Culture and Language

Woman and little girl pointing at somethingBeginning at birth, families teach their children to behave and express their feelings verbally and nonverbally in culturally acceptable ways. It is important to talk with parents and families about how they expect their children to behave and express themselves. This provides an important context for understanding children's behavior. For example, in some families, rough and tumble play is an expression of connection and love between adults and young children and a source of fun; it is one way they relate to each other. If education staff do not know this, they may incorrectly interpret children's rough and tumble play with peers and other adults as physical aggression. In some cultures, children are taught to show respect to adults by making eye contact when spoken to. In other cultures, children are taught that respect is demonstrated by avoiding direct eye contact.1

Education staff need to be aware of family and cultural behaviors, like styles of play and eye contact, within their own cultures as well as children's families. This helps to avoid misunderstanding and misinterpreting children's behaviors. It is equally important to talk with families about how adult expectations for children's behavior may differ across settings (e.g., home, group care, group socialization) and how to support children's behaviors in these settings. Children benefit when families and education staff are on the same page regarding expectations for behaviors and share the same goals for children's development. For more information about understanding the cultural perspectives of families and building positive relationships, see Family Engagement and Cultural Perspectives: Applying Strengths-based Attitudes.

The ongoing child assessment process provides opportunities to develop shared goals. The collected data provides a picture of children's current developmental levels and can reveal changes, such as reaching new behavior milestones and experiencing new behavior challenges. Ongoing child assessment offers education staff and families the chance to have conversations about what the data mean and how to support children's social and emotional development.

Language abilities also play a part in children's behavior. Understanding children's language and communication development is essential to understanding their behavior. The Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework: Ages Birth to Five (ELOF) can be helpful in knowing what developmental trajectories look like for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. For example, infants and toddlers are just beginning to develop expressive language skills. Much of their communication is through eye gaze, facial expressions, gestures, vocalizations, and behavior. Preschoolers have more language skills and vocabulary to describe their actions, emotions, and ideas. However, they may still need verbal reminders (e.g., "Use your words, Samuel! Say, 'I'm mad that you took the paintbrush I was using! Please give it back.'") and other supports (e.g., visual cues, social stories) to communicate how they feel and what they want.

Children with speech delays or a disability that affects verbal communication may also rely on behavior to express themselves. Individual Family Service Plans (IFSPs) and Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) will outline how to support children's abilities to communicate (e.g., sign language, communication devices).

Children who are DLLs may initially rely on behavior to express themselves, especially in settings and situations where the education staff do not speak the child's home language. Resources such as the Planned Language Approach (PLA) Gathering and Using Language Information that Families Share can be valuable in understanding children's language backgrounds and informing appropriate adult-child interaction and communication strategies. Education managers and coaches can work with staff who do not speak the child's home language to identify and use strategies for understanding and communicating with the child.

If staff speak the child's home language, they can help the child use that language to communicate while also scaffolding their understanding and use of English. See Oral Language and Vocabulary in PLA's Big 5 for All. In both cases, education managers should work with staff to partner with families to support their children's language development. Young dual language learners thrive when families and programs work together to support them to learn English and continue to develop their home languages.2 For more information, see Partnering with Families of Children Who Are Dual Language Learners.

1 HHS, ACF, OHS, Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework: Ages Birth to Five, 36.

2 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Head Start, National Center on Parent, Family, and Community Engagement. Partnering with Families of Children Who Are Dual Language Learners (Washington, DC, n.d.).