Cultural competence: You don’t need to be an expert

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.rp_MindUp-circle-300x200.jpg

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?

Anne Stonehouse

Anne Stonehouse AM lives in Victoria and works as a consultant, writer and facilitator of professional learning in early childhood. She has published many books, articles and other resources for educators and parents. Her main professional interests are the nature of good quality curriculum for babies and toddlers and family-educator relationships in early learning settings. She was a member of the writing team in the Charles Sturt University-based consortium that developed the national Early Years Learning Framework. She is currently engaged in a number of projects related to the national and Victorian Frameworks.

3 thoughts on “Cultural competence: You don’t need to be an expert”

    Yarrow Andrew says:

    ‘Being humble’ – Exactly!Thank-you for articulating this so well. Can I say that the same approach (humility) is necessary for whitefella teachers working to engage with education for and about Indigenous Australians, along with a recognition of our complicity and continued benefit from historical injustices.
    I am going to have to quote you on this topic to our students!

    Jennifer Hoare says:

    As early childhood educators supporting children and families I believe we need to remember that this perspective applies to every child and every family you support, not just those from obvious “other” cultures. Every child from every family has a unique home culture. “Humility” and “respect” critical understandings, fundamentally important.

    Gillian Mala'efo'ou says:

    I am an Early Childhood Educator in Aotearoa/New Zealand and I feel very strongly about cultural competence and over the past year I and another teacher from our centre have been engaged in professional development entitled “Opening our doors to Different Worlds” which explored ways to ensure that our ECE services are responsive to Pasifika children and families within our communities. The phrase that resonated with me was Cultural Intelligence; and I have been working hard to encourage and coerce other teachers to look at ourselves and our attitudes to the home cultures of our children.

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