CLAD – Cultural, Linguistic, Ability Diversity – Are you self-aware?

Have you thought about culture lately, including your own? Working with children and families from diverse backgrounds other than the early childhood professional’s own requires continual self-reflection and learning. Children and families in early childhood education (ECE) programs are substantially diverse—whether the differences are cultural, linguistic, ability, family structure, race, religion, or socio-economic. An awareness of CLAD—cultural, linguistic, and ability diversity—is fundamental to working with children and families.

  • For the first time in history, half (49.9%) of American children under the age of five are of a nonwhite racial or ethnic minority group (2012 US Census Bureau estimates). 
  • In the Unites States, the number of children under the age of 17 living in non-English language households increased from 28% to 32% between 2004 and 2013 (Child Trends 2014). 
  • Over half the world’s population is estimated to be bilingual or multilingual (US Departments of HHS and Ed 2017). 
  • In 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) found that early intervention (EI) services reached approximately 2.8% of children in the United States who were under three years of age but noted that the number who would benefit from EI is much greater. 

CLAD aware

Quality early education and care means that all children have the opportunity to reach their full potential. This includes children from all cultural and linguistic backgrounds, children who are typically developing, children with identified disabilities, and children with learning and/or behavior and early mental health challenges. ECE professionals benefit from a deep understanding of CLAD:

Cultural diversity – In groups and individuals, there are similarities and differences. For example, two mothers in the ECE program may be of the same race, age, and family structure, but one may breastfeed her infant and the other may not. One may speak English and Spanish, the other may speak Sudanese and English.

Linguistic diversity – Language has many layers in how it is understood, spoken, and used. Exploration of cultural diversity points out the strong  connection to linguistic diversity. Linguistic diversity includes spoken language, for example, a child or family who speaks one language, such as English OR Spanish. Linguistic diversity also includes speaking multiple languages, such as English AND Spanish. Language and communication may also require adaptive materials or assistive technology, such as sign language or braille, each adding layers to linguistic diversity. 

Ability diversity – Ability diversity refers to varying abilities and disabilities. Differences in cognitive, social-emotional, and physical abilities add to the layers of ability diversity. Children with disabilities may need more individualized and intensive instruction and care. 

Deeper meaning

To understand diversity in regards to culture, language, and ability means to explore the deep meaning of culture. Researchers have identified over 150 definitions of culture, highlighting the complexity of culture:

“… Culture refers to how particular groups of people live. It is the way we eat, sleep, talk, play, care for the sick, relate to one another, think about work, arrange our kitchens, and remember our dead. It includes the language we speak, the religion or spirituality we practice (or do not), and the clothing, housing, food, and rituals/holidays with which we feel most comfortable.” (Derman-Sparks and Edwards 2010)

“[Culture includes] ethnicity, racial identity, economic class, family structure, religious and political beliefs and other dimensions that profoundly influence each child’s learning, development, and relationship to family, programs, and community.” (NAEYC) 

“Having the evolving knowledge and skills used for maintaining a process to increase one’s respect, understanding and knowledge of the similarities and differences between one’s self and others. This includes the values, lifestyles, abilities, beliefs, and opportunities that influence every aspect of how people relate to each other.” (Mestas and Peterson, personal communication, 1999 in Lynch and Hanson 2011)


Understanding yourself helps you to understand others. A good first step in cultural understanding is to reflect on your own values and culture. Individuals have their own unique lens of how they perceive themselves, the world, and others in it. Reflecting on your own culture and values can help build bridges to understanding others’ culture and values, either similar or different from your own. 

“Everyone has a culture, but often individuals are not aware of the behaviors, habits, and customs that are culturally based (Althen 1988). Learning about one’s own roots is the first step in determining how one’s values, beliefs, customs, and behaviors have been shaped by culture.” (Lynch and Hanson 2011)

Pieces of you

Think about the groups, identities, and dimensions you belong to. For example, you may think of gender, ethnicity, race, religion, region/roots (where you were born and lived/ where other family before you lived), family structure, family relationship (mother, daughter, etc.), language(s), abilities, disabilities, sexual orientation, birth order, political ideals, work experience, education, etc. 

Think about the various groups, identities, and dimensions that best describe you.  Jot down as many as you can think of. Next, reflect on these questions: 

  1. How have these pieces of you contributed to your celebrations, rituals, traditions, and routines? To your beliefs and values? To your view of yourself, including your hopes and dreams? 
  2. What pieces are most important in shaping who you are? 
  3. Do you know others who have similar pieces? How are the pieces the same? 
  4. Do you know others who have different pieces? How are the pieces different? 
  5. How does all of this contribute to how you view others and the world?

“To understand and appreciate fully the diversity that exists among the families served, service providers must first understand and appreciate their own culture.” (Lynch and Hanson 2011)

Find joy through honor and celebration

ECE professionals often find and receive joy through personal interactions with others: collaborating with families, laughing with the children, showing excitement for a child’s accomplishments, sharing humor with a parent, or simply enjoying time spent together. By building CLAD awareness and best practice, ECE professionals learn to honor and celebrate not only each child and family, but also their own unique role in building quality ECE programming. 

 “No matter what culture a person comes from, a goal should be to develop a person-to-person relationship. Treating people with respect solves many cross-cultural problems.” (Gonzales-Mena 2001)


  • Barrera, Isaura, Lucinda Kramer, and T. Dianne Macpherson. 2012. Skilled Dialogue: Strategies for Responding to Cultural Diversity in Early Childhood. 2nd ed. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing
  • Derman-Sparks, Louise, and Julie Olsen Edwards. 2010. Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves. 2nd revised ed. Stenhouse Publishers.
  • Lawrence, Sharmila, Sheila Smith, and Rashida Banerjee. 2016. “Child Care & Early Education Research Connections: Preschool Inclusion: Key Findings from Research and Implications for Policy.” National Center for Children in Poverty, Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research, and US Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Lynch, Eleanor, and Marci J. Hanson. 2011. Developing Cross-Cultural Competence. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.
  • National Association for the Education of Young Children. 2009. “Where We Stand on Responding to Linguistic and Cultural Diversity.” NAEYC.

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CLAD – Cultural, Linguistic, Ability Diversity – Are you self-aware?

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