New Zealand has become a multi-cultural society. Its diversity is rapidly expanding with immigrants and refugees from around the world settling into our communities.The need for culturally sensitive teachers working in environments that are sympathetic to other cultures has never been more required than now.
A person's culture includes many diverse aspects of their life and values, all which early childhood educators (ECE) need to consider and understand in regard to the individual needs of each child in their care. These cultural considerations apply not only to children from overseas but also to the children who are considered 'kiwi kids".
Meeting the cultural needs of children requires teachers to change their own attitudes and assumptions about what are considered "normal" family values and belief systems. It also means understanding where and when changes in the early childhood environment are necessary to make the child and their family feel comfortable, recognized and valued in the early childhood community. Before we can begin to change our attitudes and child care environment we need to learn more about the cultures of the families that we have enrolled within our centres. Without a good knowledge of a family's background and important cultural differences it is impossible for parent/teacher partnerships to be developed. Without this understanding we will not be able to provide quality care and education.
Ritblatt and Obegi (2005) research cultural competence in American early childhood educators and the environments of early childhood centres. They acknowledge that in child care setting, a culturally knowledgeable person is an individual who has made a commitment to learning about the cultural group as a whole, and finding accurate information about the uniqueness of a family's individual culture. Their result s indicated that child care professionals came across culture conflicts which could be divided into three themes, these were: daily children rearing practices/interactions, specific cultural customs and biases/preferences to specific groups.
In their interviews with teachers, Ritblatt and Obegic came across comments that illustrate these areas; "I have had an Asian child who was hand fed by her parents at eighteen months" and "A parent believed it was bad luck to cut a baby's hair before the age of one", while the caregiver was concerned with the hair getting in the child's eyes. In a separate situation a Hispanic caregiver felt that people were comparing her with her Caucasian peers (p 6)
In their concluding statement on their investigation's results, Ritblatt and Obegi (2005) state, "it is crucial that caregivers receive more training specifically aimed at increasing communication training about working with culturally different children and families".
Pelletier and Brent (2002) prepared a research paper entitled Parent participation in children's school readiness: The effects of parental self-efficacy, cultural diversity and teacher's strategies. They found that parents with high self-efficacy can make a positive difference in the process of transitioning to school and highlights how parents form different cultures may be feeling when trying to transition their child. The study emphasizes that different families have various beliefs and expectations that they bring to the experience of school. As an example, in some cultures parental participation in school issues is neither desirable nor encouraged, whereas parents from other cultures may possibly participate very actively, by challenging policies. According to Pelletier and Brent (2002), "When teachers engage in culturally responsive communication with parents, an opportunity for continuing dialogue, and the potential for partnership between the schools and the families, are created" (Delgado- Gaitanm 1991 p 4). The study concluded that when parents believe they are able to effectively influence their children's education, they are more capable and willing to become involved with activities such as the transition process. However, to get the most out of the parents' participation, teachers must acknowledge and embrace the different family values, and try to include those differences in the transition process.
There's much more to being culturally aware than token acceptance of families of different ethnic backgrounds, and being friendly to them. Being culturally aware is about being prepared to find out about and understand other people's belief systems, life values and world views as best we can. Educators who know how to do this professionally will encourage the children in the centre to do the same, and children will naturally learn to accept and include others no matter what their race, religion or colour.