With families from more than 35 countries, the Celebration KinderCare in central Florida can feel like a mini United Nations, according to Center Director Dawn Dalgleish. Celebration is itself a large, multicultural community: many families moved to the area to work for Walt Disney World. In her nine years at KinderCare she’s welcomed families from all over the world to her center, helping them adjust to cultural differences and become part of the center family.
“What we offer them is a community, not just a school for their children” Dalgleish said.
More than once Dalgleish found herself across the desk from a new family simply overwhelmed with the idea of leaving their child in a new place in a country where everything – from the food to the language to the normal bits of everyday life – is completely different from what they’re used to. And time after time Dalgleish reassures parents that everything will work out.
“Parents will say to me, as best they can in their broken English, ‘But my son doesn’t speak English,’” she said. “I take their hand – because it’s comforting, the warmth of touch – and tell them children communicate through the beautiful language of play. Their child will learn English fast. There will be some [cultural] adjustments but we’ll be here for them.”
Dalgleish and her teachers share a few tips for creating a cohesive center community out of many cultures.
We’re all on the same team
Ana Delgado’s 20 prekindergarten students represent seven countries aside from the United States – Brazil, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan, Columbia, and Venezuela. But no matter what a child’s cultural background, Delgado strives to see beyond classic stereotypes and to remember that children are children.
“I don’t see the races,” she said. “I see the child. I tell the parents we have the same goal: what’s best for their child. I try to make them feel like it’s a big family.”
Prekindergarten teacher Leslie Alfaro takes that concept one step further, telling her students they’re a team.
“A team is made up of different people but we’re all working toward the same goals,” she said. “We make the world better when we help each other and work as a team.”
“Tell me about your culture.” One simple sentence request can open many doors. By asking families about themselves and their experiences Dalgleish and her staff learn so much: many childcare centers in Saudi Arabia have an indoor sand room for children to play in when the temperatures are too high to allow outdoor play and Danish babies sleep outdoors in their strollers while their parents peruse local shops or enjoy a coffee in a café. They’ve also learned how to gently introduce parents to parts of U.S. culture that might be initially off-putting, like explaining that a four-year-old asks questions because she’s curious, not because she’s challenging an adult’s authority. By asking questions the Celebration team avoids jumping to conclusions and are able to not only help parents understand classroom activities and their child’s behavior, but are also able to expand their own worldview – and in turn, help their students remain open and accepting of each other’s differences.
“Every opportunity I have to talk about different cultures I do,” said Delgado.
Celebrating differences might be a small gesture like putting a family’s home country flag on their child’s cubby (instilling a sense of pride) or inviting parents to visit their child’s class and talk about their culture and traditions. Through sharing, each child (and their family) feels welcome in the center and proud of their unique background.
“Kids understand differences when they’re explained,” said Dalgleish. “When children are old enough to ask questions, they can see and understand their differences. We tell them being different is ok. Being different is who we are.”
Language barriers aren’t insurmountable
Several Celebration KinderCare teachers are multilingual, but even they don’t know every language spoken in their center. That’s where expressions and body language help, as does a buddy system. If two children speak the same language, Celebration teachers will often ask one child to help the other. Teachers also ask parents to teach them a few words and phrases in the child’s native language so they can help the child integrate into the classroom.
Remember, it takes time to adjust
Alfaro remembers what it felt like when she moved from Peru to the United States. She identifies with her students and the overwhelming newness they feel.
“The parent knows why they came here, but the kids don’t,” she said. “They just know they left their toys, house, and family behind. Kids need more time to adjust.”
And the most important thing anyone can do during that adjustment period is to remind each child how special they are.
“No matter what happens outside these doors, in here you’re loved and accepted,” said Dalgleish.