Promoting cultural competence in early childhood

There is growing awareness and effort in Australian classrooms to understand, respect and support cultural differences, but are we starting early enough?

If we want to create a society that values diversity, we must start instilling an appreciation for multiculturalism in young children as early as possible. Learning and development happens rapidly during early childhood, as the brain has higher plasticity. So, the critical years from birth to the age of eight are ideal for introducing the concepts of cultural diversity. However, there is not enough focus on this in Australian settings.

As part of my PhD study1, I set out to explore cross-cultural differences between Australian and Iranian early childhood settings. I found that many Australian early childhood educators were unprepared or unsure how to support and incorporate cultural difference in the classroom, which can have a lifelong impact on children and their cultural awareness.

Australian educators’ understanding of cultural expression also seemed one-dimensional. I interviewed four early years teachers and only one said she felt confident to teach and incorporate cultural diversity. This was because she was from a service that only enrolled children from Aboriginal backgrounds, and her own children were Aboriginal. Her understanding of diverse cultural expression in early learning came from her personal experience of seeing the way her children participated in activities like painting and drawing, which she acknowledged was different from what she taught. This gave her the confidence to appreciate and support differences in cultural expression in her classroom.

A lack of understanding of cultural difference is not just theoretical for me. It is something I have witnessed in my own child’s experience. The food my son has taken to school has been judged by his teacher, which has impacted his perceptions of what’s ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’. He has been told his chargrilled food looks burnt, so he shouldn’t bring it to school or eat it, despite it being common in my culture. My son has since asked me not to pack his lunch box with that specific food. In Year 2, his teacher  asked him not to speak his home language when he was explaining to his friends, in his language, what we speak at home. He was told it was pointless to speak his language, since his friends couldn’t understand him. This was despite the fact that the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF)[1] highly recommends providing learning environments that respect diversity by honouring ‘the histories, language, tradition, child rearing practices and lifestyle choices of families’.

Teachers should be promoting this learning by planning experiences and providing resources that broaden children’s perspectives and encourage appreciation of other cultures. As children’s social and cultural environment influences their learning and brain development, early childhood is the time to promote and celebrate cultural difference, to nurture positive views of multiculturalism in the future.

  • Promoting diversity in the classroom

There are a many simple, practical and research-backed3 ways in which teachers can incorporate multiculturalism in early childhood classrooms.

  • Professional learning for teachers

Exposure to diverse cultural groups and experiences—through professional development opportunities[2], for example—can improve teachers’ confidence in encouraging multicultural creative expression and practices in their classroom. Teachers can also benefit from having time to reflect critically on problems, such as cultural marginalisation, caused by lack of diversity.

  • Preparing the classroom environment

Teachers can assist children in learning and respecting different cultures by carefully setting up the classroom environment. This can be done by selecting books or posters with images that represent people of all skin colours, without any labelling that classifies them as different. More spaces could be added for cultural expression; for example: dramatic play spaces; areas for self-portrait exploration through drawing, painting and crafts; or a designate space for cultural artefacts that celebrate diversity.

  • Family involvement

Teachers can invite families to share drawings, pictures, stories, cuisines and so on, to show how many different lived experiences there are between children in one classroom.


ECA Recommends:

Explore our ‘Celebrating Culture’ category on the ECA Shop that features children’s books, ECA publications, Learning Hub modules and research-based resources.

Somayeh Ba Akhlagh

Dr Somayeh Ba Akhlagh lectures in early childhood education at the University of New England (UNE). Before joining UNE in 2020, she taught early childhood courses and educational psychology in various universities in Australia and overseas. Somayeh has also worked in early childhood settings as an educator in Australia and Iran. She has received five scholarship awards for her passion for teaching diverse groups of children—including those living with autism, Down syndrome, developmental challenges and other special needs—and for outstanding achievement in her postgraduate studies. Somayeh has also achieved an outstanding result in overall student satisfaction at UNE.

5 thoughts on “Promoting cultural competence in early childhood”

    Caroline Cohrssen says:

    Congratulations, Somayeh!

    bonny says:

    Dear Dr Somayeh,

    I found your article very interesting as i could relate to its contents personally.

    Thank you for being bold and addressing this topic, bringing to the fore an awareness where there has been a lack of. i believe we still have a way to go in this area but feel very excited doing this course and hopefully crossing paths. i look forward to reading more of your real and relevant topics.

    great job!

    Sana qayyum says:

    Dear Somayeh,
    The article is very interesting and I agree that sometimes educators are not so confident to implement/teach cultural diversity. This area is my huge interest to incorporate my teaching strategies and bring cultural competence. Thank you so much for the mind opening article.

    Dr. Sabha H Allehyani says:

    Congratulations, Somayeh.
    A very important and interesting topic to discuss.

    somayeh says:

    Thank you so much. We consistently need to support our early childhood educators both during their studies and at work places. Everyone even takes one small step, then it would be a huge improvement in promoting cultural diversity.

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