I’ve visited several primary schools and early education and care services in Melbourne recently where the families have many different cultural backgrounds. Among them are refugees and asylum seekers, families who have experienced trauma and who continue to lead lives filled with uncertainty and difficulty. The conversations I had reminded me of the life-altering role that education and care services and schools can play, not only in educating children, but also in alleviating social isolation.
Conversations with staff highlighted that working with people from a variety of cultures can be daunting. It would be easy to think that you needed to have extensive knowledge about different cultures in order to be effective.
Cultural competence, however, is more about attitudes and approaches to people than it is about facts. It requires respect, warmth, empathy, compassion and openness to ways of living and being other than one’s own. Father Bob Maguire has said that cultural competence is being humble. That’s an interesting perspective, as he’s saying the main requirement is openness, not knowledge about cultures.
Humility brings with it understanding that unless you have experienced what someone else has (and you can never experience anything exactly as someone else has), you can’t really know what it’s like.
It’s easy to generalise about people you don’t know firsthand – it’s harder when you know them. It’s tempting to buy in to stereotypes just because you don’t know any better. Stereotypes and generalisations exist for a reason. They may apply in a general way to some people in a group, but it’s never helpful to assume that they apply to any one person in that group.
Making assumptions about people is risky. Generalisations and stereotypes are useful only if they prompt us to find out about someone.
Having general information from reliable sources about cultural groups can be helpful, but it shouldn’t define what you believe about the children and families you work with. Put that general information to the side and learn about the families and children you work with from the families and children themselves — and be prepared to be surprised.
Taking account of the cultural contexts of children’s lives can be confronting and challenging. Frequently it raises ethical issues and dilemmas. It goes far beyond celebrating diversity.
Your culture affects how you live every day, what you believe, your values, religion and relationships. The cultural context of young children’s lives impacts on the language (or languages) they learn, the food they eat, the way they are helped to sleep and where they sleep, how they play, how they spend their time, who they form relationships with — everything that is important in their lives. Cultural context can also impact on how their family sees them, their family’s hopes and dreams for them.
Each person, each family in any group is unique.
How do you ensure that you become increasingly culturally competent? What more can you do?