Education Cultural Diversity in Early Childhood Education
Angel Chan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0289


This article identifies and unpacks key ideas and concepts related to the topic of cultural diversity in early childhood education (ECE). It suggests annotated resources to support understanding the topic, focusing on interrelationships between culture, language, identity, and sense of belonging; critical approaches of multicultural education; and equitable, inclusive, and transformative pedagogies. The word “culture” is multifaceted and does not have a clear-cut definition. It includes symbols (e.g., languages), artifacts (e.g., traditional costumes), and practices (e.g., celebrations of festivals). It structures our ways of life and gives us our identities. Due to global human migration and mobility, cultural diversity is now a common phenomenon in many countries. Diverse cultures, however, do not always manage to coexist. The notions of respecting, embracing, and sustaining cultural diversity are promoted and advocated in an increasing number of international documents, such as those published by the United Nations. Cultural diversity-related issues need to be addressed to promote inclusion, social justice, and cohesion. Education plays a crucial role in supporting children to develop intercultural competences and a disposition to accept and appreciate diversity and difference. ECE is ideal for enacting this role because it is better to cultivate dispositions from a young age. Early childhood, in general, covers the period from birth to age eight. While ECE caters for pre-school-aged children, school entry age differs across countries. Compared to school teachers, ECE teachers are likely to have more opportunities to communicate and work with families, thereby supporting children and families to develop intercultural competences. International researchers have examined the topic of cultural diversity extensively and recommended many teaching strategies. When developing pedagogies to address cultural diversity-related issues, one size does not fit all because each family’s beliefs and practices are unique, and cultural practices evolve. It is pertinent for teachers to be culturally sensitive and responsive so that families feel respected and secure in maintaining their cultures, and children are proud of their heritages and able to develop positive and healthy identities. An inclusive and equitable pedagogy ensures that all cultures will be recognized and sustained. Because ECE is a (comparatively) small field of study, it often borrows ideas from the school sector and other disciplines, such as sociology, psychology, and philosophy. Hence, while some resources suggested in this article are non-ECE-specific, their key ideas are appliable in the ECE context.

Critical Cultural Diversity Perspectives

Cultural diversity typically refers to diversity in cultural heritages, such as diverse home languages and ethnic- and faith-based practices. The study of cultural diversity is also often synonymous with multiculturalism, which usually promotes toleration, inclusion, and celebration of diverse cultural practices. James A. Banks has written extensively on multiculturalism and multicultural education, for example, Banks and McGee Banks 2019, and within ECE, the work of Louise Derman-Sparks, such as Derman-Sparks, et al. 2011, advocates using an anti-bias curriculum approach. Many researchers have critiqued the “tourist” approach to cultural diversity or multiculturalism. This tokenistic approach promotes the sharing and learning of traditional foods, costumes, and artifacts during an annual event, such as the celebrations of different festivals. It does not address inequalities experienced by children and families who do not belong to the dominant cultural group because not all cultures receive the same level of recognition and respect. Lisa Delpit’s award-winning book reminds teachers to pay attention to power imbalances (Delpit 2006). Contemporary research, such as Nieto and Bode 2018, Pacini-Ketchabaw and Berikoff 2008, Robinson and Jones-Diaz 2016, and Schoorman 2011, tends to promote using a critical approach to examine cultural diversity issues, focusing on difference, power relation, discrimination, and inequality, advocating for social justice, and interrogating multicultural education within the broader social, economic, and political contexts. Chan 2011, Rhedding-Jones 2002, and Rhedding-Jones 2005 advocate using the approach of critical multiculturalism in ECE to disrupt dominant, normalized, and institutionalized discourses. Their work highlights the vital role of language and discourse in the study of cultural diversity in ECE because worldviews and discourses are created, promoted, and reinforced using language. Early childhood is the critical period for language development and exploration of worldviews. The language used in ECE settings should be inclusive. Policies, such as curricula, and resources, such as children’s texts, that perpetuate stereotypical assumptions and reinforce taken-for-granted discourses should be challenged and critiqued (Chan 2011, Rhedding-Jones 2002, and Rhedding-Jones 2005).

  • Banks, J. A., and C. A. McGee Banks, eds. 2019. Multicultural education: Issues and perspectives. 10th ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley.

    The chapters in this edited book support teachers in understanding complex issues and concepts of culture and multicultural education, working effectively with children, families, and communities, and improving diverse learners’ achievement.

  • Chan, A. 2011. Critical multiculturalism: Supporting early childhood teachers to work with diverse immigrant families. International Research in Early Childhood Education 2.1: 63–75.

    Some dominant ECE discourses do not align with, or respond to, immigrant families’ diverse childrearing beliefs and aspirations. This paper uses key ideas from critical multiculturalism to identify and problematize these ECE discourses. It suggests using concepts from the framework to develop inclusive and equitable pedagogies.

  • Delpit, L. 2006. Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. Revised ed. New York: New Press.

    This award-winning book highlights miscommunication and power imbalance between “white teachers” and “children of color,” prejudice, stereotype, and cultural assumptions in education settings and systems. The first edition was published in 1995.

  • Derman-Sparks, L., P. G. Ramsey, and J. Olsen Edwards. 2011. What if all the kids are white? Anti-bias multicultural education with young children and families. 2d ed. New York: Teachers College Press.

    This book explores racism in the United States and the construction of white identities. It provides pedagogical suggestions in supporting children to enact anti-racism by challenging assumptions and inequalities. It encourages the cultivation of a caring environment in ECE settings. The authors have written extensively on anti-bias and multicultural education. Derman-Sparks was involved in the publication of the Anti-Bias Curriculum (Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1989), which has been widely cited in ECE research.

  • Nieto, S., and P. Bode. 2018. Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education. 7th ed. New York: Pearson.

    This book analyzes the effectiveness of multicultural education against broader social, economic, and political factors. It uses cases and stories to examine the experiences of teachers and learners from diverse backgrounds. The authors also provide suggestions to construct an inclusive environment. Sonia Nieto has published widely on diversity and multicultural education issues.

  • Pacini-Ketchabaw, V., and A. Berikoff. 2008. The politics of difference and diversity: From young children’s violence to creative power expressions. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood 9.3: 256–264.

    DOI: 10.2304/ciec.2008.9.3.256

    This paper uses children’s everyday dialogue to interrogate critical issues of diversity and difference, including the discourses of whiteness, power relations, and children’s perceptions of race-based identities. The authors highlight the limitations of multicultural education and the anti-bias curriculum approach and argue that diversity and difference need to be examined using critical theoretical lenses.

  • Rhedding-Jones, J. 2002. An undoing of documents and other texts: Towards a critical multiculturalism in early childhood education. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood 3.1: 90–116.

    DOI: 10.2304/ciec.2002.3.1.10

    This paper suggests using a critical form of multiculturalism to disrupt normalized and institutionalized discourses in curriculum documents. Critical textual analysis is a methodology commonly applied in ECE research. The article encourages teachers to transform monocultural practices by considering “minority children” to be a resource.

  • Rhedding-Jones, J. 2005. Questioning diversity. In Critical issues in early childhood education. Edited by N. Yelland, 131–145. Berkshire, UK: Open Univ. Press.

    This chapter questions and problematizes a normalized understanding of diversity, such as the typical celebrations of “exotic” cultural practices. It uses scenarios from ECE settings to deconstruct taken-for-granted discourses, highlighting the importance of critical diversity pedagogy. It suggests using a culturally and linguistically relevant program that is anti-bias and anti-discriminatory.

  • Robinson, K., and C. Jones-Diaz. 2016. Diversity and difference in early childhood education: Issues for theory and practice. 2d ed. New York: Open Univ. Press.

    This book draws on contemporary theories to confront diversity-related key issues, including racism, migration, and indigeneity. It challenges and disrupts taken-for-granted discourses and explores possibilities to work with children in a socially just manner. The authors also provide theorized and research-informed implications for practice.

  • Schoorman, D. 2011. Reconceptualizing teacher education as a social justice undertaking: Underscoring the urgency for critical multiculturalism in early childhood education. Childhood Education 87.5: 341–344.

    DOI: 10.1080/00094056.2011.10523210

    This article argues against using a “one-size-fits-all” or standardization approach in ECE because children enrolled are increasingly culturally diverse. It advocates using critical reflection, culturally relevant pedagogy, and a justice-oriented approach in the teacher education program. It also emphasizes the promotion of teachers’ intercultural communication skills and sound knowledge of cultural differences.

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