Diversity in Early Childhood Education

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Introduction and Definition

As a result of global migration, diversity became a prominent topic of academic research and discussion in the educational field. Diversity refers to the broad range of differences in people, including gender, age, ethnic background, socioeconomic status, physical abilities, religion, and values. Vittrup (2016) reports that in the U.S., the percentage of Hispanic and Asian populations has increased by 43%, the American Indian/Alaska Native by 18%, and African American by 12% since 2000. It is estimated that cultural minorities might comprise more than half of the nation’s population in the near future (Eggen & Kauchak, 2016). The growth of multicultural representation in American educational facilities means that the teaching workforce should become competent in diversity practice and develop additional skills to support academic and social inclusion (Able et al., 2014). Moreover, early childhood educators working in multicultural classrooms should teach children about cultural variation, respect for diversity, and the importance of tolerance for others.

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Diversity in an early childhood classroom is closely linked to the ethnic identities of the students. Ethnic identity might be described as a person’s sense of belonging to an ethnic group with its cultural heritage, which explains the variety of values and languages in learning communities (Eggen & Kauchak, 2016). Ethnic identity is crucial for cultural minority members, as it helps them resist negative stereotypes or social devaluation existing in heterogeneous societies by providing a sense of belonging and acceptance. It should be noted that family is a vital component of cognitive development, as it teaches minority children about the unique features of their ethnicity and influences their individual and collective self-esteem. Thus, early childhood teachers should be able to recognize and respond to the differences in cultural backgrounds, language, gender, and economic status of their students and families through the use of educational materials and activities.

The purpose of the essay is to introduce different aspects of diversity issues in early childhood education. The role of a teacher’s personal beliefs and histories in diversity practices will be examined to determine its impact on the practice and student’s learning outcomes. The essay investigates the three domains of diversity issues (linguistic, socioeconomic status (SES), gender), establishes the implications for early childhood teachers, and addresses young children’s understanding of diversity issues. The paper will also provide recommendations for the analysis of instructional materials, curriculum, and practices for bias, as well as considerations for working with diverse families to promote young children’s development and learning.

The Impact of Teacher’s Personal Beliefs and Histories on Diversity Practices

Diversity and interculturalism are essential considerations for early childhood teachers, as they establish the foundation of young children’s lives in a multicultural society. Cultural immersion involves the adoption of a set of ideas and values unique to a certain culture, which creates implications for teaching in diverse classrooms. Teachers should be able to understand cultural differences and help children learn the cognitive tools unique to the American culture. Thus, interculturalist practice is beneficial for teachers and students, as it involves sharing and learning about different cultural contexts with the goal of promoting equality and justice in a diverse society (Ponciano & Shabazian, 2012). In an intercultural early childhood setting, teachers, students, and families can exchange their individual experiences, disclose their cultural contexts, and examine commonalities and differences.

Mistaken beliefs and negative personal experiences of early childhood educators can undermine the efforts to integrate diversity practices in programs and plans. Teacher candidates often assume that everyone’s personal experiences are similar to their own childhood experiences, which might lead to the colorblind approach to education and treatment of children (Able et al., 2014). The belief that financially disadvantaged parents do not provide adequate care for their children might be unfair and unwarranted, while the lack of compassion can cause low self-esteem of children and their families. Furthermore, inadequate knowledge or experience with diversity can result in false beliefs that children with physical limitations or disabilities cannot fully participate in classroom activities or community life (Able et al., 2014). The assumption might limit exceptional students’ opportunities to learn and socialize. Therefore, early childhood teachers should increase their cultural sensitivity and become aware of their personal beliefs, biases, and stereotypes to adequately respond to the needs of diverse children and families.

Based on the unfavorable impact of mistaken beliefs on diversity practices, it might be concluded that early childhood teachers should adopt a positive attitude to cultural pluralism and avoid stereotyping. Eggen and Kauchak (2016) maintain that the effectiveness of the classroom practice depends on a teacher’s personal beliefs regarding students, teaching, and the learning process. Learning through academic experience and professional training might help teachers properly address diversity in a classroom and recognize or change their personal biases impacting the practice. Early childhood education teachers may use opportunities for cross-cultural communication to enhance their understanding and respect for cultural, gender, or linguistic differences.

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Teachers may use personal tools to adjust their beliefs, support diversity, and become socio-culturally competent. Reflection refers to a person’s ability to critically assess him/herself or other people. It is a crucial skill for informed decision-making and implementation of an intercultural approach because teachers’ cultural context and histories define their attitude towards diverse populations (Ponciano & Shabazian, 2012). Additionally, reflection allows teachers and teacher candidates to analyze and review their professional experiences and increase their self-awareness related to diversity practice. Therefore, reflection and self-awareness are essential for teachers because their histories, beliefs, and biases may significantly influence diversity practices and professional efficacy.

Diversity Issues in Early Childhood Education

Linguistic diversity is a substantial domain of diversity issues in early childhood education that teachers should consider. The statistics demonstrate that approximately one in five students in U.S. schools live in families where English is a foreign language, and 5% of them do not speak English (Eggen & Kauchak, 2016). Linguistic diversity is represented by about 440 languages, with Spanish as the most prevalent (Eggen & Kauchak, 2016). A large number of English learners contribute to linguistic diversity, which may create barriers to classroom interactions, effective learning processes, and future academic achievements. Therefore, early childhood teachers should apply appropriate instructional strategies to support language minority students.

The guidelines for working in linguistically diverse learning environments provide several recommendations that might be considered by teachers. Firstly, they should express their respect for different cultures and appreciate the benefits of linguistic diversity. For instance, a teacher may ask children to prepare presentations to teach each other about the unique features of their cultures and languages. Secondly, early childhood educators should encourage the participation of all students in activities. Thirdly, teachers need to use concrete concepts and experiences to explain vocabulary to diverse students, including non-native English speakers. Vocabulary might be clearly demonstrated through the display of concrete objects, illustrations, or gestures. Fourthly, the emphasis should be placed on vocabulary practice to facilitate the language development process for English learners. The use of open-ended questions allows students to respond in a variety of ways and alleviates the pressure of providing a correct or specific answer. Finally, it is important for teachers to assist children in adopting the school culture (Eggen & Kauchak, 2016). Accommodation without assimilation encourages the use of Standard English and dialects in different settings (classroom, home) to accomplish specific goals. The approach may help maintain learning-focused environments without impacting the cultural identities of students.

Gender diversity is the next kind of diversity issue that influences the learning process in young children. The combination of genetics and environmental factors might explain gender differences in physical abilities, temperament, verbal and non-verbal behaviors. Boys are more likely to experience behavioral problems and the need for special education testing, and girls tend to behave better in class due to more advanced socio-emotional development and self-regulation (Eggen & Kauchak, 2016). Brain development is believed to be responsible for girls’ ability to control emotions and display patience during a class. Moreover, the research by Boca et al. (2019) suggests that girls outperform boys in terms of language acquisition (vocabulary and pre-reading skills), and boys demonstrate better pre-math abilities. The differences indicate that girls can obtain greater learning and behavioral benefits from early education due to their genetics and physiology. The influence of biological factors and social interactions distinct to either boys or girls leads to the formation of gender-role identities.

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Gender diversity is a major consideration for early childhood educators because learning and developmental patterns differ in boys and girls and impact their educational outcomes. Relevant gender-based strategies can improve the cognitive development of young children and reduce future gender gaps (Boca et al., 2019). Single-gender classes or schools are organized in response to the unique requirements and needs of boys and girls. The advocates claim that girls might benefit from single-gender educational facilities because without boys’ influence, they can approach leadership roles easier, improve self-esteem, and develop confidence in science and math courses (Eggen & Kauchak, 2016). There are also experts who criticize this approach for promoting gender stereotypes and limiting young children’s real-world experience that is traditionally based on male-female interactions. Alternatively, the optimal age of formal care entry may be reconsidered with respect to the developmental differences in boys and girls to ensure the adaptation to the uniform curriculum (Boca et al., 2019). Gender heterogeneity is an important aspect of early childhood education that might be addressed by informing students on gender issues, avoiding gender bias, and teaching them about non-stereotypical role models.

Socioeconomic status (SES) is another area of diversity issues encountered by early childhood teachers. The characteristic includes parent’s income level, education, and employment status and the division into the upper, middle, working, and lower classes. SES might be a predictor of learning achievements, as upper-class students demonstrate better math and reading results and lower dropout rates in comparison with lower-income children. All of the U.S. states registered a rise in the number of low-income students during the 2000-2011 period, while 48% of the students applied for free or reduced-price school meals (Eggen & Kauchak, 2016). Additionally, the statistics reveal that there is a substantial number of homeless students and about 12% of students requiring special services to improve their learning potential and outcomes (Eggen & Kauchak, 2016). The problem has implications for early childhood education and should be considered by teachers because poverty, homelessness, and associated issues can limit young children’s learning opportunities.

SES has a significant impact on young children’s learning achievements. The inability to meet basic needs for food and shelter can result in psychological, physical (impaired coordination), and behavioral (short attention span, poor memory) problems (Eggen & Kauchak, 2016). Moreover, children from lower-income families have limited learning experiences from educational activities (museums, travel, libraries) and classes (sports, dance, music) complimenting classroom programs. Higher-income parents communicate with their children more often, encourage autonomy, and facilitate the use of technology for educational purposes. Based on the SES differences, student-teacher relationships should support resilience development to minimize the adverse effects of lower SES on learning. Resilience achieved through emotional support may assist children in sustaining adequate self-esteem, a positive attitude, and a sense of control despite the challenges they face. Children also internalize messages about people’s social standing and worth and mistakenly evaluate and judge others based on what they wear, where they reside, and many cars or toys they own (Kissinger, 2017). Therefore, early childhood teachers should express genuine commitment to their students, ensure safe, nondiscriminatory environments, promote success, and provide background knowledge to prepare young children for real-life experiences.

Young Children’s Understanding of Diversity Issues and Implications for Practice

Young children’s identities are shaped by their early experiences and cultural emphasis on specific values and beliefs, which impact their perception of diversity issues. Vygotsky claimed that culture establishes the context for a child’s development through the incorporation of culture-specific cognitive tools (Eggen & Kauchak, 2016). The social constructivist approach explains that children’s cognitive development includes the social (interpersonal/intermental) and the psychological (individual/intramental) components. Adults guide children to obtain cultural knowledge and understand the environment, while social interactions and activities qualitatively change their cognition (von Tetzchner, 2018). Furthermore, as children learn to distinguish themselves from others, they can gradually develop an understanding of racial and gender differences, as well as their identities and values, before reaching a preschool age (Ponciano & Shabazian, 2012). Beneke et al. (2019) report that discriminatory behaviors, prejudicial attitudes, and racial biases can be observed in White children by age 3. As a result of upbringing and social environments, young children demonstrate positive attitudes to their in-group and negative views on out-groups, which might be interpreted as prejudice.

The acquisition and use of mental tools can influence young children’s understanding of diversity issues. Language is an essential cognitive tool because it allows children to autonomously think and reflect, communicate knowledge, complete practical tasks, plan actions, and interact with people (Beneke et al., 2019). Language can also be used to share values and cultural norms, which shape a child’s personal identity and awareness of social attitudes existing in their environments. Active observation in social and educational contexts teaches children about racial differences and the position of race among other identities. For instance, the books featuring White characters and their illustrations may implicitly suggest the superiority of the White population, while biased disciplinary measures against racial minorities demonstrate the normalization of racial unfairness. Instructional resources containing misleading comments, stories, or illustrations should be challenged by a teacher or replaced with materials embracing diversity and inclusion. Play is another factor influencing the way young children understand diversity concerns outside of a family setting. Role-play activities promote emotional and intuitive contact between diverse participants, and children learn to appropriately respond to social situations and recognize actions that are unacceptable in a multicultural and multiracial society.

The factors impacting young children’s understanding of diversity issues have implications for teaching practice because multicultural students contribute their unique values and beliefs to the classroom, while others may need to develop appropriate cognitive tools. The guiding role of adults in young children’s exploration of diversity means that teachers should be responsive to students’ understanding of different cultures, races, and ethnicities (Beneke et al., 2019). Responsive interactions positively impact students’ perception of differences, help young children effectively communicate their approach to diversity, and initiate advocacy for equality. An anti-bias approach to teaching involves engaging children in the discovery of diverse cultures, races, and ethnicities and supporting their sense of belonging to prevent discrimination. The introduction of interculturalism in diverse classrooms encourages authentic and meaningful sharing of various cultural contexts and learning through the exchange of experiences (Ponciano & Shabazian, 2012). Additionally, early childhood educators can navigate young children’s developmental needs through play-based activities incorporating books, toys, and games that address and welcome student’s differences and similarities to reduce racial or cultural prejudice. Thus, teachers should be informed on children’s approach to diversity issues and consider its implications for practice to efficiently manage inclusive classrooms and advocate for social justice.

Analysis of Instructional Materials, Curriculum, and Practices for Bias

Young children’s perceptions of the world and others can be influenced by the teacher’s choice of instructional materials. Learning materials should reflect the heterogeneous nature of a learning community through the use of images and activities covering diverse traditions, skin colors, or languages (Chan, 2011). Multimedia content should be analyzed for bias and stereotypes about different ethnicities, cultures, or non-traditional family structures because misconceptions can negatively impact students’ self-esteem. Furthermore, books, posters, or photographs promoting stereotypes might prevent young learners from obtaining accurate and objective information on the topic (Kissinger, 2017). Anti-bias booklists and libraries can be useful for selecting appropriate books and initiating conversations about diversity issues with children (Beneke et al., 2019). Bias can be found in the content of instructional materials, which cannot be read or comprehended by students with limited English skills (Eggen & Kauchak, 2016). Moreover, questions appearing in materials should be explicit and appropriate for children from various cultural backgrounds because content bias might prevent them from replying correctly.

Early childhood programs should introduce age-appropriate assessments because developmental characteristics can influence the validity of test results. Young children demonstrate relatively short attention spans and limited language proficiency, which is especially true for English Language learners (Eggen & Kauchak, 2016). Children may do not fully understand the importance of testing and prefer play activities instead of contributing efforts to succeed on tests. Standardized testing is usually employed to evaluate students’ strengths and weaknesses and measure their performance. However, due to young learners’ developmental limitations and inexperience with standardized testing, the results should be approached skeptically and analyzed only in conjunction with their classroom performance. Thus, early childhood teachers need to avoid conclusions about a student’s learning potential based on a single test.

The curriculum should be inclusive, bias-free, and accessible to all children regardless of their ethnic/racial background, SES, gender, or language. The main goal of anti-bias education is to teach young children to understand the negative impact of stereotypes, the role of diversity in a society, and the value of social justice. Students’ discriminatory or stereotypical comments and aggressive behavior needs to be recognized and challenged by teachers and families to mitigate the development of prejudicial attitude. The topics of race, ethnicity, and gender should be incorporated into the curriculum and openly discussed in an inclusive classroom, while relevant questions or concerns may be addressed in a professional manner (Kissinger, 2017). Teachers should also advocate for changes in biased early childhood programs to prevent children from internalizing misconceptions about race, gender, or SES (Beneke et al., 2019). The lack of activities encouraging equal participation might be a sign of a biased curriculum that might be reorganized to respond to the needs and interests of every student. Anti-oppression and anti-bias activities in math, art, or language courses can be planned and gradually added to the existing curriculum to illustrate students’ differences and similarities.

Anti-bias education might be challenging for teachers who have to accept the complexity of diversity management in early childhood education and adapt their teaching practices for the benefit of heterogeneous classrooms. Racially biased or disproportionate disciplinary actions, such as suspension or expulsion of minority children, should be avoided to eliminate racial unfairness (Beneke et al., 2019). Teachers need to perceive themselves as learners and become aware of their personal beliefs and bias. Self-reflection and shared experiences with students and their families can prevent discriminatory practices and navigate diversity issues in the classroom (Ponciano & Shabazian, 2012). Discomfort with the topics related to race, ethnicity, gender, or SES may suggest a teacher’s implicit bias or inexperience with diversity problems (Vittrup, 2016). The reluctance to approach diversity topics can also be explained by a teacher’s false belief that race/gender/SES issues should be introduced by parents. Inclusive teaching practice requires early childhood educators to use appropriate language while discussing the topics of race or gender and allow children to participate in diversity-related conversations (Beneke et al., 2019). The analysis of materials, curriculum, and practice strategies for bias will enable teachers to foster equity and social justice in early childhood education.

Working with Diverse Families to Support Young Children’s Development and Learning

The rise of global immigration and classroom diversity requires early childhood educators to promote family involvement and collaborate with parents to improve children’s development and learning. Moreover, the increasing poverty levels require teachers to be aware of socioeconomic diversity and become competent in managing heterogeneous classrooms (Able et al., 2014). The experience of working with children and families representing a variety of diverse characteristics allows pre-service teachers and professional pedagogues to adapt their teaching strategies to the needs of modern classrooms. D’Haem and Griswold (2017) state that competencies for successful and dynamic collaboration with linguistically and culturally diverse families might be developed through immersion into multicultural communities. Family involvement in educational activities is reported to improve students’ cognitive abilities and motivation to learn and meet their parents’ expectations (Eggen & Kauchak, 2016). There are several important considerations related to families’ race, ethnicity, language, and SES that teachers should take into account to foster academic and social inclusion and minimize bias in early childhood education.

Young children assign great importance to being a part of a family and expect their parents and relatives to be valued and treated with respect in their educational settings. The report by the Pew Research Center reveals that families with two heterosexual parents in their first marriage comprise only 46% of all U.S. families with children (Kissinger, 2017). The statistical findings demonstrate that the traditional nuclear family cannot be presented as the only normal or preferred type of family structure. Teachers should communicate with single-parent, gay/lesbian, adoptive, and interracial families with equal respect and professionalism to support young children’s development based on the principles of inclusion and social justice. Communication with diverse parents can help teachers discover the unique interests or needs of children to encourage a positive attitude to learning and classroom inclusion (Able et al., 2014). The approach can also teach students that diverse families should be valued and empowered in learning communities.

Collaborative engagement requires family involvement in education-related decision-making, exchange of experience or knowledge, creation of home-based learning activities, and a home environment appreciating learning. Effective parent-teacher partnerships also involve two-way communication, equity, and power-sharing instead of the dominance of one side (Kissinger, 2017). Teachers can contact families by email, phone, or face-to-face to make them feel welcome and establish culturally responsive relationships facilitating the discussion of their observations on the learner’s progress and concerns (Buchanan & Buchanan, 2017). The two-way relationship can be improved through the application of a strengths-based perspective and a shared commitment to the student’s well-being, learning progress, and development. Teachers may prepare a plan for a set of interactions with families to build trust serving as a foundation of successful parent-teacher partnerships and student recognition. Young children’s development and learning can be supported when the teacher employs critical communication skills while working with diverse families. The skills include active listening, summarizing conversations, asking appropriate questions, and providing constructive feedback. The initial stages of family-teacher relationships should involve non-problematic topics, while behavioral issues and learning objectives can be discussed when rapport and trust are established.

Individual family and cultural systems create the environmental context and have a significant impact on a child’s development. For example, immigrant children and families demonstrate learning, socializing, and parenting models that are different from the norms expected by American teachers. Multicultural education should comprise an inclusive curriculum with equal learning opportunities for children, while family diversity can be addressed through the organization of festivals or culture corners dedicated to traditional cuisine or native legends (Chan, 2011). Kissinger (2017) claims that all-community gatherings might offer valuable opportunities for parents and teachers to observe diverse identities or become culturally familiar by discovering the favorite family activities of each participant. The concept of hybridity explains that culture and identity are fluid, complex, and can be transformed under the influence of experiences and environmental factors (Chan, 2011). Thus, an open sharing of stories, traditions, or cultural artifacts may raise awareness of minority groups, establish positive images of different populations, and respect heterogeneous views and identities.

Many early childhood teachers may feel unprepared and report the difficulties of working with racially, linguistically, and socioeconomically diverse families. Some parents and family members of young children might be unaware of the concept of anti-bias education. Moreover, the research by Chan (2011) indicates that many immigrant parents do not understand the importance of their involvement in the learning process due to cultural perceptions. For example, families of Chinese background view teachers as authority figures responsible for a child’s development and learning in a classroom setting. Another problem associated with family-teacher partnerships is the parents’ lack of confidence or a sense of belonging due to language barriers or discrimination, which makes them avoid direct involvement in early childhood education. Instead, such parents might prefer an indirect approach and involvement in their child’s learning through activities at home that teachers may overlook. Therefore, inadequate participation of diverse parents in the classroom-based learning process should not be perceived as ignorance or neglect because families can be actively engaged in indirect learning and developmental activities due to cultural peculiarities or barriers.

Conclusion

To sum up, the increasing diversity in early childhood education settings requires teachers to become competent in inclusive teaching practice, recognize stereotypes, and challenge biases to promote social justice. Teachers’ personal beliefs and individual experiences should be critically assessed in the process of reflection because misconceptions negatively impact their professional practice in heterogeneous classrooms result in the colorblind approach to teaching. Linguistic, gender and socioeconomic diversity issues need to be approached by early childhood educators to provide children with equal opportunities and support positive learning outcomes in diverse students. Another important consideration for teachers is the role of young children’s understanding of diversity issues that is influenced by upbringing, environmental factors, and social interactions with adults and peers. Instructional materials, curriculum, and teaching practices should be analyzed for bias and reorganized to foster inclusion and minimize young children’s exposure to discrimination and prejudice. Finally, collaboration with diverse families might be beneficial for children’s learning and development, as it allows teachers to discover students’ unique interests and improve parental participation.

References

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Buchanan, K., & Buchanan, T. (2017). Six steps to partner with diverse families. Principal Magazine, 46–47.

Chan, A. (2011). Critical multiculturalism: Supporting early childhood teachers to work with diverse immigrant families. International Research in Early Childhood Education, 2(1), 63–75.

D’Haem, J., & Griswold, P. (2017). Teacher educator’s and student teachers’ beliefs about preparation for working with families including those from diverse socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. Education and Urban Society, 49(1), 81–109. Web.

Eggen, P., & Kauchak, D. (2016). Educational psychology: Windows on classrooms (10th ed.). Pearson.

Kissinger, K. (2017). Anti-bias education in the early childhood classroom: Hand in hand, step by step. Routledge.

Ponciano, L., & Shabazian, A. (2012). Interculturalism: Addressing diversity in early childhood. Dimensions of Early Childhood, 40(1), 23–29.

Vittrup, B. (2016). Early childhood teachers’ approaches to multicultural education & perceived barriers to disseminating anti-bias messages. Multicultural Education, 23(3-4), p. 37–41.

von Tetzchner, S. (2018). Child and adolescent psychology: Typical and atypical development. Taylor & Francis.

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