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Cultural Competency in the Early Childhood Classroom

Modeling respect and empathy

We often spend time making sure that we work with children on being socially appropriate, but we do not always spend time making sure that they are culturally competent. It is important that teachers assess, re-evaluate, and implement cultural competent practices into their personal lives and in the classrooms where they teach. Without introspection and work on identifying personal biases, teachers are unable to authentically impact the cultural competency of the children they teach.

Now, how do we do this?

  • We get to know the families we work with
    o Invite parents to the classroom, have them participate in activities
    o School home visits, school meetings, or virtual visits
    o Engage in informal conversation, while also respecting boundaries
    Listen to their stories and remember it is OKAY to ask questions
  • Develop and teach expectations
    o Create 2 to 5 classroom expectations
    Relate them to the values and cultures of the children and their families, but also relate them back to YOU, as the teacher
    o Expectations should apply to both children and adults
    Example: be kind, be safe, be respectful
    o Reinforce positive behavior
    o Remember that consistency is KEY
  • Develop and teach empathy
    o First, start with self-reflection
    Uncover your implicit biases and assumptions
    Utilize reflective questions
    o Model warm and responsive reactions
    o Utilize books, games and music
    o Create lessons and activities that highlight respect, kindness, compassion and responsibility. Use random acts of kindness points, friendship center, etc.
  • Work on Perspective taking
    o Reframe a child’s challenging behavior to focus on the child’s internal state
    Use “I” statements; “I” statements express feeling by describing the child’s behavior and making the child aware of the positive or negative impacts of their behavior
    Examples: Instead of saying “Stop running in the classroom. When you run in the classroom, our friends are not safe,” Rephrase the statement to sound more like this: “I see that you are really excited about going outside. Thank you for putting your dish in the trash, but please remember to use your walking feet and move around your friends.”
  • Use group time to discuss conflict
    o Problem-solving as a group can encourage active engagement and learning, and enables children and adults to build strong relationships
    o Make sure to establish a tone and set expectations for discussion
    o It is important to develop methods and awareness so children do not feel shamed during the process but rather part of a trusting community of problem solvers
  • Lastly, continue to increase your cultural competence by
    o Regularly take time to self-reflect
    o Learn about different cultures (authentic restaurants, books, documentaries, have tough conversations with an open understanding to learn something new
    o Interact with diverse groups (take a dance class, cooking class, etc.)
    o Attend diversity-focused groups

Through building appropriate cultural competent practices, early childhood educators can model for children how to show respect and empathy for individuals who are culturally different than themselves.

Written by Janelle Jeffrey, LMSW – Mental Health Specialist


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