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What’s a key person's role?

Children in early years settings will come from a wide range of cultural, racial and ethnic backgrounds. It’s important that practitioners support, respect and celebrate the variety of beliefs and values that belong to the children and families in their care. As early years practitioners, you are in a unique position to support children as they are developing a sense of their own identity and formulating their attitudes about other people.  

Working with diverse communities is about more than celebrating differences though. Early years settings do not exist outside of wider societal structures. It is therefore important to be aware of how inequalities, discrimination and personal biases affect families, and how to address them. For example, unconscious biases (which we all have) include stereotypes, confirmation bias (seeking or favouring information that confirms existing beliefs) and judging people on first impressions. These biases may lead to children and families not being cared for, supported and protected appropriately. 

From a safeguarding perspective, the needs of the child are paramount. Understanding their individual identity, their protected characteristics and their experience of inclusion or exclusion at home, in school and in wider community contexts is vital. Giving due attention to the nine protected characteristics set out in human rights legislation is an important aspect of understanding the child’s identity and socio-emotional development. These characteristics include age, disability, sex, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation, pregnancy and maternity. Consider whether unconscious biases in your setting might impact upon your onward referrals to social care or other partners. 

Why is this important?

What children experience and learn in their first few years will begin to shape how they are as an adult. High-quality early years education and care for children can contribute to improving overall outcomes for families.  

Here are some examples of how children and families from some cultural, racial or ethnic backgrounds may experience early years settings differently: 

  • If a nursery isn’t able to communicate to parents or carers who don’t speak English as their first language, important messages about their children may be lost or miscommunicated. 
  • Concepts of childcare differ between cultures and communities. Some families, including some migrant families, might not have been made aware of the support on offer in the early years. This may mean that outreach is necessary to engage with families and build trust. 
  • Women of colour, and particularly Black mothers, have poorer mental health outcomes and worse experiences in maternity care. These experiences may go on to impact how families interact with early years settings, so it’s important to be aware of this context 

Some early years staff and settings may need to educate themselves on different family structures to ensure all families are treated with equal understanding and respect. These family structures might include extended family caregiving within or between households based on cultural or religious values, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, non-binary, and queer (LGBTQ+) parenting structures.  

Understanding and valuing difference and diversity will contribute to the wellbeing of groups who may have been marginalised from society based on their culture, race or ethnicity. It will also promote healthy, tolerant and pro-social attitudes in all children and families.  

What can you do?
  • Don’t worry about knowing everything about every culture! It’s important (and more realistic) to focus on cultural competency skills such as openness, respect and willingness to learn. Asking open questions and not assuming is key.  
  • What is your capacity for outreach? If you’re not able to spend time in the community, you may want to form closer relationships with health visitors who will be visiting families at home. You might also be able to build trust by partnering with local community and faith groups. 
  • Use appropriate interpreters when needed. For example, it’s best practice to use an interpreter who is independent from the family and wider cultural or faith communities to which the family belong 
  • Celebrate cultural and religious occasions such as Diwali, Christmas and Hanukkah. Talk to all children and their families about what the celebrations and symbolism means to them. 
  • Ensure everyday activities and equipment reflect the diversity of the children in your setting. For example, do you have different types of musical instruments, storybooks and toys? Exploring where they come from is a good way of teaching children about different cultures. It’s also important that children see themselves and their background reflected in the resources in your setting. 
  • Nurture relationships with parents and other caregivers to reflect extended or diverse family structures. This will help to ensure their culture, beliefs and values are respected. For example, if you are a male practitioner who needs to speak to a mother, consider whether a chaperone is needed. Having positive and trusted relationships with parents and carers will also help you to understand more about the child’s cultural practices.  
  • Think practically about the way people dress and wear their hair or headwear. If sand and glitter gets into afro hair, do you know how to remove it? Maybe you could provide bonnets for messy play?  
  • Be curious and ask open questions. 
Reflective questions

You might want to reflect on your own unconscious biases. Everyone has them and it’s important be aware of them so you can minimise assumptions about children and families which can lead to unequal treatment. One way to do this is to take part in equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) training. 

You can ask yourself questions like ‘how do I respond to the same behaviours by children from different backgrounds?’ and ‘do I find myself gravitating to certain parents and carers more than others? Why?’ To help see the world through the eyes of the child, you could ask ‘how do the children in my setting describe themselves and their family?’ and ‘who do children say is important to them?’ 

As a group exercise with staff, you could ask ‘in what ways does our early years setting reflect a range of cultural identities?’ and ‘how do we use play materials, books, instruments and food to help children learn about different cultures?’  

Tips for managers

If you are a manager, you can ask ‘do the staff in my setting represent different cultures and ethnicities (including the senior staff with more responsibility)?’ and ‘are there inclusive recruitment procedures in place?’ It’s important the workforce is diverse, so children and their families see people from a variety of backgrounds working together and making decisions at all levels.  

You can also review relevant policies, such as EDI policies, to ensure that children and families are protected from discrimination, stereotyping and bullying because of their protected characteristics or cultural differences. It’s good practice review EDI in team meetings and in supervision. 

Strategically, you might use local data to help you understand your community better. This might enable you to prioritise certain services. Take the time to understand the data and why some groups may be over- or under-represented in certain areas. You can also talk to your local community leaders to find ways to continually develop. It can be helpful to have a ‘critical friend’ to help you reflect on this. 

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