Introducing culture and diversity in a monocultural classroom

This year for Harmony week, we thought we would share with you some insights from Meni Tsambouniaris at Diversity Kids.  Here they share with us the importance of incorporating inclusion into everyday practice, these examples provide discussion points that educators can engage with during Harmony Week and follow up with how these concepts might be incorporated into your service and programs. 

When we talk about teaching children about cultural diversity and embedding it in our services and programs to help create future ambassadors of inclusion and diversity, it is just as important to do this in education and care settings where there is no diversity represented and where classrooms are primarily monocultural.

Children all over the world are growing up in heterogenous and multicultural societies.

Regardless of whether they are experiencing diversity in their current circumstances or not, chances are they will in time be exposed to diversity in their wider community and future experiences. For this reason, it is important that children learn about similarities and differences and learn to respect and accept people, practices, beliefs, attitudes, cultures, abilities and experiences that are different to their own.

By teaching young children about diversity in early childhood, we are exposing them to different ways of life from an early age and encouraging them to see differences as positive, exciting and enriching opportunities and quite often as “just a different way of doing things.” This also helps build a strong sense of self, identity and self-esteem which will be carried through in later life.

As early childhood teachers we are in a very influential position to embed cultural awareness, cultural competence, sensitivity to & respect for diversity, from a very early age through the programs and resources we chose to deliver and share in our education and care environments.

The ideal place to start is through enriching children’s experiences with meaningful multicultural perspectives as an integral part of all programs for young children. Even if there are only one or two cultures represented at your Service, these two are a great place to start. You may even find that once you start scratching the surface and finding opportunities to ask the right questions (for example through your enrolment forms), you may discover that families are from Culturally & Linguistically Diverse Backgrounds that you were not aware of.

Another great place to start sharing culture is through the cultural competence journey of educators at your services. There is value in introducing and sharing our cultures as Educators to the children & families that we’re working with. It’s all relative to embedding culture meaningfully and authentically and an excellent way to introduce culture and diversity to children within their own community.

I always like to share the example of a team in a primarily monocultural rural setting, with children & families attending, primarily from English-speaking backgrounds. The staff at this Service reflected on building on their cultural competence with an innovative initial project, that had some interesting, unforeseen spin off effects with staff, children & families around cultural competence. The team were invited to include & share something important from their own family or cultural life in their staff profiles (which were displayed in the foyer and in children’s resources). Staff were also encouraged to include any languages other than English that they spoke and flag(s) representing their cultural backgrounds.

Almost immediately staff recognised similarities and explored differences with each other.
It created opportunities for conversation – to listen, to learn and understand. In response, the families of the children voluntarily started sharing what was important to their families and cultures.
Through this activity, Educators were able to unpack missed cultural information about children & families that had not been previously made available. This is turn helped Educators start building on embedding cultural perspectives in their everyday programs that were meaningful.

If your Service is monolingual, another important step we recommend is to research the cultural demographics of the local community (including local Aboriginal communities and cultures) and start  implementing & embedding multicultural activities as inbuilt to the whole Service functioning on an every day basis, reflecting the diverse cultures, backgrounds, languages & religions which are represented in the local community and beyond. Such programs respect & promote all cultures, so that children from as young as 5 years have good, positive feelings about themselves and others.
We recommend that cultural programs are sprinkled everywhere, every day, all the time, across all areas of the program and curriculum, rather than setting up cultural corners or having cultural months.

There are many examples of ways diverse cultures can be embedded in the every day practices of monocultural classrooms:

  • Greet children & families in key home languages identified as relevant to the child care & local community (and beyond if relevant).
  • Learn key words in different languages & Sign Language and use them every day in interactions (eg. “Please”, “thank you”, “hello”, “goodbye”). This example helps demonstrate to children that there are many different ways to communicate the same thing.
  • Invite families & Educators from Culturally & Lingusitically Diverse Backgrounds to share their culture (eg. Storytelling, dance, cooking, song, art/craft). Continue to implement and extend on these activities.
  • A simple way to introduce and embed culture into your every day is by embedding food from different cultures in your program. For example, include a different type of bread from around the world with children’s meals ever day. eg damper, pita bread, roti, nan, Lebanese bread, French stick, bagel, Vienna bread, focaccia, baguette, chapatti, tortilla or make available different eating utensils and give children the choice.
  • Learn to sing well-known songs in their diversity of languages. Eg “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” is sung by children in different languages across the globe, “Good Morning” song in different languages etc.
  • There are many traditional children’s games that are played by children all over the world. Research the variations and incorporate these in your program. eg. There are so many cultural variations to traditional children’s games such as“The Handkerchief”  “London Bridge” and “Ring a Ring o’ Roses”.
  • Ensure that your resources reflect diversity that is not represented at your Service. Eg Dolls with different skin tones, from diverse backgrounds, with disabilities, books that reflect diversity of children and people from a range of cultural, religious backgrounds and with diverse abilities. We at Diversity Kids like to think of resources as “mirrors & windows” – where children not only get to see themselves in the resources but also become immersed in the diversity of the outside world they have yet to experience.
  • Have conversations with children about diversity and what it means to them. Introduce activities that enable them to explore the diversity of their skin colour, hair & eye colour. Emphasising the similarities even in our differences.
  • You can take children on non-tokenistic “cultural” journeys by using the globe to talk about the different parts of the world that we live in, experiencing virtual cultural journeys, tapping into children’s books that focus on different cultures around the world and things that can be extended into fun learning experiences for children to build knowledge (including learning language, cooking, songs, games).
  • Give children a choice to participate in developmentally appropriate “culture workshops” – where they get to learn about a particular culture through hands on art/craft, storytelling, language, music movement etc. Cultural Workshops can be embedded in programs regularly where children get to choose their “workshop”.

(The difference between “Culture Workshops” and embedding culture every day, is that the “workshops” immerse children in language & culture and through sense of agency, they decide what they want to learn, as part of building their cultural competence. We recommend tapping into the resources of bilingual/bicultural staff, families, Bilingual Educator programs or inviting members from the local cultural communities to contribute to sharing culture.

  • Resources depicting diversity and which help create cultural awareness, do not have to be expensive. Diversity Kids has an expansive list of some great resources that we use with Services that we support around cultural inclusion (refer to our online store for some ideas). Multicultural resources can be inexpensive by developing your own! For example, source bilingual magazines, travel brochures, posters and create matching games, laminated puzzles, posters, art/craft activities, collages etc.

Even in our monocultural classrooms, we can find ways to introduce meaningful programs that embrace and embed cultures, diversity and community. By starting early we help pave the way for future societies that are inclusive and respectful of diversity.

This blog was originally published on the Diversity Kids blog, read it here.


ECA Recommends

Cultural inclusion
Everyday Learning Series title
By Melinda G. Miller

All children have a right to experience a sense of belonging in early childhood settings. A sense of belonging ensures that children see their culture, identity and language reflected in their daily program. As parents/carers and educators, it is important to understand the critical role you play in supporting the attitudes and behaviours that demonstrate respect for diversity and difference.

This Everyday Learning Series title discusses how early childhood can be a critical time for children to develop empathy and attitudes that challenge assumptions and biases about people from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and how you can support cultural inclusion.

Meni Tsambouniaris

Meni has over 33 years experience in the NSW multicultural child care field. She has a Bachelor of Science in Psychology Degree from the UNSW and has worked in various positions over the years under the Commonwealth Inclusion Support strategy including Co-ordinator SUPS Program (BEING) & Manager of NSW Bicultural Support Program and Casual Ethnic Workers Pool. ​ Meni's expertise includes: Early Childhood author on cultural inclusion; CALD representative, adviser and consultant on various government and non government platforms; Passion and expertise on cultural inclusive practice, bilingualism, cultural awareness, cultural competence and Multicultural Perspectives in Children's Services; and Cultural resource development. multicultural consultancy & training.

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