ECE Resources

Principles for culturally responsive teaching in early childhood education


There can be no recipe or script for culturally responsive teaching because every group of families and children has differing backgrounds and their own unique needs, capabilities and interests. Early childhood teachers need to know about this diversity in order to adapt their practice to suit the cultural practices, beliefs and values of the child and their family, and to support all children to participate fully and maintain their cultural identities. This guide offers some general, research-based principles and suggestions to empower teachers, in concert with families, to discover different ways of dealing with issues of diversity.

Reflecting on oneself and one’s own culture

It is not possible to be sensitive to someone else’s ways of being and doing until you are sensitive to the impact of your cultural values, beliefs and practices on your own behaviour with children. Exploration of your own cultural and ethnic identity should be an ongoing and evolving process in which you reflect upon your upbringing and family values, your cultural beliefs and biases, and the assumptions around learning and childhood to which they lead. These assumptions and beliefs will influence your perceptions (for example, of children’s competency or agency), as well as your practices (such as soliciting children’s opinions). Be aware that the practices and principles that are currently valid according to mainstream culture are not universally true, but also the product of a cultural context.

  • Reflect on particular decision points or teaching practices and interactions with diverse families that you find challenging or uncomfortable, in order to uncover hidden values and beliefs.
  • Consider in what ways your practices and routines are influenced by dominant cultural practices, particularly in regard to eating, sleeping, toileting, communication, reading and play.
  • Notice how pedagogical and bureaucratic practices, for example, valuing children’s independence (which marks some children as needy or deficient), or notions of parent partnership (which is not appropriate or easy for some families), privilege some families over others, and critically examine whether your perspective on ‘quality’ early childhood education needs to be adapted to incorporate diverse perspectives.

Reflecting on other cultures

While ethnicity and culture must be recognised as important in the identity of children and families, stereotypes must be avoided. Gain some knowledge about the cultures of the children and families that attend your setting as a starting point for understanding children and families, but be aware that there are many differences between and within cultural groups, and that cultural identities are complex, fluid and multiple.

  • Develop your cross-cultural competency by immersing yourself in real life experiences in order to develop connections and deep understanding, and take every opportunity to become involved in family and community events.
  • Find out about the specific practices, perspectives and beliefs of families, and aim to understand.
  • Appreciate different ways of viewing children’s development, which doesn’t mean discarding your own beliefs and practices, but instead stretching your knowledge and thinking to be open to possibilities that are not necessarily incompatible.
  • Use minority families’ multiple meanings and perspectives to help you deconstruct practice and critically challenge the status quo and longstanding pedagogical practices and beliefs.

Developing positive attitudes towards diversity

Attitudes related to being comfortable and supportive of diversity are more important to developing cross-cultural competencies than becoming an expert on every possible kind of cultural practice and belief. Research finds that culturally responsive early childhood settings in New Zealand have high levels of respect for culture. Positive attitudes involve commitment to culturally responsive practices and to social justice, genuine interest and curiosity to learn about families’ cultures and lifestyles, flexibility and openness to change, humility, empathy and sensitivity.

  • Develop positive environments which are inclusive, safe, caring and respectful, where difference is seen as normal and there is unconditional acceptance for all children and families.
  • Enact values such as welcoming, kindness, hospitality, taking care of and responsibility for others, and respect, and reinforce them daily: for example, you might have a teacher stand at the door as families arrive and as they leave, to secure an interaction with each family for welcome and farewell.
  • Share a belief that all children can succeed and see success as complex in regard to children and families’ diversity.

Working with families as a valuable resource

Genuine and heartfelt, long-term relationships are a key priority for bridging cultural distance and disconnect, and for learning about home practices and beliefs. Research shows that teachers find it difficult to build appropriate knowledge of children from minority backgrounds without parental input. Use strategies such as appropriate verbal and non-verbal communication, attentiveness, respect, sincerity, home visits and invitations for genuine collaboration, and allow lengthy periods for getting to know each other. Be careful that surface appearances do not influence your behaviours, interactions or perspectives, and try to suspend judgement and accept what families tell you as valuable information.

  • Promote conversation and dialogue through careful use of time and space, and lots of cups of tea or coffee. Convey to families that you really want to understand, and focus on receiving and acknowledging families’ perspectives rather than on projecting your own ideas, or trying to interpret the situation from your own cultural, philosophical and pedagogical standpoint.
  • Engage in discussions about values, sharing your own experiences, beliefs and values, and encouraging families to talk about their own values, perhaps using general knowledge about a family’s culture as a basis for conversation. Weave families’ values into the curriculum and negotiate goals, pedagogies and programmes. Aim for a paralleling of different perspectives that grants value to each, rather than attempting to merge minority views into the dominant culture or picking the ‘best’ way.
  • Acknowledge and address cultural inequities and disadvantage. Be aware of common areas of disconnect and try to be proactive in identifying the critical issues for families. Create opportunities to discuss these in ways that are respectful, non-judgemental and participatory.
  • Encourage families to play active roles in the setting. Don’t pressure families to share or perform aspects of their culture, but focus on valuing the cultural practices of minority families and building confidence in families to share their practices with the setting’s community.
  • Encourage families to participate in constructing knowledge about children, and in decision-making about children’s learning and development through conversations or e-portfolio annotations.

Observing and analysing

Analytical approaches which incorporate both observation of children and dialogue with families can be useful to help guide the construction of a culturally responsive curriculum. Theoretical frameworks such as ‘funds of knowledge’ (which focus on practices that are passed on through families over generations and adapted to new situations) can support you to recognise, value and explore children’s interests, skills, knowledge and learning embedded in their everyday practices, routines and activities at home.

  • Spend time observing what families do and how they talk about what they do, as well as who children are, how they think, what they value and everything they can do.
  • Respond to conversations initiated by children and ask children about their families, what they did over the weekend, and what they are interested in. Notice the ways children communicate: consider how they do or do not use humour, relate to other people, approach new tasks and react to praise.
  • Look out for children expressing their working theories about their culture, identity and language, and intentionally plan conversations and provocations to encourage children to share their thinking.
  • Consider themes of power and inequity when observing children. For example, note patterns in interactions which indicate social exclusion, and ways in which children are using culturally diverse materials.


Cultural responsiveness involves interpreting and delivering the curriculum in a way that is effective for each child and appropriate to their social and cultural context. This will involve applying deep and critical thinking, and adapting and modifying your approach to teaching and learning as your understanding of the unique and diverse needs of children grows. Recognising all children are different doesn’t mean they need the provision of different experiences but rather that you understand the diverse ways they respond to shared experiences. However, basing curriculum on children’s lives and building on the social and cultural capital of children, families and teachers will allow for greater multicultural significance in the programme.

  • Design learning experiences that position children as experts in relation to their particular interests and funds of knowledge from home, and enable them to utilise familiar learning strategies. Make pedagogical decisions that suit children’s particular characteristics and learning preferences rather than a generic ideal.
  • Value playful ways of knowing and being to empower children’s language, play and ideas, and to create space for them to explore their home and community funds of knowledge.
  • Offer various opportunities to learn, including learning through observation, trying things on their own, or with a partner or group. Support children’s own strategies for managing interactions and activities in the setting, and encourage the use of cultural strategies (such as home language, social choices such as high respect for teachers, parental practices, and attitudes to learning such as persistence and commitment) as well as interactions and relationships with peers and teachers of a similar cultural and language background.
  • Negotiate caregiving routines sensitively and use culturally familiar language and cultural norms in interactions with children, for example, using humour, or using direct requests (‘put on your coat’) rather than indirect requests (‘do you think you could put on your coat?’).
  • See all aspects of the curriculum, including ideas of child-centred play and exploration, as open to challenge and reworking, and find relevant, local concepts for responsive curriculum and assessment.
  • Explicitly interrogate incidents of racism and cultural stereotyping, and engage children’s curiosity regarding social and cultural differences and similarities through group dialogue, problem solving and inquiry.


Resources can be found in staff, management committees, children, and families. Teachers and families may have skills that they have not shared, and children too have a high capacity to direct their own learning and play and to support each other. Research shows that, while children’s learning experiences depends on the use of the cultural tools of the family, these cultural tools are only employed if the early childhood setting environment is receptive to them. When children can find their family culture in the setting and apply their cultural tools, they are able to mix, transfer and borrow skills, values and knowledges in order to have their needs met and experience success.

Physical resources should be responsive and sensitive to families’ cultures and heritages, and embedded into the daily programme, rather than relegated to a wall display that is rarely referred to, or an occasional celebration of a cultural festival. Books, images and posters show children what and whom is valued, so these should reflect and validate children’s cultural identities to help children feel emotionally secure, as well as offer them a range of positive identities and possible futures. Be aware that children who are unfamiliar with any of the practices or activities of the setting may be marginalised as they don’t know what they are supposed to do. Activities such as hand painting and sand play, or questioning and verbalising opinions, may be unfamiliar to children of particular cultural backgrounds, or children might have difficulty adapting to a self-directed play environment. Providing dress up costumes or food props related to different cultures will do little to mitigate this.

  • Invite families into the setting and personalise opportunities for them to get involved. Seek people in the community to teach children about a different culture or language, but don’t place boundaries around what might be contributed by a visitor, and try to build sustained and reciprocal relationships rather than one-off events.
  • If you have a minority cultural background, implement your own cultural resources within the setting’s programme.
  • Be careful not to celebrate superficial differences (such as food choices) and dig deeper to identify resources that support children’s and families’ funds of knowledge.
  • Employ staff from different cultural backgrounds, and particularly staff who share similar cultural backgrounds to the families that attend your setting. While encouraging children to use their home languages with teachers and each other, also intentionally learn phrases from children so that you can build on their linguistic skills during learning and teaching. Encourage children to teach each other their home languages.
  • Offer open-ended and manipulative materials for children to construct and express meaning in their own way.

Further Reading

Cooper, M., &  Hedges, H. (2014). Beyond participation: What we learned from Hunter about collaboration with Pasifika children and families. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 15(2), 165-75.

Durand, T. M. (2010). Celebrating diversity in early care and education settings: Moving beyond the margins. Early Child Development and Care, 180 (7), 835-48. doi: 10.1080/03004430802466226

Mitchell, L., Bateman, A., & Ouko, A. (2015). Teaching and learning in culturally diverse early childhood settings. Hamilton, NZ: Wilf Malcolm Institute of Educational Research.

Understanding the families you work with: Reflective questions to uncover cultural differences.


Dr Vicki Hargraves

Vicki runs our ECE webinar series and also is responsible for the creation of many of our ECE research reviews. Vicki is a teacher, mother, writer, and researcher living in Marlborough. She recently completed her PhD using philosophy to explore creative approaches to understanding early childhood education. She is inspired by the wealth of educational research that is available and is passionate about making this available and useful for teachers.

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