13 Diversity in Early Childhood Education

What can educators do to create inclusive early childhood contexts that provide children and families with the opportunity to develop understandings of difference and diversity?

Learning Objectives

  • Diversity is a characteristic of early childhood education.
  • The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child sets out the principle that all children have the right to feel accepted and respected.
  • It is important that all young children have the opportunity to develop an appreciation and respect for the diversity of their local and broader communities.
  • Adopting a holistic approach to diversity is promoted as a strategy for educators working in contemporary early childhood settings.


In early childhood education, diversity and inclusion go together like “roundabouts and swings, a pair of wings, fish and chips, hops and skips, socks and shoes, salt and pepper, strawberries and cream, pie and sauce, the oo in moo” [1]. Effective early childhood educators understand that creating an inclusive learning environment that is responsive to a diverse range of characteristics and needs, can be a challenging and overwhelming endeavour with sometimes limited or underwhelming results [2]. Traditionally, inclusive education in the mainstream early years classroom focussed on catering for children with special needs, such as physical impairment or autism, and for children considered ‘at risk’ or ‘disadvantaged’ in relation to issues such as socio-economic circumstances or geographical isolation [3]. Petriwskyj’s [4]research extends this notion of inclusive education to include many more considerations, such as the social, political, cultural, English as a second language, trauma-related and economic backgrounds of educational stakeholders.

This chapter is designed to reveal how early childhood educators could facilitate effective, inclusive pedagogies and programs in the mainstream classroom. Generally, when children have a diagnosed disability or a physical disability (such as needing a wheelchair or hearing aid), the general classroom teacher has access to support in the form of outside agencies or assisted technology [5]. However, when a teacher may think a child is ‘odd’, their learning progress is slow, or their behaviour is difficult to manage, then inclusive practices become difficult to seek, plan for and implement [6]. The following information, ideas and activities are designed to be a general ‘teaching toolkit’ for new teachers to implement in a mainstream early childhood classroom to assist them to be more responsive and inclusive to its diverse clientele of students and families.


Diversity is a characteristic of early childhood education. Children engaging with early childhood contexts come from a range of social, economic, cultural and ability groups, and bring with them a considerable variation in life’s experiences.

Capable, Confident, and Curious: Nova Scotia’s Early Learning Curriculum Framework[7] is based on the concept of the Image of the Child which says that everyone’s personal Image of the Child is influenced by their own experiences, biases, and knowledge. This framework’s Image of the Child sees children as curious, creative, full of potential, capable, and confident. It values and honours children for who they are today, and for who they will become. It also values how all children’s families, cultures, and communities influence on and contributions to children’s learning and development. These beliefs informed each of the following sections of the document:

  • Principles: Define how educators’ approach early learning, with an emphasis on play-based learning; relationships; inclusion, diversity and equity; learning environments; and reflective practice
  • Practice: Support the principles through holistic approaches, responsiveness to children; intentional teaching; valuing cultural and social contexts of children; continuity in experiences and successful transitions; and authentic assessment
  • Learning Goals: Set broad categories of focus for children’s development—Well-being, Discovery and Invention, Language and Communication, and Personal and Social Responsibility
  • Learning Objectives: Further define the learning goals and provide direction on which areas of the goals educators should give the most attention to
  • Learning Strategies: Outline examples of how children’s behaviours may demonstrate each of the objectives, and how to support children in achieving those objectives; educators are strongly encouraged to develop strategies that reflect high-quality practices within the context of their communities, informed by the cultures of the families, and the individual characteristics of the children in the program.[8]

Society has become increasingly diverse in terms of the cultural and ethnic backgrounds, composition and size of families[9]. Children’s developmental pathways are also more diverse. Taken for granted approaches about parenting and child development and traditional early childhood practices are challenged by this changing diversity [10]. Bronfenbrenner’s social ecology approach assists in the conceptualisation of the developing child in this changing diverse landscape because the model enables the recognition of “the broad range of contextual factors that can affect human development and education” ([11].

In the model, the child is situated at the centre of a number of concentric layers. These surrounding layers move out from the centre to reflect the varying contexts associated with the child at any given time in their life’s journey. Relationships between the child and surrounding layers are seen as dynamic.

Bronfenbrenner’s social ecological model

Characteristics of the child such as age, health and personal traits, are embodied with the child in the centre of the model. The system closest to the child is called the microsystem and consists of the components in the child’s immediate surrounds such as family, extended family and early childhood setting. These components are seen to influence the child physically, socially, emotionally and cognitively. Emotional attachment with other people was viewed by Bronfenbrenner as a significant element in this layer [12]. The next layer of the model is called the mesosystem and refers to the alignment between contexts in the microsystem [13]. It is desirable for the child to experience high levels of alignment between the differing contexts experienced within their microsystem. A child who encounters a misalignment between the early childhood centre they attend and their family life may not be able to experience the best opportunities for learning. A strong match, however, between the values of the centre and their home life is likely to lead to improved learning outcomes.

The next adjacent layer, the exosystem, represents those systems or contexts that the child is not directly involved in but will still be impacted by. Parental employment, for example, can impact the child through such things as lower levels of income, higher working hours and increased stress levels. The final layer, the macrosystem, refers to the broad cultural and societal attitudes and ideologies that may influence components in all of the other systems. This layer represents the overall values of the society in which the child lives and is impacted by across all aspects life. Grace, Hayes and Wise [14] provide the example of a society in which females are treated as being inferior to males by being denied equal access to education and employment, which may result in the female child possibly having reduced opportunities in life.

A final important point the Bronfenbrenner model makes, is that the child is not viewed as a static participant. The child is a dynamic being and influences the environment in which they engage. For example, parents of a child with vision impairment may make decisions about support mechanisms that the child has access to and bring these with them to the early childhood centre. Children, according to Bronfenbrenner’s social ecological model, will be influenced by, and will influence, their environment and the people in them [15]. Considering the child in their social, ecological surrounds can therefore assist educators in developing clearer understandings of children and their individual, unique diverse contexts.


This chapter is adapted from Chapter 4 Opening eyes onto inclusion and diversity in early childhood education by Michelle Turner in Opening Eyes by Susan Carter; Professor Lindy-Anne Abawi; Professor Jill Lawrence; Associate Professor Charlotte Brownlow; Renee Desmarchelier; Melissa Fanshawe; Kathryn Gilbey; Michelle Turner; and Jillian Guy shared with a CC BY-NC license.

  1. McKimmie, C. (2010). Two peas in a pod. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin
  2. Petriwskyj, A., Thorpe, K., & Tayler, C. (2014). Towards inclusion: provision for diversity in the transition to school.International Journal of Early Years Education, 22(4), 359-379. doi: 10.1080/09669760.2014.911078
  3. Petriwskyj, A. (2010). Diversity and inclusion in the early years. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 14(2), 195-212. doi: 10.1080/13603110802504515
  4. Ibid.
  5. Forlin, C., Chambers, D., Loreman, T., Deppler, J., & Sharma, U. (2013). Inclusive education for students with disability: A review of the best evidence in relation to theory and practice.Retrieved from https://www.aracy.org.au/publications-resources/area?command=record&id=186
  6. Petriwskyj, A. (2010). Diversity and inclusion in the early years. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 14(2), 195-212. doi: 10.1080/13603110802504515
  7. Diversity section copied from:Province of Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. (2018). Capable, Confident, and Curious: Nova Scotia’s Early Learning Curriculum Framework. https://www.ednet.ns.ca/docs/nselcurriculumframework.pdf
  8. Ibid.
  9. Moore, T. (2008). Supporting young children and their families: Why we need to rethink services and policies. (CCCH Working Paper No. 1). Parkville, Victoria: Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health. Retrieved fromhttp://www.rch.org.au/emplibrary/ccch/Need_for_change_working_paper.pdf
  10. Fleer, M. (2003). Early childhood education as an evolving ‘Community of Practice’ or as lived ‘Social Reproduction’: Researching the ‘taken-for-granted’. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 4(1), 64-79.
  11. Odom, S., Vitztum, J., Wolery, R., Lieber, J., Sandall, S., Hanson, M., Beckman,P., Schwartz, I., & Horn, E. (2004). Preschool inclusion in the United States: A review of research from an ecological systems perspective. Journal of Research in Special Education Needs, 41, 17–49.
  12. Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design.Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  13. Grace, R., Hayes, A., & Wise, S. (2017). Child development in context. In R. Grace, K. Hodge &C. McMahon (Eds.), Children, families and communities (5thed.) (pp. 3- 25). South Melbourne, Victoria: Oxford University Press
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.


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