For All Children: Embedding cultural diversity in early childhood education

Manjula Waniganayake, Professor of Early Childhood Education at Macquarie University, explores strategies to support children and families from refugee/migrant backgrounds.

Every child matters. In 1990, the Australian parliament ratified the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention’s centrality in early childhood education and care (ECEC) is built into the Early Years Learning Framework (DEEWR, 2009) as follows: “that all children have the right to an education that lays a foundation for the rest of their lives, maximises their ability, and respects their family, cultural and other identities and languages.” (p.1)

Embedded in the National Quality Standard Quality Area 1, child centred programs are the core or the foundation of every ECEC service. Honouring cultural diversity involves collaboration between children, families, and teachers as well as those beyond EC services. President Nelson Mandela’s statement says it all: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

Manjula Waniganayake, Professor of Early Childhood Education, at the School of Education, Macquarie University is a researcher and teacher educator, contributing to the preparation of numerous cohorts of ECEC teachers. She ponders on recent research on refugee/asylum seeker children and her findings from nearly thirty years ago, to reflect on how research-based evidence can foster improvements in embedding cultural diversity in early childhood education.

This article seeks to raise awareness, promote a better understanding and take responsive action in honouring cultural diversity through ECEC services in two ways. The article shares findings from research and reflects on strategies to support children and families from refugee/migrant backgrounds.

What does the research tell us?

Unlike migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are forced to flee their country of origin under dire circumstances arising through armed conflict, earthquakes, floods, fire or famine, with no guarantee of return. Research shows that they experience trauma throughout their lives connected with challenges encountered in their lives on the run. Due to lack of reliable data it is impossible to scope the size of this population of children either attending or not involved in any ECEC services in Australia.

There is a growing body of research on children’s awareness and understandings about race, culture and discrimination and their sense of identity and justice for others. Research focusing on young children from specific cultures or circumstances of being refugees or asylum seekers, is somewhat scarce. This article draws attention to some of the limited but important research of relevance to better supporting children and families from diverse cultures. For the purposes of reimagining new ways of taking responsive action through new knowledge, three studies involving refugee/migrant children are highlighted next:

Constructing early childhood services as culturally credible trauma-recovery environments: Participatory barriers and enablers for refugee families. Lamb, C. (2019). European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 28(2), 1-20.

The PhD study by Cherie Lamb (2019) illustrates how badly refugee children and their families were misunderstood, impacting 3-5 year old children’s access and participation in EC services in Queensland. Parents reported “exclusionary practices” at EC services that were overtly or covertly discriminatory, and whereby they “felt ignored and disrespected by educators” (p.8). Others reported “lunchbox bullying” when “being instructed” to replace traditional nutritional food with cheese sandwiches for instance, whilst simultaneously being invited to “prepare the same food for celebratory purposes” (p.9) on multiculturalism at the service.

To break the cycle of trauma and violence and create hope and optimism, Lamb says we need to establish “culturally credible services” which are safe, secure and caring spaces for children and families. She calls for urgent reforms including the use of well-qualified interpreters, provision of free ECEC services, development of bilingual/bicultural programs and continuous cultural competence training to guide parent-staff communication and pedagogy. You are urged to read Lamb’s papers on practical strategies for addressing children’s trauma induced challenging behaviours and learning difficulties.

Perspectives of children from refugee backgrounds on their family storytelling as a culturally sustaining practice. Strekalova-Hughes, E. & Wang, E.C. (2019). Journal of Research in Childhood Education. 33(1), 6-21.

Telling stories without a book or any other props, is an ancient custom that serves the profound purposes of cultural maintenance and connection between generations and homelands. This study is of interest because of its focus on children’s agency in relation to promoting culturally sustaining learning and teaching in contemporary society. This study on family storytelling was conducted amongst refugee families from Nepal, South Sudan and Somalia, living in New York. The children loved the witty entertaining stories with moral values. They also admired their elders’ abilities to remember and retell stories repeatedly without a written script or book like their teachers did.

It is easy to see how these family storytelling sessions contributed to refugee children’s language learning and the passage of values, traditions and beliefs from one generation to the next. The rich benefits of traditional methods like this can be extended to all children, by involving singers, dancers, and actors specialising in culturally specific music, movement and drama in ECEC services.

Addressing the needs of children of immigrants and refugee families in contemporary ECEC settings: Findings and implications from the Children Crossing Borders Study. Tobin, J. (2020). European Early Childhood Education Research Journal. 28(1), 10-20.

With increasing political, economic and social tensions world-wide Tobin (2020, p.11) despairs that challenges encountered by immigrant/refugee/asylum seeker families have become “more acute”. When Tobin and associates began the Children Crossing Borders study in 2003, these children were described as “the true transnationalists” and ECEC services as “key sites for social inclusion” reflecting the mutual benefits of cultural diversity (p.11-12).

This study captures the perspectives of parents and practitioners from 5 countries: England, France, Germany, Italy and USA. Tobin states the persistence of difficulties is linked with the lack of attention to cultural diversity in contemporary child development knowledge and best practice guiding ECEC. He emphasises contextualising solutions to supporting children and families in their adopted countries. For instance, it was found that Turkish immigrants living in France appreciated the academic focus of the ecole maternelle – the French preschools. In contrast, resettled in Germany, Turkish families struggled with the play-based approaches in that country. Likewise, a Mexican parent in the USA asked “would it kill them to teach my child to write her name before she starts kindergarten?” (p.15). Reconciling strongly held beliefs by parents and teachers takes time, effort and resources. It begins with a commitment to listen and learn and a willingness to negotiate and being open to new ideas.

How can we ensure that children of all backgrounds are included?

Our perspectives about most things are informed and shaped by our day-to-day interactions. The multiplicity and variation of these encounters not only enrich our lived experiences, they also provide us with alternatives or options to consider when complex issues arise. Focusing on the relational nature of encounters enable us to focus on the links or connectivity's of our experiences. At an ECEC symposium held at Macquarie University in 2019, Dr Stefania Giamminuti set out a provocation to participants by asking how might we contribute to systemic transformations and cultural re-imaginings of ECEC settings? Referring to Reggio Emilia’s powerful impact on Australian EC settings, Giamminuti suggested that we re-imagine ECEC services as ‘spaces for the common good’, embracing the possibility of an ‘ethic of alliances’. To be ethical means being compassionate and caring, being respectful and reflexive, and being willing to listen and learn from others.

We live in a country where more than half of us were either born in another country or have at least one parent born overseas. Let us rejoice the diversity of Australia - where else do we get to meet such an amazing mix of people from all over the world in one country? When you are a child or an adult of colour, in many locations, there is however no escaping that you are visibly different from the majority of people in your community in Australia. What is ever present for these children and adults is the subtle, subjugated nature and insidious side of social out casting or marginalisation. Cherie Lamb’s research mirrored findings in my PhD based on immigrant children from Scottish, Indian and Finnish heritages completed nearly thirty years ago. It is indeed a sad reflection on our profession that three decades on, we are still struggling to work out how to welcome children and families from diverse backgrounds. It is hard enough to get refugee families to bring their children into ECEC services. Having made that effort, what can we do to enable these children to stay and thrive?

Australia is one of the most culturally diverse nations in the world today. ECEC services are a microcosm of our history as well as our present and future nationhood. The following provocations can be used to stimulate dialogue on cultural diversity and inclusion:

  • To what extent is your service a culturally credible place for children, families and staff?
  • In what ways do you ensure it is a culturally safe space for both children and adults?
  • How does your organizational culture promote a sense of belonging at your service?

Professor Gunilla Dahlberg (2019) recommends a ‘pedagogy of welcoming and hospitality’ to everyone working in ECE. This can work as an antidote against the toxicity of racism and discrimination and enable the ECEC sector to create quality learning environments where children can grow and learn freely, knowing they are loved. As ECEC practitioners, you are the cornerstone of how successful we can be in fostering alternative ways of ensuring everyone achieves a strong sense of belonging, being and becoming as Australian citizens. In this way, we can be a powerful force for good in building a socially just inclusive Australia. Let’s uphold our commitment to children by being intentional in acting ethically to honouring the richness of our pluralities. Specifically, as teachers of young children you can make a difference in promoting peace and harmony in our communities, so that Australia becomes a truly awesome place to live, for all of us!


The following articles published in the Sector newsletter also offer useful strategies and resources that can be used to honour cultural diversity in EC services.

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