How to Integrate Cultural Diversity in the Early Years Classroom
Diversity recognises the differences between people and includes different factors, such as religion, political orientation, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, race, ethnicity, language, socio-economic status, and family structure.
Cultural diversity in the classroom involves celebrating those differences and creating a culture of inclusion and acceptance among children and their greater social community.
Teaching diversity in the early years setting is a key part of establishing an overall acceptance of diversity for children creating an understanding of cultural diversity and aiding seamless transitions from preschool to primary school and so on.
Teachers can implement diversity and inclusiveness in the classroom daily with their students through an anti-bias approach to their teaching.
Some areas where practitioners can create an understanding of cultural diversity include:
Although the concept of race tends to be learned, children are still able to see skin colour and the differences between them, this is important today as the world shrinks due to the ease of travel and connections through the various means of social media.
We are becoming a very diverse society in Ireland with CSO (2017) figures from the census 2016 showing that in April 2016, there were 535,475 non-Irish nationals living in Ireland. Therefore, acceptance and sensitivity should permeate classrooms across the board between students and with teachers and students remembering that it is just as important for teachers to respect and recognise the impact of race on their students as it is for students to recognise it among themselves.
Aside from the differences in appearance, culture and heritage make up a significant part of individual identities. While race is limited to several categories, ethnicities span across countries, towns, villages, and tribes. By understanding your students’ ethnicities, you can better recognise their unique interests and perspectives that are shaped by their ethnic backgrounds. In Ireland, we need to ensure that we celebrate all ethnic groups within the classrooms ensuring that we are fostering an atmosphere of identity and belonging.
Ethnicity could determine a student’s primary or secondary language, and in some cases, students in immigrant families might speak something other than English at home exclusively. This could lead to language barriers between parents and teachers, or potential language barriers among students who may not have English proficiency. Therefore, we need to ensure that we encourage activities within the early years classroom that help to develop the learning for children with English as a second and sometimes third language.
Importance of Diversity in the Classroom
Why is diversity, and inclusion important in schools? A lack of diversity and inclusiveness in the classroom can lead to students feeling isolated, can lead to increased stress levels for minority or otherwise marginalized students, and cause them to be victims of bullying at higher rates as they transition through the school system.
Intentionally creating learning environments in which students are empowered to acknowledge and celebrate differences is paramount to their safe education and protection.
Part of an educator’s job is to help students understand the impact of each of their lives on one another and their ability to impact and shape the world at large.
By encouraging and celebrating diversity in your classrooms, you can empower students to feel safe, build healthy relationships, and make a meaningful impact on others.
Safe Learning Spaces are Diverse Learning Spaces
Cultural Diversity in the early years
Today’s young children are being raised in a society with many sources of cultural diversity. Therefore, a good early year’s practice needs to support equality from the start.
The young brain rapidly develops in the first years of a child’s life and astonishingly by the time a child is 3 years of age their brain has developed to 70% the size of an adult and by the time they are 7 years of age it is at 90% the size of an adults.
This shows the young child’s capacity to learn and therefore it is crucial that practitioners work to create a positive learning environment ensuring that they approach all areas of practice from an anti-bias aspect.
How can we do this? Below are some examples that can help to encourage a welcoming environment for all in the early year’s classrooms:
Play materials, books and other resources can be offered in a constructive way by reflecting on how young children learn about culture and cultural identity. It would be ideal if the practitioner could include books from all the cultures included in the classroom – not forgetting the Irish culture as sometimes we can forget that we have a very rich and varied culture that needs celebrating and some Irish children themselves can be unaware of this.
We can share cultures through everyday life, such as food, ways of dress and familiar music or art forms that the children engage in. Including family, parents/guardians within early years settings, can be a significant source of this broader base of understanding for all.
“So long as practitioners offer experiences in a thoughtful and well-informed way, there is a good chance that children will learn respect for ways of life with which they are less acquainted. On a firm basis of ‘my own culture’, children are then able to make sense and learn about information highlighting less familiar cultures” (Lindon, 2012).
The Importance of Connections
It is vitally important that children can see themselves and their families reflected in play resources, visual images, and books.
Good practice includes reviewing the messages given by all your resources and the experiences you offer. In a steady fashion, you have a responsibility to extend young children’s understanding beyond their own backyard.
Posters, photographs, and other visual images can give the message, even to very young children, that all these people who look different in many ways are part of our preschool and part of our community.
It is just as important that books present children who look different as characters just getting on with life not always having problems or special issues.
Good, illustrated information books for children approach diversity through shared experiences: ways to welcome a new baby, family celebrations, different games, or important transitions like going to “big” school.
Early years settings can extend children’s general knowledge in many directions and we as practitioners need to acknowledge the cultural diversity that is part of daily life so that we can extend this learning in a culturally appropriate and sensitive manner.
Pretend Play is another resource within the early years setting that can be inclusive in terms of cultural diversity, examples being, dolls and small play figures, dressing up clothes or the home corner area can be included.
All materials should be offered with equal respect, as part of somebody’s normal life. Children welcome experiencing food, music or dance forms that reflect their own family and neighbourhood experiences.
Parents can also be included here, and this can help to foster an inclusive environment for all. Early childhood is a good time to offer these opportunities that enable children to stretch beyond the familiar due to their capacity for learning and their fast-developing minds.
Children can learn to appreciate cultural diversity in styles of art, craft, music, and dance.
All opportunities need to be well grounded in positive pride for the styles common in every child’s own background.
Children are attuned to what is familiar and may take a while to become accustomed to less familiar musical patterns.
Supportive practitioners establish a ground rule, much as with food, that it is fine to say you are ‘not keen’, but nobody is rude about music or dance that belongs to other people.
Sometimes, as practitioners a need to understand this topic in more detail can lead some practitioners into unbalanced attempts to promote understanding of ‘other cultures’ without sufficient attention to children’s own cultural identity.
A key message for equality practice is that there is no rush.
Children become confused if early years practitioners feel pressure to rattle through a long list of ‘multicultural activities’, including many celebrations before children enter “big” school.
Remember that a few quality experiences can start children on the road to appreciating diverse cultures and traditions.
About the Author
Denise Baker is an Early Years tutor at Portobello Institute. She holds a Master's in Early Years education and a second Master's in Public Health. She is also a Community Health Development Worker at Travellers of north cork Ltd. ( TNC) and has over 15 years of experience working in the early years sector, including her role as National Treasurer of OMEP Ireland and she assisted with the inclusion of Traveller culture in the audit of Aistear in conjunction with NCCA. Read her full profile here.
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