- Define cultural diversity, particularly race, and describe its benefits to children, staff, and families.
- Examine your identity and how your beliefs influence your practices.
- Identify the culturally and racially diverse assets of the children, families, and program community.
Defining Cultural Diversity
In the last 10 years, the percentage of babies of color born in the U.S. was higher than that of White newborns (52% and 48%, respectively). This pattern has not changed. Our early childhood classrooms are more diverse than ever before.
No two children are exactly alike. This is true when considering children in the same age group, among siblings and cousins, and even identical twins. Every child has unique characteristics -- likes, dislikes, preferences, and interests -- and this is evident in your program community. Consider how you are different from a sibling or another family member. Also, how are you different from some of your friends and colleagues? Reflecting on all the things that make you who you are will help you to better understand and respect the unique traits and experiences of the children, youth, and families you work with.
You have likely heard the term diversity used in a variety of ways. Sometimes, diversity is discussed along with inclusion and equity. In this lesson, we will focus solely on the term diversity, which refers to differences found within and across groups of people, places, or things. These differences can be seen in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status and income, religion, ability status, and homeland. Given that diversity refers to differences or variations, you should expect to see diversity in children and youth programs because it exists within the larger society and throughout the world. However, diversity is often unjustly used to separate individuals and to place some groups in the category of “other.” In a position statement from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the terms diverse and diversity “are sometimes used as euphemisms for non-White.” NAEYC rejects this usage, “which implies that Whiteness is the norm against which diversity is defined.” In other words, people sometimes use the term diverse when they are referring to people of color, which is inaccurate and misleading. Differences are found within and across groups, and this is true for people from Black, Indigenous, Latine, Asian, and Pacific Islander backgrounds, as well as people who identify as White.
Some signs of diversity can be seen readily, such as hair or skin color, which may lead to predictions about race and ethnicity. At times, these predictions might be accurate but, very often, the predictions can be incorrect. Interracial marriages have increased since 1967 in the United States, and this has resulted in children with bicultural or multiracial backgrounds. According to the Condition of Education 2021, 5% of students in U.S. schools are from two or more racial groups. It may not always be easy to recognize someone’s racial background by simply looking at them. Like race, an individual’s religion or language may not be apparent when you meet them for the first time. You may learn this information as you develop a relationship, or it may not come up at all. This may depend on whether the individual feels comfortable sharing that information. An individual might be concerned that their language, religion, or another aspect of their identity will be considered different and may not be valued. In the case of religion, for example, it is well documented that Muslims were discriminated against because many people viewed the Islamic religion as violent following the attacks on September 11, 2001 (Tatum, 2017). While most Muslims were equally upset about the 9/11 attacks, a narrative emerged that Muslims were violent and anti-American. Much data indicates that Black individuals, especially Black boys and men, are frequently presumed to be violent and threatening in schools and society. Such stereotypes can result in adultification and hyper-policing and profiling.
Diversity in abilities is another aspect of identity that may not be easy to recognize, or, depending on the disability, it can be noticed immediately. While it may be easy to identify a child using a wheelchair as someone who has special needs, it may not be as easy to recognize a child with a learning disability (e.g., someone who requires additional time when taking an exam). Regardless of how diversity shows up (or does not show up) in your program, it is important to provide multiple opportunities to affirm the diversity found in the world. For children attending programs that are homogenous, meaning the students are largely from the same background, conversations about diversity will allow them to see that each child is unique, despite obvious similarities such as race, ethnicity, gender, language and communication styles, or socioeconomic status. Child and youth programs can be a wonderful space to learn about and discuss differences to help children and teachers develop an understanding of, respect for, and appreciation for people who have experiences that differ from their own.
It is important to note that while harmful messages about diversity can exist across different groups, harmful messages can also be seen within groups. For example, colorism is a term that refers to discrimination within racial or ethnic groups where people with darker skin are discriminated against or treated poorly and those with lighter skin are deemed more attractive.
Living in a racialized society has its costs and, unfortunately, one drawback is that it can be quick and easy to take in harmful messages about yourself — whether those messages are about your race, ethnicity, gender, social class, religion, or ability. If the children in your care are not constantly made aware of the dangers behind these messages, they may begin to believe them and live up to the low standards that educators and society may expect based on their identity. For these reasons, it is critical that teachers and program leaders remain alert to combat these harmful messages and, instead, embrace cultural diversity and fully prepare children for the world in which they live and thrive. By acknowledging diversity in a direct way, you can empower children with the tools to speak up when they recognize that they are being treated unfairly because of their differences. Just as important, this can also empower them to speak up when they see peers and others being treated unfairly.
To conclude this overview, we offer the following definition of culture from Dr. Donna Y. Ford:
Examining your Identity and Beliefs
If someone asked the question “Who are you?” what would you say? Would the answer depend on who was asking you or who was present at the time? Would your answer vary if you were in the company of friends or family members? Would it remain the same if you were in the company of colleagues only? Regardless of how you might respond, this question is one that is very important to consider when working with children and families, and it is a question that you need to ask yourself on a regular basis. There are some parts of our identity that are easy to recognize. People may be able to identify your race, ethnicity, or your culture by the way you look, dress, or speak. But oftentimes, the world may identify you in one way while you see yourself differently.
There are many different ways to describe our identity. How you prioritize these parts of your identity is what Ford refers to as salience. For example, the order of variables is one indicator of how you self-identify, and this can influence your behavior toward and views of others. For instance, a child and/or caregiver who describes themselves as a ‘Black, smart, funny, and short’ is an indication that his/her race matters.
We all have the capability to learn, grow, and change each day. If we want to ensure that we are constantly treating children and families with the respect that they deserve, we need to regularly question new information and revisit old ideas to see if they still fit with the way we view the world. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, associate professor at Teachers College, (Columbia University), discusses the importance of teachers examining their beliefs and assumptions about issues, including race and social class, when working in urban schools in what she calls Archaeology of Self. While the concept is meant to help teachers working in urban settings, the idea behind it can benefit teachers working with any population of children, including in rural and suburban schools. Archaeology of Self is an invitation for teachers to reflect deeply on who they are as individuals and how issues of race, ethnicity, and social class live within them. The concept asks teachers to consider how they view different racial and ethnic groups or how they may have been racialized to see themselves and their own racial group based on harmful messages from society. Sealey-Ruiz explains that the deep dig into identity is meant to help you examine some of your beliefs to see where they come from and how they may show up in your practice. Ultimately, what she describes as the “peeling back of layers” is designed to avoid causing harm to children by requiring teachers to continue to question their assumptions and beliefs, since racism exists throughout our society, including in child and youth programs.
It’s important to examine different parts of our identities to see how they may be similar to or different from the children and families we work with. What are the stories that society tells us about Black, Indigenous, Latine, and Asian people? What are the stories that society tells us about people who have less money or wealth than we do? In the TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (writer) shares the importance of not getting stuck in one idea or one perspective of what or who someone is. In an honest reflection of her own upbringing, Adichie shares how she only saw someone who worked for her family through the lens of poverty because she had heard so many stories about workers not having a lot of money or food. Adichie was able to recognize her own “single story” about this individual and their family, and then consider new information when she learned that the person had another side that she had not previously considered. This interruption of Adichie’s ideas and beliefs is important for educators and everyone who wants to avoid getting stuck in one “story” or idea about other people. A single story is an incomplete one and it “robs people of dignity,” Adichie says in the TED talk.
Examining your identity is very important when providing care and education to any population, but it is particularly important when you work with children and youth from backgrounds that are different from your own. In the book, White Teacher, former teacher Vivian Gussin Paley reflects on her journey from being colorblind (and what Ford calls ‘culture blind’) and ignoring comments about race, to being proactive about discussing race in the classroom. As Paley’s teaching journey continued, she ultimately learned to connect home and school through her partnerships with families in order to recognize children’s culture and affirm their identities. This narrative demonstrates that while you may not feel comfortable talking about race and ethnicity at first, that can change over time. Paley candidly shares her discomfort around the topic of race and discusses how her initial reaction, whenever race came up, was to ignore it. As a teacher working with a small number of Black students at the time, Paley was attempting to see all the children in the same way. This often happens among educators who lack cultural awareness and are still developing self-reflection skills.
While teachers may prefer to ignore or minimize explicit messages about race, implicit messages are being sent regularly. These messages can be found in the curriculum and materials in a classroom and program. These messages can also be seen indirectly in our interactions with children and youth, for example, by which children have their raised hand recognized by a teacher more often. In the case of younger children, subtle messages may be apparent in whether and how a child is comforted when they are sad, upset, or struggling to regulate themselves. Explicit and implicit biases can be seen in which children are accused of and punished for ‘behavioral’ problems. Many studies, including those by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights indicate that Black children, especially Black boys, are over half of students suspended in early childhood, even though they make up less than 20% of this age group (hhs.gov/ocr/). This problem is referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline. You can read more about the school-to-prison pipeline in the References and Resources section. We will explore the concept of implicit bias more deeply in Lesson Two.
Talk About What you Value
Children have experiences within your program and outside your program, and it is important to recognize that while it may feel more comfortable to ignore race and attempt a colorblind approach, this is harmful. Children live in a racialized world where they are being sent messages through their daily interactions, books, the media, and even curriculum about who has value and who does not. In the absence of direct and explicit conversations about race, children will come to their own conclusions about what they see in the world. As a child’s teacher, your role and responsibility is to prepare children for the world in which they live, and that must include a realistic view of the role that race plays in society, so they can be prepared to come to their own informed conclusions about both themselves and the culturally different people that they meet.
Take a moment now to consider what you talk about in your classroom. You may think about general topics or specific curriculum activities. What message might that topic or activity send to children and families about what you believe and value? If you work with infants and toddlers who are in the process of learning how to talk, consider the values and messages that are being shared by examining the books that you read or the images displayed around your room and the building. Look at your bookshelf. What messages and patterns do you find? Which children would be able to see themselves reflected in the books? Are there flesh colored crayons and paper? Are the dolls different shades and have different hairstyles, lengths, and textures?
In order to help examine the benefits that diverse books and multicultural literacy have on children and youth, educator Rudine Sims Bishop developed a theory called “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors.” According to Bishop (Professor Emeritus at OSU) “mirrors” are opportunities for children to see themselves reflected and affirmed in the literature. “Windows” offer children and youth chances to see into a world that might be similar to or different from their own world. “Sliding glass doors” offer a chance to get access to another world through literature. Bishop says that books offer opportunities for children to obtain a realistic sense of the world and better understand diversity and themselves.
According to Donna Ford, “the less we know about others, the more we make up; and the more we know, the less we make up”. Let’s explore this notion. You may experience discomfort around the topic of race and other areas of diversity, but you are not alone. Race is present and evident but ignored. You may have attended training or a formal teacher preparation program where you had opportunities to discuss topics of diversity, and maybe you have had a chance to work with a variety of children and families throughout your career, but how often have you had opportunities to talk about structural racism? Have you had the chance to look at history and connect it to some of the inequities that we see today in terms of race? If not, think about opportunities that you have had to talk about race, gender, or sexual orientation with your family, friends, or colleagues. If you do not often have these conversations, then it can make you experience discomfort and misinformation when having or hearing conversations in your classroom. In other words, as an educator, it is important for you to engage in these topics with colleagues or people in your personal life before you do so with children and youth. Otherwise, your comfort around topics like gender, religion, race, or disability will continue to be uneasy. It may be thought that people of color find it easier to talk about race, but this is not generally true. People of color can experience as much or more discomfort as White people do when talking about race, and our silence reinforces the message that the topic is something to be avoided. As teachers, we can change this idea by engaging in these important conversations with children and youth after we do the deep work of reflecting on our own identity and how our beliefs may show up in the way we engage with others, particularly children and their families.
Diversity is something that should be celebrated in programs. Even if children are not talking about differences, you can be certain that they are noticing them. Although our silence around race, gender, ability, religion or social class may be coming from a place of discomfort, children do not know that, and they need educators to say something when incorrect information or hurtful comments are expressed. For example, as emergent bilinguals are practicing their English language skills, they may make mistakes or pronounce words that may sound funny or incorrect to the other children. This may result in laughter, teasing, and/or exclusion. These are teachable moments in which educators can use themselves as an example. You can offer children and youth a chance to see that adults are also learners, and you can share a time when you were learning something new, and you needed to be patient with yourself, and you needed other people to be patient with you. This may help children think of a time when a new skill did not come easily to them, and they also needed the people around them to show some patience and compassion. By recognizing harmful messages and actions around race or other differences, you can offer a space to build empathy and community in your classroom. A new term for this feeling of positivity, inclusion, safety, and respect is ‘belongingness’.
Children want and need caregivers in their lives to highlight things about identity that make each of us special. It is important to note that members of marginalized communities often hear negative messages about their identities. This is especially true for children and individuals who may identify in multiple ways, such as a person of color who also has a special need or disability. When educators communicate that a child is doing well or highlight special characteristics about them, it helps create a positive, welcoming learning environment, and a sense of belongingness. Children who do not often receive praise and affirmation may seek attention in other ways or they may feel that they need to hide aspects of their identity to receive validation. Bias causes people to view the same behaviors differently so it is important to reflect on your biases on an ongoing basis to help ensure that you give each child and family the opportunity to show up as their full selves. A child who loves to sing throughout the day may be seen as joyful to some teachers and children, while the same child may be viewed as a disruption by others. Instead of viewing the singing as a problem, a teacher could find specific times of the day when the child can engage in singing, while also helping the child select other activities that will allow them to socialize with classmates or engage in learning activities with the class. This small but powerful act can help affirm a child by demonstrating that they can still hold onto something that they love like singing, while also finding ways to connect with the rest of the children and activities. Another way to recognize a child who may love a particular activity like singing would be to have the child occupy a job as the song selector or musician for the week. This demonstrates to the child that something that they love is important in the eyes of their teacher, classmates, and others in the building.
Biracial and multiracial children represent about 5% of the children in U.S. schools. One part of their racial identity might be valued in society, while another aspect of their identity may be devalued. This could be very confusing for a child without a trusted adult to discuss and address these mixed messages. Imagine what it might feel like if you never heard positive messages about your identity? Now imagine how much harder that might be for a young child. While it may initially feel uncomfortable for you to talk about race or other differences, think about the discomfort that a child in your classroom or program may be feeling when the adults that have been entrusted to care for them choose their own comfort over the comfort of the child who needs support and guidance as they develop a positive and healthy identity.
If your identity is closely aligned with the children and families in your classroom, you may find it easier to relate to their behavior. Behavior that might be considered undesirable may seem more tolerable in a child from the same religion or racial group as you, while the same behavior in a child with a different background may receive negative attention. You may react differently to the same behaviors due to your own biases. You will learn more about implicit bias and how it influences your behavior and interactions with children and families in the next lesson.
Analyzing your Community
Think about your school community. Take a moment to list or illustrate the things that you know about it. Is the community one that you are personally familiar with because you grew up in it? Are you familiar with it because you have worked in the area for a period of time? If you had to describe the local community where your program is located, how would you describe it to someone who is not familiar with the area? What adjectives might you use? What locations or community assets would you include in your description? All communities have aspects that make them unique and special to the people who live or have a special connection to them.
Communities can offer rich information to explore with children and youth, but not all communities are valued and seen in the same way. As you think about the community in which you work, you may want to include the places at which children, youth, and families spend time outside of school. This might include a community center, a library, museums, stores, parks and playgrounds, restaurants or places to eat, and religious organizations like churches, synagogues, or mosques. Community assets might also include activities for children to engage in after school or on the weekends, like sports facilities or places where children can express themselves artistically. If you are closely connected to the school community because you grew up there or in a neighboring location, then it might be easy for you to list some of the locations that make the community special. If not, you can typically find a local community historian who can provide additional information or a cultural broker who can help you learn about the culture specific to that community. Spending time in a community or place, exploring, and getting to know the area will provide you with a sense of that area’s identity. As an educator you are no doubt very busy with planning the curriculum and working with children, youth and families. However, spending time in a community can offer benefits to you in your role. One benefit is that you will get to know the area in a way that would not be possible if your only interaction in the neighborhood consisted of walking in and out of your building. A second benefit of spending time in the community is the opportunity for children and their families to see you as part of the larger community. Every educator has probably experienced the confusion on the face of a child when they see you outside of the program. The look that you might get from the child may be something along the lines of “Teachers leave their classrooms?!” For children, seeing is believing. If they see that you care, then they will believe that you care. Likewise, if they see you being a part of the community, then they will believe that you are a part of the community. A third reason you should get out of your classroom and into the larger local environment is so the community can see your efforts. By spending time in the local community, you will be able to build important relationships with the people who work in the area. You may discover family members from your program who work in the community. This could provide a great opportunity for you to invite community members into your classroom or program (virtually or in person) so the children can learn more about the neighborhood. This is a wonderful way to make a stronger connection to families in your program.
To ensure that children and families are being celebrated and treated with respect, you should regularly examine your own beliefs and assumptions and reflect on how diversity appears in your program space. Listen as Iheoma U. Iruka, Research Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Founding Director of the Equity Research Action Coalition at Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, and Tara Kirton, Research Assistant, Teachers College, Columbia University, describe authentic ways to honor and celebrate diversity.
Understanding the benefits of cultural diversity is important in your work with children, youth, and families. Consider the following ideas to help you acknowledge and discuss diversity and how your own identity impacts your interactions and views of others.
- Examine your own identity and how it influences your interactions with children and families.
- Acknowledge demographic differences among children and families.
- Engage in developmentally appropriate conversations about race.
- Spend time getting to know the families and community where your program resides.
Exploring your identity is an important step in becoming a culturally responsive teacher. Creating a “Where I’m From” poem or “Identity Map” are two ways you can intentionally explore your identity. Review the examples in the Self-Exploration activity, select one of the options, and create one about yourself. Share with your trainer, coach, or administrator.
Children have experiences within your program and outside of your program, and it is important to recognize that we live in a racialized world where children are being sent messages about who has value and who does not. Review the Stages of Children’s Racial Identity Development activity to learn more about when children notice differences, absorb stereotypes, and explore what it means to be from one race compared to another.
Adichie, C. (2009, October). The danger of a single story [Video]. TED Conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en
Bishop, R.S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, 6 (3).
Irwin, V., NCES; Zhang, J., Wang, X., Hein, S., Wang, K., Roberts, A., York, C., AIR; Barmer, A., Bullock Mann, F., Dilig, R., and Parker, S., RTI. (2021). Condition of Education. National Center for Education Statistics.
Condition of Education. (2021). Institute of Education Sciences: National Center for Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2021/2021144_AtAGlance.pdf
Greenberg, J. (n.d.). Black American Identity. Citizenship & Social Justice. https://citizenshipandsocialjustice.com/black-american-identity/
National Association for the Education of Young Children. Developmentally appropriate practice position statement. https://www.naeyc.org/resources/position-statements/dap/contents
National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Our proud heritage. Understanding children’s sense of identity: The life and work of Dr. Mamie Phipps Clark (1917–1983). https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/yc/jul2020/our-proud-heritage
Paley, V. (1979). White teacher. Harvard University Press.
Patterson, N. (2020). The school to prison pipeline: When is a suspension not just a suspension? When it’s part of a nationwide pattern leading to racial disparities and prison. Birmingham Watch https://birminghamwatch.org/school-prison-pipeline-suspension-not-just-suspension-part-nationwide-pattern-leading-racial-disparities-prison/
Sealey-Ruiz, Y. (2021). Racial literacy. National Council of Teachers of English. https://ncte.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/SquireOfficePolicyBrief_RacialLiteracy_April2021.pdf
Schaeffer, K. (2021). U.S. Public school teachers are far less racially diverse than their students. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/12/10/americas-public-school-teachers-are-far-less-racially-and-ethnically-diverse-than-their-students/
Souto-Manning, M., Rabadi-Raol, A., Robinson, D., Perez, A. (2018). What stories do my classroom and its materials tell? Preparing early childhood teachers to engage in equitable and inclusive teaching. Young Exceptional Children. 20(10), 1-12. https://fpg.unc.edu/sites/fpg.unc.edu/files/resources/presentations-and-webinars/WhatStoriesDoMyClassroom.pdf
Tatum, B. (2017). Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?: And other conversations about race. Basic Books.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Office for Civil Rights. https://www.hhs.gov/ocr/index.html