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Preparing Children for a Multicultural World

By: the Action Alliance for Children

A light-skinned African American girl comes home from preschool in tears because her Latino playmate, who has approximately the same skin tone, says he won't marry her because she is too dark. During play time, she refuses to play with dark-skinned dolls.

A Latina mom drops her daughter off at preschool in a formal dress and patent leather shoes, hair bedecked with ribbons. The teacher, who had planned a painting project, says, "Gosh, can't you just put on some jeans?"

At preschool Sarah says to Ng, "You're stupid. You don't know how to talk." Ng's home language is Vietnamese.

Even before they can talk, children begin to notice differences—in skin color, eye shape, language, hair, etc. And they start absorbing information about biases and stereotypes from television, peers, and, especially, parents and teachers. In the preschool years, "prejudices and biases are infiltrating into [children's] self-esteem," says Lee Klinger Lesser, head teacher at the Children's Center at College of Marin and co-chair of Bay Area Network for Diversity Trainers in Early Childhood (BANDTEC).

"We're raising children for a global world," says child development specialist Jean Monroe, who co-chairs BANDTEC with Lesser. "Since we know that much of a child's personality is established early, the values of respect of and appreciation for difference need to be part of early care." Leaders in the diversity field recommend the following steps.


Identify your own biases.

A white child care provider is walking down the street with a group of children. A group of Latino teenaged boys approaches. Unconsciously, she tightens her grip on the children's hands and moves to cross the street.

"Those subtle reactions give your children messages" about our discomfort with difference, says Dora Pulido Tobiassen, project manager at California Tomorrow.

To address diversity issues in their child care programs, "most people have to start with their own attitudes and beliefs," says Monroe. When communicating with children and parents, "be very aware of what you are feeling and why."

The key is "thinking before you speak, and listening, and really hearing what others say," says Barbara Daniels-Love, volunteer manager for Sonoma County People for Economic Opportunity (SCPEO) Head Start. Exploring personal biases can make staff feel uneasy, says Love, but "sitting with discomfort and uneasiness is part of the process" of overcoming prejudice.


Make your program reflect the children in your care.

  • Classroom decorations: Instead of using posters of Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez, blow up photographs of the children and their families, or neighborhood activities, recommends Monroe: "Children need concrete, hands-on, 'I-can-reach-out-and-touch-you' heroes."
    If the children are predominantly from one culture, gradually introduce other cultures in concrete ways, says SCPEO Head Start's training manager, Roberta Hunter. She recommends adding pictures of preschool children from other cultures to the class "gallery," or making "theme posters" from magazine cut-outs that show how familiar activities, such as carrying babies or making bread, are done in various cultures.
  • Books and music: Regularly read stories and play music from the cultures and languages of the children in your care. One teacher at SCPEO Head Start had each child in her class bring music from home to share and dance to.
  • Playthings: Lesser recommends incorporating everyday items from the children's cultures into play areas, such as empty boxes of common foods for the house area. Make sure that dolls reflect a variety of cultures.
  • Activities: Build the children's cultural practices into life at child care, recommends Monroe. For example, she says, "many African American children come out of melodic homes," where music is frequently played. Musical activities can help African American children feel comfortable. At the Children's Center at College of Marin, children paint family and self-portraits using a variety of true-to-life skin tones. "We're constantly looking at differences in skin color and eyes and hair," says Lesser.


Use "teachable moments" to explore diversity issues with children.

Three preschoolers are washing baby dolls of different colors. Samantha says to Elena, who's doll is brown, "You need to scrub your baby harder. She's dirty." A teacher comes over and begins a discussion with the children about skin color. "If I scrubbed my body, would my color change?" she asks.

By using the children's play as a "teachable moment," this teacher helped them safely explore issues and sort out misinformation and biases, says Christina Lalande-Bovier, resource and referral coordinator for 4Cs of Alameda County. She recommends asking children questions to let them express their ideas first. "Then you can say, 'Well, here's another way to look at it.'"

Chiang (not his real name), a four-year-old Chinese American boy, lives in a predominantly African American housing project where his family is frequently the target of harassment. He refuses to play with a girl at his child care center because she is black. One day he sees a picture of an African American man and says it's the man who stole his father's car.

In this situation, the "teachable moment" became more ongoing, recalls Lesser. First, teachers set a bottom line: It's not OK to say you're not going to play with someone because of their race, gender, ability, etc. Then at nap time a teacher approached Chiang with an African American puppet, who "talked" to him about how much it hurt her feelings that he wouldn't play with her. "He really understood that," said Lesser.

But, says Lesser, "That wasn't enough. The family was actually being threatened. He's trying to figure out what is happening in his world. We had to find out how to build support with his family and help his parents understand how it was affecting their child." Over time, Lesser invited several African American men—friends and family members of staff—to visit the center. "It allowed him to form different relationships with African American men. And he really loved it," says Lesser.


Build a partnership with parents.

Ashley, a three-year-old African American girl, keeps coming home from child care with sand imbedded in her meticulously braided hair. When her mom raises the issue with her teacher, the teacher insists that sand play is part of a healthy early childhood curriculum. Eventually, a compromise is reached: when Ashley wants to join in sand play, she wears her own, personally decorated shower cap to protect her braids. Ashley's new fashion statement is such a hit that all the other kids want one too.

Almost any aspect of care—discipline, clothing, hair, food, napping—can become a cultural minefield. For example, points out Lisa Lee of Parent Services Project, many Asian American children come to child care dressed in multiple layers—a precaution against illness in many Asian cultures. Well-meaning teachers—who believe in fostering self-reliance—encourage the children to strip off the layers if they're warm. As the teacher, says Jean Monroe, "You're not the judge. Your job is to figure out what the parent is seeking and figure out to what extent [you] can accommodate it." In the case of layered clothing, says Lee, providers and parents often compromise to a two-layer minimum.

Echoes Roberta Hunter: "You've got to be a partner with a parent. That's the only way you can validate a parent's culture." But that's not always easy, she acknowledges. "I think the hardest issues are with teachers—when you don't understand that you are coming from a cultural perspective as well." For example, says Hunter, "When someone comes in with baggy ["hip-hop"] clothes, your ECE [early childhood education] culture says to you, 'This child will trip. It's not safe.' All of your cultural beliefs come into play."

Some things, like a parent's prejudice, can't be accommodated. "It's important to say [to the parents] that [racism] is not OK in the center and it is responsibility of the center to make all children feel safe,” says Pulido Tobiassen.

"Teachers should learn about the children in their care—reading, attending festivals, asking parents to share information about their culture," says Love.

  • Use intake forms to begin a dialogue with the child's family. "One of the simplest ways to find out [about a family's culture] is by asking—from the very beginning," says Pulido Tobiassen. Ask questions like: How do you want us to identify your child's culture? What are some traditions in your family? What holidays do you celebrate? What languages are spoken? What foods do you eat? Also, tell parents that your program promotes a culture of inclusiveness, and children may come home with questions about differences.
  • Visit families at home to learn more about them. Jean Monroe recommends using home visits to figure out: "What is in this child's environment and how can I assimilate some of that in my environment?" Visits can also help teachers find strategies: "If the parents don't read, encourage them to tell a story" into a tape recorder "so a child who is feeling pressured during the day can listen to a story told by a grandmother or parent," adds Monroe.
  • Invite parents to participate in many aspects of the program. Parents can tell stories in their own languages, and share music, food, games, hobbies, or traditions in the classroom. At the Children's Center at College of Marin, parents are often brought in to translate stories or teach staff and children how to say important words in their language, such as hello, goodbye, and thank you. "It shifts the power because they are the experts. It's humbling for you to be struggling to pronounce these words," says Lesser.
  • Talk to parents on an ongoing basis "about how they feel about center practices and how that relates to what is done at home," suggests Monroe, "and then negotiate what you need to do to honor that culture and accommodate that child."


Find ways to support families' home languages.

"Gilberto can only speak Spanish," says Lesser. One day, he told the children "he felt so bad because none of the children could pronounce his name. Wei Wei [a Chinese American boy] was so proud because he said Gilberto's name perfectly." Gilberto is a doll with a name and an identity who regularly interacts with children at the center.

"Parents are often asked, 'Do you want your child to speak English?'" says Pulido Tobiassen. "They're always going to say yes. Rarely are they asked if they want the child to preserve their home language."

"A lot of [non-English-speaking] families are under a lot of pressure to lose their language," says Lesser. At her center, all activities—reading, singing, eating, circle time—incorporate the several languages spoken there. "We have pictures of fruits on the wall and practice saying them [in different languages] at meal times. Every morning we sing a hello song in different languages. It becomes part of the culture of the school."


Keep teaching, keep learning.

Helping children, parents, and ourselves understand and value difference is a long process, says Lesser. "It's not a one-time activity. It has to be an ongoing commitment to what goes on in the program." In Lesser's view, this means changing one's conception about teachers' roles: "Teachers have to really look at their job as being an advocate for children and families and to do that you have to really look at the conditions that face them. It's not just doing sweet art projects."

Should we celebrate holidays?

When you only focus on cultural diversity around the calendar, you're saying that diversity is not part of the everyday environment," says Jean Monroe of BANDTEC. "Every other day becomes 'White Day.'" Roberta Hunter, a Sonoma County Head Start training manager, agrees: "If you only do multiculturalism around the holidays, you are not doing an accurate representation of people's lives. We need to be able to convey the deep meaning [of a holiday] and not trivialize it."

Holidays are a major issue for child care providers trying to create inclusive programs. Some programs use holidays to educate children about universal values, such as emphasizing sharing and gratitude on Thanksgiving. But many holidays, like Kwanza'a, are not for everyone, Hunter points out. Her program's solution: no holiday celebrations. With or without holidays, there are many ways providers can celebrate diversity every day.

Resources for Diversity


Bay Area Network for Diversity Training in Early Childhood (BANDTEC)
(510) 658-9197
Contact: Jean Monroe or Lee Klinger Lesser, co-chairs
Training and support for early childhood professionals working on diversity issues. Currently developing a Diversity Trainers Directory for early childhood education settings

California Tomorrow
(510) 496-0220
Contact: Dora Pulido Tobiassen
Statewide organization that conducts research, provides consultation and training services, and has published materials on diversity and early childhood (see books)

California Association for the Education of Young Children (CAEYC), Leadership in Diversity Internship Program.
(626) 397-1306
Contact: Louise Derman-Sparks,
Diversity training program for CAEYC members who demonstrate leadership potential.

Child Care Health Project
(510) 839-1195
Contact: Paula Gerstenblatt
Healthline: (800) 333-3212
Diversity project focusing on biracial children. Currently developing a training module and curriculum for child care providers. Resources include bibliographies of print and online resources, and a toll-free Healthline to answer providers' questions about cultural differences relating to health and safety


Published by California Tomorrow (to order, call (510) 496-0220):

  • A Place to Begin: Working with Parents on Issues of Diversity
  • Looking In, Looking Out: Redefining Child Care and Early Education in a Diverse Society
  • Affirming Children's Roots: Cultural and Linguistic Diversity in Early Care and Education
  • Vivian Gussin Paley, You Can't Say You Can't Play, Harvard University Press, 1992.

    Louise Derman-Sparks, Carol Brunson Phillips, Asa G. Hilliard, Teaching/Learning Anti-Racism: A Developmental Approach, College Teachers Press, 1997.

    Louise Derman-Sparks and the ABC Task Force, Anti-Bias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children, National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), 1989.


    Essential Connections: 10 Keys to Culturally Sensitive Child Care, Program for Infant Toddler Caregivers. To order: (800) 995-4099.

    Early Childhood Training: Diversity, a four-part Magna Systems series created for child care providers by Janet Gonzalez-Mena. To order, call (800) 203-7060 or fax (815) 459-4280.

    This article originally appeared in the September-October 1999 issue of the Children's Advocate, published by Action Alliance for Children (