We Are All Shaped By Culture

Each of us is rooted in culture that is unique, evolving, and influenced by many factors, including our family, community, and history.

Why It Matters

Beginning in infancy, children develop cultural identities through close relationships, which act as the foundation for all other learning. Environments and staff who are responsive to the child’s identity create a climate of respect for each child’s culture and language. The values, beliefs, traditions, and practices related to child development and learning vary across cultures. Cultural differences in childrearing practices are found in daily routines such as feeding, sleep, play, adult-child interactions, and discipline. Child development expectations and caregiving vary within cultures as families and individuals choose to pass on traditional practices or create new ones.

Smiling young boy in a class setting.

  • A child’s sense of personal identity and belonging within a group is influenced by their earliest experiences with their family, peers, and community. Children build their cultural and linguistic identities through these interactions. Young children naturally use characteristics related to their ethnic origin and linguistic abilities to develop a sense of belonging with peers and adults.
  • Social determinants of health (SDOH) are the conditions in the environments where people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age that affect a wide range of health, functioning, and quality-of-life outcomes and risks. SDOH have a disproportionately negative impact on the health of people from marginalized communities such as Black, Indigenous, Latino, and other communities of color; people with disabilities; people who are LGBTQIA2S+; and people who live in under-resourced neighborhoods.
  • Healthy children are ready to learn. Children who access ongoing health care have better attendance and are more engaged in learning, and consistent attendance helps children prepare for school. For marginalized communities, structural and systemic racism and other forms of oppression limit access to health resources, leading to greater risk of negative health outcomes directly impacting school readiness of young children.

Interactions that intentionally or unintentionally communicate negative beliefs about a child's culture, ethnicity, language, or family structure can have a negative impact on adult-child relationships and the child’s developing sense of identity and belonging.

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 understand that the culture and linguistic diversity of adults in children’s lives play a key role in their development.Education and Child Development Services, 45 CFR §1302.30 Subpart C
Staff partner with families to inform program planning.

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

Family engagement, 45 CFR §1302.50

Each child’s cultural background is affirmed through everyday interactions with peers and adults.Personnel policies, 45 CFR §1302.90(c)(1)

Example Indicators and Practical Strategies

Review example indicators and practical strategies drawn from research and Head Start programs that promote the development of positive cultural identities for all children and families.

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 recognize that the cultural and linguistic diversity of adults in children’s lives play a key role in their development.

  • Engage in frequent two-way communication between program staff and families about child-rearing and teaching practices. This disrupts stereotyping and encourages inclusive and culturally responsive practices.
  • When communicating with children and family members, be aware of their assumptions about behaviors, including non-verbal gestures or facial expressions.
  • Adapt approaches based on the relationship formed with each child and family.

Practice Example: Using or not using eye contact may vary based on culture. In some cultures, nodding may express agreement, while in others, it may only show they received the information. In group care settings in some cultures, toddlers are encouraged to feed themselves using their fingers, while in others, they are fed by adults. In some cultures, parents, grandparents, and others prefer that children eat with their fingers, while in others, it’s customary to teach children to use tools.

Teacher and child exploring various plastic shapes.Staff partner with families to inform program planning.

  • Gather information from families about routines and child-rearing practices in the home. Use this information to plan activities that reflect the experiences of children and families.
  • Adapt approaches based on the relationship formed with each child and family.
  • Elevate the voices of family members, giving them opportunities to shape program activities and policies through program policy councils and parent committees.
  • Collaborate with parents to promote children’s health and well-being by offering medical, oral, nutrition, and mental health education support services that are understandable to individuals, including individuals with low health literacy.

Staff affirm each child's cultural background through everyday interactions.

  • Create learning environments that promote a sense of belonging and positive identity by reflecting and including all children’s home languages and cultures.
  • Help children explore their interests and strengths by following their lead during activities and conversations and building on their ideas.
  • Design and implement nutrition services that are culturally and developmentally appropriate and meet the nutritional needs of and accommodate the feeding requirements of each child, including children with special dietary needs and children with disabilities.

Voices from the Head Start Community

Daycare staff sitting with children.

In this section, a Migrant and Seasonal Head Start program manager shares ways the program includes family and staff culture, values, and practices into the delivery of services.

Engage families in culturally and linguistically responsive ways.

“We serve a lot of Hispanic families, but I will tell you … they are so different. Within families, there are so many cultural differences regarding their child-rearing practices, values, and beliefs. We cannot put them all, as we tell staff, we can’t put all your families [together] thinking, ‘Oh, they’re Hispanic so they must be this, they must like this’ … that is not our approach. Our approach is that we get to know our families as individuals and to see what their dreams are, and what their hopes are for their children.”

Successful family engagement builds culturally and linguistically responsive relationships with family members in a child’s life, in ways that support the parent-child relationship and promote healthy development, school readiness, and well-being. Head Start staff have opportunities to learn from families to make the program culturally sustaining. Although multiple families in a Head Start program might share the same language and culture, it does not take away from the uniqueness of individual families.

Honor family practices.

“We have our policies, but if we can honor some of the practices that the families have … why not? If it’s outside of our policy, and it is not going to hurt the child.”

When a program includes the practices and routines of families, they give a sense of consistency for the child between home and the program. For example, staff in the program acted on family requests to put a piece of yarn on a child’s forehead when she got hiccups and to keep a red bracelet on another child’s wrist so the child wouldn’t get sick.

Incorporate staff learning styles in training.

“If we’re able to accommodate [families], then surely, we can do that for our staff because that’s a way of making sure … the message to them is … ‘you belong here and … we’re going to make the necessary accommodations to meet you, and honor you and who you are.’”

Including staff culture, values, and practices in training helps staff effectively engage in the experience. A program manager prioritizes working with members of the staff to plan ways to deliver training. This creates a culture of belonging and respect, where staff feel appreciated and valued. Staff contributions included providing information in different languages and using training methods to accommodate the different learning styles and language needs of the staff.

Reflect

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 do you remember about how you were raised?
  2. How might your background or upbringing influence your thinking about children’s development?
  3. How might your personal and cultural background or upbringing influence the way you communicate and develop relationships with families?
  4. What do you do when your values and beliefs about child development and teaching conflict with those of families?

Deepen Your Learning

Explore these useful resources to learn more about the role of culture in your work with children and families.