Early Childhood Education



Culture is an important construct in early childhood education and care programs because these are often the first institutional settings in which young children spend time away from their families. Early childhood programs are intergenerational meeting grounds of diversity in which teachers, children, caregivers, and families from different cultural and language backgrounds come together. All of these individuals (including young children) act as cultural agents who bring ways of knowing and being that reflect their culture’s traditions and practices. In these settings cultural differences often involve fundamental aspects of meaning, interpersonal communication, norms, assumptions, roles, and models of competence. For example, constructs such as disability, health, mental health, learning, teaching, race, adult roles, and child development all are grounded in particular cultural beliefs. The capacity of early childhood educators or programs to respond effectively to children and families may be hampered by misunderstanding of unexamined cultural values, behaviors, and meanings. Teachers’ and caregivers’ professional socialization to the culture of early childhood may also influence their interaction with children and families from different cultural backgrounds. Further, care and education in early childhood programs may involve practices such as feeding, toileting, sleeping, literacy, and discipline that convey cultural values and beliefs about child competency, identity, and development. In addition, teacher competence in working with children from different cultural and language traditions is thought to be a significant factor in children’s educational achievement and development. Research (Knapp et al., 1995) suggests that teachers who use their knowledge of a child’s culture and language (e.g., communicate in the child’s language regarding educational content; engage children in culturally sensitive ways) are more effective educators than teachers who do not as measured by children’s language and mathematics achievement.

Culture includes both meaning systems (such as values, beliefs, morality, myths, language) and activity (such as customs, practices, roles, rituals) shared by a group. Culture involves dynamic processes that give ordinary and extraordinary human experiences meaning, and is central in all human interaction. It is a complex web of relationships that include changing patterns, social formations, and institutions that adapt to collective experience, individual idiosyncrasies, and ecological conditions. Culture may include constructs and categories that reflect social stratification such as race, clan, social class, disability, gender, and ethnicity. Culture shapes individual and group interactions with the world and between children, families, and institutions. The effect of culture on children is not unidirectional—through their activity and engagement they redefine and reconstruct their culture. As they grow and develop, children are a significant source of cultural change. Culture is not a monolith and all members of a culture do not express or adhere to all core values, norms, and behaviors all of the time, or to the same extent. For example, African Americans are often defined as having one culture despite research evidence that cultural discontinuities exist among them (e.g., Anderson, 1999). In addition, children may belong to more than one culture—for example, the culture of their traditional family and community, the culture of school, and the culture of a playgroup—each of which has its own norms, values, and beliefs. In early childhood settings, culture may be expressed through parental goals, expectations, role prescriptions, spiritual beliefs, models of child competence, as well as behavioral expectations, norms, and scripts that define everyday practices (e.g., sleep routines, toileting). In addition, culture involves the public and private settings in which young children are reared, socialized, and educated—schools, child-care programs, playgroups, religious classes, backyards, streets, and living rooms. It is in these everyday settings that young children learn through participation, observation, and conversation with adults and peers the meanings, behaviors, roles, language, communicative behaviors, and prohibitions necessary for cultural fluency.

Defining culture has challenged social scientists and educators. Different definitions reflect differing models of human competence and theories of development. Understanding and interpreting cultural variation in child development, child rearing, parenting, and family functioning across groups has been influenced by the culture (e.g., values, worldview) of interpreters. Western social science has often described culture in terms of dichotomies (e.g., Western versus non-Western, individual versus collective/communal, high versus low, advanced versus primitive) that have reflected American and European developmental theories and ideologies. Research grounded in ethnocentric developmental theories on “culturally diverse” children (e.g., African American, Mexican immigrant, Zuni) that concludes they are “disadvantaged,” “deficient,” “deviant,” or “at-risk” has been criticized for theoretical and methodological biases (V'ldes, 1996). Despite these identified biases, a substantial body of anthropological research has documented distinct rich cultural traditions that exist among racial and ethnic groups within the United States, for example African American (Haight, 2002), Hawaiian, and Navajo (Tharp, 1994).

Historical trends in the evolution of Western social science have influenced the degree to which culture has been considered a central factor in child development. For example, in the mid-twentieth century Jean Piaget‘s seminal theory and research essentially ignored culture and cast the child as the solo agent of her/his development; whereas in latter decades perspectives of child development, influenced largely by the theory of Lev Vygotsky, began to stress the importance of the child’s active engagement in practices with informed cultural guides (e.g., adults, peers) (see Rogoff, 2003; Shorr, 1996). In addition, psychological research has too frequently attempted to reduce culture to a single “variable” or “factor” which ignores its essential role as processes inherent in human activity. These limitations have contributed to a general lack of understanding of how child development varies in the many cultures that are represented in modern societies, including the United States.

Interdisciplinary research involving anthropology, psychology, sociolinguistics, sociology, education, history, among other disciplines, has helped explain how culture influences child development. Significant early research (e.g., Margaret Mead, Beatrice and John Whiting) helped to establish the importance of understanding development in context, the role of participation in cultural activities as key to child socialization, and parenting as a cultural practice. Researchers influenced by this work contribute to our understanding of age-old questions regarding what is universal and what is particular to a given context, group, and individual. Robert LeVine’s influential hierarchy of universal parental goals and his research on child-caregiver interaction among the Gusii of Kenya have richly illustrated models of parenting, child rearing, and child competence that challenge assumptions about optimal child development avowed by Western social science. For example, LeVine et al. (1994) report that Gusii mothers, in contrast to middle-class White American mothers, engage in less verbal interaction with young children, keep young children physically close, and carefully monitor expressions of infant distress and discomfort (e.g., infants sleep with their mothers, are carried by mothers, cry very little). In addition, young Gusii children do not commonly play with a variety of commercial toys. Yet despite early developmental experiences that are, by Western middle-class standards, less rich in mother-child language interactions and play with objects, activities thought to be associated with educational achievement, Gusii children’s educational attainment is age appropriate. Similarly, the work of other researchers (e.g., Kagitgibasi, 1996) suggests that cultures offer children a variety of successful developmental pathways to child and adult competence.

In early education research and policy, culture has often been used as a proxy for social class and race. Since the 1960s early childhood educators and researchers have attributed observed differences in child outcomes (e.g., school readiness, educational attainment) to presumed cultural differences between social elites and socially and educationally marginalized groups (e.g., the poor, African Americans). Terms such as cultural disadvantage and culture of poverty have been employed to explain why poor children and children of color may need remedial programs (e.g., Head Start). In addition, school culture, especially when it does not correspond to or show a goodness of fit with “home culture” (that is, the culture of their families and communities), is seen as a factor in the educational failure of some children.

In early childhood programs cultural diversity, including second language acquisition, has become a significant issue in curriculum development, instructional practices, and professional preparation of early childhood teachers and staff. Programs and practitioners are expected to provide services to culturally and linguistically diverse children and families, and to address perceived inequities that are a reflection of social stratification (e.g., race, social class) and poorer educational outcomes for children of marginalized groups. Anti-bias, multicultural education and programs designed for second language learners (e.g., bilingual education) have been educational responses intended to address issues of culture, equity, and social justice. Early childhood practitioner development, especially teacher preparation, has been a significant focus of the field. In part this is due to two factors: a recognition that teachers—their training, dispositions, subject knowledge, ability to understand the children, families and communities—are the most important factor in the educational enterprise (Bowman, Donovan, and Burns, 2001); and changing demographics in early childhood programs. It is estimated that, if current demographic trends continue, by the year 2020 the population of children under 18 years of age will be 48 percent non-white and Spanish-speaking, and by mid-century a majority of Americans will live in ethnically diverse families (McAdoo, 1993). Despite these realities, the majority of teachers (78-97%) remain, and will be for the foreseeable future, predominately White, monolingual, and middle-class (Saluja, Early, and Clifford, 2002). Research (Ray, Bowman, and Robbins, 2006) shows that early childhood teacher preparation programs do little to adequately prepare teachers for culturally and linguistically diverse classrooms. In a study of 226 undergraduate programs Ray et al. found that less than 13 percent of professional course requirements addressed any aspects of child diversity, including culture, language, and special needs. In addition, poorly defined and little researched concepts such as cultural competence have emerged in practice literature. Generally, cultural competence refers to the presumed capacity of early childhood practitioners to engage and work effectively with children and families from different cultures. Often lacking in this practice literature are descriptions of the processes by which early childhood professionals gain the skills and knowledge necessary for effective work in settings that are increasingly multicultural and multilingual, including assessment strategies for gauging cultural competence and remediation for perceived deficiencies in teacher practice with children and families from diverse cultures and backgrounds.

Further Readings: Anderson, E. (1999). Code of the street: Decency, violence, and the moral life of the inner city. New York: W. W. Norton; Bowman, B., S. Donovan, S. Burns (2001). Eager to learn: Educating our preschoolers. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; Haight, W. C. (2002). African-American children at church: A sociocultural perspective. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press; Kagitcibaci, C. (1996). Family and human development across cultures: A view from the other side. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum; Knapp, M. S. and Associates (1995). Teaching for meaning in high-poverty classrooms. New York: Teachers College Press; LeVine, R., A. Dixon, S. LeVine, A. Richman, P. H. Leiderman, C. H. Keefer, and T. B. Brazelton (1994). Child care and culture: Lessons from Africa. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press; McAdoo, H. P. (1993). Introduction. In H. P. McAdoo, ed., Family ethnicity: Strength in diversity. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, pp. ix-xv; Ray, A., B. Bowman, and J. Robbins (2006). Preparing early childhood teachers to successfully educate all children: The contribution of four-year undergraduate teacher preparation programs, Final Report to the Foundation for Child Development. Erikson Institute, Project on Race, Class and Culture in Early Childhood, Chicago, IL; Rogoff, B. (2003). The cultural nature of human development. New York: Oxford University Press; Saluja, G., D. M. Early, and R. M. Clifford (2002). Demographic characteristics of early childhood teachers and structural elements of early care and education in the United States. Early Childhood Research & Practice, 4, 1-19. Available on-line http://ecrp.uiuc.edu/v4n1/saluja.html; Shorr, B. (1996). Culture in mind: Cognition, culture, and the problem of meaning. New York: Oxford University Press; Tharp, R. G. (1994). Intergroup differences among Native Americans in socialization and child cognition: An ethnogenetic analysis. In P. M. Greenfield and R. R. Cocking, eds., Crosscultural roots of minority child development. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 87-106; Valdes, G. (1996). Con respeto: Bridging the distances between culturally diverse families and schools, An ethnographic portrait. New York: Teachers College Press.

Aisha Ray and Barbara Bowman