New Zealand is 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.
In order to meet the individual needs of the children in their care, early childhood educators (ECE) must give some thought to and understand the varied aspects of the children's life and values that are part of their culture. It's not just the children from overseas, but children who are considered ‘kiwi kids" whose cultures must be considered.
Teachers need to change their own perceptions and assumptions about what are believed to be "normal" family values and belief systems so that they can meet the children's cultural needs. 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 results indicated that there are three areas in which cultural conflicts occur. These are: daily children rearing practices and family interactions, specific cultural customs, and family or cultural biases against and preferences for specific groups.
Examples of the types of conflicts that can arise from these themes are revealed in the following comments from teachers Ritblatt and Obegic Interviewed; "I have had an Asian child who was hand fed by her parents at 18months" and "A parent believed it was bad luck to cut a baby's hair before the age of 1", while the caregiver was afraid of obstructing the child's vision. In another situation a Hispanic caregiver felt she was being compared to her Caucasian counterparts (p 6)
Ritblatt and Obegi (2005) make a concluding statement based on the results of this investigation, they 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) wrote 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 conclusion of the study is that when parents believe that they do have a say in their child's education, and are being listened to, they are then more able and prepared to get involved in activities like the transition process. But to encourage high efficacy in parent's, educators need to embrace family's different values and beliefs by acknowledging their difference and attempting to incorporate them 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.