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4 Ways to Celebrate Diverse Families in an ECE Classroom

childlike illustrations of stick-figure diverse families

As an early childhood educator, you know the importance of teaching toddlers. Everything they learn now will influence them later on. Laying the foundation for skills like sharing, teamwork and emotional self-control can pay societal dividends years from now—and that’s just as true when it comes to the topic of acceptance and understanding.

Beyond multicultural books for toddlers, there are lots of ways to help children recognize and celebrate how families differ. Whether you want to introduce more diversity to your class or positively showcase the many differences already there, these tips can help. 

We talked to experts in the field about how you can celebrate diverse families with your preschoolers. These multicultural lessons for toddlers will help you engage in age-appropriate conversations about differences, intolerance, empathy and more.

Is an ECE classroom the right place?

You may be wondering if preschoolers are too young to talk about race, gender, disability, or family structure. While obviously diving into high-minded academic topics like systemic oppression and multiculturalism is going to be a bit much for a toddler, there are plenty of other ways to engage kids on these subjects in an age appropriate way.

Young children are observant and quick to notice physical characteristics that differ from their immediate family. Often this can begin to dictate how they choose playmates and even lead to what can be seen as sort of a naïve bias—this person look different from me, so maybe they don’t like me?

An inclusive ECE education can be pivotal in how children perceive diversity as they grow. Not only is this a formative age, but your classroom may be the most diverse place they’re exposed to at this age. With the chance to introduce children from a variety of different backgrounds, an ECE teacher can help foster connection and acceptance from an early stage. 

How to celebrate diverse families in an ECE classroom

1. Don’t ignore diversity or intolerance

Often the fear of addressing diversity in the wrong way keeps many from addressing it at all.

But as Renee Lopez, early childhood learning specialist and founder of The Magic of Littles, points out, brushing it off could have negative, long-term effects.

"Children at this age are testing their limits," she says. "And if you let moments of intolerance slide, they’re going to think it’s okay.”

To celebrate diverse families, it's important to create a safe place for children in your class. Sometimes that means confronting intolerant behavior. According to Lopez, it’s not enough to discipline an outburst. You need to acknowledge when children act out because of their differences—even if it’s something as simple as hair color. By setting clear expectations, you can show that diversity is something to celebrate not to use against one another.

Put it into practice:

Lopez recommends preparing responses for when children react negatively to their differences. For example, she says, if one student tells another they can’t play together because of some external factor, use it as a teaching moment. Try saying, “Just because you look different doesn’t mean you can’t play together.” Or start a conversation by asking, “Do you think they play differently because they look different?” This can help children both acknowledge their differences while not seeing them as an obstacle.

2. Draw attention to similarities

While it is important to celebrate the differences between families, it can also be helpful to emphasize what they have in common. One child might have two biological parents, while another might be adopted, have a single parent, or same-sex parents. Either way, it’s love and support that makes a family.

As Lopez puts it, “All children just want to be seen and heard.”

By pointing out similarities like this, you can help children recognize how they can relate to others regardless of their circumstances.

Put it into practice:

To help discover similarities in your class, Lopez suggests playing a simple game of show and tell. Send children home with a “treasure box” they can fill with things that represent their families. Ask them to bring it back and show the class. This allows children to choose objects that reflect their culture while also helping them connect with their classmates. Each child’s object will look different, but they can recognize that many serve the same purpose such as toys, clothes, music, and games.

3. Use diverse teaching materials

One of the best ways to celebrate diverse families is by using materials that represent them in class. Not only is this a proactive way to engage students, but it can help empower them to feel seen and heard. Precious Hardy, educator and educational psychology PhD student, urges ECE teachers to not underestimate the power something as simple as representation can have.

“Intolerance is often indirectly taught in school because of a lack of exposure to other cultures. Even subtle things like the images on the wall of a classroom can alter students' sense of belonging.”

By exposing your students to pictures, books, songs and other materials from different perspectives and cultures, you can continue to craft that safe place for them to feel accepted and accept others.

Put it into practice:

While there are a lot of ways you can include exposure to other cultures in your classroom, one obvious starting point is with the books children have read to them. Debbie Lopez, educator and director of content marketing at Zivadream, provided a helpful list of books to stock your classroom shelves. 

  • It’s Okay to Be Different by Todd Parr. With illustrations that employ bright and cheerful colors, this story celebrates individuality and encourages kids to be proud of their differences.
  • All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold, illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman. A simple rhyming picture book with illustrations, this story emphasizes inclusiveness and is perfect for the first day of school. 
  • The Crayon Box That Talked by Shane DeRolf, illustrated by Michael Letzig. This story is about a crayon box of different colors that do not get along at first. When they realize that each color adds value, they learn to appreciate and embrace their differences.
  • Teach Your Dragon About Diversity by Steve Herman. This cute story is about a pet dragon who knows he’s different, and a boy who teaches him that diversity is what makes us special.
  • Families, Families, Families! by Suzanne Lange, illustrated by Max Lang. With charming and engaging illustrations, the author does a great job of discussing families, focusing on their differences and similarities.

4. Take a holistic approach to diversity in your curriculum

It can be easy for diversity to become just another checkbox in your curriculum. You read the books, play the games, and say all the right things, but celebrating diversity is so much more. If you want to help develop well-rounded students, you need to focus on the core characteristics that make existing with differences possible.

Whether you’re counting coins, painting, or playing pretend, you can set children up for long-term success by helping them develop skills such as empathy. Basic traits like this can help children understand different perspectives and are the foundation for tolerance and fair treatment.

Put it into practice:

This activity from The Inclusion Lab helps foster empathy in children. Have each child pick an emotion to act out while the others guess what it might be. Feel free to join in and make it fun! Fold your arms and pout. Then, ask the children to guess what you’re feeling. Discuss different scenarios that might make you feel this way such as being left out, bullied, or laughed at. This exercise is a great way to demonstrate that we all experience the same emotions no matter what we look like or where we come from.

Empower diverse families through ECE

Diversity can be a difficult subject to tackle. Even some adults are still figuring it out. But as you educate yourself on ways to celebrate diversity, you empower your students and their families to feel seen and heard.

Learn how a degree in early childhood education could help you become an effective advocate in the classroom and beyond. Check out our article, “5 Ways Rasmussen College ECE Students Are Equipped to Educate in a Diverse World.”

Hannah Meinke

Hannah Meinke is a writer at Collegis Education. She enjoys helping people discover their purpose and passion by crafting education and career-related content on behalf of Rasmussen College.

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