Research Report: Diversity in Early Childhood Classrooms

August 2015, Volume 38, Issue 12

In their recent report, A Better Start: Why Classroom Diversity Matters in Early Education, Jeanne L. Reid and Sharon Lynn Kagan (Columbia University) have analyzed demographic data, research, and the positions of national early childhood organizations to take the pulse of diversity in the nation’s early childhood classrooms.

Their findings? Diversity is rare. Early learning classrooms tend to be homogenous in both race and income, and—more troubling—the opportunities and experiences provided to the high-socioeconomic status students are of a far higher quality than those provided to their lower-income counterparts.

This situation undermines the purpose of early childhood education. The students who are most likely to need the head start already begin their school careers behind.

The good news is that the report isolates some elements that principals have the power to change in order to create a more diverse and inclusive early learning environment, namely, targeted professional development for their teachers and increased support for enrollment and engagement of diverse families.

What effective professional development looks like

Classrooms are becoming increasingly diverse. Within a decade, white students will be the minority among their diverse classmates. One-quarter of students will be considered English-language learners.

A Better Start found that early childhood teachers enter the classroom wholly unprepared for this level of diversity. The report offers recommendations to remedy teachers’ deficiencies: In the long term, teaching programs should include curricula that addresses diversity education. Targeted professional development is the short-terms solution to better equip in-service teachers.

To start, that professional learning should speak to celebrating diversity in the classroom. Too often, teachers try to mold their classroom into a more homogenous culture. But every student should be proud of his or her background. Teachers should use strategies that help celebrate diversity while maintaining rigorous standards for all students.

In a diverse early childhood classroom, differentiation becomes even more crucial. Students enter with enormously different levels of preparedness. Some might be able to identify their letters and numbers. Others might call them by different names due to the language spoken at home. Others might have rarely seen letters or numbers before.

Early childhood teachers need to have a range of strategies in their toolbox to target these diverse levels of ability while moving these students toward a common goal: preparedness for the next step in their schooling.

Engagement strategies to integrate families into the school culture

Cultural and language differences can create an uphill battle when it comes to families supporting preschool education. In some cultures, formal early childhood education is unheard of. In others, parents don’t see the need. The solution is two-pronged: respect for the wishes and beliefs of neighborhood families while educating them about what goes on in the school and the importance of early childhood education.

The divergent views of cultures on early learning are not wrong and should not be treated as such. Parents might have specific views about what should happen in the classroom. Those views should be heard and, if possible, respected.

In engaging diverse cultures, transparency is key. A more concerted effort needs to be made to allow teachers to update parents on the goings-on in the classroom and to speak specifically about each child’s progress. Electronic communication can help, but remember that low-income families might not have access to devices. Consider open houses, potlucks, and anything else that might make families feel included. Then move on from there to discussing educational goals.

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