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Multicultural education: Is it really necessary?

TRUE or FALSE: Multicultural education is necessary only if there are different cultures in a child care facility.
The statement is false. It doesn’t matter whether a facility serves families that are all Anglo, all African American, all Hispanic, all Asian, or a mix, multicultural education is necessary. All children need to learn social skills to enable them to live and work successfully in a diverse country.

Diversity is increasing
The United States, according to the 2000 Census, has grown racially and ethnically diverse in recent years, and that diversity continues to increase (U.S. Census Bureau 2003).
In some states, groups once called “minorities” are becoming the majority. In Texas, for example, Anglos will be outnumbered by all other groups in a year or two. One group in particular, Hispanics, will comprise the majority in about 30 years (Texas State Data Center 2001). Already non-Anglos make up 60 percent of the students in Texas public schools (Texas Education Agency 2002-2003).
Historically, Anglos have had greater access to education and work opportunities than other groups. As a result, Hispanics and African Americans were more likely to leave school early and work in low-skill, low-paying jobs. If trends continue, Texas can expect a higher proportion of low-skill workers, higher unemployment, and increased poverty as time goes on (Education Commission of the States 2003). Reversing these trends requires doing a better job of educating all children.
Education begins in early childhood. Across the United States, state child care regulators and education organizations are urging changes. They have recommended training to help teachers provide culturally relevant programs. The National Association for the Education of Young Children has encouraged the profession “to recruit many more early childhood professionals who themselves share children’s cultures and home languages” (NAEYC 2001).

What is culture?
Culture refers to the shared values, attitudes, customs, beliefs, and behavior rules of a group of people. We see evidence of culture in the objects people use, such as clothing and toys, as well as in their music, food, language, and stories. We see culture in how people live, especially their family interactions, communication styles, and celebrations. What’s harder to see are people’s beliefs and attitudes about how to live each day and what gives meaning to their lives.
In the past educators have taught culture as something “out there,” belonging to other groups, to be marked at times like Black History Month or Cinco de Mayo. As a result, many Anglo-Americans assume they themselves have no culture. Not true. Everyone has a culture. It has been compared to what water is to fish: you may not see it, but it guides your behavior.
We see evidence of Anglo-American culture in such things as the traditional turkey for Thanksgiving Day dinner and hot dogs on the Fourth of July. Some less visible characteristics include the following attitudes:
clock conscious. Be on time.
future-oriented. Work for the future, minimize the past.
straightforward. Look each other in the eye. Say what you mean.
distinctly individual. Control your own life.

Some Anglo-Americans, of course, remain close to their cultural roots. We see examples in German and Czech community festivals, St. Patrick’s Day parades, and Scottish bagpipes at weddings, to name a few.
The point is that every child has a cultural heritage. Multicultural education recognizes and honors the cultural traditions of all groups. It says diversity gives our society strength and richness. It teaches children that differences are OK, and that people deserve the same opportunities no matter what their race, ethnic group, religion, age, or gender.
By contrast, monocultural education (one culture) puts children at risk for growing up with limited knowledge and social skills in a diverse society. Even worse, children may grow up thinking that one culture is the norm and somehow better than others.

Children learn prejudice early
Some might argue that preschool children are too young to notice differences. Actually research has made it clear that preschool children do notice differences and form attitudes about diversity. Experienced teachers have heard preschoolers tell classmates things like “You talk funny” and “You can’t play. You’ve got black skin.”
“Young children pick up prejudice and stereotypes about themselves and other people simply as part of trying to make sense of their world,” according to Stacey York, author of (2003). York has summarized research findings in “Stages of racial awareness and prejudice” ((see PDF for sidebar)).

Moving toward multicultural education
Providing multicultural education is a huge challenge. The concept may feel confusing and threatening at first. Teachers who have taught from one cultural perspective for a long time may find it hard to change. A program cannot become multicultural overnight.
But you don’t need to know everything about all cultures to start. The important thing is to start somewhere. Some suggestions:

Identify your own culture
It’s hard to recognize and appreciate other cultures if you don’t know your own. Think carefully about the following questions. Write your answers in a journal. Return to them in a month or two and add new insights and experiences about what you have learned. Share cultural appreciations and insights with other teachers at a staff meeting.

Where did your family originate? Trace your family history as far back as possible. You may find that ancestors came from several different countries.
When did your ancestors immigrate to the United States? Why did they come?
Where did your ancestors first settle? How were they treated?
What are some traditional foods, music, and celebrations of your cultural heritage?
What are some beliefs and practices your family used in rearing children?
What are some values, beliefs, and behaviors of your cultural heritage? What are some sayings that elders passed on to younger generations?
How does your cultural heritage affect your caregiving and teaching style?

Build partnerships with parents
Get to know the parents of the children in your care. Avoid the tendency to stereotype them based on the way they look or talk. Get to know the parents as individuals. Avoid assuming that all Hispanics trace their roots to Mexico, for example. Ask Asian parents their specific identity—Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, or Korean, for example.
Engage parents in one-on-one conversations about their priorities for their children. What are their mealtime and sleep routines at home? What are the roles of family members? How do they spend time with their children at home—playing, doing chores, reading? How do they guide and discipline their children? Do they want their children to grow up speaking more than one language? What has been their experience with people from other cultural groups?
As parents talk, listen with your heart. Identify their strengths. Resist the urge to judge whether parents are right or wrong. You may find that you disagree about what’s best for a child. Discuss the issue with parents and work toward a solution that both of you can embrace.
Some child care providers and teachers make home visits a part of the enrollment process. These visits can provide a first-hand understanding of how a family lives. Keep in mind, however, that a family may fear that you are snooping, especially if they have had negative experiences with human service workers in the past. Make arrangements in advance and keep the visit short—no longer than 30 minutes.

Commit to a multicultural approach
Multicultural education is a vast and complex subject. Begin learning about it on your own and with colleagues. See the resources at the end of this article. As you learn, consider taking steps over time to provide a multicultural approach.
Administration. Ideally board members and advisers represent the cultures of the children in your care and in your community. The same is true of teaching staff. Make sure all teachers and staff have opportunities for learning and advancement. If you have children whose home language is different from the dominant language in your program, bring in teachers or volunteers who speak that language.
Review your marketing and enrollment practices. Consider whether brochures and handbooks contain bias or stereotypes. Think of ways to reach out to families of diverse cultures.
Environment. Look around your classroom. Children need to feel they belong there. Photograph the children with their families, and display the photos on a bulletin board. Later add photos of people from different cultures in your community.
As you plan curriculum units, make sure that learning materials reflect the children and their home cultures. Gradually add items to learning centers that reflect the diversity of your community and your state.
Social interaction. Make a chart of all the children in your class. Throughout the day, note the times and the nature of your interactions. At day’s end, count and reflect. Do you praise white children more often than Hispanic or black children? Do you assume that certain children can’t perform and then you respond by feeling sorry for them? Take the time to know each child and discover that child’s strengths.
Help children learn the names of their classmates. Teach children that you do not allow name calling, teasing, and bullying. One rule might be: Treat others as you want them to treat you. Encourage children to feel proud of who they are and to stand up for each other.
Use words of caring and respect: “thank you,” “please,” “Let’s work together.” Discuss stereotypes children see in books and on TV. Offer opportunities to discuss differences and how children feel about them.

Embracing diversity
Multicultural education is necessary because children live in a diverse society. Child care facilities and schools need a multicultural approach because children notice differences early and can develop prejudice.
Begin by knowing and respecting the children and their families. Make sure your facility reflects those families in its staff, curriculum, and environment. Teaching children about differences can help them develop tolerance and cooperation.

Education Commission of the States. Highlights.asp?recID=47.
National Association for the Education of Young Children. prep_review/2001.pdf.
Texas Education Agency. (The breakdown of children in Texas public schools is Hispanic 43 percent, Caucasian 40 percent, African American 14 percent, Asian-Pacific Islander 2.9 percent, and Native American 0.3 percent.)
Texas State Data Center.
U.S. Census Bureau. 001342.html.
York, Stacey. 2003. Rev. ed. St. Paul, Minn.: Redleaf Press.

Derman-Sparks, Louise. 1989. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children. (150-page guidebook)
1993. Sacramento, Calif.: California Department of Education. (36-min. video)
1995. Sacramento, Calif.: California Department of Education. (100-page guidebook)
Pulido-Tobiassen, Dora and Janet Gonzalez-Mena. 1999. Oakland, Calif.: California Tomorrow. (130-page notebook)
York, Stacey. 2003. Rev. ed. St. Paul, Minn.: Redleaf Press.

Note: All the resources above are available on loan to Texas residents from the ECI Collection of the Brown-Heatly Library. See the web site at or phone (512) 424-4240.

Lakeshore Learning Materials
2695 E. Dominguez St.
Carson, CA 90810
This company offers multicultural supplies, including ethnic specific block people props and People Colors® Crayons.