Cultural diversity in early education

Preschool is no longer seen simply as a place where children play and have fun with their age-mates. Concerns about the educational attainment of the country’s children have refocused attention on early childhood settings as places where children also get ready for school. For those concerned with the issues presented by an increasingly diverse student population, preschool education has become a focal point of differing views about how best to accommodate the increasing cultural and linguistic diversity in American society and to prepare children from diverse backgrounds for school success (Jipson, 1991). Opinions range from those who advocate acculturation to mainstream educational materials and practices, including immersion in English language, to those who support instructional approaches that have as a primary objective the maintenance of children’s home culture and language.

The workshop participants considered the practical implications of existing knowledge about cultural influences on early learning. In general, they were extremely cautious about taking the step from research to practice. As stated by David Dickinson: “Any suggestions that we have obvious connections to practice need to be heavily laden with caveats.” With this in mind, the participants framed a set of issues that they believed could contribute to a more informed discussion of the early education of children from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds.


The workshop participants noted that any attempt to decipher educational implications from the existing literature must proceed from a discussion of the range of educational goals that a particular group or community wants to accomplish. Implicit in the current debate about diversity and early education are differing perceptions of the goals of early education. The goal of assimilation would suggest different practices than would the goal of preserving children’s native cultures. On the topic of language, for example, different practices might be suggested if the primary goal is one of children’s learning English or retaining the home language. Alternatively, efforts aimed at supporting the successful and harmonious coexistence of multiple cultures would support yet other practices, such as bi- or multilingual classrooms.

The participants also distinguished between educational practices that have a long-term aim of socializing children to “do things in the school’s way” and those that are designed to preserve the diversity of cultural orientations that children bring to the classroom. Patricia Greenfield characterized this distinction in terms of instruction that is designed to “wean children to the majority culture” and that which is designed to promote a “true intercultural exchange.” For example, teachers who instruct all children in English or who rely on Spanish instruction primarily as a means of bridging the transition to all-English instruction are viewed as promoting the primacy of the dominant culture and language. An alternative approach would involve encouraging all children to acquire two languages.

Since the selection of goals is driven primarily by values, one cannot argue that some goals are better supported by research than others. Rather, participants noted, it is important to remember that nonempirical considerations are essential to understanding the ways in which research is interpreted and used to help select among different educational practices and policies. Luis Laosa noted that decisions about the general orientation that a particular school adopts involve consideration of the environments that children will face after preschool. The issue for research is not whether one goal–acculturation, intercultural exchange, or preservation of distinct cultures–is superior; the empirical challenge is one of identifying the most effective means of moving children towards the goal that is chosen by their community. If the goal is English proficiency, for example, questions remain about how best to accomplish this. Some claim that better fluency in a child’s first language facilitates English proficiency; others advocate rapid immersion in English. While a fair amount is known about successful bilingual programs in certain contexts, including immersion programs in Canada and bilingual maintenance programs in some U.S. settings, there is much to be learned about the conditions that need to be present to ensure the successful exportation of these programs to new contexts. Factors ranging from children’s linguistic environments at home to school resources that facilitate bilingualism warrant careful consideration.


There is another set of issues regarding how teachers can be most effective when their students represent a range of cultural backgrounds and languages. Participants believed that the available research, though sparse, has some implications for how teachers approach their role when instructing children whose cultural backgrounds do not match their own. A useful first step might involve asking teachers what they want to know about the children they are now teaching and what they find hard about teaching in classrooms characterized by diversity.

We noted above a range of ways in which children from nonmajority cultural backgrounds may arrive at the school door relatively ill-equipped to feel comfortable and competent and to demonstrate what they know in ways that their teachers will understand. The disparity between their early experiences and the classroom environment is likely to be even more apparent when they are in classrooms with children from homes that share the values, language, and expectations of their teachers. At the same time, teachers in such mixed classrooms are constantly confronted with behavioral variations that affect their ability to manage and to teach. The challenge they face is one of appreciating differences in how children are accustomed to learning and of figuring out whether, when, and how to adjust to these differences. Should they, for example, interpret a quiet child’s behavior as an indication of withdrawal or as a culturally shaped means of showing respect? Regardless of the interpretation, should attempts be made to draw this child out? If so, how, and what are the ramifications of the choice?

Given the range of possibilities that emerge in response to these types of questions, teachers who are well-equipped to gather information about children’s cultural backgrounds and to apply this information to their own teaching practices may be in a better position to support children’s motivation and learning in school than are their colleagues who are unable or unwilling to take cultural variation into account as they plan their instructional approaches. The workshop participants called on Schon’s (1987) concept of the “reflective practitioner” to capture this information-gathering, experimental attitude towards the education of linguistically and culturally diverse children. They also noted, however, that teachers are generally neither encouraged nor taught to view themselves as reflective practitioners. Rather than being trained to work with a range of instructional tools and to make decisions about how best to adapt their strategies to different classroom situations, teacher training is often highly prescriptive and devoid of culture and context.

More effective training might focus on preparing teachers with a rich set of hypotheses about potential sources of home-school incompatibility and with skills that would better equip them to make use of this knowledge in their own classroom situations. Teachers could be encouraged, for example, to watch for behavioral indicators that a child is feeling uncomfortable and to understand the role that culture may play in generating that feeling. Effective means of involving parents and other relatives in the classroom could facilitate teachers’ ability to interpret the rules and assumptions that are governing their students’ behavior. Guidance to teachers in their efforts to help children negotiate differences between how things are done at home and how they are done at school could also be very beneficial (see Williams, 1991).

These aspects of working with children from diverse backgrounds are both very important and very demanding for teachers. Deborah Stipek concluded: “At best, what this research can do for any particular preschool teacher in any particular school, is point them to a set of hypotheses about their children that they need to assess in their own local situation.” But, she noted: “We still can’t tell them precisely what to do about it.”


In considering what is known about instructional practices that are appropriate for culturally and linguistically diverse groups of children, the workshop participants speculated that effective instruction for these children does not differ from that which is considered effective instruction for all children. Sharon Griffin summarized five principles of instruction that have emerged from research in cognitive science: (1) knowledge is constructed, (2) through active participation, (3) in a social context, (4) in which forms of communication developed in the culture are encouraged and available, and (5) used to establish a community of learners. Practices that support these principles include small- group instruction, ample opportunities for children to participate and work directly with materials, and tasks that enable children to discover new ideas and concepts in the process of working with materials.

The flexibility in instructional practices that these principles suggest–offering multiple ways for children to demonstrate their learning, to participate in classroom activities, and to work interactively with adults and other children–may be particularly conducive to teaching diverse groups of students. In effect, they build into the curriculum many opportunities for children to adapt activities and tasks to their accustomed ways of acquiring and demonstrating new knowledge.

Sharon Griffin explained further that she designs her curriculum to promote “equal participation.” To achieve this, her intervention offers children wide latitude in how they choose to engage in learning activities. Some may need to observe others for a while before they are comfortable joining in; others may want to practice with the teacher before they begin to work with their classmates; others may be most comfortable working in collaboration with peers from start to finish.

David Dickinson highlighted the importance of classrooms that provide rich language experiences. Opportunities for children to engage with teachers in conversations that expose them to varied vocabulary, encourage them to answer questions and offer explanations, and to speculate about causes for behavior or incidents, are related to later story understanding and vocabulary (Dickinson and Smith, 1994).

The instructional value of small-group activities (the precise size and composition of which will vary) that encourage children to cooperate in their efforts to understand and master new material was noted by several workshop participants. This approach seems to work best when children collaborate on a single task, such as a common journal or a group science project, rather than on individual tasks. Dickinson reported, as well, that the types of conversations that are conducive to language development appear to occur more frequently in small groups.

Activities that encourage children to work directly with learning materials, in hands-on fashion, provide them with maneuvering room for tailoring a task to their own styles and pace of learning. Science and social studies units on dinosaurs or planets, for example, can be used to engage children in writing stories, generating reasons for past or future events, and acquiring concepts of relative size and shape. Science themes have also been used recently in studies of bilingual teaching with school-age children. Early results of this work suggest that bilingual teaching of science fosters the acquisition of both scientific knowledge and a second language.


Parents, as well as teachers, feel the impact of disparities between home and classroom environments. They encounter tensions between what schools expect and do and their own practices at home, both indirectly through messages that their children bring home and directly through their own interactions with teachers and other school personnel. Parents’ perspectives on home-school incompatibility have received even less attention than those of teachers. Available evidence is largely anecdotal and typically collected in conjunction with parent-focused intervention efforts.

Several of the workshop participants who had worked directly with non-Anglo parents spoke about the powerful influence that parents’ beliefs about how children learn, and their understandings about the respective responsibilities of parents and teachers, have on the learning opportunities the parents provide at home. Many of these parents do not regard themselves as having a role as a teacher of reading, writing, and math in any traditional sense of the term, particularly during the preschool years. This appears to be true of poorly educated parents, in general, rather than being a function of any particular cultural group (Laosa, 1978, 1990).

Tim Shanahan and Claude Goldenberg–each of whom has worked closely with parents–emphasized the powerful influence that parents’ perceptions of their roles had on the effectiveness of the investigators’ efforts to encourage preliteracy interactions in the home. Reflecting on their experience, they noted that interventions should be mindful of parents’ theories and views of how learning takes place. They also were struck by the in-fluence that children’s classroom experiences had on parents. Materials that children and their siblings brought home, often in the form of homework assignments, informed parents about their children’s capabilities and engaged them in forms of interaction that they would have been unlikely to initiate on their own.

Issues associated with language differences between home and school are a particularly controversial topic of inquiry that, again, has largely ignored the parents’ point of view. Research on bilingual education, for example, has focused on children’s language outcomes to the neglect of effects on children’s relations with their parents. Workshop participants raised concerns about the possible threat posed to non-English-speaking parents when their child’s school entry coincides with immersion in English. These parents may experience two levels of loss, one associated with the children’s departure from home and the other associated with fears that their ability to communicate with their children will be compromised. Several workshop participants reported that these parents worry tremendously that their influence over their children will be diminished as they enter a relatively alien environment and learn an unfamiliar language.

In contrast, Lucinda Pease-Alvarez reported that the Mexican immigrant parents in her research welcomed the school’s efforts to teach their children English. Although they appreciated the fact that Spanish was used when their children first entered kindergarten, they wanted it to be replaced quickly with English instruction. At the same time, these parents were very committed to the maintenance of their children’s Spanish. They saw this as their role, however, and that of the teacher as one of teaching English.

Parents were also discussed as critical informants in teachers’ efforts to interpret their students’ classroom behaviors. Efforts aimed at reducing linguistic and cultural impediments to parents’ involvement in their children’s early education settings were widely applauded. Those familiar with such efforts reported that parents typically respond very positively to efforts to include them. When attempts at inclusion are not considered relevant to education, awkward encounters between parents and schools can occur. Patricia Greenfield described the experience of a Mexican American family that, as a group, accompanied one of their children to the first day of school. The teacher greeted their arrival by stating, “Oh, another spoiled child,” altogether missing the expression of family unity and celebration of the child’s entry into school that this behavior signified.


The empirical base supporting the efficacy of adjusting classroom practices so that they are more compatible with children’s cultural backgrounds is relatively thin. In contrast, the vast literature documenting sound educational practices for young children in general would appear to be very well-suited to instruction for culturally and linguistically diverse groups of youngsters. These best practices typically include substantial opportunities for tailoring classroom practices to children’s individual styles and approaches to learning. The workshop participants explicitly cautioned against losing sight of these universal educational practices in the search for culturally compatible instructional methods.

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