Celebrating Difference: How Culture Shapes Your Expectations and Children’s Behavior

By Barbara Kaiser and Judy Sklar Rasminsky

Black History Month may be over, but we need its lessons all year long—this year more than ever. 

The death of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and others shook us up and sent us out to protest in streets all over America. As a result, their deaths led to important victories over hate crime in the courts.

But if we as a country are going to deal successfully with hate and racism, we’d be well advised to begin at the beginning—with young children, who may already be developing bias before the age of 5.  For teachers that means recognizing our own biases and understanding how they impact our attitudes and behavior.

 Like the children in our care, every teacher is different. We come from different contexts and cultures, and everything we think, say, and do is processed through the filter of our own culture. Culture affects more than just food and holidays. It influences our values and beliefs, our gender roles, family structures, language, dress, etiquette, approach to disability, child-rearing practices, communication—and yes, our teaching style.

But because culture is not explicitly taught but is instead silently absorbed from birth onward and passed down from generation to generation, we’re seldom aware of how it shapes our identity and provides us with ground rules for interpreting and acting in the world. Even very experienced teachers probably don’t realize how their unconscious attitudes guide their interactions with children, their expectations, and their appreciation of children’s skills, abilities, and behavior.

What lens are you looking through?

Needless to say, children also see and understand the world through the lens of their culture, which may be different from ours. This makes it essential for us to see and understand our own culture. Only then can we comprehend how the cultures of the children we teach influence their behavior. And only then can we give every child a fair chance to succeed.

Think about it: In what ways has your culture determined who you are today? How were you required to behave when you were a child? What were the adult-child relationships like in your family? What behavior was expected in your school? How has your upbringing influenced your view of children’s behavior and your connection with their families?

Your culture also dictates how you communicate with others. Do you listen carefully, or do you interrupt? Do you stand close to the person you’re addressing or far away? Do you gesture or do you touch one another? Are you comfortable talking about feelings? Do you think not just about what you’re saying but also about how you’re saying it and how your message is being received?

What lenses filter children’s behavior?

Most children don’t come to child care or school knowing what you expect them to do, and you may not be aware of their cultural and behavioral expectations at home. But each child brings his or her own set of culturally based scripts, skills, talents, and values into the classroom.             

Children begin to construct their identity from understanding their place in their own family and culture and by responding to how others relate to them. To form a positive self-concept, children must honor and respect their own family and culture and have others honor and respect them too. If your classroom doesn’t reflect and validate the culture of the children you teach, they are likely to feel invisible, unimportant, incompetent, worthless, and ashamed of who they are.

But when you use culturally competent teaching strategies, children do not have to change who they are in order to fit in. Your teaching style, expectations, and program take every child’s culture and learning style into consideration.

Bear in mind that what children know when they first enter your classroom is a reflection of the opportunities they’ve had and the skills they’ve needed to function within their own cultural group. It doesn’t indicate what they’re capable of doing and learning.

The world’s lens

Anthropologists look at culture in terms of individual versus group orientation. People in most of the world have different cultural values from White European Americans, but our schools and early childhood centers utilize and teach European American values: individualism, independence, self-direction, initiative, and competitiveness. 

However, other cultures emphasize interdependence—being closely connected, first and foremost part of a community where self-esteem is based on contributions to the good of the whole, not on individual achievement. 

These different cultural orientations have clear implications for teaching young children and clarify why children from diverse cultures may have trouble learning, understanding the rules, and following directions. These differences can appear in instruction, language, and behaviors, such as moving around in class, shouting out thoughts during circle or meeting time, placing the trains and the blocks in the same bin at clean-up, chatting with a neighbor during nap, and going to the bathroom without permission. 

Although these behaviors are usually unacceptable in a White European American classroom, they may be totally normal and acceptable in the child’s home culture. As a result of these differences, in many cases the teacher sees the children through a deficit-based lens and treats them as disruptive or attention seeking.

Cultural Misunderstanding

Play time is over. You say, “Joey, can you please put away the blocks?” 

Joey replies, “No.” 

You think he’s being defiant, but the truth is probably different. In almost every non-European American culture, parents don’t ask their children to do something. They tell them straight out what to do: “Joey, put away the blocks.”

Look again at that request of yours. It was in the form of a question. Joey honestly believes that you’re giving him a choice and it’s up to him to decide what he’ll do. 

So is this child being insolent? And what do you think you should you do?  


 As you get to know your own culture you may begin to recognize some troublesome areas.

Microaggressions. More than just insults or insensitive comments, microaggressions are specific remarks, questions, or actions that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages based on a person’s group membership. They seem to be compliments or jokes, but in reality they contain a hidden insult. Part of what makes them so disconcerting is that they occur casually, frequently, and often without intentional harm. In an early childhood setting, a typical microaggression frames children’s differences as deficits rather than assets (“We don’t do it that way here” when a child wants to do something the way she does it at home) or mispronounces or substitutes a child’s name (“Your name is so hard to pronounce. Can I call you Mary?”). 

Implicit bias. All of us have implicit biases—that is, automatic, unconscious stereotypes that form as a result of our upbringing, daily experiences, and media exposure and drive the way we take in information, judge situations and people, and make decisions. Despite the fact that they influence us at least as much as our explicit biases, they are called “implicit” because most of the time we don’t know they’re there.

Implicit bias is one of the reasons that young African American children—especially boys—are suspended and expelled from school and child care at a much higher rate than young White children. An experiment by Yale psychologist Walter S. Gilliam revealed that teachers often expect Black boys to misbehave because of their race, an assumption that is completely false.  

 Fortunately, with conscious effort we can reduce our implicit biases by recognizing them, using self-reflection, empathy, and mindfulness, and learning new information about children’s families and cultures. To check out your own biases, take the Harvard Bias Test

Structural racism. Racism is not just the result of individual bias but is actually systemic and part of our culture. That is, it’s embedded in our laws, policies, and institutions—our schools, criminal justice system, electoral system, health care, housing, military, water supply, socio-economic status, and more—and has been since the United States was founded. The racism and inequities that people of color face today are the legacy of our country’s structure and its history of slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow laws.

Inequitable opportunities, privileges, and life experience based on economic class deeply affect young children’s lives. Although a family’s income doesn’t determine how much they love their child or how skilled they are at parenting, poverty can make the fundamental necessities for their children’s healthy growth and development (such as safe housing, nutritious food, regular health care) very difficult or impossible to get. How does this reality impact your relationship with the children and their families, the opportunities you offer, and your expectations of children’s ability and behavior? What can you do to change things?

Cross cultural competence

Understanding your own culture and the culture of the children you teach offers an important step toward better care and learning. So how can you acquire this understanding?

Cross cultural competence is something we all should be striving for. It is the key to working effectively with all children and their families and requires us to:

–be self aware—to understand ourselves, our culture, our biases, and our level of curiosity about getting to know others

–have an open attitude and awareness of others and be able to appreciate differences as well as similarities

–develop a knowledge and understanding of the cultures of the children and families we teach

–be able to adapt our communication and teaching style to different individuals, groups, and cultures

Cross cultural competence is an asset-based approach. At its heart is the belief that every child is unique and interacts differently with the world, and it embraces the idea that all children have knowledge, beliefs, and patterns of interaction that teachers can build on to teach new concepts and skills. 

So how do we recognize and teach children with different skills, knowledge, and abilities if what they’ve learned so far in their home culture doesn’t apply to ours? Your interest shows you care about them. When you make positive observations and ask questions about things that are unique to them, you help them to become more open to learning.

Equitable is an adjective that means fair or impartial, and equitable practice means providing the support that each child and family need. Equity in early childhood education requires eliminating obstacles to opportunity regardless of children’s gender, family background, language, and economic status. Knowing each child’s preferences and strengths will allow you to offer a program that reinforces and integrates the children’s interests and strengths. Do you know what engages each child? Where each one’s talents lie? Whether they feel comfortable in structured settings? In large or small groups?

Families are a powerful source of information—they naturally pass along the ways that people in their culture use to survive and succeed. Children’s interactions with their family often act as the archetype of how to behave by demonstrating a variety of cultural rules, expectations, and taboos. Try to find out what’s important to each family—their cultural norms, values, traditions, and goals. What do they want their child to learn?

It is up to you to ensure that children think differences are positive. Spend time modeling and teaching them how to notice, appreciate, and support others. Fill your shelves with books featuring diverse children and families and encourage open discussion about the similarities and differences among the children in the class. Teach them that it is our differences that make us special. 

Be aware of the children’s interactions. Are they treating each other differently based on race, ethnicity, or gender? Work with them to resolve the issue and use these situations to inspire your story selection, activities, and projects. When the children know that difference is a good thing, they feel more comfortable asking questions and talking about the differences they notice in themselves and in the people in their lives. And when you discuss race, ethnicity, disabilities, LGBTQ families, and even issues like weight and poverty, you are working to prevent biases from forming. 

Understanding the impact of your own cultural background as well as that of the children is a process, and it will take time to recognize and work through your patterns of thinking. The ultimate objective is to make sure that every child comes away with a strong sense of self-awareness and pride in who he or she is.

What Does Critical Race Theory Have to Do with Early Childhood Education?

By Barbara Kaiser and Judy Sklar Rasminsky

You’ve probably heard of critical race theory (CRT for short), and you may even know that it’s causing shouting matches and threats of violence in meetings of school boards across the country—school boards that are recalling and replacing their members in record numbers. 

Why are they so upset, and why is this such a contentious issue? 

When civil rights reforms like Brown v. Board of Education (1954) failed to eliminate racial inequality in the United States by the 1970s, academics at law schools wanted to know why. Their conclusion, now known as CRT, was that racism is not just the result of individual bias but is actually systemic. That is, racism is embedded in our laws, policies, and institutions—our schools, criminal justice system, elections, economy, health care, housing, military, water supply, and more—and has been since the United States was founded. The racism and inequities that people of color face today are the legacy of our country’s structure and its history of slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow laws. 

This notion of systemic, structural racism displeases many conservatives, from Tucker Carlson to former President Trump to parents fed up with the pandemic and angry at having their children out of school. Although CRT remains an academic subject taught almost exclusively in higher education, they have misinterpreted it and turned it into a catchall phrase for any initiative that advocates improving outcomes for children of color in elementary, middle, and high schools. 

Many states are passing laws to outlaw what they are calling CRT; banning books, culturally responsive teaching, restorative justice, social emotional learning, and curricula that focus on different cultures; curtailing training to reduce implicit bias; and forbidding anything that could make White students feel “discomfort or guilt” because of their race or sex. 

But what does CRT have to do with child care? 

But, you may ask, how does this affect young children? Why would we teach 3- and 4-year-olds about slavery? And yet, because eliminating racism and inequality is so important, some schools are doing just that. 

Learning about racism and inequity has become more urgent since the death of George Floyd and many others and the Black Lives Matter movement has taken hold. But schools, school districts, early childhood organizations, and early childhood centers nationwide recognized some time ago that children of color were being treated unequally, and the profession began taking steps to remedy the situation. In 2019, the National Association for the Education of Young Children adopted a position statement on advancing equity in early childhood education, and Exchange Press put out “Focus on Race.” This year the NAEYC published a comprehensive book on the subject, Advancing Equity and Embracing Diversity in Early Childhood Education.

Children pick up clues about race and racial bias from their environment at an early age. At 3 months, babies prefer people who are the same color as their caregivers, and by 4 or 5 years White children may say they don’t want to have friends who are Black. As they get older, children hear biased remarks on the bus and in the classroom, see racial violence on television, observe that everyone in their school is the same color, note that there are very few people of color in their textbooks and among their teachers, and may even notice that when a Black child and a White child commit the same infraction, the Black child is more likely to be suspended.

All of this is very confusing, and the research shows that colorblindness is not a solution. The issue is not about avoiding differences; it is about appreciating them. Although some educators want to restrict discussion of race and racism, many others believe it is their job to teach children to be critical thinkers and understand the world. Without help, children may invent their own false explanations of what’s happening, for instance that children of color are suspended because they aren’t as smart as White children. On the other hand, open conversations about race can reduce prejudice in White children and raise self-esteem in children of color.


Tackling Race

Many teachers need training and practice in focusing on racial issues in the classroom, says Diane Hughes, Professor of Applied Psychology at New York University. She and other experts provide these tips:

  • Talk about race directly, not just about equality and kindness. Be intentional about what you want children to know. Frankness helps them to identify bias more easily. (An activity for young children might be one where they mix paint to create a color that looks like their own skin color. When they paint their hands with it, they can see how it matches and realize that everyone’s skin is a different color.)  
  • Choose and discuss books, videos, and movies with characters from many backgrounds. When all the characters are White, say so and ask why. Why doesn’t this represent our world? What was the writer thinking? Who has power and who doesn’t? Who is missing from the story?
  • Create opportunities for children of different races to learn about each other and respect the gifts each of them brings to the classroom.
  • If children make racist comments, ask them for more information before you respond. What did they mean? What did they think they were saying? Where did they learn to say this?

What can we teach?

Under new state laws, talk of race and racism may be prohibited. So what can we do? 

We repeat: Early childhood educators aren’t teaching CRT or discussing structural racism, and it isn’t clear when it would be appropriate to introduce these issues. At what age can children grasp them? (It seems unlikely that Piaget and Vygotsky have an answer to this problem.) 

The subject of slavery, for example, is far too complicated to make sense to young children. How could we possibly explain that White people felt they had the right to enslave others? Frighteningly, the result might be that the children pretend to be slaves and slaveowners (as happened in a high school in Traverse City, MI).

As human beings, educators should know about systemic racism. But perhaps what’s even more important for creating equity in the classroom is for teachers to be culturally competent themselves—to be aware of their own culture, of who they are and where they come from and their own implicit biases, as well as the culture of each child they teach. In this way they can build relationships and an inclusive community where all the children feel they belong, thereby enabling everyone, regardless of skin color or cultural background, to feel respected and safe, a necessity for learning.

In actuality, best practice in early childhood that emphasizes social emotional learning is already doing this. ECEs should be—and are—teaching what is essential to creating equity: to respect others and their differences, to recognize and appreciate the differences in the colors of their skin, the languages they speak, and the abilities they have. Early childhood educators can make a difference when they encourage children to recognize everyone’s strengths; when they teach them to empathize, to be kind, to be caring, and to acknowledge and believe that everyone has rights and everyone can make a contribution to society.

Further reading

Strasse, J., & Coplin, L. (2021). Beginning (or continuing) the journey to a more equitable classroom. Teaching Young Children, 14(2). 21-24.

Weir, K. (June 2, 2021). Raising anti-racist children. American Psychological Association, 52(4). https://www.apa.org/monitor/2021/06/anti-racist-children

Wright, B. L. (2021). Now read this: Books that promote race, identity, agency, and voice. Teaching Young Children, 14(2). 25-27.