Responding to the Culture of Children, Families, and Communities

Sarah Merrill

Head Start is a national program with federal standards; so, how do local programs support the children and families from different regions and cultures in a meaningful way? Even at our inception, Head Start's founders believed that to support development a program must be able to honor local and regional nuances. Moreover, it should incorporate family culture in the curriculum and overall program. "To work well, a program should fit the particular needs of the children and families it serves." The annual community assessment process is key in truly understanding a community's unique characteristics. The information we learn allows programs and staff to design the daily activities and experiences in ways that best suit the children's neighborhoods and communities."

We know that every child and family is different. Each child has their own unique personality and temperament. They each live and learn within the context of their families and communities. That's why Head Start provides individualized services; so we can better reflect each child's personal experiences, honor each individual culture, and address each child's unique strengths and needs.

Because the child's culture and family provide the foundation upon which their social competence develops, Head Start program staff must have a good understanding of culture's role in child development. The Head Start Multicultural Principles state that when the program's environment and experiences truly resonate with the children and families, children learn better and families can contribute in a more meaningful way. That also is why it is important to hire staff who are from the culture and speak the language of the enrolled children.

Head Start has always recognized the importance of nurturing self-esteem and enhancing the sense of dignity and self-worth of each child and family. In 1969, Head Start proposed goals for all children that included helping children learn how "to view themselves as competent and valued persons; and to get along comfortably with other children – each to value his own rights and the rights of others."

When you individualize the program environment and curricular experiences to truly reflect the cultures of the children and families you serve, you honor their cultures and foster their self-image and confidence. There's nothing more important in your work than reinforcing the message to your children: They are important and that you cherish them!

Here's how the early founders of Head Start described this concept in the 1969 documentary, Jenny Is a Good Thing:

Some [children] are outgoing. Some are shy. All are children; three, four and five years old. They come from city ghettos, rural shacks, and Indian pueblos. The experiences that they bring with them are not the experiences of the privileged. These are poverty's children. But like all children, privileged and poor, they hold promise and potential. Head Start recognizes that promise and seeks to deliver up that potential. … Whatever the region, race, or culture, these children are above all individuals. … Individual cultures and regional backgrounds are preserved, even in the child's diet. Meals include those foods that have long been familiar to him and his family. Mung stew and a large chunk of traditional Indian bread make a delicious and balanced meal; so do pinto beans, tortillas, and squash. …

Nutrition, like every part of Head Start, works to break down poverty's most corrosive effect: believing you are less than what you are. These children must learn that they are good because they exist. They must know that they belong to a society that cherishes their existence. Head Start is not an end to the problems of poverty's children. It is just a chance to have and enjoy a beginning.

Are you familiar with these resources to support programs in providing culturally and linguistically responsive services?

Between 1976 and 1979, Head Start funded the Head Start Bilingual Bicultural Curriculum Development Project. It was designed to develop, pilot, and implement four bilingual, bicultural preschool curriculum models for use with Spanish-speaking children. In 1977, Head Start funded programs to use the four different bilingual and bicultural curriculum models across 21 states. An evaluation of the project found that Head Start children who spoke primarily Spanish at home performed better on English language impact measures when they were receiving any of the four bilingual curricula than did similar Head Start children not receiving one of the four curricula.

The Head Start Bureau published the original Multicultural Principles for Head Start Programs resource handbook in 1991 following two years of work by the Head Start Multicultural Task Force. Its purpose was to stand as a challenge to programs to "focus efforts on individualizing services so that every child and family feels respected and valued and is able to grow in accepting and appreciating differences."

In 2010, the Office of Head Start (OHS) released Revisiting and Updating the Multicultural Principles for Head Start Programs Serving Children Ages Birth to Five. It provides an updated version of the Multicultural Principles and a selective review of related research conducted since 1991.

OHS introduced Making It Work! in 2012 to support American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) programs. It helps programs connect traditional cultural skills, values, beliefs, and lifeways with school readiness efforts.

Also in 2012, OHS released the second edition of the Head Start Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness Resource Catalogue: Native and Heritage Language Preservation, Revitalization, and Maintenance — Volume 2. It offers programs evidence-based materials, research, promising practices, and other information to help develop culturally and linguistically responsive systems and services.

OHS collaborated with the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to promote partnerships between Refugee Resettlement and Head Start programs. In 2013, they released Raising Young Children in a New Country: Supporting Early Learning and Healthy Development for programs serving refugees families and newly arrived immigrant families. It may be used with parents to help ease their transition to a new country. The handbook is available in Arabic (العربية) and Spanish (español). It provides families with information on family well-being, health and safety, healthy brain development, early learning and school readiness, guidance and discipline, and family engagement in early care and education.

Sarah Merrill is a Program Specialist for the Office of Head Start.

Responding to the Culture of Children, Families, and Communities. HHS/ACF/OHS. 2015. English.

Last Reviewed: December 2015

Last Updated: December 10, 2015