Inclusive Systems Help Adults and Children Thrive

The well-being of everyone — children, families, and staff — is promoted by including culturally sustaining programming and practices into all systems and services.

Why It Matters

Building a program that promotes well-being and belonging for all requires implementing policies and responsive practices that foster the cultural and linguistic diversity of children, families, and their communities. Policymakers, administrators, and educators need to reflect together critically on how diversity and inclusion should be promoted and how to overcome barriers to diversity and inclusion. High-functioning program management, planning, and oversight systems are key to providing equitable high-quality early education for all children and families.

  • Organizational culture can promote or hinder the benefits of a diverse workforce. Leaders and staff who are open to learning from one another to achieve shared goals gain a creative advantage in designing program processes, procedures, and systems.
  • A commitment to inclusive systems includes adapting policies and allocating resources to equitably serve all children and families. To design equitable program policies, procedures, and practices, it’s important to invite staff, families, and community members to participate in decision-making.
  • Programs that prioritize the full participation of all children and families review program data to understand who does and who doesn’t yet benefit from services, including home visiting, family engagement activities, and transportation services. An understanding of how families and staff currently use program services is critical to designing responsive inclusive systems.
  • Practices that affirm diverse cultures are essential to improving school readiness and giving opportunities to children to reach their full potential. Implementation of culturally sustaining programming begins with a commitment to equitable practice and is put into action through supportive program policy and resource allocation.

Two toddlers on their bellies handling a toy drum.

Head Start programs must review their practices through an annual self-assessment and a comprehensive community assessment, which they complete at least once during the five-year grant period (45 CFR §1302.11(b)). Program leaders use data they’ve gathered and analyzed to confirm practices that are working, identify strengths, and address issues that negatively affect children, families, and staff. Understanding the cultural beliefs, values, and priorities of the community is critical to the design of program services. Head Start management staff — along with the program governing body or Tribal Council, and Policy Council — develop, manage, and evaluate systems to make sure that equitable services are given. Programs benefit from the inclusion of staff, families, and community members in the decision-making process.

Programs should continuously evaluate and improve their culturally sustaining practices across all service areas. These services can include family recruitment and enrollment, child assessment, teaching and home visiting strategies, physical learning environments, family engagement, staff professional development, transportation services, and program management. The Head Start Management Systems Wheel helps program leaders look at strengths and areas for growth in operations to identify needed resources. This includes training, equipment, and materials that address inequities and promote belonging and inclusion and the well-being of children, families, and staff.

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
Program leaders review how cultural practices inform agency direction and address budgetary implications with governing body and Policy Council.

Purpose, 45 CRF §1301.1

Management systems, 45 CFR §1302.101(a)

Program leaders examine program data to celebrate successes and uncover practices that negatively affect the well-being of children, families, and education staff.

Determining community strengths, needs, and resources, 45 CFR §1302.11(b)

Management systems, 45 CFR §1302.101(b)

Achieving program goals, 45 CFR §1302.102(c)

Program leaders develop and maintain equitable policies and procedures that the health and well-being of all children, families, and staff in developmentally, linguistically, and culturally appropriate ways.

Program leaders and staff collaborate with community partners to expand resources offered to children and families.

Purpose, 45 CFR §1302.40(b)

Child nutrition, 45 CFR §1302.44(a)(1)

Coordination and collaboration with local agency responsible for implementing IDEA, 45 CFR §1302.63

Personnel policies, 45 CFR §1302.90(d)(1)

Programs offer opportunities for staff to improve their culturally sustaining teaching and home-visiting practices.

Education and Child Development Services, 45 CFR §1302 Subpart C

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

Collaboration and communication with parents, 45 CFR §1302.41(a)

Family engagement, 45 CFR §1302.50

Example Indicators and Practical Strategies

Review practical strategies drawn from research and Head Start programs that promote a programs capacity to reflect and affirm the cultures of the children and families it serves.

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.

Adapt a systems-thinking mindset.

Systems thinking is described as three “openings” needed to transform systems: opening the mind (to challenge our assumptions), opening the heart (to be vulnerable and to truly hear one another), and opening the will (to let go of pre-set goals and agendas and see what is really needed and possible). These three openings match the blind spots of many efforts, which are often based on rigid assumptions and agendas and fail to see that transforming systems is about transforming relationships among people who shape those systems.

Program leaders review how multicultural principles inform agency direction and address budgetary implications with governing body and Policy Council.

  • Use the Management Systems Wheel to evaluate existing strengths and areas of growth for program operations.
  • Encourage staff to self-reflect about their experiences and biases.
  • Set aside time for honest discussions about signs of injustice and bias the staff observe.
  • Help staff appreciate children’s ability to see unfairness, and guide staff during reflective supervision, coaching, and team meetings to address it in meaningful ways.

Two women at a table having a discussion.

Program leaders and staff examine program data to celebrate successes and uncover practices that negatively affect the well-being of children, families, and education staff.

  • Form a team of staff, families, and community members to regularly review and discuss data as part of the program’s internal ongoing monitoring and continuous improvement process.
  • Create a culture of inquiry and use data to inform conversations and planning with families and staff on topics including but not limited to:
    • Child screening and assessment
      • Are all children benefiting from teaching and home visiting services?
      • Is the data collection tool valid and reliable for all children?
      • Which groups of children are not making progress toward program and individual school readiness goals?
    • Disability services
      • Are there disparities in which groups of children are or aren’t referred for services?
      • Is there disproportionate representation of groups of children referred for challenging behavior?
    • Equity in health services
      • Who are the children and families without a medical home?
      • Which children and families aren’t receiving follow-up care for medical or dental referrals?
      • Do families have access to care providers who speak their home language?
    • Children who are dual language learners (DLLs) and their families
      • Do children who are DLLs and their families participate at different rates than other families in the program?
      • How are the languages of DLLs supported in the learning environment?
      • How are translation and interpretation services used to effectively communicate with families?
    • Human resources
      • How does the recruitment, hiring, onboarding, and professional development of staff encourage and support a diverse workforce?
      • How are the language skills of bilingual staff used within their assigned job role and outside of their assigned job role?
      • What efforts have been made to hire staff who speak the languages of children and families?

Collaborate with community partners to expand resources offered to children and families.

Two women going over notes.

Programs offer opportunities for staff to improve their culturally sustaining teaching and home-visiting practices.

Having an equitable program means building the ability of all staff to create positive relationships with all children and families.

  • Provide professional development on diversity, equity, and inclusion practices.
  • Offer training that directly addresses implicit bias and inequities in teaching and home-visiting practices.
  • Offer training that builds skills in supporting bilingual development and children with disabilities.
  • Observe and give feedback on staff interactions with children and their families to support continued development of culturally sustaining practices.
  • Offer funding for staff to purchase materials that represent children’s diverse identities and ways of learning.

Voices from the Head Start Community

In this section, the vice president and chief learning officer from a Head Start program in California share their experience using culturally relevant and diverse programming for the children and adults they served.

Communicate the program’s commitment to equity and inclusion.

The program worked to understand what was happening in its community, and staff knew where the program stood on various issues. For instance, the program wrote position statements to support the African American and Asian communities when they saw a rise in hate crimes. These position statements helped the families and community know the program’s core values and see that the issues were important to them. In addition to position statements, the program takes action to answer staff and family questions and concerns during town hall meetings. They create content for these meetings that is based on questions and feedback from staff and families. One program leader shared the following:

“Before every town hall meeting … we send out a link and we ask every family to let us know what questions they have — and the same with staff — so they're able to send in information, so we know what's on people's minds.”

Seek to understand equity gaps and expectations of staff and families.

The program committed to changing their organizational culture, so it centers around equity. To do this, they partnered with a consultation team who helped them think about how to include equity in everything they do.

The leadership team also completed a 360-degree survey, called “redesigning white dominant culture.” The survey helped them think about their own behaviors, and it gave them feedback from their colleagues to understand how biases show up in their work. One program leader shared their reflections of the process:

“As the people who make a lot of the decisions that impact so many others, we are in positions of power and privilege. … It’s important to remember that and be mindful of how each of us in our role have influence. And hopefully we are using that influence and power and privilege to create conditions and a safe and brave space for people to be their authentic selves. So, I think creating environments for our teams where people can feel free to express themselves, to share ideas, thoughts, questions, to challenge me … to challenge all of us in leadership and to call us out as needed … that is a part of our role and our work as leaders, to do our own personal work, but also to bring our best selves to our professional work and to create the places where people can also advocate for themselves and help us work together to make our program and our organization truly one that is equitable and centers equity. … So, keeping in mind that [in] every thought, decision, and practice, we are asking ourselves those questions: Who does it impact? Who has the opportunities and who does not? Whose voices are at the table? Whose [are] included or not included? And why or why not? And then what can I do about it?”


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. Does your program have written policies about the support for the use of home languages and English in the program?
  2. How does memorandum of understanding (MOU) with local education agencies (LEA) and community partnerships promote equitable access to disability services resources?
  3. How does the program address observed or reported bias?
  4. How does the program address harm to children, families, or staff made by implicit bias or inequities?
  5. Does your program maintain a list of culturally and linguistically responsive community-based services for making referrals?
  6. Do the members of your Health Services Advisory Committee have experience and/or expertise with the cultures and languages represented by the families you serve?

Deepen Your Learning

Explore these useful resources to learn more about ways to promote the well-being of children, families, and staff through program policies and practices