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Early Child Development and Care
ISSN: 0300-4430 (Print) 1476-8275 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/gecd20
New understandings of cultural diversity and the
implications for early childhood policy, pedagogy,
Jeanne L. Reid, Sharon Lynn Kagan & Catherine Scott-Little
To cite this article: Jeanne L. Reid, Sharon Lynn Kagan & Catherine Scott-Little (2017): New
understandings of cultural diversity and the implications for early childhood policy, pedagogy, and
practice, Early Child Development and Care, DOI: 10.1080/03004430.2017.1359582
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03004430.2017.1359582
Published online: 28 Jul 2017.
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New understandings of cultural diversity and the implications for
early childhood policy, pedagogy, and practice
Jeanne L. Reid
, Sharon Lynn Kagan
and Catherine Scott-Little
National Center for Children and Families, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA;
North Carolina - Greensboro, Greensboro, NC, USA
Theoretical and empirical research is challenging long-held assumptions
about how culture shapes children’s thinking, emotions, and actions. No
longer is ‘culture’thought to be a family-based characteristic that
operates upon children’s development in predictable ways. Instead,
culture is considered inseparable from the developmental process, in
which children use cultural artefacts from multiple contexts to make
sense of experience, and modify the cultural artefacts they employ. This
dynamic model of individual variation, which defies broad or stable
categorizations, poses a significant challenge to policy-makers and
practitioners who seek a systematic approach to quality in early
childhood education (ECE) programs. The ‘food, fashions, and festivals’
approach to cultural diversity in preschool classrooms is insufficient
when learning is understood to be a cultural process that varies across
time and place. Findings from a multi-disciplinary review of literature on
culture and development are presented and implications for ECE
pedagogy, practice, and policy are discussed.
Received 28 April 2017
Accepted 21 July 2017
Cultural diversity; child
development; early care and
education; preschool quality
The landscape of research on culture and early childhood development has been transformed in
recent decades. Scholars from the emergent field of cultural psychology have critiqued developmen-
tal psychology for its narrow focus on discerning universal components of child development and for
using Western European and Anglo-American samples to identify them (Cole, 1996; Henrich, Heine, &
Norenzavan, 2010; Shweder, 1990). Cultural psychologists seek to move the research field out of psy-
chology laboratories, where experimental methods with Western and Anglo-American children
prevail, and into global communities to conduct highly contextualized ethnographies that employ
naturalistic observation (Cole, 1996; LeVine, 2007; Shweder, 1990; Whiting & Whiting, 1975).
Though much of developmental research still represents children from Western and Anglo-American
communities, a broader approach to sampling can now be found in journals of cultural psychology,
anthropology, educational psychology, as well as developmental psychology (Arnett, 2008; Henrich
et al., 2010; Lansford et al., 2016). The consequence is a dispersed literature that is broad and deep,
that finds highly complex and dynamic variation in ‘normal’child development across and within
countries and communities. This new literature, and the intellectual thinking it represents,
demands the attention of early childhood policy-makers and practitioners who seek to sustain effec-
tive policies and practices with culturally diverse children.
Findings from this somewhat revolutionary new scholarship not only present new ways of under-
standing culture but also challenge many long-held assumptions regarding the interaction of culture
and development, raising difficult questions for early childhood policy and practice. Prior
© 2017 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
CONTACT Jeanne L. Reid firstname.lastname@example.org National Center for Children and Families, Teachers College, Columbia
University, 525 West 120th Street, Box 226, New York, NY 10027, USA
EARLY CHILD DEVELOPMENT AND CARE, 2017
assumptions generally held ‘culture’as a constant variable that affects children’s learning in predict-
able ways, usually along the lines of racial/ethnic categorizations. But if this is no longer the case,
what conceptualization should replace it? How are teachers to practice effectively in diverse class-
rooms if children’s race/ethnicity is no longer a reliable proxy for their modes of thinking and
acting? How can providers of professional development prepare teachers for diverse classrooms if
the manifestations of this diversity are themselves unpredictable? How can early childhood policy-
makers create standards for quality programs if the demands of individualized practice seem
unbounded? These questions raise serious challenges to ECE policy-makers and practitioners in
the U.S., where substantial resources have been focused on creating systematic, standard-based
approaches to quality that transcend highly diverse programs and the children they serve (Kagan
& Kauerz, 2012).
In this context, the present article calls for a new examination of the growing body of research that
has fueled a conceptual shift in how the field thinks about culture, with careful attention to impli-
cations for ECE pedagogy, practice, and policy. We draw upon the results of an extensive review
of both theoretical and empirical research on culture and early development, with a focus on findings
that have direct implications for the field of early education in the U.S. Notably, we do not seek to
review the research on dual language acquisition, which has been well-reviewed elsewhere (e.g.
Garcia & Garcia, 2012). Instead, the review focuses on research regarding early development and cul-
tural patterns of thought, learning, and behaviours, which beckon increased attention as policy-
makers and practitioners strive to serve an increasingly diverse population of children in ECE
We conducted an extensive literature review on the intersection of culture and child development,
with a focus on research that has direct implications for pedagogy, practice, and policy in ECE class-
rooms in the U.S. Two research questions shaped the review:
1) How are cultural processes, values, and traditions related to children’s development, particularly
to manifestations of children’s skills and knowledge that are evident in ECE classrooms?
2) What are examples of learning domains and constructs that are especially susceptible to cultural
influence, and perhaps unintentional bias?
Search engines (i.e. Proquest, JSTOR, and Google Scholar) were employed to identify the relevant
peer-reviewed literature in the fields of cultural psychology, anthropology, educational psychology,
and developmental psychology. Initial search terms included culture and early childhood develop-
ment; cultural competence, culture and social and emotional development, culture and physical
development, culture and cognitive development, culture and cognition, culture and language devel-
opment, and culture and approaches to learning. In addition, literature reviews on specific aspects of
culture and development (e.g. Chen & French, 2008; Luo, Tamis-LeMonda, & Song, 2013) and special
journal issues devoted to culture and development (e.g. Child Development,2016, Vol. 87, No. 3) were
searched for content focused on early childhood learning. Moreover, Rogoff (2003) was an important
source of both theoretical and empirical research with a socio-cultural perspective. In general, we
sought publications that were completed in the last 20 years. The search produced several
hundred potential citations.
To discern which publications were most germane to this review, we looked for titles that
addressed themes such as cultural variation/diversity in the broad context of early childhood edu-
cation (ECE)/development; cultural variation in domains and constructs of early child development;
cultural processes in subject areas (e.g. science or mathematics); and theoretical understandings of
how culture and early development intersect. Given our interest in the implications for the ECE
field in the U.S., which usually encompasses the years from birth to age five, most of the chosen
2J. L. REID ET AL.
publications focused exclusively on children within this age range; research on children at older ages
was included only in instances when the content was specifically applicable to early childhood (such
as the development of self-concept).
In sum, over 100 articles, reports, books, and book chapters were reviewed. Empirical studies using
samples from both the U.S. and international sources were included. Some of the sources represent
primary data collection and analysis; others represent secondary data analysis or reviews of empirical
research that focus on specific areas of development. In addition, multiple sources of theoretical work
regarding the nature and extent of culture’s interaction with children’s learning were reviewed. In so
doing, we sought to synthesize new conceptualizations of how children’s development differs based
on cultural contexts, and how these differences might manifest in early education classrooms.
Results from the literature review present an emerging, complex, and dynamic understanding of the
cultural nature of early development. First, we describe the fundamental reconceptualization of
development as a cultural process, spawned by the intellectual movement of cultural psychology.
Second, we present results related to two particular areas of development as salient examples of
the empirical research that illustrate how new understandings of culture and development are con-
testing prior assumptions that have held durable currency in the field of early education.
Reconceptualizing culture and early development
‘Culture’has been defined as a set of ‘shared understandings’and ‘shared expectations’(Sampson,
2012). Cultural communities have values, beliefs, goals, norms, activities, routines, traditions, and
stories that shape how children understand the world and what is expected of them. Culture is
often manifest at a visible or explicit level in expressions and symbols (e.g. clothes, food, holidays, rou-
tines, crafts, and music), but it also operates at a hidden or implicit level in the values, meanings, and
philosophies that underlie the explicit social practices of a group of people (Garcia, 1990).
This definition of culture remains useful primarily when it provides indicators of group cultural
orientations, which continue to characterize much of the empirical literature (some of which is
described below). But scholarly understandings of how these aspects of culture shape individual chil-
dren’s development have advanced significantly. While culture was formerly viewed as a discrete and
generally stable characteristic that affected development –in effect, an input variable –it is now
viewed more as a process variable that is inherent in learning and development. Just as the field
of epigenetics has revealed the complex interaction between genes and experience as a mechanism
for brain plasticity, the field of cultural psychology has similarly advanced new understandings of how
culture and development interact in bi-directional ways as a mechanism for the development of cog-
nition (Mitchell et al., 2013; Sasaki & Kim, 2017).
In this view, children’s cognitive development is enabled by the artefacts of culture (Bang, 2015;
Bruner, 1996; Cole, 1996; Rogoff, 2003; Shweder, 1990). Cultural ‘artefacts,’also called ‘tools,’include
the values, symbols, objects, technologies, words, norms, traditions, schemas, scripts, and practices
developed by cultural communities across generations (Cole, 1996). In sum, these ‘artifacts are the
fundamental constituents of culture,’and are mediators of cognitive development (Cole, 1996,
p. xiv). Bruner (1996) argued that the ‘mind’could not develop without a cultural context, that cog-
nitive development is an endeavour to make meaning of the world, and that those meanings are cul-
turally specified, stating, ‘It is culture that provides the tools for organizing and understanding our
worlds in communicable ways,’(p. 3).
This theoretical understanding takes ‘culture’beyond influencing preferences and behaviours, and
into the realm of fueling the development of cognition. The human brain is no longer seen as a
central processing unit that can operate independently from its social context (Heine, 2016). On
the contrary, culture specifies how to think, what to think, and what is possible (Goodnow, 2010;
EARLY CHILD DEVELOPMENT AND CARE 3
Heine, 2016). With this more foundational perspective, cultural psychologists, and especially those
who identify as ‘socio-cultural historical’psychologists, view development as a cultural process
that operates as a joint human project among children and adults, and that can only be understood
by observing children in their daily activities, in which children make sense of their world and ascribe
meaning to experience with cultural artefacts (Cole, 1996; Rogoff, 2003; Vygotsky, 1978).
This reconceptualization has several potential implications for early educators. First, rather than
children acting as passive receivers of cultural values and traditions, in this new model children
have agency in the process of development, using and adapting the cultural artefacts at their disposal
(Cole, 1996). The cultural process of development is a reciprocal relationship between children and
the adults (and peers) who animate their lives, and, from birth, children use cultural artefacts that
shape their development, while their use transforms the artefacts that they inherit (Markus & Hame-
dani, 2007; Whiting, 1976). The relationship between cultural context and development is thus no
longer composed of a set of understandings that exert unidirectional influence upon the process
of development; instead, it is now conceptualized as a dynamic exchange characterized by the
‘empirically challenging notion …that people and their social worlds are inseparable’(Markus &
Hamedani, 2007, pp. 3–5).
Second, rather than thinking of children’s cultural heritage as derived solely from their family,
scholarly research focuses on the many contexts in which children learn and develop (Bronfenbren-
ner, 1979; Goodnow, 2010). Over time and even within the course of a day, infants, toddlers, and chil-
dren may experience several social settings (e.g. home, child care, preschool, neighbourhood,
doctor’s office, and religious institutions) with different cultural norms, expectations, and ways of
thinking (Goodnow, 2010). As they traverse these various cultural settings, children construct their
identities and understanding of their world, drawing from the cultural brew they encounter, and
managing contextual shifts and adaptions in individual and often unpredictable ways (Tamis-
LeMonda et al., 2008; Tomasello, 2016). The assumption of cultural stasis, located primarily in the
home, has been replaced by one of dynamic change across multiple contexts.
Third, this new model contests the reliability of cultural groupings that are simply based on race/
ethnicity, such as Anglo-American, African-American, Latino, Asian, or Native American. While racial/
ethnic groups often share cultural orientations, the theoretical understanding of cultural reinvention
at the individual level is supported by empirical research that has found more diversity in child-
rearing practices and developmental outcomes within cultural communities than between them
(Bornstein & Putnick, 2012; DiBianca Fasoli, 2014; Fuller & Garcia Coll, 2010; Galindo & Fuller, 2010;
Ng, Tamis-LeMonda, Godfrey, Hunter, & Yoshikawa, 2012). Indeed, cultural patterns are variously
found in country of origin, race/ethnicity, language/dialect, social class, gender, religion, immigration
history, experience with racism and segregation, and neighbourhood. Binary categorizations of cul-
tural values, such as independence vs. interdependence (discussed in more detail below), do not
reflect this multiplicity. As a result, cultural psychologists argue for a recognition of dynamic ‘constel-
lations’or ‘repertoires’of cultural practices (Rogoff et al., 2007; Rogoff, Najafi, & Mejia-Arauz, 2014).
Racial/ethnic groups may nevertheless share sets of cultural values, beliefs, and practices, which
remain an enduring and useful focus of empirical research. But at the individual level, development
–and the cultural learning that defines it –is always a work in progress, and thus, ever-changing
How children employ the multiple cultural artefacts they receive has implications for their self-
concept, self-expression, self-esteem, social skills and relationships, emotional expression, self-regu-
lation, play, moral development, cognitive knowledge and processes, approaches to learning, phys-
ical development, and language and literacy skills, all with direct implications for early educators.
Below, we discuss two areas of early development –self-concept and approaches to learning –
where new conceptualizations of culture, along with empirical data, are undermining past assump-
tions about the meanings and manifestations of culture. While children’s cultural experiences perme-
ate all areas of their development, we focus here on two developmental areas to illustrate the
4J. L. REID ET AL.
findings of our review. We then discuss the implications for ECE policy, pedagogy, and practice in
Reconsidering self-concept, autonomy, and the obligations of group membership
Children’s understanding of the boundaries and meanings of ‘self’and ‘others’is a foundational
aspect of early development that is rooted in cultural context (Bukowski & Sippola, 1998; Markus &
Kitayama, 1991). Usually articulated as a choice between individualism and collectivism, or indepen-
dence and interdependence, cultural values regarding the formation of the ‘self’constitute a frame
within which children learn how to perceive themselves and their identity, their autonomy, the
meaning of their membership in a community, and the rewards and obligations that come with it.
In turn, this foundation affects how children approach the world, learning, and social interactions.
New understandings of how culture shapes these aspects of children’s development indicate that
this important area is more complex than previously conceptualized, with cultural influences that
promote mixed rather than dichotomous development of concepts related to self and others.
Conventional thinking, for example, suggests that children whose families emphasize an indivi-
dualistic orientation develop their self-concept as distinct, self-directed individuals who think and
act independently in response to their personal needs and wants, and who possess unique attributes,
ideas, and preferences (Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Ng et al., 2012; Tamis-LeMonda et al., 2008). In cul-
tures that emphasize individualism, children are encouraged to express personal preferences, make
choices based on their own needs and wants, and enjoy personal privacy and ownership of objects
and accomplishments, albeit within the boundaries drawn by adults. The child’s identity as a distinct,
self-directed individual, who acts independently from familial or communal constraints, is given
primacy over one rooted in connection to a family or community. Developmental goals that are
often ascribed to individualism include personal choice, intrinsic motivation, self-esteem, self-
expression, and self-maximization (Tamis-LeMonda et al., 2008).
Alternatively, children whose families subscribe to a more collectivist orientation are thought to
develop their self-concept as beings who are seamlessly connected to others, who think and act
with attention to the needs and wants of their family and community, and who express an interde-
pendent sense of identity and well-being (Keller et al., 2006; Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Ng et al., 2012).
For example, central to many Latino communities is the construct of ‘familismo,’which represents
closeness, cohesion, and interdependence within the family (Durand, 2011; Souto-Manning, 2009).
A close corollary of this construct is ‘respeto,’defined as respect for oneself and one’s elders in the
pursuit of concordant relationships, and sometimes as an abiding sense of mutual trust and
respect (Durand, 2011; Souto-Manning, 2009; Ruvalcaba, Rogoff, Lopez, Correa-Chavez, & Gutierrez,
2015). In populations that practice Confucianism, Taoism, or Buddhism parents place an emphasis
on group needs over individual needs, evident in a profound sense of duty and responsibility to
the family (Luo et al., 2013). Similarly, many African-American communities emphasize allegiance
to an extended family and the ‘community mothering’of their children (Sanders, Deihl, & Kyler,
2007; Wilson, 1989). Developmental goals that are often ascribed to interdependent cultures are con-
nection to family, social harmony, respectful deference to adults, and obedience to authority (Keller
et al., 2006; Tamis-LeMonda et al., 2008).
Although these dichotomous orientations are valuable in general terms, they are insufficient
because in reality, such orientations co-exist in most, if not all, communities (Oyserman, Coon, & Kem-
melmeier, 2002;Suizzo, 2007; Tamis-LeMonda et al., 2008). Empirical evidence indicates that, to
varying degrees, the value placed on ‘personal autonomy’or ‘agency,’defined as the freedom to
‘do and achieve in pursuit of whatever goals or values [a person] regards as important,’transcends
cultural communities (Sen, 1985, p. 203). For example, in individualistic cultures, parents may encou-
rage their children to form strong familial bonds, while also encouraging them to demonstrate asser-
tiveness and self-direction (Chen & French, 2008). Children in Anglo-American cultures may express
close connections to their families, but not a strong sense of obligation that might override their
EARLY CHILD DEVELOPMENT AND CARE 5
sense of autonomy (Oyserman et al., 2002). In collectivist cultures, where obedience is thought to be
paramount, children commonly demonstrate personal autonomy. They may have more unsupervised
time to play independently and may be expected to volunteer, on their own volition, to do chores,
solve problems, supervise siblings, and entertain guests (Alcala, Rogoff, Mehia-Arauz, Coppens, &
Dexter, 2014; Garcia, 2015; Göncü, Mistry, & Mosier, 2000). In a sample of four ethnic groups in the
U.S. (Chinese, African-American, Mexican, and European), Suizzo (2007) found that parents in all
groups rated ‘agency and self-direction’as the most important goals for their children, above alterna-
tives such as ‘benevolence and prosocial,’‘tradition and conformity,’and ‘relatedness.’The notion
that personal autonomy is accorded solely within individualistic cultures is no longer supported by
the literature (Lancy, 2016).
Cultural values may circumscribe and shape the exercise of personal choices, however. In more
interdependent cultures, children’s personal choices and actions may be bound by communal obli-
gations or expectations that they should reflect well on the community (or communities) with which
children identify (Trommsdorff, 2012; Wente et al., 2016). For example, in Latino communities, parents
may encourage their children to pursue individual achievement because it would support a higher
standard of living for the family (Ng et al., 2012). African-American parents may support their chil-
dren’s individual self-esteem and leadership skills as indicators that their children are resisting nega-
tive racial stereotypes about their family and communities (Ng et al., 2012; Oyserman et al., 2002;
Suizzo, 2007). The deep obligation to an ancient heritage evident in some East Asian cultures may
be manifest in the individual pursuit of personal accomplishments to contribute to this collective
legacy (Luo et al., 2013). In these cultures, self-maximization and individual achievement may be con-
sidered corollaries of familial and communal success (Luo et al., 2013; Tamis-LeMonda et al., 2008).
These findings raise questions about the conceptualization of the autonomous self and the inter-
dependent self as mutually exclusive pursuits, with the common assumption that the decision to act
in the interest of a communal goal necessarily constrains the exercise of personal autonomy. Cultural
psychologists argue that evidence from multi-ethnic communities indicates that children in collecti-
vist cultures exercise personal autonomy in ways that serve communal pursuits, and that the notion
that social harmony is a controlling value that negates personal autonomy is a decidedly Western bias
(Garcia, 2015; Soenens, Vansteenkiste, & Van Petegem, 2015; Trommsdorff, 2012). In this view, one
can act autonomously, i.e. with the feeling of personal volition or agency, with either an independent
or an interdependent goal in mind, or importantly, with a goal that benefits both oneself and the
community (Alcala et al., 2014; Garcia, 2015; Raeff, 2010; Ryan & Deci, 2000).
Indeed, empirical research is increasingly finding that the cultural goals of individual autonomy
and strong connections to family and community may complement and even promote each
other. Using data from European-Americans, African-Americans, and immigrants in the U.S. from
China and the Dominican Republic, Tamis-LeMonda et al. (2008) found that some parents viewed
communal values as a pathway to autonomy, such as when positive relationships foster individual
growth and success; conversely, some parents believed that individualistic values strengthen connec-
tions to others, such as when personal self-expression fosters bonds within families (Tamis-LeMonda
et al., 2008). Some Chinese parents expressed the view that individual autonomy and relatedness in
the socialization of their children were functionally dependent because their children’s relationships
with others would promote their children’s individual goals; other Chinese parents considered the
two orientations as additive in value –calling them ‘both valuable in their own rights’(Tamis-
LeMonda et al., 2008, p. 201). These two orientations can also conflict, of course, but to consider
them mutually exclusive is no longer supported by the literature (Raeff, 2010).
Complicating this mélange, how parents and the other adults in children’s lives define the devel-
opmental goals of independence and interdependence may change over time as parents adapt to
their children’s temperament, children’s ages (e.g. from childhood to adolescence.), places of resi-
dence, and political and economic realities (Greenfield, 2010; Huijbregts, Tavecchio, Leseman, & Hof-
fenaar, 2009; Mistry et al., 2016; Ng et al., 2012; Raeff, 2010; Yoshikawa & Currie, 2011). In short, the
findings of empirical research contradict a binary conception of cultural orientations regarding self-
6J. L. REID ET AL.
concept and undermine the reliability of racial/ethnic categorizations as predictors of children’s
values, beliefs, motivations, and behaviours related to their sense of identity, autonomy, and
Reconsidering how children approach learning
Findings from empirical research have similarly revealed extensive variation in how children
approach learning, upending conventional assumptions on how particular groups of children
could be expected to learn in the classroom. While all children can be curious, attentive, enthusiastic,
playful, and persistent learners, the ways in which adults nurture children’s approaches to learning
have been subject to rather narrow Anglo-American cultural expectations. Most saliently, cultural
differences in children’s approaches to learning are often considered in binary terms, such as self-
directed vs. cooperative learning.
Once again, such simple dichotomies no longer hold under empirical scrutiny. For example, the
structure and form of learning may vary in complex ways. In East Asian cultures that emphasize inter-
dependent values, children may experience learning as a formal, structured, and receptive process in
which they are respectful and deferential to adults; they may also be expected to exercise high levels
of self-control, self-reliance, and an intrinsic motivation to achieve (Huntsinger, Jose, & Larson, 1998;
Li, Coplan, Archbell, Bullock, & Chen, 2016; Luo et al., 2013). In some African-American cultures, chil-
dren are expected to learn through explicit teaching by authoritative adults in a formal structure
where children defer to their elders (Heath, 1983; Phillips, 1994). In more individualistic cultures, chil-
dren may be used to learning within more active, open-ended, and self-directed endeavours, while
being accustomed to close and steady dyadic scaffolding from adults (Copple & Bredekamp, 2010;
DiBianca Fasoli, 2014; New, 2008). In some Latino and Native American cultures, children may be
accustomed to more group-oriented learning, in which everyone’s opinion matters, peer collabor-
ation is common, and harmony is paramount (Souto-Manning, 2009; Nielsen, Mushin, Tomselli, &
Whiten, 2014). In some agrarian cultures, children may be accustomed to learning informally via
their integration into adult activities, deference to their elders, careful observation of what adults
do, and then initiative to participate and contribute (Alcala et al., 2014; Correa-Chavez & Rogoff,
2005; Garcia, 2015; Marfo & Biersteker, 2011).
The context for learning may also vary across cultures. In Western European, Nordic, and Anglo-
American communities, children’s play is revered as a critical context for learning in early childhood
(Bowman, Donovan, & Burns, 2001; Copple & Bredekamp, 2010; New, 2008). The reverence for play is
closely tied to support for constructivist classrooms in which children initiate and direct their own
acquisition of knowledge and independently explore their environment to satisfy their curiosity
(Copple & Bredekamp, 2010). Yet, while all children play in some way, parents from non-Eurocentric
backgrounds may prefer a more directive and structured approach to learning (DiBianca Fasoli, 2014;
Gupta, 2011; Marfo & Biersteker, 2011; Tobin, Arzubiaga, & Adair, 2013; Wu, 2015). In part, this may
stem from cultural differences in the perceived purpose of play. Parents in some Asian cultures,
for example, emphasize ‘academic training’of young children that demands a high degree of self-
control; for these parents, ‘play’is defined as a separate activity with the purpose of providing a
respite from the rigours of learning (Lewis et al., 2009; Luo et al., 2013). In some Latino cultures,
parents prefer that children learn their ABCs and numbers in school and reserve play for break
times (Tobin et al., 2013). For children in some agrarian cultures, play is considered a time for unsu-
pervised activity, while in more urban or industrialized cultures, parents more often arrange and
monitor children’s playtime (Alcala et al., 2014).
Children may also differ in how they verbally express their interest in the learning process, which
may cause confusion among ECE teachers. In many U.S. preschool classrooms, enthusiastic and expli-
cit expressions of interest are commonly seen by teachers as markers of a motivation to learn
(Ramsey, 2004; Williams, 1994). Yet, children who have been encouraged to restrain their expression
of emotions may not outwardly demonstrate their enthusiasm, while being highly motivated to learn
EARLY CHILD DEVELOPMENT AND CARE 7
(Chen & French, 2008; Kim & Park, 2006; Luo et al., 2013). Empirical research has indicated distinct
differences in the cultural expectations regarding children’s emotional expression and emotional
regulation (Camras et al., 1998; Cole, Tamang, & Shrestha, 2006; Rubin, 1998). Parents who subscribe
to Confucian values may expect children to develop high levels of social and emotional restraint, in
contrast to parents from cultures where outward emotional expression is expected (Chen & French,
2008; Luo et al., 2013). Moreover, children who have been encouraged to privilege group harmony
may not seek explicit and effusive praise for their individual achievements, which could highlight
winners and losers. They may be motivated more by mutual respect, affection, and collective
pride than by individual acclamation and rewards (Ng et al., 2012).
Different learning experiences have also been correlated with disparate attention-control skills, a
component of children’s executive functioning. Children who learn primarily by watching adults,
identified in communities indigenous to the U.S. and Africa, may be more likely to attend to multiple
events simultaneously, while children accustomed to structured learning within child-focused activi-
ties may be more likely to alternate their attention between events (Chavajay & Rogoff, 1999; Correa-
Chavez & Rogoff, 2009; Rogoff, Correa-Chavez, & Silva, 2011). Empirical studies indicate that Anglo-
American children are more likely to use a ‘focused strategy of attention’when presented with
objects, while Japanese children are more likely to divide their attention to consider contextual infor-
mation about objects (Duffy, Toriyama, Itakura, & Kitayama, 2009; Kuwabara & Smith, 2012). In many
Chinese cultures, parents provide frequent, directed instruction to preschool-age children on how to
be attentive, avoid distractions, and regulate their behaviours and emotions, while in many Anglo-
American cultures, parents place a higher emphasis on self-expression and free choice in play activi-
ties (Luo et al., 2013). Perhaps as a result, young Chinese children tend to score high on assessments
of attention control, inhibition, and the related construct of executive function (Lan, Legare, Ponitz, Li,
& Morrison, 2011; Ng, Tamis-LeMonda, Yoshikawa, & Sze, 2015). Because executive function has been
gaining prominence as a critical component of children’s early learning and later achievement,
understanding the cultural variations that may affect its development is increasingly important.
Discussion and implications
Results from the literature review indicate that the field of ECE in the U.S. has a lot to learn from mul-
tiple disciplines (e.g. anthropology and cultural psychology), which have produced new and complex
understandings of culture. Foremost, the results indicate a profound shift in conceptual understand-
ings and empirical evidence regarding the ubiquitous ways in which culture and development are
intertwined. Culture is now understood as an unstable construct that stems from many sources,
fueling the dynamic process of development in which children make sense of themselves and the
world. Rather than a set of shared understandings that shape how communities interact, cultural psy-
chologists define culture as ‘a symbolic and behavioural inheritance received from …the historical/
ancestral past that provides a community with a framework for other-directed vicarious learning and
for collective deliberations about what is true, beautiful, good, and normal’(Shweder et al., 2006,
p. 719). In short, culture shapes how children think, what they think, and the boundaries of what
is possible –only to be reinvented by children themselves. The field of ECE needs to consider this
far more complex conceptualization of ‘culture’as a fluid construct that shapes –and is shaped by
The growing understanding of culture and development as a negotiated process has eroded the
relative simplicity of an either/or choice between dichotomous cultural orientations that have been
thought to correlate reliably with racial/ethnic groups. Binary notions of cultural differences have
been replaced with more nuanced understandings of the many ways that cultural patterns
emerge in children’s learning and development. Using cultural artefacts drawn from multiple set-
tings, children learn how to think, learn, and behave –in the home, the classroom, and other
social settings –in ways that simple dichotomies like ‘independence vs. interdependence’cannot
explain. While cultural groups may still share values and norms, the belief that individual children
8J. L. REID ET AL.
can be assigned to discrete cultural categories that can be used to predict and understand their
thoughts and behaviour in early education classrooms is being challenged.
As these new understandings take hold, the cultural diversity of young children in ECE programs is
unprecedented. Social and economic forces worldwide are leading to high rates of migration and the
consequent formation of increasingly diverse populations, many in communities that have histori-
cally been largely homogenous (Connor, 2016). In the U.S., among those who are under age five, chil-
dren who are non-Hispanic White no longer represent a majority (U.S. Census Bureau, 2016).
Consequently, ECE providers are seeing a dramatic increase in the enrolment of children of immi-
grants, who may have had little or no experience with the norms of U.S. ECE programs (Park,
McHugh, Batalov, & Zong, 2015). In this context, the findings regarding culture and development
have important and pressing implications for early childhood pedagogy, practice, and policy.
Implications for pedagogy
Given these shifting realities, how can ECE teachers nurture the growth of infants, toddlers, and pre-
school children in ways that build on their diverse and changing cultural backgrounds and yet are
consistent with the cultural preferences embedded in the standards and training that guide their
practice, let alone their own cultural stance? What, indeed, does culturally responsive pedagogy
look like in a diverse classroom? Beyond practical questions, changing demographics and emerging
research findings raise deeper issues related to the very nature and intent of ECE: Should the goal of
culturally responsive pedagogy be to sustain children’s cultural heritages, rather than merely honour
Answering these questions requires the recognition that pedagogical approaches reflect cultural
orientations. In the U.S., a child-centered, play-based pedagogy prevails in which children are
expected to become independent, self-directed, and self-confident learners –as defined by Anglo-
American norms. Yet, the research presented here suggests that children may develop and demon-
strate these skills and dispositions in quite different ways. To bridge these differences, it is important
to consider a culturally responsive pedagogy that is essentially a relational construct, one that is
manifest in the interactions and practices between teacher and child and among children themselves
(Howes, 2016; Rogers, 2011; Shivers, Sanders, & Westbrook, 2011). Within these relationships, cultural
understandings that affect all domains of development may be forged and reconciled, a process that
can nurture adaptive approaches to teaching young children.
Implications for practice and professional development
The research on culture and development reviewed here suggests that teachers are not only helping
children to learn new knowledge and skills, but ideally also helping them to see and experience the
world in new ways, ways that build upon, rather than obviate, the cultural resources children already
possess. With this profound responsibility, conceptualizations of what it means to be a ‘culturally
competent’teacher should be revised. Attending to cultural diversity by recognizing visible or tangi-
ble differences in cultural traditions is clearly insufficient. Nor is it enough to have a working knowl-
edge of cultural patterns that have been ascribed to broadly defined racial–ethnic groups. With a
more dynamic model of cultural development in mind, teachers need to be able to adapt standards
and curriculum, which they are increasingly required to use in the U.S., to the dynamic diversity of
children in their classrooms (Colegrove & Adair, 2014; Genishi & Dyson, 2009; Souto-Manning, Derni-
kos, & Yu, 2016).
In the U.S., increasing resources have been accorded to early childhood teacher pre-service and
in-service training, both of which have yet to fully integrate the rapidly evolving research related to
new understandings of culture’s profound and reciprocal influence on children and the learning
process. It suggests that teachers need to know how to place development and learning in a cul-
tural context, and to understand the cultural nature of how children think and learn –the
EARLY CHILD DEVELOPMENT AND CARE 9
epistemologies of what they know and how they know it. To forge secure and trusting relation-
ships with children from diverse backgrounds, teachers need to interpret the cultural meanings
of children’s feelings, thoughts, and actions, and to recognize how children may ascribe
meaning to their own (the teacher’s) feelings, thoughts, and actions (Bowman & Stott, 1994). Enact-
ing culturally responsive practices also requires building authentic partnerships with families to
reconcile conflicts between family goals for children’s learning and teachers’knowledge of devel-
opmentally appropriate practice (Brown & Lan, 2015; Howes, 2010). New (1994) argued that tea-
chers should conceptualize themselves as collaborative researchers, engaging with parents and
children to construct a new understanding of how children see the world, and indeed, to be
open to seeing the world differently themselves. Pre-service and in-service training should
support teachers in meeting this transformative demand.
Implications for policy
Much of the current ECE debate hinges on policy questions related to quality: What is ‘quality’and
how do we measure it? How can we support quality across diverse program settings? This review
suggests that traditionally revered understandings of quality need revision. Yet how can policy-
makers and practitioners revise a predominantly Anglo-American concept of quality to effectively
serve a population of children whose cultural backgrounds are highly diverse (Dahlberg, Moss, &
Pence, 1999; Tobin, 2005)? How can systemic ‘standardized’approaches to ECE quality in the U.S.,
where early learning and development standards are ubiquitous, be reconciled with the nuances
of local context and individual variation (Fuller & Clarke, 1994; Jensen, Martinez, & Escobar, 2016;
Lubeck, Jessup, deVries, & Post, 2001)? With substantial federal and state resources devoted to creat-
ing ECE systems that will support high-quality programs across the U.S., these questions command
attention (Kagan & Kauerz, 2012). Existing efforts to pursue a culturally situated conceptualization
of quality that fosters learning opportunities for all children and to develop professional learning
opportunities that enable teachers to practice with this intent are important steps that need to be
greatly expanded (Howes, 2016; Jensen et al., 2016; Shivers et al., 2011). At its core is a deeply respon-
sive, individualized teaching that fosters trusting relationships between teachers and children
Neglecting the implications of the inventive research and thinking presented here may under-
mine the ability of ECE programs to serve the very children for whom they are intended and who
benefit greatly from them. It also leaves children to navigate preschool environments that should
be nurturing and instructive, but instead may feel confusing and obstructive. While cultural discor-
dance is inherent in the transition from home to school, the diverse, unique, and ever-changing
nature of children’s cultural identities greatly aggravates the challenge of building bridges
between the home, school, and other settings in which children learn. Yet, the inability to do
so hinders children’s progress, hobbles systemic efforts to nurture quality, and weakens the foun-
dational goals of excellence and equity for ECE systems. The impact of new understandings of
culture as a dynamic and individualized process needs to be translated into pedagogy, practice,
and policies that are just, adaptive, and culturally salient. It is to these goals that this analysis
We are grateful to our esteemed advisors, Hedy Chang, Eugene Garcia, Barbara Rogoff, and Hiro Yoshikawa.
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
10 J. L. REID ET AL.
This work was supported by the Foundation for Child Development [Grant No. TCCU 9-2015].
Notes on contributors
Dr. Jeanne L. Reid is a Research Scientist at the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College, Columbia
University. She earned her Doctorate degree in Early Childhood Policy from Teachers College, and her Master’s degree in
Public Administration from the Kennedy School at Harvard University. Her research includes studies on systemic supports
for equity and excellence in early care and education, particularly the policy and practice implications of socio-economic
and cultural diversity in preschool classrooms.
Dr. Sharon Lynn Kagan, Ed.D., is a Professor of Early Childhood Policy at Teachers College, Columbia University, and is
recognized internationally for her scholarship related to the education of young children. Applying research to public
policy issues related to early childhood systems; program design, quality, and evaluation; leadership and professional
preparation; and standards and accountability, Kagan has worked with major international organizations (UNICEF,
UNESCO, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, and OECD) and with leaders in over 100 countries
and all 50 states.
Dr. Catherine Scott-Little, Ph.D., is a Professor in Human Development and Family Studies at UNC-Greensboro, where she
teaches in the Birth through Kindergarten teacher licensure program. Her research includes studies on state-level early
learning and development standards (ELDS), teacher preparation programs, and teachers’use of ELDS. She completed
her undergraduate degree in Child and Family Development at UNCG and a Doctorate degree in Human Development at
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