Promoting Cultural Competence to
Improve Early Childhood Education
Tawara Goode is an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics, Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C. She has been on the faculty of the Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development (GUCCHD), for over 30 years and has served in many capacities. Professor Goode is currently the director of the National Center for Cultural Competence (NCCC) GUCCHD and the director of the Georgetown University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. She has degrees in early childhood education and education and human development. Her work has consistently focused on national level efforts to advance and sustain cultural and linguistic competence.
ED: How did you begin your career in early childhood?
Early childhood and human development was my field of choice and study in my undergraduate and graduate programs and where I began my career. I first worked at the Associates for Renewal and Education, located in Washington, D.C. as a teacher in a federally funded early childhood demonstration project. The early childhood professionals who implemented this project were the innovators of the Creative Curriculum. Teachers from the D.C. metro area would bring their classes to explore the resources and learning opportunities in the demonstration classroom. I served as the “demo” teacher for the duration of the project.
When I went to Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development (GUCCHD), I continued working with young children. I worked on many federally and locally funded projects over the years. This included training child care workers to identify kids who may be at risk for developmental delays and disabilities. I also provided training to those who work in the D.C. court system, such as judges, lawyers, and social workers on exactly what is early intervention, what the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act required, and their role in helping infants and toddlers get the services they need. I worked with the foster care system to provide training on services for young children with disabilities. Approximately 40 percent of children in D.C.’s foster care system had disabilities, so it was important at the time and now that those working in the child welfare system know how to identify children that may need to be referred for services. I also worked with a Region III Head Start technical assistance projects to help providers think through how to identify young children suspected of having developmental delays and disabilities.
ED: What efforts have you been involved in to improve the quality of early childhood programs and services?
I have worked on improving the quality of early childhood programs in many ways. One area of focus was how we support inclusion. If we look at the purpose of inclusion, it benefits both kids with and without disabilities, their families, and the communities in which they live. Disability is a natural part of the life experience and does not require that children be separated from their peers. Understanding that we need to help programs intentionally support the participation of children with disabilities has been an ongoing journey to improve early childhood programs.
My work in early childhood also led me into the work I currently do on cultural and linguistic competence. I was involved in a preschool developmental screening clinic at GUCCHD. We would go to various communities in D.C., which were primarily composed of African American families, and conduct screening when there were parental or teacher concerns. I was the only person of color on the team, and as an African American, I found it easy to establish rapport with the families. When the children were referred for interdisciplinary diagnostic evaluation at our offices located at Georgetown University Hospital, I began to notice some disconnects. At the time, most of my colleagues were not that familiar with providing services to African American families, particularly those from low socio-economic backgrounds. Things were not working out so well for the children and families and for my colleagues — the cultural barriers were obvious. I found myself serving in the role of a cultural broker, a liaison between the family and the clinicians. This was in an early phase of my career, and I did not know it at the time, I was promoting cultural competence to improve interactions and clinical experiences for the children and families, and supporting my colleagues as a source of cultural knowledge.
It was also during this time that I became more aware of the bias in screening and assessment tools. It was clear that the tools were not taking children’s socio-cultural experiences into account. Children knew the concepts but may not use the vocabulary or specific word the clinicians were looking for — so they were not getting credit for what they actually knew. For example, if a child was shown a picture of “hedges” but the child said “bushes,” which is what was used in their neighborhood, the answer was not correct. Or if children were called a nickname by their family, and when asked to say their name, they provided the nickname rather than their given name, it was considered incorrect. Because the children’s understanding of concepts was not coming through using the standardized tools, I felt that the diagnostic reports should reflect this. I became an advocate for families — urging change in how we were reporting and talking about results of assessment. This has influenced the lens in which I view our work in early childhood education and developmental screening. We need to use a cultural lens to influence the quality of our work and the services we provide to children and families.
ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced in your work and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?
There are numerous challenges, with advancing the principles and practices of cultural and linguistic competence being one of them. My work expanded beyond early childhood and has centered on cultural competence since 1995 focusing on health, mental health, and broadly human services. As I think of challenges in the work of cultural competence, we did not always recognize and respond to cultural differences; we typically used a one size fits all curriculum; we did not look at the makeup of communities; we did not attend to the cultural beliefs and practices of families; we did not think about how we supported young children in the socio-cultural contexts of the communities in which they live. How we were training at the preservice, professional development, and in-service levels on cultural competence was also a challenge.
Not until we had more people of different cultural backgrounds engaged in research, who influenced curricula content and design, who possessed cultural knowledge, who trained others did we start to address these challenges. In my work at the NCCC, we have developed checklists, tools, and other instruments to promote and assess cultural competence in an array of settings. Our early childhood checklist prompts a self-assessment of the physical environment, communication (the cultural nuances of how we express ourselves and how we understand and respond to the expressions of others), and our values and attitudes — how they influence our perceptions and the work we do in the classrooms and in other settings.
We have not fully overcome these challenges. We still see these issues in practice, for example in how we view children. There is an abundance of evidence about biases and stereotypes in how we perceive and discipline young boys of color (African American and Latino) much harsher than we do young boys who are non-Hispanic white. While we have made progress, there is a lot more we need to do to understand culture, language, and the role of cultural competence in early childhood education.
I feel very strongly that education must be grounded in cultural competence. But as a field, there is not a solid and shared understanding of how to be a culturally competent teacher or program. Cultural competence is about effectively responding to and addressing the cultures, not to be confused with the race or ethnicity, of anyone receiving educational and related services. We all bring our cultures to the work we do. The field of early childhood education has culturally-defined values and principles that govern practice. Yet we are still having debates about what cultural competence is (Shouldn’t it be called cultural humility?) and its relevance to the work we do.
I feel that cultural competence must be manifested at every level of the early childhood education system, including policy, administration, and practice. It just can’t be at the teacher level. It must be a part of the overall education community. A culturally competent early childhood program would demonstrate the knowledge, skills, organizational policy and structures, and ongoing capacity for growth at every level. Communities, families, and children change. Change always happens in a cultural context. We need to be able to adapt to be truly culturally competent.
ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in improving early childhood services and programs?
As we look to improve services in early childhood settings, we need to think about how we are valuing the workers in early childhood programs. We need to communicate that early childhood education is an essential service for young children and families. We need to honor and compensate those who work in early childhood accordingly or it says that we don’t value you as a professional or think the work you do is important.
We also need to ensure that all personnel in the field understand the role of culture; both their own cultures and the families and children that they serve; how culture plays out in practice that supports children’s development. The literature tells us that there are different beliefs and expectations for developmental norms for young children across different cultural groups. For example, we have to take into consideration cultural belief systems about “typical” acquisition of developmental skills for their children. A family may reject the suggestion from an early childhood professional that their child may have a developmental delay if the expectations for typical development are not aligned.
It is also important to publicize and share information and research on evidence-based practices on cultural competence in early childhood classrooms and systems. However, we need to always ask the question: Evidence-based practice for whom? Research findings and evidence-based practices are not always based on studies that include representative samples of the racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse families in the U.S, its territories, and tribal nations. An evidence-based practice may be the gold standard for some but not for all, given the demographic gaps in research. At a much higher level, we need policy, research, and resource allocation that supports the evolution of cultural competence.
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