A New Approach to Multicultural Education For Children, Birth through Age Eight


Francis Wardle, PhD

All three of the early childhood classes that I teach at a local community college include in their syllabi content on diversity and multicultural education. However, in two of these classes I refuse to address the topic, because, as I explain to the students, I simply believe the way multicultural education is taught today is incorrect, and not at all helpful to teachers, children, and families. In fact I believe the way it is taught perpetuates some of the problems it is supposed to address. In the third class that I teach, I spend a full day on multicultural education (the class is offered every Saturday during the semester). We begin by deconstructing common multicultural concepts such as race, ethnicity, culture, and diversity. We then progress to a discussion about how multicultural education should look like in early childhood programs and classrooms.

I believe that the traditional approach to multiracial education taught in America’s colleges and universities, and in schools and early childhood programs, is outdated and desperately needs to be revised. Not only does it totally ignore the needs of multiracial and multiethnic children and their families (something that is obviously contradictory in any approach to diversity in our education programs), but it focuses on single-group belonging, while reinforcing stereotypes and creating an us versus them mentality in many of the students – and some of the parents.

In this article I attempt to describe my vision of multicultural education for programs that serve children, age birth through age eight. The article includes three sections: 1) a very brief history of multicultural education in the US; 2) problems that exist with the traditional approach to multicultural education, and 3) a detailed description of the new approach to multicultural education. This is my first attempt at articulating my multicultural model, so it is fairly simplistic, and will need refinement. Furthermore, while I focus on the early childhood period, many of the concepts apply to the k-12 school curriculum. Finally, while my own focus is on the needs of multiracial and multiethnic children and their families, I deeply believe that any multicultural education approach that does not positively include, embrace and empower multiracial and multiethnic children is fundamentally flawed in many other ways, and thus is not appropriate also for children with a single-race or ethnic heritage.

Two subjects that are discussed in this article will not be found in regular multicultural texts and articles, because they are problems that are unique to the early childhood field: the need for increased pay and benefits for teachers and caregiver of young children, and advocacy for more men in the field. These are social justice issues that simply cannot be ignored in any discussion of multicultural education for children, birth through age eight.

Brief History of Multicultural Education in America

Multicultural education in America developed from the turbulent 1960s: the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the counterculture. The civil rights movement challenged the white-superiority view of American society and culture, and finally eliminated the Jim Crow laws. Minorities took their place within major American institutions, including education. The women’s movement challenged the male-dominated approach to American society, including the content taught in schools and the official school curriculum. The counter culture, which operated somewhat parallel to (but also interacted with) the civil rights movement, challenged all traditional American values, including racism, segregation, and prejudice. One result of the counter culture was the free/open school movement of the 1960s-1980s.

In the beginning multicultural education included specific racial groups in American history: African Americans, Asians, and Native Americas (at that time the Hispanics were combined with other people from Europe or with a minority group, depending on the person’s origin and what they looked like)(Wardle & Cruz-Janzen, 2004). Soon after its inception, women were added; then in 1975 – with the passage of a new federal law – people with disabilities were included in multicultural education (a final blow to the eugenics movement, which is a powerful and disturbing part of America’s racist past). Today multicultural education also includes sexual orientation and sexual identity, people who do not speak English, low-come families, and people of non-Christian religious faiths (Banks & Banks, 2013; Nieto & Bode, 2012; Pai, Adler, & Shadiow, 2006).

Thus multicultural education focuses on groups that historically were marginalized in American society, and then continually added new under-served groups as they became active and demanded full participation in American society (except, curiously, the multiracial movement). Multicultural education developed at the college level, then was adopted by k-12 education, and finally included in preschool programs. To this day, almost all multicultural writers, lecturers, and ‘experts’ reside at the college level, including those who write multicultural texts for the early childhood field.

Problems with Today’s Multicultural Education

Over the years there has been considerable criticism of multicultural education (Bloom, 1987; Hirsch, 1987). However, this article is less about criticizing multicultural education (which I fully support), than it is in suggesting a new approach that builds on the foundation of the traditional multicultural model. However, the overall multicultural approach has not changed much since the 1960s, and it is simply time to make some important improvements and advancements. Problems with the current, traditional multicultural approach include:

• It was developed at the college level, and then pushed down to k-12. Further, most of the scholarship, theoretical constructs, and theories about multicultural education emanate from college departments of sociology and ethnic studies, rather than psychology, education, and anthropology. This poses many problems, including a focus on groups, power relationships, and racial politics, rather than on child development, individual differences in learning and development, educational processes and constructs, and pedagogy.

• An approach that is confused about the purpose of American public education. Since the inception of public education in America (and other countries, for that matter) there has been great debate about its purpose (Wiles & Bondi, 2011). Further, there are many schools of multicultural education, each with their own goals and objectives. However, all seem to have no real understanding about public schools in general. For example, one book uses the subtitle, honoring diversity; another, honoring differences, and a third, affirming diversity, yet the very function of public schools throughout the world is to unify a country that is comprised of people with a vast amount of different allegiances, cultures, and histories (language and religion, and racial, ethnic, and tribal affiliations, and so on) into one unified, national identity (Wiles & Bondi, 2011). In the last part of the 19th and most of the 20th century, American public schools were charged with implementing the great American melting pot (Pai, Adler, & Shadiow, 2006). True, there were problems with this idea – but these problems were more about American society than about the schools – and the fact remains that schools have never been about highlighting peoples’ differences. Certainly, how public schools unite a nation’s diverse population is debatable, but not the need to provide this national unity. (It is, however, somewhat comical that the various attempts by public schools to match students’ different strengths and abilities through charter schools is totally rejected by most multiculturalists (Nieto & Bode, 2012).

• An unquestioning acceptance and support of the racial and ethnic categories created and used by the US government to count and sort its population. To me, this is unfathomable! The very government that produced the near total genocide of Native Americans, supported slavery, instituted and supported the Jim Crow laws, and nurtured and perpetuated eugenics, is now viewed by multiculturalists as the arbitrator of racial and ethnic identities!

• A group approach. As already pointed out, the original multicultural approach was developed from a civil rights and social movement that focused on the rights of people belonging to underserved and disenfranchised groups. And this made a great deal of sense. However, the current approach to diversity still focuses on groups (Banks & Banks, 2013; Nieto & Bode, 2012). There are many problems with this group approach, including, 1) it reinforces stereotypes – both internally and externally – about the people who belong to each group, 2) it marginalizes people who either do not belong to a specific US census category, or whose identity includes more than one group, and, 3) it encourages a group versus group mentality, which is very unhealthy, especially for developing minority children, and for fostering true acceptance and diversity in our schools. An individual’s identity includes many characteristics, including gender, race/ethnicity, language, family, religion and so on (West, 2001). During the first 8 years of development, the child actively constructs his/her unique identity, with the goal of developing a positive and healthy identity. Unfortunately, when we focus on single-racial and ethnic groups, there is a tendency to define identity in opposition to the white race: “I am not white”; “I don’t act white”, “I do not like white people’s music”, “I do not participate in white sports”, and so on.

• A focus on a single dimension of a person. None of us is one-dimensional; all of us have rich, complicated dimensions that include race and ethnicity, culture, language, national origin, abilities and disabilities, education, and so on (West, 2001). But, with the traditional approach to multicultural education, a highly gifted Black female student is always viewed as first and foremost Black. Further, the traditional approach does not allow the full, balanced integration of several important factors, such as a Native American boy who is skilled at computers and has a learning disability in reading.

A New Approach

The new approach for multicultural education of children, age birth through age eight, builds on the rich history of multicultural education. I focus on birth to age eight because this is the traditional early childhood age that I work with (teaching teachers at a community college), and because, in my view, the traditional approach is the least appropriate for this age child. The new approach involves eight interrelated concepts:

• Focus on the unique developmental needs of children, birth to eight years old;
• Advocate for the enhanced pay and benefits of early childhood caregivers and teachers;
• Advocate for more men in the early childhood field;
• Begin with the individual, and not the various groups the child belongs to;
• Advocate for bilingual education for all children;
• Focus on educational opportunity, and not educational outcomes;
• Stress high expectations of everyone, including the child and his/her parents, and
• Stress a whole-child approach and a focus on the arts, physical activities, and play.

Focus on the Unique Developmental Needs of Children, Birth through Age Eight

As already mentioned, multicultural education was originally developed for college curricula, then k-12 programs, and eventually for young children. Thus all of the multicultural books, articles, conference presentations, and so on, for young children, are simply pushed-down versions of k-12 approaches. As such, most are not developmentally appropriate and are not effective with this age child. For example, k-12 multicultural education places considerable emphasis on belonging to one of the official US census racial and ethnic categories (Banks & Banks, 2013; Nieto & Bode, 2012), yet we know children up to about age 8 to 9-years-of-age do not understand race and ethnicity as the social and political constructs that they are (Aboud, 1987). One reason for this lack of understanding is because young children are operating within Piaget’s preoperational stage, in which they discriminate between objects, people, and animals only using visual characteristics and cues (Piaget, 1952). Thus, if a child sees three people – a Native American, African American and Hispanic person – all with the same color skin, to the young child the three people are racially the same (Aboud, 1987). Further, much of the k-12 multicultural curriculum focuses on equality, oppression, prejudice, and racism – all complex concepts young children do not fully understand. Certainly they understand friendship, rejection, hurt, being cruel, and exclusion, but they do so as individual actions and behaviors, not as group attitudes and beliefs (Piaget, 1952).

A multicultural curriculum for young children should focus on affirmation and acknowledgement of everyone, making sure that every child and every family is represented in the classroom environment and in all curricular materials, and that there are lots and lots of opportunities for rich human contact between children and a vast variety of diverse, mature, and talented adults.

The focus should also be on how everyone is the same: everyone has emotions, dreams, fears, needs and wants. Approaches should be developed to help children move beyond people’s obvious unique physical characteristics to see how we are the same; to view how people feel and dream, as opposed to how they look and talk. Physical, cultural and behavioral differences should not be overlooked, but children need to focus on how each of us is, fundamentally, the same.

Increased Pay for Teachers and Caregivers of Young Children

Some educators may not see this as a multicultural issue; to me it is central to this discussion. Why? While college professors – those who write multicultural texts and articles – are well paid, and have secure benefits, early childhood caregivers and teachers are extremely poorly paid and generally lack benefits (Neugebauer, 2008). This is a multicultural issue, because,

• Most early childhood teachers and caregivers are women;
• Many early childhood caregivers and teachers are minority women; and
• Many early childhood teachers and caregiver are single parents.

Not only will increasing the salaries and benefits of early care and education teachers increase the social status of poor, and in some cases, single-parent women, many of whom are minority, but it will also provide good role models for young boys and girls in their early childhood programs. It will show them that minority woman can be successful; it will also increase the status of people who work in the early childhood field, who are currently viewed by many, including some college and k-12 teachers, as merely babysitters. Thus adequate pay and benefits for people who care for our youngest children is very much a multicultural issue.

Increase the Number of Men in the Early Childhood Field

Again, initially this would not seem like a multicultural issue, but it is. Ninety-seven percent of teachers and caregivers in early childhood programs are women; almost as many elementary school teachers are also women, and most early childhood directors and elementary school principals and other school personnel are also women (Neugebauer, 2008). This is a multicultural issue because, 1) men should have an equal opportunity to work with young children, if they so choose, and 2) both young boys and young girls need to have mature and stable male role models in their programs. As we know, many young children, especially minority children, do not have stable, mature male role models at home. Thus boys need models to use as they develop into responsible men, who will themselves have children; girls need positive male role models to use as they develop attraction to the opposite sex, and then enter into important relationships that will help define their adult lives.

It is fascinating to note that when there is underrepresentation of women or minorities in any profession, multiculturalists and civil rights activists are rightfully concerned. But when it comes to too few men, little is said, and nothing is done. Thus the new approach to multicultural education must make this a major goal.

Start with the Individual

Race, ethnicity, gender, disabilities, language, sexual orientation, abilities, learning styles, and other characteristics of a child are all very important components of their identity. However, they are not important in isolation; they gain importance as they dynamically interact with all other characteristics to create a unique individual (Wardle, 1996: West, 2001). Each child’s identity is unique; as such, the child is not an interchangeable cog in a racial or other identity group. Individuals are not defined by the group in which they belong; they are defined by all of their characteristics; by what Bronfenbrenner calls ecological contexts (1979). Race, ethnicity, language, gender, and so on are important contexts, but they are not the only ones.

In this model we begin with the individual. Then we add a variety of factors that contribute to that individual’s view of the world – the child’s identity (Wardle, 1996; West, 2001). However, each of these factors does not carry the same weight, and the influence of each factor on the child depends on many things, including the child’s age, home language, gender, socioeconomic status, number of siblings, and so on (West, 2001). Two central influences that directly affect the child’s identity are, 1) the social and cultural contexts in which the child lives and goes to school, and 2) the child’s increasing ability to think for him/herself, and construct his/her own view of the world.

This view of identity does not devalue the importance of race, ethnicity, gender, and other highly significant characteristics in American society in the 21st century. However, it 1) integrates all characteristics together into a unified, unique whole and 2) recognizes that the individual is in charge of processing his/her unique identity (Wardle, 1996; West, 2001).

This approach also proactively discourages the human temptation to view everyone as belonging to certain groups, with each group defining who the person is, what the person can do, and what the person cannot do; in other words, group stereotypes.

Regarding individual racial, ethnic, and tribal identity, this view encourages a mixed race/ethnicity personal identity, and deeply discourages the view of single, government assigned racial categories and hierarchies. This does not mean people should not proudly claim membership in specific groups; what it does mean is that claiming membership in one group, say African American, in no way requires an individual to reject membership in another group, say, their White heritage. Children are encouraged to select and identify with groups that represent who they are and with whom they feel a sense of belonging; however, they are also free to reject these memberships when they no longer serve their needs. And no-one – be it another child, teacher, or other adult – has the right to assign a child to a single racial group, and then to expect the child to exhibit certain values and behaviors based on group membership. This approach also provides ammunition for individuals to reject a single-race approach imposed by others, especially by peers.

The history and rationale for the creation and support of racial categories is all negative, beginning with the need to place people from Europe at the top of the human chain, and including a justification for slavery, persecution, and eugenics (Smedley, 2002). Today a single-race view of race and ethnicity is often used to marginalize families who have children with a variety of mixed-race heritage (Wallace, 2004). The time has come for all multiculturalists to advocate for the elimination of government-defined, single-race categories.

Focus on Equal Educational Opportunity

The focus of the civil rights movement and multicultural education was initially to provide equal opportunity to all Americans, specifically equal educational opportunities (Banks & Banks, 2013). This idea is deeply embedded within the overall American culture: to enable each person to fulfill their potential. The view was that each person is unique, with a unique set of skills and talents, and that education should enable a person to achieve their potential, regardless of their social, racial, linguistic or other characteristics (Wiles & Bondi, 2011).

However, many multiculturalists have changed their view to one of equal educational outcomes. The most obvious example is the federal legislation, No Child Left Behind, which seeks to reduce the academic achievement gap between Whites and Asians on one hand, and Blacks, Native Americans and Hispanics on the others hand. And this gap is determined by test scores. There are several problems with the outcome approach:

• Who decides on the outcomes that must be achieved? Are these outcomes meaningful to all of society, or are they a select view: i.e. college entrance?
• Everyone knows that human beings exhibit different skills and talents; we are not all the same. Further, no society needs everyone to be the same. An educational approach that requires all students to achieve the same levels in all curricular areas denies these realities.
• Those who decide on educational outcomes have determined that math, science, and literacy are the only important outcomes to be achieved. Many student s – including minority students – also excel in other areas – particularly in the critically important early years. The arts are very effective in creating important brain connections in the early years (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000; Shore, 1997). Further, this focus on academics reduces time engaged in physical activities, and thus perpetuates childhood obesity, a disease impacting all children, but especially minority children.
• By focusing on educational outcomes, and then ensuring that all children will meet these outcomes, the educational establishment has taken on the full responsibility of educating children, and denied the critically important role of parents. The view is that parents are not needed in reducing this gap, only teachers and administrators, a view that is found throughout multicultural literature.

Stress High Expectations for all Students and all Parents

All multicultural texts express a desire for schools to have high expectations for all students, including minority, low income, and non-English speaking students (Banks & Banks, 2013; Nieto & Bode, 2012). These books particularly focus on teachers and administrators. Clearly this is very important, because expectations – both good and bad – become self-fulfilling prophecies (Nieto & Bode, 2012). I have some friends at the community college where I teach who are from different African countries. These Black female students are all pursuing degrees in petroleum engineering, in English, and will attend the most competitive engineering school in the Western US to earn their degrees. I wonder what the expectations of these students were from their parents and teachers.

However, many teachers I have spoken with complain that schools and early childhood programs do not have high expectations of low-income and minority students, and that schools and early childhood programs do not have high expectations of the parents of these students. Schools now require that teachers provide all sorts of documentation before they can fail a student; but parents do not have to provide any evidence of supporting their child’s learning. When my wife was a teacher, she would often receive complaints from parents – especially minority parents – when she had high academic and behavioral expectations of their children. And her administrators would always side with the parents and never the teacher.

In early childhood programs we are not only teaching children, but also teaching parents about our expectations. Thus early childhood programs have the critical responsibility to help all parents understand that the most powerful influence on their child’s academic success is parent involvement and support. Too often, schools and teachers misinterpret cultural competence as a lack of high student and parent expectations, which is an obvious form of discrimination. In many cases, excellence in education is sacrificed for a false sense of equality (Wiles & Bondi, 2011).

Advocate for Bilingual Education

One of the central concepts of multicultural education is teaching English to non-English-speaking students, although this is usually only advocated for students whose home language is Spanish (Nieto & Bode, 2012). I believe that true multicultural education should support the teaching of a second language to all students, beginning in preschool. And early childhood programs and schools should offer a variety of languages, including English, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, French and Portuguese. Parents should choose the second language they wish for their child to learn. The advantages of teaching a second language include:

• Advanced brain development, especially at the early age.
• Attracting more bilingual and multicultural teachers and other school staff.
• Valuing parents who speak another language, especially if they can help translate.
• Making American students globally competitive. It is rather strange that, with all the rhetoric about global competitiveness, politicians and educators have not advocated for bilingual programs.
• Creating a multilingual culture in early childhood programs and schools, where speaking a variety of different languages, by students, staff, and parents, is valued.
• Creating a multicultural climate in educational programs, because language is closely tied to culture (Nieto & Bode, 2012).

Use a Whole-child, Play-based Approach to Curriculum and Instruction

Unfortunately, as a result of the No Child Left Behind federal act, the new Core Curriculum Standards, and the increased focus on closing the academic achievement gap, early childhood and elementary school programs now focus only on teaching of academic skills. Students who struggle academically are often denied access to other important subjects, such as the arts and physical education.

And often these students are low-income and minority children. But, for a variety of complex reasons, these children often need the arts and physical activities more than their middle-class counterparts, especially during the early years (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000)

Thus the multicultural approach for children, birth through age eight, should be a whole-child approach that includes all of the arts, lots of physical activities, many outdoor experiences, and lots of play. And no child should ever be denied these critically important experiences, either as a form of punishment (for any reason), because they struggle in academic areas, or because they have a disability or special need.


Multicultural education developed as a result of the civil right movement of the 1960s, the counter-culture movement, and the women’s movement. It began at the college level, and slowly moved to k-12 education, and then was finally adopted in early childhood education. Initially, multicultural education focused on race, gender, and disabilities in schools, using a whole-group approach to diversity. Today, a variety of other disenfranchised groups have been added, but the whole-group approach remains (Banks & Banks, 2013; Nieto & Bode, 2012).

This article argues that the traditional approach to multicultural education has many problems, and that now is the time to build on the traditional model, making changes to address a variety of areas that require a new and different approach. The revised approach to multicultural education focuses on the age, birth to eight years, because this age group requires a very different and unique approach to multicultural education. Within this time frame, eight new and improved multicultural concepts are suggested: 1) focus on the unique developmental and learning needs of children, birth to age eight; 2) advocate for enhanced pay and benefits for early childhood caregivers and teachers; 3) advocate for more men in early childhood and elementary education programs; 4) when it comes to a child’s identify, begin with the individual child and not the various groups to which the individual belongs; 5) advocate for bilingual education for all students, beginning in preschool; 6), focus on educational opportunity and not outcomes; 7) stress high expectations for everyone, including students and parents, and 8), use a whole-child approach that includes the arts, physical activities, and play.


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