"Any people who would like to secure their futures should apply as much energy to the upbringing of children as they devote to other problems. The energy devoted to many other things may go in vain, but whatever is spent for the upbringing of young generations to elevate them to the rank of humanity will be like an inexhaustible source of income."
M. Fethullah GULEN
In thousands of American classrooms, early childhood educators and caregivers are faced with the dilemma of meeting the needs of an ever-changing population. As the population becomes more diverse, classrooms are beginning to reflect the larger population. In response to the expanding needs of young students, instructors and caregivers increasingly are trying to incorporate multiculturalism into their class curricula. This article will explore how diversity, inclusion, and multiculturalism have impacted the early childhood classroom.
The concept of early childhood education, which originated in the 1800s with the formation of kindergartens, focuses upon children between 3 and 8 years of age. In many arenas, early childhood education theories center on encouraging and supporting the educational needs of young children.
The North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL) position statement on "Critical Issue : Promoting Children's Readiness to Learn" states: "In most instances, children come to school ready to learn but with different cultural, educational, and environmental experiences to draw from. It is the responsibility of the educational system to meet children where they are and encourage and support their development from that point" (1999, p. 1).
The Educational Excellence for All Children Act of 1999 echoes NCREL's position: "Consistently poor early education programs hinder children's cognitive and language development. As a result, some children are unprepared to attend school and learn to read, the foundation of nearly all later learning" (Title II, Part C, "Early Childhood Educator Professional Development," 1999, p. 1). Both NCREL and The Educational Excellence for All Children Act of 1999 touch upon the concepts of cognitive development and school readiness.
School readiness, as defined by Kagen et al., encompasses two points: readiness to learn, and readiness for school. Specifically, "... readiness to learn ... involves a level of development at which the child has the capacity to learn specific materials..." (Kagen, 1990; Crnic & Lamberty, 1994; Lewit & Baker, 1995). On the other hand, readiness for school is defined as "... a specific set of cognitive, linguistic, social and motor skills that enables a child to assimilate the school's curriculum" (Kagen, 1990; Crnic & Lamberty, 1994; Lewit & Baker, 1995). Hence, there is a possibility that a child may have a readiness to learn but lack a readiness for school. For example, a 3-year-old girl could have the ability to recognize colors; however, she may not have the ability to participate appropriately in a school setting.
On June 8, 1999, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley gave an address to the National Press Club. Entitled "Cost, Quality and Child Outcomes' Study," it emphasized the following points: "What we know can be summarized this way: the quality of experiences in the years matters, and there appear to be critical periods in the first few years of life for acquiring certain language and cognitive skills. Therefore, the stakes are highest in the earliest years-the stage in life when children are their most vulnerable, and a stage when it has been proven difficult to build support for public investment" (1999).
The preceding excerpt alludes to a connection between language and cognitive skills. The emphasis on developing language and decision-making skills has resonated among early childhood educators for decades. Language development and cognitive development is important, because if children learn how to express themselves effectively, their cognitive abilities may grow exponentially. Furthermore, if children's cognitive abilities become sharp, they may develop a better understanding of those who are different and make decisions accordingly.
It is well documented that many children become aware of differences among people before they enter a kindergarten classroom. Maritza Macdonald, contributing author of "Explorations with Young Children: A Curriculum Guide from the Bank Street College of Education" writes that children "... between the ages of 2 and 5 ... become aware of gender, race, ethnicity, disabilities and other differences among people" (1999, p. 5). In "'Do You See What I See?' Appreciating Diversity in Early Childhood Settings" by Dr. Barbara Kupetz, it is stated that "children are around two or three when they begin to notice physical differences among people-some are short and others tall, some have blue eyes and others brown, and some have dark skin while others have light skin." Both Macdonald and Kupetz point out that most children can discern differences among individuals at an early age. Hence, early childhood educators are not simply charged with teaching "empty vessels." On the contrary, many educators are faced with the task of educating individuals who already may have formed negative perceptions of people who look different.
Diversity means different things to different people. Webster's New World Dictionary defines it as: "1. Quality, state, fact, or instance of being diverse; difference 2. Variety."(2) While this definition touches upon the point of difference, it does not convey various perspectives that make up the concept of diversity.
Macdonald states: "The concept of diversity includes the perspectives of multiculturalism and nonsexist and antibias education. Diversity encompasses children's individual interests and capabilities, racial and cultural differences, age and gender difference and language differences" (1999, p. 5). Her definition incorporates the range of differences that teachers and caregivers face everyday. Macdonald completes her definition by adding: "It also includes the social realities that affect children and communities, including availability of economic resources, access to technology, health and safety concerns, demographic make-up and locale" (1999, p. 5), Here she addresses social factors that can make a child seem different. Thus this definition can be applied to a child who is part of a racial minority, has a learning disability, does not share the majority's native language, is homeless, or has a chronic illness. In other words' the needs of a multitude of children are included.
Inclusion, which falls under the umbrella of diversity, is becoming another growing concern of early childhood educators. The Early Childhood Research Institute on Inclusion (ECRI) released the following statement on inclusion: "Early childhood inclusion, formerly known as 'mainstreaming' or 'integration,' refers to the full and active participation of young children with disabilities in programs with typically developing children. In principle, including children with disabilities in early childhood classes and community settings is a well-accepted practice"(1998, p. 4). This position adds an all-too-often ignored segment of an already diverse population: children with disabilities.
Deanna Jordon's "Inclusion in the Preschool Setting" illustrates the challenges of seeing to the needs of special children in the early childhood classroom: "In many preschools and daycares today you can find a growing number of special needs children. These children have disabilities ranging from hyperactivity, attention deficit disorder, speech and language difficulties, blindness, deafness, mental retardation, and physical impairments. Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, our society is becoming better equipped to meet the needs and challenges of these special children. Unfortunately, many daycare providers have little to no special training to deal with these children."
Although the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, many school districts remain ill-prepared to educate this special population.(3) Part of the challenge of implementing change within the early childhood school setting lies in the fact that many school administrators and teachers encounter financial, cultural, and social obstacles that prevent a fully inclusive atmosphere. ECRI supports the concern of inclusion by stating: "... family members, teachers, and administrators often encounter practical problems and policy barriers when they try to include young children with disabilities. Such barriers may prevent inclusion from occurring or may affect the quality of the experience for all children."
When a person looks at all the problems faced by early childhood educators, it is not difficult to see why many teachers feel overwhelmed. Alison Levy, author of "Culture in the Classroom," succinctly puts the point of view of early childhood educators into perspective: "In a field where burnout is common and salaries are low, there is not sufficient respect and appreciation for what teachers accomplish. It is often hard to accept this added challenge of continued learning" (p. 10). Although Levy acknowledges that educators face a number of barriers, she goes on to say that children who participate in multicultural settings gain valuable experiences. Hence, despite the obstacles that come with diversity and inclusion, both concepts are worth pursuing in multicultural classrooms.
Very few individuals can deny the importance of building strong communities within classrooms. Many teachers "... have become more interested in multicultural education, with the assumption that such approaches help children feel more welcomed, validated, integrated, and able to cooperate with others in their classroom" (Allen, McNeill, & Schmidt 1992; Brendenkamp, 1986; Byrnes & Kiger, 1992, Gollnick & Chin, 1994).
Levy concurs with the preceding statement by speaking to educators directly: "... if your class includes a variety of cultures or abilities, the group spends more time learning about and cultivating an understanding of those unique features." Validation, integration, cooperation, and cultivation of ideas and experiences are of vital importance. Consequently, if educators ease this process for young students, they will impact the futures of their students. Macdonald emphasizes the impact of diversity on decision making: "... when you include diversity in your work with children, you are preparing them for citizenship in a society where people speak different languages, practice different customs and embrace different values. By starting in early childhood, you will be helping individuals learn to work together, communicate across differences, and value just and fair treatment for all" (1999, p. 10). Both Levy and Macdonald encourage educators to remain aware the impact teachers have on the well-being of future societies and generations.
M. Fethullah Gulen, a noted scholar who has been molding the minds of students for close to four decades, maintains that there is a direct relationship between a community and its young people. In his Towards the Lost Paradise, Gulen explains: "A community maintains its liveliness through the spirit of its young, and flourishes through it. When a community loses this spirit, it fades and withers away, like a flower whose veins have been cut, and it is finally crushed under foot."(4) His comparison of a flower to a child is all the more poignant when we look at the loss of innocence thousands of children have experienced due to violence in schools.
Diversity and multiculturalism may seem like concepts that are not age-appropriate for young children. However, I contend that issues of diversity must have a place in the early childhood curriculum. Although children may have difficulties articulating the differences they see around them, they are aware of the concept of difference. Just as classroom populations are changing, the face of early childhood curriculum also must expand and grow to meet the needs of the twenty-first century.