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Culturally Responsive Teaching in Early Childhood Education

Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, University of Wisconsin teacher, educator, and pedagogical theorist, introduced the term culturally relevant pedagogy more than 20 years ago. Dr. Ladson-Billings describes this approach to teaching as one “that calls for engaging learners whose experiences and cultures are traditionally excluded from mainstream settings.” Decades of research and analysis have been devoted to this work, and subsequently the term culturally responsive teaching was coined by Dr. Geneva Gay to describe the focus on teachers’ strategies and practices.

Dr. Gay is a professor of education at the University of Washington-Seattle and recipient of numerous awards in education. In her view, instructional techniques, instructional materials, student-teacher relationships, classroom climate, and self-awareness all require positive changes. She believes in the importance of providing opportunities for students to think critically about inequities they or their peers have experienced.

Making Culturally Responsive Teaching a Top Priority

The U.S. Census Bureau projects that more than half of all U.S. public school students will be minority students by 2020. In order to meet the diverse needs of students who come from different economic and cultural backgrounds, teachers are learning to identify, respect, and take advantage of these differences to improve student learning and self-awareness.

An asset-based approach, in which students are encouraged to develop a positive cultural identity,  is the alternative to deficit-oriented teaching methods which view languages, cultures, and identities of students as barriers to learning. When students see themselves and their communities reflected and valued in the classroom, engagement and learning can grow.

Benefits of Culturally Responsive Teaching

A recent article on Edutopia featured story time for second- and third-grade students. Teacher Natalya Gibbs read the story Princess Grace, which is not a typical fairy tale. The central character learns that not all princesses wear crowns and frilly dresses. Grace, who looks nothing like the girl pictured on the book’s cover, decides to attend her town’s annual parade dressed as a Gambian princess, reflecting her different identity and culture.

After hearing the story, Gibbs’ students were excited to share their own experiences of being different. They recognized that some characters and stories reflect their own reality, like mirrors, but that other stories and characters open windows into the lives, customs and beliefs of others. “When there is diversity in classroom materials, students connect to the experiences of others — and have their own reflected and valued.”

As a New America report states, “Research shows that students who develop a positive sense of racial and ethnic identity are more interested in befriending people of different backgrounds.” Other positive outcomes include academic achievement and persistence, improved attendance, and a greater interest in school.

How Teachers Can Become More Culturally Responsive

Teach Away suggests some ways that early-childhood teachers can work on becoming more culturally responsive.

  • Assessing your own behavior creates an awareness of and sensitivity to the cultural differences not just between students, but also between yourself and your students.
  • Getting to know your students as individuals in a one-on-one setting will help you learn about them and put them at ease.
  • Encouraging students to have positive interactions with each other, where they can learn in a judgment-free environment, fosters critical thinking.
  • By including all cultures in your teaching and adapting activities and materials to consider all students’ backgrounds and readiness levels, teachers can encourage students to become more engaged in learning.

Early childhood education leaders can be a positive influence in shaping a healthy and rich environment for students by fostering culturally responsive teaching methods and philosophies among their teachers. Administrators, managers, and advocates of early childhood education can play a key role in this important initiative by encouraging teachers to create cross-cultural and developmentally appropriate learning experiences for children of all ages.

Learn more about Southern Oregon University’s online Master of Science in Education program with a Concentration in Leadership in Early Childhood Education.


Edutopia: Culturally Responsive Teaching

Teach Away: 5 Steps to Becoming a Culturally Responsive Teacher

New America: Understanding Culturally Responsive Teaching

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