Early Childhood Education



Biculturalism refers to the process through which individuals enter into contact with a new culture and create a new identity by meshing values, attitudes, and behaviors of their own culture into the new one. In other words, bicultural individuals adapt to ways valued in the new culture while retaining an attachment and identity with their culture of origin. Often, biculturalism has been discussed as a capacity to move from one culture to another with relative ease and learning how to navigate and participate in both worlds. For most children living in multicultural contexts, the process of biculturalization involves the negotiation of their parents’ cultural beliefs and attitudes and those of the dominant society.

Bicultural identity formation is a dynamic process that is constantly shifting and being constructed according to specific circumstances. Bicultural identity has also been defined as intercultural identity. Intercultural identity refers to an identity that works toward integration and meshing of two cultures, rather than separation and division. Understanding the importance of biculturalism is essential in the area of early childhood education, given the high influx of immigration taking place in the world (particularly in North American and some European countries), and recent discussions on capacity building within Indigenous communities. By supporting biculturalism, the field of early childhood education is conveying a commitment to the protection and promotion of child well-being while sustaining culture, traditional languages, and community values.

To fully understand biculturalism, it is important to distinguish it from processes of acculturation. Acculturation is defined as the process through which individuals change the attitudes, values, beliefs and behaviors associated with their culture of origin and replace them with those of the mainstream society. At the extreme, acculturation involves abandoning old identities and embracing those of the dominant society. The process of acculturation has been linked to a variety of problematic situations (e.g., high-risk behaviors in adolescence such as violence and drug use) that can be attributed to a lack of connection with the culture of origin, a lack of understanding of mainstream society, and/or the absence of opportunities to interact with the dominant culture in meaningful ways. Acculturation is also associated with children’s feeling as though they have little connection with their cultural origins. This lack of connection might be related to the fact that children often feel a need to belong to the dominant culture and yearn for acceptance without undue attention to cultural differences. This need for belonging is a complex issue that is enmeshed within the challenges brought on by racism, discrimination, and poverty, which are experienced by many immigrant, minority, and Indigenous groups. When biculturalism has been viewed from a perspective of acculturation, it has been defined as successful or additive acculturation. In general, the negative effects of extreme acculturation are not reflected in the process of biculturalization, which is linked to positive adjustment for minority children.

Biculturalism has also been analyzed from a resilience perspective. From this approach, it is maintained that “biculturalism is a resilient outcome because it implies a set of values, behaviors, and social service availability that allows positive adaptation despite the constraints given by poverty and discrimination” (Infante and Lamond, 2003, p. 169). It is often argued that some minority groups have high resilience in spite of the adversity they have faced. Some of the factors that may contribute to higher resilience might include social skills, support networks, strong family relationships and cultural attachment. This way “as the child is exposed to the acculturation or biculturation process, the child has a strong foundation and can accept some different ways of thinking and behaving” (p. 184).

Bicultural development has also been closely linked to bilingual competence (see bilingual education). Language and culture are closely intertwined, and participation in a culture is accomplished in part through learning the language and thereby being able to participate in communal activities and communication practices. In the case of children, bilingualism allows them to maintain family ties and relationships with family members, thereby providing a conduit to learn about cultural values firsthand.

Early childhood programs represent an essential institution in working toward the facilitation of a bicultural identity development for minority and Indigenous children as well as in supporting families in the bicultural development of their children. Early childhood educators could play an integral role in supporting a bicultural identity among children. By starting the process of supporting the development and well-being of minority and Indigenous children, educators could ensure that these children eventually participate more successfully in the mainstream society. While bilingual development is often recognized in training programs for early childhood practitioners, biculturalism is not widely understood or proactively supported.

To advance biculturalism, there are a number of requirements for early childhood professionals. First, a thorough understanding of bicultural development is essential—one that involves attention to issues of race, discrimination, and power. Second, a respectful understanding of the children’s and families’ background is highly beneficial for early childhood educators. Third, early childhood educators would benefit from a thorough understanding of the dynamics of the mainstream culture within which the program they are delivering is embedded. In other words, educators need to understand the source and significance of the values on which their programs rest and the impact that the program has on the development of biculturalism among these particular children. Fourth, early childhood practitioners need to be able to work in partnership with families so they can successfully support the needs of the family, specifically with regard to biculturalism.

In spite of the numerous challenges to supporting biculturalism in early childhood educational programs, there are successful examples both in the United States and abroad. In the United States, the Kamehameha Early Education Program (KEEP), implemented in Hawaii with Hawaiian children and on a Navajo Reservation in Arizona, provided insights into the incorporation of cultural knowledge into mainstream education. Researchers involved in this program concluded that “if children need to be educated in ways that are compatible with their cultures, then solutions to educational needs and problems need to be developed locally, with and for the different populations and communities that schools are trying to serve” (Jordan, 1995, p. 97). In Aotearoa/New Zealand, an early childhood education program (Te Whariki) has been developed with a strong commitment to the development of biculturalism (Ritchie, 2003). Through this program, Maori children are perceived as bicultural and their own cultural knowledge is validated within the broader society. The program challenges ideas of assimilation of Indigenous peoples into dominant society and allows for the development of a society that supports social justice through the acknowledgment of the importance of raising bicultural children.

Biculturalism is considered a predictor of positive adjustment and psychological well-being of immigrant and Indigenous children (Suarez-Orozco and Suarez- Orozco, 2001). Moreover, biculturalism is an essential element of a society focused on social justice since it encourages members from minority ethnic, racial, and religious groups to preserve their own values, beliefs, traditions, ways of being; while at the same time allowing them to become active members of the host society. As defined by the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, being and becoming bicultural is a basic right of children. Moreover, it is a necessity in today’s global society. See also Race and Ethnicity in Early Childhood Education.

Further Readings: Ballenger, C. (1992). Because you like us: The language of control. Harvard Educational Review 2(2), 199-208; Ballenger, C. (1999). Teaching other people’s children: Literacy and learning in a bilingual classroom. New York: Teachers College Press; Infante, Francisca, and Alexandra Lamond (2003). Resilience and biculturalism: The Latino experience in the United States. In Edith Grotberg, ed. Resilience for today: Gaining strength from adversity. Westport, CT: Praeger, pp. 161-188; Jordan, C. (1995). Creating cultures of schooling: Historical and conceptual background of the KEEP/Rough Rock collaboration. The Bilingual Research Journal 19(1), 83-100; Knight, Ann (1994). Pragmatic biculturalism and the primary school teacher. In Adrian Blackledge, ed. Teaching bilingual children. Staffordshire, UK: Trentham Books, pp. 101-111; Ritchie, Jenny (2003). Bicultural development within an early childhood teacher education programme. International Journal of Early Years Education 11(1), 43-56; Soto, Lourdes D. (1999). The multicultural worlds of childhood in postmodern America. In Carol Seefeldt, ed. The early childhood curriculum: Current findings in theory and practice. New York: Teachers College Press, pp. 218-242; Suarez-Orozco, Carola, and Marcelo Suarez-Orozco (2001). Children of immigration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Tharp, R., and R. Gallimore (1988). Rousing minds to life: Teaching, learning, and schooling in social context. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Veronica Pacini-Ketchabaw