Culture and language are influential factors in children’s learning. Creating a system for all children means that teachers purposefully consider the cultural, linguistic, and other factors (background knowledge, family beliefs and habits, and experiences) children bring from their homes and communities (Klingner, Sorrells, & Barrera, 2007; National Center on Response to Intervention, April 2010).
A key idea of culturally responsive instruction is taking an assets-based approach when working with children and their families. This means that the language and cultural knowledge that children bring are assets rather than deficits or obstacles to learning. It also includes a view of families as “capable advocates for their children and as valuable resources in school improvement efforts” (Ortiz, 2001, p. 1). High-quality evidence-based instruction requires staff to know children individually, to learn about the literacy practices of their homes and communities, to have a strong knowledge of children’s language backgrounds, and to understand the stages of second-language acquisition. Knowing the social, cultural, and linguistic differences among children allows staff to respond to these unique characteristics and provide language and literacy instruction that builds on prior language, knowledge, and experience.
“Today’s classrooms are characterized by diversity of student ability, achievement, social and emotional development, background experience, culture, language, and economic means. Because teachers are responsible for providing effective instruction to all students, they must design instruction that . . . incorporates various levels of support and flexible teaching methods, materials, and assessments” (Alber-Morgan, 2010, p. 1).
This diversity includes children who are developing at different rates within expected ranges, as well as those with developmental delays, as discussed in Lesson E4—Outside collaboration.
One of the most important ideas related to Action Step E5 is that teachers know the children in their care. Therefore, your site/campus-based leadership team needs to have an effective system in place for providing relevant data to staff and communicating the importance of knowing each child enrolled in the program. Your team should provide all staff with information regarding the diverse needs of children and ensure that teachers have relevant demographic and assessment data on each child they serve. This data will help teachers identify children’s different backgrounds and characteristics, such as those who speak a home language other than English, those who have not met developmental milestones and need extra support, or those who may have had limited pre-literacy experiences before enrolling in the center or school. This information will likely come from a variety of sources such as interviews or surveys with parents or other caregivers, medical professionals, informal observations and screening data (if available), and teachers’ thoughtful observation of children.
Your staff will benefit not simply from receiving this information, but also from discussing it, asking questions, and seeking clarification. Meetings and discussions of this sort provide an opportunity to assess the current level of staff’s knowledge and expertise in meeting the diverse needs of learners and to identify professional development needs. In particular, the leaders at your site or campus will need to ensure that staff understand how diverse characteristics impact literacy development and know how to provide language and literacy experiences to support children with diverse home languages, different levels of development in language, and different experiences with language outside of the early childhood site.
For example, in some cultures or in some families, parents may believe that “children should be seen and not heard” and will not be eager to embrace the idea of encouraging children to talk and share their ideas, thoughts, and feelings. Families with an authoritarian parenting style may not be inclined to give children choices, preferring to dictate what they should do and how to do it. Other families may place a high value on preschool readiness skills such as letter and number recognition but may not spend much time in conversation with their children or see the value in more open-ended play activities. Thus, early childhood staff need to recognize that (1) some children may be trying to cope with two very different sets of expectations for their behavior and use of language; and (2) some parents and families may need to be educated about why certain ways of engaging children in language and literacy activities are valuable and beneficial. Such conversations need to take place in ways that are respectful of families’ differing cultural styles or traditional beliefs. You will learn more about working with families in Lesson E6—Empowering parents and families, but the current Action Step asks you to consider how your staff can provide children who come from diverse cultures and family belief systems with language and literacy experiences that are both evidence-based and respectful of differences.
You and your team may seek to increase knowledge in this area through book study or training on culturally relevant practices for early childhood. You will find some useful books in the To Learn More section of Part 2. Another important way to learn more about your children’s cultures is to welcome parents and families to share this information with you, both formally and informally.
An example of a formal approach might be to include a questionnaire or individual parent meeting in your enrollment process for children entering your program. You might ask about cultural or family traditions and parents’ goals and expectations for their child, which can often provide useful information for further discussion. A more informal approach might be to talk with individual parents as occasions arise, for example asking a parent how to say a particular word in his or her home language, showing positive interest in the foods the child brings from home, or inviting parents to teach the children or staff a song from their home culture that they sing with their child at home.
Integrating the discussion of culturally relevant practice into professional development sessions is also useful. For example, if you are planning training on ways to increase print awareness among preschoolers, you might ask the trainer to include a discussion or allow time for your staff to explore how to make those activities culturally relevant to the children they work with. This might include finding and discussing examples of environmental print that children see in their neighborhoods, that are meaningful to their home experiences and languages, and that reflect how printed language is used by adults in their communities.
For examples of specific practices to support child development, such as increasing print awareness in preschoolers, see the interactive version of the Texas Infant, Toddler, and Three-Year-Old Early Learning Guidelines and use the tabs to click on the desired age range and skills (e.g., “Language Development”).
In addition to providing teacher training, leaders should encourage collaboration among staff with different expertise. This could mean that co-teaching or peer coaching relationships are formed among early childhood caregivers and staff who are from different cultural and language backgrounds. It may also be beneficial to request consultation and/or training from special educators, such as Preschool Program for Children with Disabilities (PPCD) staff and Early Childhood Intervention therapists so that staff can effectively adapt lessons and strategies to children with a range of needs. Within this kind of collaborative framework, staff can build on one another’s strengths, increase their own specialized knowledge, and provide the best care and instruction for all children.
Furthermore, as Action Step E4 states, your team needs to establish communication systems that facilitate collaboration and the coordination of services among all stakeholders, including those that serve children who have been identified with delays or disabilities and require special services. Facilitating collaboration supports the message that everyone is responsible for the care and development of all children. It takes time to plan meetings and thoughtful agendas to support the goal of improved collaboration and communication, but these are essential steps in effectively serving all your children.
TO LEARN MORE: Click on the links below to learn more about meeting the diverse learning needs of young children.