Article

Many Languages, Many Cultures

Ideas and inspiration for helping young children thrive in a diverse society

  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5

The face of the United States is changing, and so are many of your early childhood classrooms. As racial, cultural, and linguistic diversity increases, so does the importance of your role in teaching children to live and work together respectfully. In this article, you'll find suggestions and strategies for doing just that. Read on for advice on working with all children and families, fostering bilingualism, and encouraging tolerance and self-esteem.
 

Four Strategies for Working With Children and Families of Different Languages and Cultures

What happens during children's earliest years shapes whether they become open to or fearful of people with different skin colors and customs. It determines whether children learn to feel proud or ashamed of their heritage. It lays the foundation for children to grow up speaking English as well as the language of their home.

As an early childhood teacher; you play a crucial role in laying this foundation. You're creating the first group environment most children encounter outside their home, and your challenge is to make it inclusive and respectful. One key factor for success will be your ability to work well with children's families, some of whom may not speak English. The following four strategies can help.

STRATEGY 1: Exchange information with parents about race, language, and culture.
 
Orientation is a great place to start. Because this is often the first meeting between you and the parents of the children in your program, it can set the tone for your ongoing relationship and lay the foundation for open communication on sensitive topics, including race and culture. If you didn't discuss diversity at the start of the school year, it's not too late. Ask parents these questions:

  • How would you like us to recognize your child ethnically?
  • What family traditions would you like our program to acknowledge?
  • What can we learn about your culture to help us be as respectful as possible?
  • What language (or languages) does your family speak?
  • What holidays do you celebrate?

Remember to ask for information from families even when you and they are from a similar racial or ethnic group. In any group, opinions and practices may vary. A family's customs may differ due to religion, length of time in the United States, and other factors.
 
STRATEGY 2: Involve parents in the life of the school.
 
One way to build relationships with parents is by drawing them into school routines and events. Different programs have different ways of doing this. Teachers can take turns communicating with small groups of parents or coming in later on some mornings so they can stay late in the evening to be available to parents. Some programs encourage parents and teachers to write each other notes. In others, folders or steno pads (with one column for teachers and one for parents) convey information back and forth.
 
Another idea: Ask parents and grandparents to share their experiences and skills with your class. Invite them in to talk about trips they've taken to their ancestral country or to demonstrate games, dancing, and crafts from their culture. Such presentations teach children about other cultures, give you information about families' backgrounds and traditions, and show children that you value their heritage.
 
STRATEGY 3: Use parent conferences to set mutual goals.
 
Your school may have a policy of holding meetings where parents and teachers can without distraction discuss the welfare of a child. Perhaps you even visit families' homes instead of asking parents to come to the school. Such visits are a great way to see the child and the family in their own environment and gain a better understanding of their culture and practices.

During conferences, work with parents to establish goals for their child. Such goals can relate specifically to cultural understanding, language development, and anti-bias attitudes. Striving toward a common goal can create opportunities for you and the parents to examine how you can help realize it at home and at school. For example, you may agree that a child should be grounded in his or her cultural traditions.

But it may not be realistic for parents to expect you to learn and then teach those traditions, especially if your classroom has children from a number of cultures. In this case, the parents may assume responsibility for teaching traditions to their child while you find ways to demonstrate in the classroom that you value those traditions.

Likewise, if a child's family speaks a language other than English, you and the parents can set a goal together to help the child retain the home language as he or she acquires English. Once you've done that, you can talk to parents about the steps all of you can take to achieve the goal.

 
STRATEGY 4: Validate home language in the classroom.
 
Some parents resist early childhood programs that promote bilingualism. English-speaking families may think that if teachers are using other languages, they're sacrificing instructional time in English. Research shows, however, that exposure to another language can enrich children's ability to acquire and comprehend languages in general.
 
Non-English-speaking families may not support the bilingual approach either. They often feel they're sending their children to school specifically to become fluent in English and therefore may object to using their home language in your program. They may need encouragement to nurture the child's first language so he or she won't lose the ability to speak and understand it.
 
Such a loss can be significant and far-reaching for both the child and the family. Because language is such an important component of culture, a child's fluency in the family language will affect his or her sense of identity. The use of the home language also promotes children's cognitive development, self-esteem, second language (usually English) acquisition, and academic preparation.

Your active support and validation of families' languages whether Spanish, Punjabi, or Japanese has a tremendous influence on how parents feel about your program and whether they get involved in school activities. Your actions also have a big effect on how children feel about their home language and whether they'll lose or retain it. To avoid communicating negative messages about home languages to children, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I respond to children when they initiate contact with me in their home language?
  • Do I encourage both children and parents to use their home language?
  • Do I take care not to use the home language only to reprimand children or give them directions?
  • Do I use the home language to give children positive reinforcement?
  • Do I create opportunities for children to use different languages in day-to-day activities?
  • Do I have classroom materials in the different home languages and are those materials equal in quality to the English materials?
  • Do I work with parents to identify when to validate home languages and dialects and when to emphasize standard English?

You can use this checklist now and throughout the year. By reinforcing home languages and communicating well with families, you'll be fostering the kind of classroom environment that can give children a strong start in life. Perhaps Anthony Behill, a member of the Chumash Tribe whose grandson attends a child-care program in California, best summed up the importance of focusing on diversity in the classroom. "Knowing who you are is important for attaining an education," he said, because knowing who you are gives you a base for learning everything."
 
Working It Out
Striking a balance between respecting a family's culture and standing up for what you believe in isn't always easy. What if you discover a parent is hitting a child? Is this part of the family's culture or child abuse? What if a parent believes that girls are less valuable than boys? What if parents don't want their child to call you by your first name? How would you resolve these issues in the classroom?
 

  • Think about your bottom line. People may legitimately disagree about the appropriateness of physical discipline, but if a home situation poses danger to a child, you must step in and be able to say why you did.
     
  • Understand why a family behaves a certain way. In less critical cases, talk to parents about your classroom routine and their home routines. Establishing an atmosphere of trust may keep tensions from escalating into clashes.
     
  • Agree to disagree. In the end, as long as the health of the child isn't at stake (which is usually the case), you and parents may come to compromise or simply accept differences. The important thing is to avoid letting any disagreement affect the children. Don't make them choose sides or feel bad about what their parents do at home.

 
Bridging the Language Barrier
A classroom can be a strange environment to parents whose primary language is not English. Some parents feel the need to be part of the system that socializes their children, but they're unable to bridge the language barrier. Others view education as their path to success and want their children to do well, but they feel uncertain about a language and culture that's different from their own. All these things put non-English speaking parents at a real disadvantage. Like all parents, they hunger for information about their child but may feel frustrated, powerless, or alienated. If they equate lack of recognition of their language with lack of respect for their culture, they may isolate themselves further. Here are some ways you can help bridge the barriers:
 

  • Establish a relationship of equality and respect from the start. If parents feel embarrassed about their English skills, you might share how frustrated you feel at not being able to communicate in their language. This demonstrates that you respect parents as equals and puts everyone at ease.
     
  • Link parents who speak the same language with one another. This is a way to encourage informal support networks among people who share similar experiences of being outside the mainstream. Parents can count on one another to translate, to solve problems, and just to commiserate about how difficult maneuvering through the system can be.
     
  • Show parents how much you value them. Reflect diversity of culture and language in your classroom. Translate notices into different languages by working with staff, community agencies, and parents themselves. And do all you can to involve parents in their children's education. Ultimately, you both have the need and responsibility to keep the lines of communication open.



At the time of this article's original publication, Hedy Chang was co-director of California Tomorrow, a non-profit organization in Oakland, California, committed to making racial and ethnic diversity work.

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  • Subjects:
    Bilingual Education, ESL and ELL, Communication and Language Development, Parent-Teacher Conferences, Teacher Tips and Strategies, Working with Families and the Community
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