Culturally responsive practice for Aboriginal children and families

Would you like to better support Aboriginal children and families? This will guide you to reflect on your understanding of culturally responsive practice.

This course assists learners to:

  • unpack what cultural competence looks like in relation to Aboriginal families and children in an early childhood setting
  • develop an understanding of the relationship between cultural competence and early years curriculum
  • develop knowledge of practical strategies that can be implemented to support Aboriginal children and families in the early childhood setting.

Target audience

Preschool and early years’ educators, supervisors and leaders.

Modes of delivery

1. Culturally responsive practice: supporting Aboriginal children and families video (29:18)

Supporting Aboriginal children and families


Welcome to the professional learning, culturally responsive practice supporting Aboriginal children and families.

I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians on the land on which this presentation is being viewed and pay my respects to Elders past present and emerging.

Learners will unpack what cultural competence looks like in relation to Aboriginal families and children in an early childhood setting. Develop an understanding of the relationship between cultural competence and early years curriculum. Develop knowledge of practical strategies that can be implemented to support Aboriginal children and families in the early childhood setting. This session will support early childhood educators to understand the importance of culturally responsive practice in supporting families and children in the early years. And while this session is mostly aimed at preschool educators, the information is also relevant to early years teachers.

Setting the scene.

The early years are an important time for children to build a strong cultural identity, build resilience and to grow up deadly, healthy and strong. The importance of the early years is grounded by a number of research studies. The research by Professor James Heckman shows the economic benefits of investing early in early childhood education. The best investment is in quality early childhood development, from birth to five for disadvantaged children and their families. By providing a space where culture is acknowledged and children and families feel safe, we are more likely to realise these benefits.

Let's start by defining what cultural competency is in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and families and what is meant by cultural safety in an educational context. Cultural competency is the ability to understand, communicate, and effectively, and sensitively interact with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, families, communities and staff. Cultural safety in an educational context is to the provision of a learning environment that is conducive to the reverse learning needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and where students' culture and identity are visible and valued.

Protocols are appropriate ways of behaving, communicating and showing respect for diversity of history and culture. This involves appreciation of the knowledge standing and status people within both the local Aboriginal community and the school community. Protocols inevitably vary between communities and between people within these communities. In establishing a partnership it is important that these individual ways of working together are acknowledged. The following are some commonly observed broad protocols within Aboriginal communities. Respect for elders and the decision making process. Collective custodianship by traditional owners and keepers of country and cultural knowledge. The right to observe cultural responsibilities and obligations, for example, to care for country and to pass on that cultural knowledge. By ensuring that protocols are observed, educators can ensure that the process of community consultation is successful and beneficial to the whole school community.

The cultural competence continuum tracks the various stages that work towards cultural proficiency. In this model cultural competence is characterised by an acceptance and respect for difference, continuing self assessment, continuous expansion of knowledge and resources, and an adaptation of the service to better meet the needs of a diverse population. This diagram draws from the work done for the Aboriginal cultural competency framework and Muriel Blambett's keynote speech at the SNAICC 2007 National Conference in Adelaide. Which in turn drew from work by Terry Cross of the national Indian Child Welfare Association in the United States.

Quality area six of the national quality framework is collaborative partnerships with families and community. Collaborative relationships with families are fundamental to achieving quality outcomes for children. Community partnerships that are based on active communication, consultation and collaboration are also essential. Parents, carers and families are the first and most important educational influence in a child's life. They have a critical role in early development, including social, emotional, intellectual, spiritual and physical well being. Engaging families is the key to providing a high quality education and care service.

Observing respectful and appropriate protocols when working with Aboriginal communities is critical to establish positive relationships. Consultation should be seen as a two way process, not one of self interest. Your local Aboriginal community is key to enabling sensitivity and respect to be maintained throughout the curriculum. Local AECGs are the peak advisory bodies to the New South Wales Department of Education by consulting and engaging with Aboriginal communities, schools are better placed to support teachers to develop and demonstrate their high expectations of all Aboriginal students.

A range of national and state policies, reports and strategies exist in relation to early years Aboriginal education. At the national level, one of these is a closing the gap targets. Four of the closing the gap targets relate specifically to education, and targets have been set in the areas of early childhood education, school attendance, year 12 attainment and reading, writing and numeracy achievement. There's also the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education strategy from 2015. This strategy identifies seven priority areas to improve the educational outcomes of Aboriginal students. Priority area six is school and child readiness. High quality, culturally inclusive early childhood education services and schools work with families and communities to set a strong foundation for early learning, including a child's transition to school is priority area six.

At the national level, there is also the Alice Springs education declaration from 2019. This also reinforces and expands on the previous Melbourne Declaration, giving a much higher profile to the importance of Aboriginal education and reinforcing the need for excellence in outcomes for Aboriginal students. That declaration has two distinct but interconnected goals. Goal one is for the Australian education system to promote excellence and equity. Goal two is for all young Australians to become confident and creative individuals, successful lifelong learners and actively informed members of the community. This aligns nicely with the principles and practices of the early years learning framework. The Declaration also commits governments to empowering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to reach their potential and to ensure that the education community works to close the gap for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The national agenda shapes the state agenda.

At the state level, one of the key drivers are the premier’s priorities. One of the national close the gap targets compliments the premier’s priority to increase the proportion of Aboriginal students attaining year 12 by 50 percent by 2023 while also maintaining their cultural identity. This means an additional 1000 Aboriginal students completing year 12 by the year 2023. The research tells us that a high quality early years education sets Aboriginal children up to meeting this target.

There are a number of key plans and policy documents that relate to Aboriginal education. These include the Department strategic plan, the Aboriginal education policy and turning policy into action documents, the partnership agreement 2010 – 2020 and the personalised learning pathways guidelines. Common threads and key themes can be identified throughout all Aboriginal education documents. I'd strongly recommend participants to read all documents and find the common themes.

The DoE strategic plan compliments existing Aboriginal education documents and policies by ensuring that children are at the centre of all decision making. Every child is known, valued and cared for, and through the performance measure of increased proportion of Aboriginal students in the top two bands for reading and numeracy.

The Aboriginal education policy aims to work in partnership with the New South Wales, AECG, Aboriginal communities and organisations, to ensure delivery of quality education to Aboriginal students in schools and preschools. To provide support and cultural inclusive learning environments for Aboriginal students, to incorporate cultural context values and practices of local Aboriginal communities into the mainstream delivery of education and value and acknowledge the identities of Aboriginal students.

NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative group or AECG is the peak advisory body to the New South Wales Department of Education. The partnership agreement is a statement of intent of how the New South Wales AECG and the Department of Education are planning on working together. The aim of agreed priority four is to ensure that Aboriginal children have the skills for learning by the time they start school by providing access to a variety of relevant and culturally inclusive prior to school and preschool programs.

Personalised learning plans are now called personalised learning pathways. The changing name does not alter their intent with the process involved in ensuring their effective development and implementation. PLPs are an effective tool for increasing Aboriginal student engagement. They have the potential to support improved learning outcomes and educational aspirations when they are developed in genuine partnership with Aboriginal children, families and teachers. That can be customised by each school in Aboriginal community to make the local needs and context. The PLP document is used by schools to ensure Aboriginal students and their parents or carers are actively engaged in meaningful planning and decision making in their education. PLP conversations are of great importance as they identify strengths and shared understandings of goals, expectations and responsibilities. These conversations need to be respectful and genuine. It is recommended that all Aboriginal students have a PLP that is tailored to the student and regularly reviewed and updated. There is no statewide personalised learning pathway template. Whoever it is recommended that schools and community develop a template that meets their local needs.

In January 2020, the Aboriginal education and communities directorate developed their vision statement that was informed by national and state targets and priorities. It is to increase the knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal culture and to ensure every Aboriginal child and young person is a proud, confident learner, achieving their maximum potential. The vision is a statement of intent to increase the knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal culture for all children, staff and school communities.

Let's take a moment to reflect on what we've discussed so far and how this might relate to your own individual context. Think about how you are currently working with your Aboriginal families. How are you currently working with your local AECG and how is what are you doing contributing to achieving the vision statement? What other actions could you be taking?

Curriculum links. All Australian curriculum learning areas can contribute to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures cross curriculum priority. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures are included in nature of the learning area in ways that are consistent with its content and purpose. They also make it possible to link content across learning areas which can lead to integrated units of work. The early years learning framework, and the New South Wales syllabus documents have a great deal in common. Both take up the challenge of the Alice Springs declaration, respond to a rapidly changing world context, for 21st century learners and underpinned by the belief that education has the power to transform the individual and society.

The early years learning framework and the New South Wiles syllabus documents are different in structure and some of their emphasis because they focus on particular phases in learning in the lives of children and young people. However, the two sets of documents are complementary and can provide an articulated pathway of learning from prior to school into school and beyond.

The early years learning framework asked educators to build upon children's understanding of diversity. Specifically Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. Principle four is respect for diversity. Educators can promote this by providing opportunities in the curriculum that reflects diversity as well as reflecting practices, values and beliefs of children and families. And when they value children's different capacities and abilities and respect differences in families home lives. The principles underpin the practice.

The Early Years Learning Framework specifically calls out cultural competence as a practice that assists children to make progress in relation to the five learning outcomes. Understanding, valuing and supporting the rich aspects of Aboriginal culture supports inclusion for Aboriginal children and strengthens awareness of culture for all children. To be culturally competent, educators respectfully acknowledge multiple cultural ways of knowing, seeing and being, display positive attitudes toward cultural differences, take a personal responsibility to build their knowledge, understanding, and attitude, and successfully work and communicate with children, families, and community members. The principles were the why, the practices are the how, next we will look at the outcomes, which are the what.

Culture is central to a child's individuality, identity, sense of belonging and success in life long learning. To support the identity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and to enhance the knowledge of non-indigenous children. Early childhood services should pay attention to the cultural identity of the Aboriginal community in which they situated. A strong sense of identity helps children to know who they are and to be confident in their culture and ways of learning. It helps them to use this sense of self to feel safe and secure and belong to a family, community and culture is important in knowing who you are and how you influence the world. Educators intentionally promote this learning when they show genuine respect for all children and their ways of belonging, being and becoming, provide many opportunities for children to interact with the culturally valued skills, languages, stories, food, dance and crafts for their families and community. Model language to describe and celebrate the culture of the community in first languages and standard Australian English. Design an environment that enables children to make choices and decisions about their play and resources.

Connecting to nature helps to further develop children sense of identity. Focusing on children's relationship with nature helps them to be connected with and contribute to the world. The early years learning framework explains that children becomes socially responsible and show respect for the environment when educators consider the nature of children's connectedness to the land. Educators can intentionally promote this learning when they expose children to resources that broaden their appreciation of diversity. For example, artefacts, dance, music, languages and dialects, stories, art, and craft of other cultures when they provide culturally sensitive choices and alternatives for children to regulate their behaviour. How they invite elders and community members to share aspects of the children's relationship to the physical world. This may be through songs, dance and storytelling. And help children explore land, water, air, bush, sky, rocks and weather patterns.

Having a strong sense of well being is strongly linked to positive relationships with preschool educators, family and the community. It is also important to recognise the importance of the wider family network in parenting children in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and other related cultural differences in child rearing practices compared to non-indigenous communities. The family network is an important contributor to a child's sense of well being. Educators intentionally promote this learning when they take time to engage in enjoyable and trusting conversations with children and families. Invite elders and community to share stories with health and safety messages. Incorporate songs, games, music, stories, an information technologies in the standard Australian English and first languages that support healthy lifestyles and nutrition. And implement specific health and safety programs for children in collaboration with families and communities, for example, the breathing blowing coughing routine for otitis media.

There are a variety of ways educators can support children to become confident and involved learners, particularly through a play based, strengths based approach. Educators can intentionally promote this learning when they have high expectations of children's capabilities, focus on children's strengths rather than on what they can't do in all interactions and activities, and provide open-ended play based learning opportunities where children can direct their own learning.

Outcome five promotes supporting children to interact with others via positive strategies for communication and engagement. This will help children to become strong, effective communicators. The early years learning framework asks that educators value children's linguistic heritage and with family and community members encouraged the use of an acquisition of home languages and Standard Australian English. An awareness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children's home language is needed to provide a literacy rich environment. Educators intentionally promote this learning when they know about, recognise, and support the development of children's first language, as well as Australian standard English, provide games, dance and movement experiences, and involve simple direction instructions. Provide opportunities for oral storytelling and incorporate cultural events, symbols and experiences that involve patterns of repeated sequences. For example, in movement. songs, art, games, dance, manipulative play, routines and stories.

Teachers can intentionally link to the English early stage one curriculum when they acknowledge that different languages and dialects may be spoken by family, classmates and community, create opportunities for students to write in their home language and dialect and make basic connections with English, including Aboriginal languages in Aboriginal English. Use music and or actions to enhance the enjoyment and understanding of rhymes, poems, chants and songs, explore sequencing of a story focusing on the beginning, middle and end, and recognised cultural patterns of storytelling. For example, in the dreaming and to promote oral language through the use of storytelling.

Traditional Aboriginal mathematical thinking is both similar to and different from western concepts with more value generally on place and space then abstract space and quality rather than quantity. Learning about these mathematical concepts allow our students an alternative view of the world reflecting on their own countries unique cultural heritage, and enabling them to see western mathematical concepts in a more global context. They can include activities based on Aboriginal cultural concepts relevant to mathematics as well of examples of western mathematical activities based on Aboriginal cultural content. Here are some examples. Describing the features of familiar three-dimensional objects such as local landmarks. Including everyday language, for example, flat round identifying circles, triangles, squares and rectangles in pictures in the environment, including an Aboriginal art. Students can investigate different methods of adding and subtracting used across many different cultures, for example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander methods that involve spatial patterns and reasoning or Asian counting tools such as the Abacus. Investigate the use of hefting in practical situations. For example, the practice used by Aboriginal people of hefting duck eggs to determine whether ducklings will be male or female. Or to use Aboriginal languages and number vocabulary when counting.

Let's take a moment now to reflect on the content that we've covered so far, and what our practice is in our own settings. Let's consider does every Aboriginal student have a personalised learning pathway that is developed in genuine partnership with children, families and teachers? Are you including Aboriginal perspectives aligned to the school plan and or the preschool quality improvement plan? And think about how high expectations for each Aboriginal student is reflected in your planning and programs. Now we're going to have a look at putting it all into practice.

Let's start by identifying the local community. Find out who the traditional custodians of your area are and the language spoken. Map the children's country and language group after discussion with families and children. Acknowledge country with children every day by relating the history of the land to the experiences of children in their environment. Find out what community, dates and events are celebrated in your local area. Or invite community members and elders to the service to share their skills or knowledge with the children. For example, storytelling or traditional music.

Here are some ways that you could localise the curriculum to your own context. You can strengthen children's sense of identity by rating books and singing songs in language. When introducing items such as stories and artworks from other parts of Australia, talk about whose mob the story or artwork comes from and use an Aboriginal Australian map to illustrate this. Reflect the local language and signs around the preschool so everyone knows that your service is a culturally safe place.

Make sure that the preschool environment says if you are Aboriginal, you belong here. Set up a learning environment that reflects the local natural environment and encourages children to explore different natural materials. For example, local beach or bush habitats. This also helps children to feel connected to the land in the local culture. One of the guiding principles of the national quality framework is that Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are valued. Early childhood services can recognise and promote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures through the display of flags. The flags might be flown or displayed throughout the year. You can avoid tokenism by firstly explaining to children what they are, what they represent, and the meanings of the flags. Also discuss the meanings of the colours, red, black and yellow with the children, so that colours in displays have meaning for them. You can also provide access to a wide range of natural and manufactured materials in environment, for example, clay rocks, pebbles, palm leaves, feathers, shells, driftwood that reflect your local area.

Another way to be culturally responsive is to put a cultural spin on every day activities. For example, share and read dreaming stories with children, use oral storytelling. Grow traditional bushtucker foods in your garden and use it in cooking activities with children. Provide implements to draw in sand or dirt, or use sticks and leaves as painting mediums. Use native herbs such as lemon Myrtle or wattle seed in your playdough and make paint with ochre.

Let's take a moment to reflect on our environment. Take a walk through your service and reflect on the indoor and outdoor environments. What do you see? How does your service show that you value Aboriginal culture and how do you include the voices of Aboriginal families in the program?

You'll find an additional resource which accompanies this professional learning session on the learning from home site. The resource might be used to support professional dialogue to facilitate deeper understandings within the preschool team or to supplement the corresponding professional learning.

We would love to hear your feedback about this professional learning and for you to provide suggestions for future development of PL. Please use the QR code or the link below to access the evaluation in Microsoft forms.

Thank you for participating in this professional learning session. Please feel free to contact early learning at if you would like any further information, thank you.

[End of transcript]


  • Early childhood curriculum and pedagogy
  • Early childhood education

Business Unit:

  • Curriculum and Reform
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