Human Resources

Planning for Linguistic and Cultural Diversity

Effective Head Start and Early Head Start programming requires understanding, respect, and responsiveness to the cultural diversity of all families who enroll in Head Start programs. This article provides program staff with a variety of resources that promote planning for linguistic and cultural diversity. Head Start has embraced and built upon the skills and culture that each child and family bring to the program.

by Michele Plutro, ACF

Head Start has always embraced the ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity of its enrollment and the communities in which it operates. Head Start programs have responded to diversity as an opportunity for children and families to learn about different cultures and customs. Instead of reducing opportunities for bilingualism among children, Head Start has built upon the skills and culture that each child and family brings to the program.

Multicultural Principles in Head Start

To formalize Head Start's commitment to diversity in enrollment, program design, and services, Head Start developed Multicultural Principles for Head Start Programs and distributed it in 1992. In 1996, these principles were expanded and incorporated into the revised Program Performance Standards, which became effective on January 1, 1998.

Four elements of Head Start's overall philosophy are particularly relevant to the task of developing and implementing multilingual and multicultural programming: building trusting relationships, being sensitive to cultural preferences of families, building bridges between cultures for both children and adults, and acknowledging that staff and parents are in a true partnership.

The Administration on Children, Youth and Families has completed a "Descriptive Study of Head Start Bilingual and Multicultural Program Services." This study revealed that, across the country, families enrolled in Head Start programs speak more than 150 languages and dialects. For more than 160,000 of Head Start children (nearly 20 percent), the language spoken in the home is not English. Though Spanish is the most common, Chinese, Hmong, and Vietnamese are also spoken by a significant number of Head Start children and families.


There are a number of publications and web sites that can help Head Start programs expand and refine services to bilingual children and families and to speakers of languages other than English (see Additional Multicultural Resources ). As an example, the NAEYC web site includes "Responding to Linguistic and Cultural Diversity - Recommendations for Effective Early Childhood Education." NAEYC's position statement reads, "For young children, the language of the home is the language they have used since birth, the language they use to make and establish meaningful communicative relationships, and the language they use in constructing their knowledge... The home language is tied to children's culture, and culture and language communicate traditions, values, and attitudes."

One final example from NAEYC summarizes the importance of encouraging linguistic and cultural diversity in all early childhood programs: "For the optimal development and learning of all children, educators must accept the legitimacy of children's home language, respect (hold in high regard) and value (esteem and appreciate) the home culture, and promote and encourage the active involvement and support of all families, including extended and nontraditional family units."

Related literature suggests a number of guidelines for curriculum planning that respond to diversity, including:

  • Becoming conscious of personal biases and working to overcome them.
  • Learning the most important child-rearing values held by each family.
  • Supporting children's speech patterns and emergent language.
  • Structuring some child experiences and activities around materials contributed by parents.
  • Reflecting parents' occupations and talents in classrooms, on home visits, in community celebrations, and in other program activities.
  • Avoiding a "holiday syndrome" or holiday-driven approach to curriculum.
  • Developing some activities in which groups of children can focus on "alikeness" as well as difference.

As programs continue to grow and change in keeping with both the Program Performance Standards and community and family design, there are always new sources of useful information.

Michele Plutro is an Education Specialist at the Head Start Bureau. For more information, contact her at T: 202-205-8912 or by e-mail at

Additional Multicultural Resources

Available from ERIC ( ):

  • Asian-American Children: What Teachers Should Know , a digest by Jianhua Feng
  • Multiculturalism in Early Childhood Programs , a book by C.Treppte, V. Fu, and A.J. Stremmel. (Full text is available on ERIC's web page).

Available from the National Council on LaRaza (NCLR):

  • Testimony on Smart Start: The Community Collaborative for Early Childhood Development Act of 1988
  • Hispanic Educational Trends and Needs
  • Hispanic Education: A Statistical Portrait (1990)

Available from NAEYC:

  • "What Early Childhood Educators Need to Know: Developing Effective Programs for Linguistically and Culturally Diverse Children and Families." This article by Patton Tabors appears in the November 1998 issue of NAEYC's journal, Young Children.

Web Site Resources

The ERIC Clearinghouse on Information & Technology (ERIC/IT) and the AskERIC Service hase been discontinued as a result of reorganization of the ERIC program by the United States Department of Education.

Most of the resources previously found on the ERIC/IT and AskERIC websites may be found at

The Educator's Reference Desk. While the Educator's Reference Desk website includes most of the resources formerly found on AskERIC, the AskERIC question answering service is not included.

The Center for Study of Biracial Children

The National Association for the Education of Young Children

The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans

Yahoo's Education web page