George Lucas Educational Foundation
Culturally Responsive Teaching

Culturally Responsive Teaching in Early Childhood Education

Four ways to validate and affirm young students’ cultures in meaningful ways, which can boost their engagement and motivation.

June 25, 2020
Teacher and pre-k children in classroom play with blocks.
Bob Ebbesen / Alamy Stock Photo

There are various ways educators can approach working with multicultural groups of students, and it can be overwhelming to choose one that fits you. One approach that I’ve found myself consistently using, whether in early childhood or informal education, is culturally responsive teaching (CRT), which validates and affirms the cultures of the students and incorporates their cultures in multiple aspects of learning and the environment in meaningful ways. This approach also encourages educators to hold high expectations of the children and their ability to learn content.

Researchers and educators have demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach in supporting young children’s learning. From scholars, peers, and my own practice of integrating CRT, I’ve seen evidence of students being more engaged, motivated, and connected to the learning process.

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4 Tips for Using CRT in Your Work

1. Apply CRT to multiple subjects: CRT complements a variety of subjects. For literacy, along with content that exposes children to new content areas, you can select books and software that represent their backgrounds, environments, home language, and routines, and include books and software that are bilingual. This will allow some children to make real-world connections and others to learn about different perspectives and experiences.

When reading bilingual books, let students help you pronounce words, which demonstrates that you support their home language, view students as sources of valuable information, and are curious and care about their languages. You are expanding their knowledge of English and exposing all students to multiple languages in a meaningful context.

Culturally responsive texts can be used to initially engage students in different content areas before introducing other texts that may be traditionally used in the curriculum. Perhaps you may decide to compare two books about rain or trees and compare and contrast the characters and environments in the two books. This would build on the children’s experience and help them expand their understanding of specific content areas.

During book discussion, you can prompt deeper thinking about the text by asking questions you usually ask, like “How would you feel if...,” “Can you say more about...,” and “Why do you think this happened?” Asking these questions while using culturally responsive materials can help you foster critical conversations with learners about gender roles and expression, ethnic differences, and different forms of bias that occur in society.

2. Be creative: By applying CRT, you can discover new approaches to teaching and learning. For instance, if you play music during transitions, you may include various genres that children already listen to or reflect their cultural community and contemporary experiences.

When teaching concepts in math, try using manipulatives or digital representations of manipulatives that are everyday objects that children are familiar with or are their favorite items, such as toys, rocks, shells, etc. Familiar objects help spark children’s interest and curiosity, especially those children who are initially resistant to a subject.

Collaborate with families to incorporate children’s home language in your program. Families can help you create object labels in children’s home language, identify music to incorporate in the classroom or online classes, or model the correct pronunciation of words.

3. Build connections with students and families: Getting to know students, families, and communities helps you be responsive in a way that authentically represents the learners. Whether in person or online, CRT helps you foster a positive learning environment.

Distribute a survey to families at the beginning of the year to ask about home language, tech access and use, and what each family likes to do together. Consider offering this survey in multiple languages, and using tools that families use to make sure it’s accessible to them, whether that’s smartphone, laptop, paper, etc.

Making phone calls is another way to connect, but it may be challenging if you and the family member don’t have a common language you both feel comfortable using.

Learn a little of the family’s home language so you can converse with them. It’s likely they will appreciate this gesture because you’re making an effort to connect and see their knowledge and language as valuable. If possible, offer translations of homework instructions, projects, or other take-home work.

You can develop relationships with families by inviting them to participate in day-to-day activities and attend in-person and virtual field trips. You may also decide to host family events at school, online, or at community centers.

4. Become a learner: It’s important to remember that what happens in the classroom is part of larger structural and social issues and that there are a variety of communities and cultures within learning environments. It is therefore valuable to frequently review books, podcasts, articles, and research that describe the ways these issues and cultural nuances show up in communities, the lives of families, and educational settings—doing so can help you see topics from a variety of viewpoints and give you ideas on how you can be more culturally responsive in your practice.

In addition, cultivating relationships with peers with different backgrounds, identities, and perspectives can provide you with insight into new ways of thinking. For instance, you may start a book or podcast club to discuss insights and reactions or hold an online discussion about an article. This peer network is a space where you can share what you experience in your practice, support each other, and converse about how different cultures view different content areas and materials. It’s also a place where you can be willing to critique and challenge each other’s practice and ideas in a respectful manner.

As Professor Gloria Swindler Boutte has said, “Critical teaching requires teachers to admit that they do not know everything. We can learn from our students by listening to them. We need to document, respect, and learn about people from all over the world, particularly those who are dramatically different from us.” We educators can get stuck in our biases and approaches to teaching. CRT offers us the opportunity to create teaching and learning spaces that engage us, the students, their families, and the whole community.

Being culturally responsive has helped me stay flexible and adaptable as well as create learning experiences that are meaningful to students. Culturally responsive teaching reminds us that everyone brings something to the table and everyone has value. Look for the strengths and assets within students, their families, and their communities.

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Filed Under

  • Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • Family Engagement
  • Teacher Development
  • Teaching Strategies
  • Prekindergarten
  • K-2 Primary