8 Ways to Honor Diverse Family Structures in the ECE Classroom
“... And the very sleepy bunny said, ‘Goodnight Mom, goodnight Dad.’”
A line like this wrapping up a sweet children’s story probably doesn’t cause you any surprise. But if you are a preschooler with two moms or a toddler living with an auntie, then these familiar lines are painting pictures—and parameters—of what a family looks like.
Make no mistake, families with one mom and one dad are wonderful. But other family structures are wonderful as well. When kids know their family looks different than the stories represent, they can feel excluded or confused about where they fit in and if their family counts.
The importance of recognizing diverse families
“The early childhood school setting is often a child’s first experience with diversity,” says Dawn Kurtz, Ph.D., chief program officer at Child360. “Research has shown that between the ages of two and five years, children become aware of differences, such as gender, ethnicity, disabilities—even differences in family structures.”
This can be excellent news for educators who want to instill a sense of confidence in students in the face of their differences. Kurtz explains that talking about our differences is beneficial for children’s identity development, while also fostering a sense of curiosity and appreciation for other people.
“You’re teaching children about respect for others. Celebrating the beauty in our differences helps to build a stronger community, diminishes prejudice or fear and enriches our society by creating global citizens in our children,” Kurtz says.
On top of that, honoring diverse families in your classroom will help children feel included in their learning environment. “When children know that their family—the people they love most in the world—are valued and truly seen by their teachers, it helps send the message that they belong in that classroom,” says Chelsea Myers, early childhood educator at Hilltop Children’s Center. “Children learn best in that environment.”
Since the heart of education is to help children learn, including diverse families in your classroom is a great goal to set for any classroom. To get your ideas flowing, we asked experts in early childhood education to weigh in on honoring diverse family structures.
8 Ways to create an inclusive environment for students from diverse families
1. Recognize that your assumptions carry weight
Teachers know even the youngest students are extremely perceptive. That definitely includes observing the teacher. Your reactions to questions kids ask about the differences they observe in people around them, for example, paint a landscape for your students. And at an age where you might be one of the only adults they interact with outside the home—your opinions have major impact.
“An educator plays an integral role in helping to shape how a child views themselves, their family unit and the world,” Kurtz says. “Research reveals that by age two, babies use observations to classify who ‘their’ people are, and show preference based upon skin color. These conclusions are often learned by what they perceive from their caregivers.”
In the same way, Kurtz explains, children make connections about how their caregivers perceive family systems. If teachers speak about families in exclusively “mom and dad” terms, kids notice. But even a little awareness goes a long way. Teachers who are aware of diverse families can intentionally loop in examples and encourage children to realize that every family looks different.
“The most natural approach is to create an environment that celebrates all differences as a whole,” Kurtz says.
2. Add a few characters to dramatic play environments
If your classroom has a play area, a dollhouse or any zone that encourages kids to play act, be sure to include characters and dolls that encourage inclusion.
“Offer persona dolls in the dramatic play areas and have displays around the classroom that include photographs of people from around the world,” Kurtz suggests. Maybe this means adding a grandma and grandpa to the dollhouse—or costume clothing choices from around the world. According to Kurtz, a classroom that celebrates differences in all categories will best honor diverse families.
3. Allow kids to notice and talk about differences
This one might seem obvious, but it can be tricky to know what to say when a student blurts out something an adult would never say. But it’s very natural for children to make observations and ask questions about race, gender and family structure differences.
“Remember, children are merely making observations of differences—what makes a boy or a girl, differences in skin color—they are not making assumptions that fall into what we, as adults, know as racism or prejudice,” Kurtz says. “Every conversation and interaction is a valuable opportunity to begin supporting inclusive ideas and identity development early in life.”
4. Be intentional with story time
“Books are an excellent way to start,” Myers says, adding that you can find stories that lay out a counter-narrative from the norm as well as stories depicting the many ways to make a family. “These books help validate my children's own lives, they showcase ways that others live and they spark rich conversations.”
“There are all types of families, including same-sex parents and multiracial parents, which can be celebrated and embraced through classroom practices,” Kurtz says. Representing different kinds of families in picture books is one of the most straightforward ways to showcase diverse families.
5. Invite family members to share in class
Any activity that puts your students’ family members in the classroom spotlight can teach more than words ever will. Kurtz suggests inviting family members to visit the classroom and share about their heritage. Even inviting family members to participate in show and tell for a day—or to talk about a meal they love could work.
“All of these actions help normalize the idea that all of our families do not look the same,” Kurtz says. Activities like these offer the added bonus of giving you more time with your students’ families. Those partnerships are known for supporting student learning.
6. Model curiosity
Curiosity about other people and their families can find roots in an amazing imagination. “When talking to kids about their play, we can help open their worlds,” Kurtz says. “They are so creative already—if a baby leopard can run the fastest and fly, then it can easily also have two moms.”
This is another way where the creative and imaginative environment of your classroom can have a huge impact. Dream big, imagine things and ask questions. “When talking to kids about their home life, we can be the ones modeling curiosity about others instead of judgement,” Kurtz says. “We can ask questions instead of making assumptions.”
7. Look into free resources
Trying to add diverse families to your curriculum or classroom environment can feel like a big task, but Myers encourages everyone to take advantage of free resources. “You don't need to reinvent the wheel—people have been working on this for a long time.”
For ideas, Myers suggests checking out your state’s ECE licensing website. “They may offer financial assistance, calendars of trainings or maybe even book lists or other classroom resources.” Expanding your work in this way might not feel easy, “But it will be worth it,” Myers says.
8. Emphasize the importance of family
In a sense, honoring diverse families boils down to the idea that every family is valuable and important. Family structures, no matter what they look like, are the foundation your students are standing on. That is always worth encouraging.
“It's important to have a baseline of valuing the families that are in your classroom, even if they all look like the stereotype,” Kurtz says. “Making a family book from photos or displaying photos of your children's families around the classroom or school is one way to get that ball rolling.”
Making every family important in the classroom space is an excellent way to encourage your students to understand and respect the value of all families and not just the ones that look similar to their own families.
Building on a solid foundation
The best teachers are always going the extra mile for their students. When you see those little eyes light up with understanding, the extra effort you put into your job feels so worth it. In the end, it’s about how they develop and approach their own lives.
“As these children grow up, I want them to know that it's wonderful that the people around them are different,” Myers says. “I also want them to know that however they make a family later in life is wonderful.”
Education is the foundation for a diverse and prosperous future—and while it may seem easy enough to follow the “Golden Rule” of treating others as you’d like to be treated, we all have our blind spots. One way to fix that is to enroll in an ECE program that challenges students to recognize these biases. Learn more in our article, “5 Ways Rasmussen College ECE Students Are Equipped to Educate in a Diverse World.”