Child- and Family-specific Cultural Knowledge Is Essential

A first step to culturally sustaining programming is for staff to learn about the cultures of each family enrolled in the program and confront stereotypes.

Why It Matters

Confronting stereotypes and eliminating bias is a continuous process. It requires learning accurate information through relationships with each family. From them, staff can learn about the strengths, knowledge, and skills the child and family bring to the learning community. Understanding the cultural practices and experiences of families, or “funds of knowledge,” is essential for providing culturally sustaining environments and learning experiences.

A mother holding a paper to read in front of her child.

  • Young children are aware that differences in skin color, language, gender, and physical ability are associated with privilege and power. Young children learn bias and stereotypes by observing adult verbal and non-verbal behavior. Subtle differences in body language, tone of voice, and emotional expression during interactions with others of a different culture pass on this bias to a child. However, children taught about stereotypes, bias, and social justice issues show less bias toward groups different than their own.
  • Exploring your values, beliefs, and traditions and learning how they affect you and the way you engage with the world are steps you need to take before you can truly understand others. Prioritizing anti-bias and inclusive practice creates opportunities for meaningful reflection and equitable programming for children and families.

Connections to the HSPPS

In this section, learn about example indicators for this Multicultural Principle and how they are supported by the Head Start Program Performance Standards (HSPPS). Think about your program and your learning setting. Then, consider ways you already do these practices and ways you can more closely align to improve your practice.

Example IndicatorsConnections to the HSPPS
Staff build positive, ongoing, and goal-oriented relationships with families.

Parent and family engagement in education and child development services, 45 CFR §1302.34(b)

Family engagement, 45 CFR §1302.50

Staff connect curriculum to culture and the experiences of others.Education and Child Development Services, 45 CFR §1302 Subpart C
Staff encourage children to express their multiple identities.Personnel policies, 45 CFR §1302.90(c)(1)

Example Indicators and Practical Strategies

Mother with her two children playing with clay on a coffee table.

Review example indicators and practical strategies drawn from research and Head Start programs that promote the understanding of the culture of each child and family in development of relationship-based, inclusive programming.

Download the Try It! worksheet and choose one practice to focus on for one month. Use the prompts to thoughtfully plan how you will use the practice. The worksheet also includes tips for reflection after using the practice for one month.

Staff build positive, ongoing, and goal-oriented relationships with families.

The goal of parent and family engagement is to work with families to build strong and effective partnerships that can help children and families thrive. These partnerships are grounded in positive, ongoing, and goal-oriented relationships with families and are based on mutual respect and trust. They are also developed over time, through a series of interactions between staff and families. The Building Partnerships with Families Series explores strategies and resources that program staff can use to strengthen relationships with families. 

Staff connect curriculum to culture and the experiences of others.

A culturally responsive approach to using curriculum should include suggestions for studies, themes, or investigations that reflect children’s cultures, backgrounds, interests, and knowledge. The Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework states that:

“Every child has diverse strengths rooted in their family’s culture, background, language, and beliefs. Responsive and respectful learning environments welcome children from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Effective teaching practices and learning experiences build on the unique backgrounds and prior experiences of each child.”

  • Embed caring and routine practices used by the child’s family as much as possible to give continuity of care and foster attachment and cultural connections.
  • Talk with families about interests, activities, stories, songs, and games that are shared in the home that can be brought into the learning environment.
  • Model caring behaviors with adults and children.
  • Guide children as they learn to develop relationships with peers.
  • Help children learn behaviors that promote a sense of belonging for themselves and their peers, such as learning how to pronounce the first names of their peers.
  • Set clear expectations for children and comment and celebrate when they use caring behaviors and offer support, prompts, and cues when they need assistance.

Staff encourage children to express their developing sense of identity.

  • Let children explore their interests through learning activities such as art, books, stories, music, songs, and dance.
  • Celebrate the languages, cultures, and experiences of others through conversations, stories, dramatic play, and book readings.
  • Plan learning activities to teach about diversity in ways that avoid stereotypes.
  • Use familiar books and characters to help children feel comfortable talking about complex topics including, but not limited to, cultural ,linguistic, and family structure diversity.

Voices from the Head Start Community

In this section, a Head Start program shares how staff’s willingness to learn about other cultures led to the discovery of new ways to communicate and engage with a parent and her child.

Respecting Family and Staff Culture

A Head Start program that served primarily Hispanic families found that a number of Hmong families started enrolling in its Head Start program. One family of 12 members, mostly boys, enrolled at least one child per year in the Head Start program. This particular year, two brothers, ages 3 and 4 years, enrolled. The educators asked for help from the director when they heard that additional boys from this family were coming because they had worked with their brothers in previous years. Very active and rowdy in their play, the boys were often a danger to themselves and other children because they climbed and jumped from classroom structures. They didn’t change when teachers intervened. The frustrated teachers wondered if the boys had cognitive developmental deficits because they didn’t follow directions.

They tried several times to talk about it with the mother, but she stayed calm and silent. Staff assumed that there was a language barrier or lack of understanding, or that the mother was overwhelmed by a family beyond control. Staff offered home visits, but the mother’s lack of response made them think she was refusing help. Burned out from working with the family, the staff felt like the classroom wouldn’t change.

At one point, a skilled clinician with knowledge of Hmong culture held a Child Study Team meeting for one of the boys from this family. He was showing a severe lack of expressive speech. The clinician could see and feel the staff’s frustration as they explained the results of the screening. The clinician helped them have a discussion, which showed that family cultural values were contributing to the challenge the teachers had. Staff learned from the mother, who came to the meeting alone, that in her home, and in the Hmong culture, they valued energetic play. A happy child is seen as a direct extension of the parent. This explained the behavior of the older siblings formerly enrolled in Head Start services.

The meeting helped them communicate, and they sent home daily progress reports. The mother became involved in the classroom and supported her sons’ transition into the Head Start program. The staff’s willingness to learn about other cultures helped the mother see the teachers’ perspective on the importance of routines and transitions. It offered a rich, multicultural learning experience for staff who had worked at this Head Start program for many years.


Early childhood programs can use the following questions as a starting point — to take a look at the challenges they face and the approaches they might use to promote culturally sustaining and equitable practice across service delivery areas. The questions listed below are designed for self-reflection and critical assessment of practice and can also be used with groups of staff, with families, and with community partners to spark dialogue. In order to go deeper into some topics in a group setting, programs may benefit from session leaders who are skilled facilitators either among their staff or from outside their program.

  1. What opportunities do staff have to reflect on their own experiences and beliefs, including stereotypes that may influence their work with children and families?
  2. What opportunities do staff have to learn accurate information about families and communities within your service area?
  3. In addition to home languages, how does your program use the following cultural information from families:
    • Child-rearing practices
    • Meal routines
    • Family origin
    • Educational background
    • Socioeconomic characteristics
    • Family or cultural view of disabilities
    • Health beliefs and practices
  4. How does your program address barriers to making sure all children and families can participate fully in the program?

Deepen Your Learning

Explore these useful resources to learn about strategies that promote culturally sustaining approaches.