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.