to bring cultural clothing for dramatic play, possibly even setting up a “show-and-tell” activity for them to share about the tradition and significance of clothing items. 
  • Offer a family potluck activity for families to share their favorite traditional foods!
  • Showcase foods from different families each week or each month!
  • Share stories about different foods, encouraging children to share about the most common or favorite foods they eat at home. 
  • Allow kids to notice & talk about differences in appearance, skin tone, languages, etc.
  • Create teachable moments focusing on observing, understanding, including, and appreciating differences.
  • Share these conversations with families via letters home, family nights, one-on-one conversations, making sure to highlight the importance of these discussions in creating a positive self-identity. 

Reading Our Way to a Culturally Responsive Classroom

As NAEYC shares in this piece, reading is a powerful tool we can use to address race, ethnicity, and culture in our early learning programs. Here is a brief list of tips for selecting diverse children’s literature

  • Base your selection on quality. Books should not just teach a lesson but should have a good story, high-quality text, and engaging illustrations.
  • Choose books that help children see themselves. Include books that mirror different aspects of identity (e.g., race, setting, beliefs) of children in the class, so that they can imagine themselves in the story.
  • Choose books that help children expand their understanding of others in this multicultural world. Include books that introduce children to new people, places, and concepts that they may not yet have encountered.
  • Look widely for texts. Be alert to new titles related to diversity. In addition, the library can be a great source for out of print titles that appeal to children and relate to urban issues and diversity.
  • Use text sets. Expose children to different perspectives. These book collections may be organized by theme or may feature the work of a highly accomplished author or illustrator of color.

The following YouTube video shares Sayantani Gupta, a doctor who practices narrative medicine, speaking about the importance of diversity in children’s literature – for children’s sake and for a better future. 

As we choose diverse children’s books for our programs, we also have a chance to include families in the conversation. Can they join us for read-alouds? Share their own stories? Act along with us as puppets in a story? Join us for a related cultural activity after story time? Having family members present for these occasions can emphasize how valuable diversity is all around us.

Reading Resources: Check out the following diversity-themed reading resources, including booklists, short stories, and articles from Quality Start Los Angeles and other great websites! 

When we celebrate the beauty and variety in our differences within our early learning programs, we promote understanding and respect with the children and families we serve. Showing families that we see and value all aspects of them—including attributes related to race, ethnicity, and culture—is a critical step in helping them feel welcome and connected to our program staff and other families.

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Looking Ahead: If you found this Family Engagement tip to be helpful and informative, keep an eye out for next month’s tip on celebrating diverse family structures! 

Cristina Espinoza
Family Education Coordinator, Quality Start Los Angeles

Cristina Espinoza has worked as a family and youth development professional for 5 years, including having served as a Peace Corps Volunteer as a youth development promoter in Costa Rica. In conjunction with Quality Start Los Angeles, Cristina is passionate about supporting families to feel empowered in the changing landscape of their surroundings with their children’s wellbeing at the forefront.  She is a champion of strengths-based systems and services that build resilient families and youth.