Creating a Culturally Responsive Environment in Early Years

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Credit: Kelsey Carlo


An emerging ‘norm’ within many of our global educational facilities is the growing diversity of our students. Classrooms are becoming a tapestry of culture, beliefs, traditions and thinking and as a result our students are becoming increasingly culturally and linguistically diverse. The change in demographics for some can be unsettling but in truth it provides immense potential, enriching the lives of our students, providing new perspectives and new possibilities. As educators we need to become more culturally responsive in our practices and better prepared to work with a diverse body of students and families. We need to ensure that we create an environment and approach to learning that celebrates the cultural uniqueness of students. To feel welcomed and valued our students need to see themselves and their families represented within the learning.

Beyond the Stereotype

With the ever increasing coming together of global communities the issue of cultural diversity is becoming ever more complex. Third culture kids are no longer are new phenomenon. The cultural identity for many of our children can be a challenging question. Very often we are witnessing the emergence of new and blended cultural identities as our students connect with elements of a variety of cultural practices, beliefs, traditions and identity. It would be terribly wrong to rely on traditional stereotypes in an attempt to define any individual. We must therefore look beyond our own views and perspectives of culture and take the time to understand our students. To learn about them as individuals and their unique understanding of identity.

For our students growing up in culturally diverse environment it is important to realise that they are developing a sense of their own cultural identity. Although our students will be influenced by many aspects of various cultures they are introduced to it will be notably the children’s family life that will be the most significant source of that identity. As educators we must find the time to celebrate the culture of the family but we must also be mindful in supporting students to explore their own uniqueness and more importantly develop a secure and positive sense of their own identity no matter what that may be.

Importance of Early Years

Providers have a responsibility to ensure positive attitudes to diversity and difference – not only so that every child is included and not disadvantaged, but also so that they learn from the earliest age to value diversity in others and grow up making a positive contribution to society.(DCSF, 2008, p. 9)

Cultural diversity is increasingly evident in all areas of education but it is within early childhood education that I believe we can really make an impact. As an Early Childhood educator I recognise recognise that to create a mindset that embraces diversity, equality and change we must begin with our youngest learners. Change must start at a grassroots level. We must take the role of moral compass within the early years setting if we are to genuinely impact positive societal change. As early years practitioners I believe there is a moral and social duty to promote understanding and appreciation of difference and diversity. This includes developing tolerance, respect and promoting cohesion. Diversity and equality in childcare is about validating and cherishing all children, recognising and celebrating who they chose to be. This is just as important for children from the majority culture as it is for those from minority groups. There is also a duty to actively challenge all forms of discrimination. It is not enough to be non-discriminatory in our own practice, we need to be anti-discriminatory, which means challenging others when they make discriminatory comments or act in a discriminatory way. Central to equality and inclusive practice is valuing and having respect for all (Natalie Higgins and Chyrstal Ventura).

Our young learners are growing up in a diverse society that may be unfamiliar to many of their carers but we have a responsibility to develop their awareness, embrace differences and recognise equality in all. It should be the challenge of all Early Childhood educators to raise children to become culturally competent and sensitive from a young age. It is within early childhood when habitats of life are developed. Research reveals that children are aware, at three and four years and sometimes earlier, of ethnic, ‘racial’, gender, language and physical differences. They notice differences and similarities as part of their natural developmental process and assimilate positive and negative, spoken and unspoken messages about difference. These influences are part of the child’s development of self-identity and self-esteem. Children learn and have their views reinforced by attitudes they experience primarily through relationships with adults and the broader community.

Young children enter the childcare environment not as blank slates but with a general awareness of difference. Adults need to acknowledge this awareness and the reality that diversity, equality and anti-discriminatory issues are part of everyday life in the childcare setting. Embracing and working with a diversity and equality approach is integral to the provision of high quality childcare practice (Childcare Strategy).

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Credit: EduZenith

When interacting with people whose culture and background are different from their own, children need to learn how to respect and accept these differences, else they risk growing up into adults who contribute to problems brought about by discrimination. Only by teaching children cultural competence can we hope to have a society based on mutual respect and acceptance. It is not the differences that cause problems, rather, how people react. As education serves as foundational to global stability, the development of multicultural awareness from an early age may integrate ideologies sourced from various societies in order to arrive at well-balanced conclusions regarding issues that surround the world as a whole. Globalisation and education then come to affect one another through mutual goals of preparing young people for successful futures during which their nations will grow increasingly connected. (Priyanka Gupta, 2017)

As Early Years practitioners we should observe and listen to children’s play and adult interaction to identify any bias or discrimination, then develop methods to deal with issues that arise. Every aspect of the setting comes into play: how children relate to each other, how staff relate to minority and majority children, how language is used, how and what discussions take place, and what activities are undertaken.

Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 5.24.44 PMPractitioners need the empathy, understanding and skills to help children achieve a positive sense of themselves and of others. Our role: to protect and value all children in the setting, foster empathy and provide accurate information about difference to enable children to think critically about and challenge bias (Childcare Strategy).

Creating a Culturally Responsive Environment

Child development is a dynamic, interactive process. Every child is unique in interacting with the world around them, and what they invoke and receive from others and the environment also shapes how they think and behave. Children growing up in different cultures receive specific inputs from their environment. For that reason, there’s a vast array of cultural differences in children’s beliefs and behaviour ().

To be able to best make all children feel welcomed and valued it is critical that we create inclusive learning environments that supports all and promotes learning outcomes for all children within the class. For this to happen the children must see themselves and their families represented in not only the learning but also the environment. As educators there is a need to stop and reflect on the best ways to ensure appropriate educational and developmental experiences for all young children reflecting the cultural diversity within the classroom. The unique qualities and characteristics of each individual child must be acknowledged. Just as each child is different, methods and strategies to work with young children must vary. The overall goal for early childhood professionals, however, is to provide every child, including children who are linguistically and culturally diverse, with a responsive learning environment. 

In order for our children to develop a positive self image it is vitally important that they can see themselves and their family reflected in the learning environment, experiences and resources we provide. We should be constantly mindful of the messages we provide as the learning environment we create for our young learners can provide a message, whether intended or not, as to what we value.

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It is always important to create a language rich environment but we must be mindful of the messages we send out regarding the importance of one language over another. We should seek opportunities to celebrate the language of each child. This may be as simple as learning how to greet each other in different languages or the labels and posters we place in our rooms.

Although the language of instruction may be English we should not discourage but celebrate the variety of languages that are evident within our class. There should be opportunities for children to be able to speak their home language during role-play or on the playground. The issue of home language and its importance to young children is also relevant for children who speak English but come from different cultural backgrounds and may have dialects. This could be especially true for some of our second- and third-generation speakers of English who maintain the dominant accent or dialect of their heritage language. This may also be true for first language English speakers who have an accent that may be unfamiliar to many.


In Early Years we must be mindful of the important role books play in the development of our young learners. They are a window to the wider world through which our children see. Often they provide many children their first exposure to different cultures and ethnic groups.  Exposing children to a variety of literature from different cultures and perspectives can help them to understand the similarities and differences between different religions, cultures, languages, abilities, sexual orientations, gender and age. Books also allow issues to be raised and stereotypes to be challenged sensitively. Do not just provide traditional books with blond haired princesses and blue eyed princes but the children benefit from stories with characters who look like them. Children can feel excluded if ‘people like me’ only appear in books about ‘children from other lands.


Screen Shot 2018-08-15 at 5.54.34 PMThe images that we expose our young learners to play a part in shaping their minds and forming a positive identity about themselves. We need to be mindful that the visual images in our classroom environment send a message to even our very young learners. By creating an environment that supports visual images of a variety of ethnic and cultural groups we send a message to the children that all these people who look different in many ways are part of our school and our community. Children also need to see themselves and people who look like their family represented in the images we display.

Arts, Music and Food

Similar to books music can provide children with the first interactions with unfamiliar culture. Providing the children with an opportunity to explore different cultures in a fun and interactive way is a valuable experience. Children love to participate in familiar songs and rhymes, especially action songs and this fun and engaging activity can especially support the inclusion of children with English as an additional language. 

Children welcome experiencing food, music or dance forms that reflect their own family and neighbourhood experiences. Early childhood is a good time to offer opportunities that enable children to stretch beyond the familiar. But again it is important that experiences help children understand that there are different ways to meet basic needs like food and drink. Every culture has some kind of traditional cuisine. Of course, families with English roots should be asked to contribute foods to a multicultural buffet evening, not just families from other countries.

Children can learn to appreciate cultural diversity in styles of art, craft, music and dance. All opportunities need to be well grounded in positive pride for the styles common in every child’s own background. Children are attuned to what is familiar and may take a while to become accustomed to less familiar musical patterns. Supportive practitioners establish a ground rule, much as with food, that it is fine to say you are ‘not keen’, but nobody is rude about music or dance that belongs to other people.


Resources for pretend play can be inclusive in terms of cultural diversity: dolls and small play figures, dressing up clothes or the home corner equipment. All materials should be offered with equal respect, as part of somebody’s normal life. For instance, the words ‘multicultural dressing up clothes’ are used in some catalogues to describe non-European clothing. The phrase could imply that there is ‘normal clothing worn by us’ and ‘exotic outfits worn in other cultures.’

Source: Jennie Lindon

Turning Differences into Opportunities:

Screen Shot 2018-06-26 at 8.04.44 AMChildren are naturally curious about the people around them. They attempt to formulate a sense of their own identity by defining what makes them different from everyone else. Thus, a child will typically ask questions about observable characteristics like skin color, accent, or manner of dress. “Children are around two or three when they begin to notice physical differences among people” (Kupetz, 2012). For the most part, these questions are innocent and not motivated by any intention to offend or hurt.  It is therefore, up to the parents and educators to use these opportunities to send a fair and accurate message about each culture, so that children learn that these differences only makes a person unique, not inferior. An educator or parent can maximize the potential for learning by helping students see each cultural encounter as an enriching experience. “The process of intercultural interaction, of contact between people from different cultural backgrounds and a readiness to learn from one another, is the real foundation for equality” (Balcock 2010, p.33).

Source: Natalie Higgins and Chyrstal Ventura

Providers have a responsibility to ensure positive attitudes to diversity and difference – not only so that every child is included and not disadvantaged, but also so that they learn from the earliest age to value diversity in others and grow up making a positive contribution to society.(DCSF, 2008, p. 9)


It’s important to note that multicultural education should not mean lowering expectations or making excuses for low performance. Teachers should not lower the bar or limit the objectives for students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds or for minority students but should rather keep standards high for all students, providing support where needed to meet these goals.

Some of you may feel compelled to use the “color-blind” approach to instructing your students, overlooking your students’ race or ethnic background in the interests of equality. These are noble intentions, of course, but consider becoming “color aware” instead.  Why? Because although students are individuals, they are also products of their environments. No one grows up in a vacuum. A multicultural society is best served by a culturally responsive curriculum (Matthew Lynch).

As Early Years practitioners it is vitally important that we engage in issues of diversity in order to create a classroom environment that is both welcoming and supportive of all children within the class. The most structured approach to engaging in diversity topics in the classroom is through the inclusion of diverse perspectives into the content of the curriculum. However, including diverse perspectives into the course content addresses only one aspect of creating inclusive learning environments (Hurtado et al., 2012). In order to create inclusive learning environments that promote learning outcomes for all students, it is best to take a comprehensive approach and address student and faculty identities, curricular content, and pedagogy/teaching methods. 

Early childhood educators can best help linguistic and culturally diverse children and their families by acknowledging and responding to the importance of the child’s home language and culture. Educational practices should focus on educating children toward the “school culture” while preserving and respecting the diversity of the home language and culture that each child brings to the early learning setting. It is important that we strike the right balance between promoting an understanding of ‘other cultures’ whilst also providing sufficient attention to children’s own cultural identity. A key message for equality practice is that there is no rush. Children become confused if early years practitioners feel pressure to rattle through a long list of ‘multicultural activities’, including many celebrations, before children enter formal school. A few quality experiences can start children on the road to appreciating diverse cultures and traditions. Early childhood professionals and families must work together to achieve high quality care and education for all children.

Source: Jennie Lindon


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