Impact Impact: Feature Issue on Early Childhood Education and Children with Disabilities

Do You Speak My Language? Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Children in ECSE


Lillian Duran is Assistant Professor in the Department of Special Education and Rehabilitation, Utah State University, Logan

The population served by special education represents a broad spectrum of the total population in the United States, including young culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) children (Zehler et al., 2003). Specifically, in early childhood special education (ECSE) data trends indicate that over the last 10 years there has been a significant increase in ethnic/racial diversity, and this trend is projected to continue. These changes in ECSE mirror the demographic shifts in the nation. The U.S. Census Bureau (2000) estimates that minorities will represent 54% of the total population by 2050, and by 2023 more than half of all children.

Unfortunately, many ECSE programs struggle to meet the needs of the CLD populations they serve. Issues surrounding language and cultural differences challenge ECSE professionals to expand their own cultural responsiveness and to find creative solutions to communicating with families with whom they do not share a language. Additionally, many educators underestimate the complexity of factors that contribute to a child's school success or failure, and look at CLD children as possessing deficits to be remediated rather than assets to be developed (Dona, Hoffman, & De Long, 2006). ECSE programs need to provide enriched educational opportunities for this population by providing culturally appropriate instructional practices and emphasizing dual language development (Cheatham, Santos, & Ro, 2007).

This article will address some key factors to consider when working with CLD populations in ECSE, and will provide suggestions for future directions in our field. The two areas that will be addressed are cultural competence and dual language learning.

Cultural Competence

More professional development opportunities need to be offered to ECSE professionals to increase their knowledge of cross-cultural differences in definitions of disability, family roles, and daily routines.Developing Cross-Cultural Competence: A Guide for Working with Children and Families(Lynch & Hanson, 2004) is an excellent text that provides basic information about a number of different cultures, including their perspectives on parenting, child development, and disability. ECSE professionals can use texts such as this as a guide, but it is critical to consider each family's unique cultural identity and incorporate their values and practices into intervention planning. Without these considerations we risk developing intervention plans that are culturally inappropriate, irrelevant, and potentially offensive. A poor fit between our intervention plans and the family will potentially undermine the quality of our services and the outcomes we desire.

To better serve CLD children and families, professionals should keep in mind these five critical aspects of cultural competence outlined by Lynch & Hanson (2004, pg. 450):

  • An awareness of one's own cultural limitations.
  • Openness, appreciation, and respect for cultural differences.
  • A view of intercultural interactions as learning opportunities.
  • The ability to use cultural resources in interventions.
  • An acknowledgement of the integrity and value of all cultures.

When there are cross-cultural differences to be negotiated between ECSE staff and particular families,Skilled Dialog: Strategies for Responding to Cultural Diversity in Early Childhood(Barrera & Corso, 2003) provides a model for negotiation based on respect, reciprocity, and responsiveness. These three qualities must characterize our interactions with CLD families and their children so that we provide high quality services that are driven by the priorities of individual families, rather than the structure of current systems. This is a critical shift in our field and necessitates flexibility and open-mindedness as we redefine and possibly reorganize not only how we deliver services, but also the types of services that are delivered to accommodate the needs and priorities of a diverse range of families in our communities.

Dual Language Learning

Language difference is often cited as one of the most challenging obstacles in providing appropriate services to CLD populations in early childhood education (Espinosa, 2008). Common misconceptions and misguided practices in our field include:

  • The notion that being bilingual causes language delay.
  • Encouraging families who speak a home language other than English to use English with their child.
  • Providing English-only intervention to dual language learners because it is believed that this will help them to acquire English more efficiently and with higher mastery.

These misconceptions and misguided practices often impede the delivery of linguistically appropriate and evidence-based interventions to many dual language learners. Even when teams have been provided current information regarding bilingual development, there is the added challenge of finding bilingual ECSE professionals and paraprofessionals who can provide linguistically appropriate services to children who speak a language other than English. This article can provide only a brief summary of current issues and trends in educating young dual language learners. A recent publication,Challenging Common Myths About Young English Language Learners(Espinosa, 2008) provides an evidence-based discussion of the misconceptions highlighted above. However, in short, ECSE professionals should realize that being bilingual does not inherently cause language delay, and after many years of research, support of a child's native language appears to facilitate increased mastery of English as evidenced by higher reading and academic outcomes in English for those students who have had native language support throughout their elementary school years (Rolstad, Mahoney, & Glass, 2005; Slavin & Cheung, 2005).

Further clarification of these misconceptions is multi-faceted and, quite honestly, complex. A key resource for current practitioners to guide special education evaluation and intervention is,Dual Language Development and Disorders: A Handbook on Bilingualism and Second Language Learning(Genesee, Paradis, & Crago, 2004). This book provides extensive information on dual language development and provides the technical information needed for practitioners to determine whether a bilingual child is experiencing a language delay. It also further describes the types of language supports that may be necessary to help a bilingual child's continued dual language development. Overall, given the convergence of research evidence in this area we need to become much more focused on providing dual language support through creatively reallocating current resources, involving CLD family and community members, and hiring more bilingual staff (Cheatham, et al., 2007).

The Future

The following is a list of suggestions for future directions in ECSE to more appropriately meet the needs of the CLD populations we serve:

  • We need to recruit, train, and retain more bilingual personnel in ECSE.
  • We should provide ongoing technical assistance based on current research for ECSE professionals, paraprofessionals, and administrators working with CLD populations.
  • We also need to provide more training for interpreters and bilingual paraprofessionals working in ECSE covering topics such as special education due process, evaluation, and intervention procedures.
  • Additionally, we need to create more culturally responsive supports for CLD families to become involved in ECSE programs.
  • Lastly, we need to develop more training opportunities for ECSE professionals to guide their work with interpreters.

Given these ongoing and pressing needs, our field should consider creating English Language Learning – Special Education specialist positions to realistically provide this level of support to programs.


The benefits of supporting a culturally diverse and multilingual society are not highlighted enough, especially given our global economy and the increasing demand for culturally diverse and multilingual personnel in a wide range of professional fields. In ECSE we have the choice to meet this challenge with an attitude of optimism. The focus should not be on the fact that many CLD children may not speak English, but rather on the fact that they do speak Hmong, Spanish, Somali, etc. What a valuable gift their ancestry and families have given them. A goal for ECSE programs in the 21st century should be to support these children's potential by valuing and honoring the cultural and linguistic capitol they bring to society, and by nurturing their dual language development and cultural identities.

  • Barrera, I., & Corso, R. (2007). Skilled dialogue: Strategies for responding to cultural diversity in early childhood. Baltimore2: Paul H. Brookes.

  • Cheatham, G. A., Santos, R. M., & Ro, Y. E. (2007). Home language acquisition and retention for young children with special needs. Young Exceptional Children, 11(1), 27–39.

  • Dona, D., Hoffman, P., & DeLong, L. (2006). Harvesting the talents of minority students: A look at achievement disparities in rural Minnesota schools. Rural Minnesota Journal, 55–75.

  • Espinosa, L. M. (2008). Challenging common myths about young English language learners. Foundation for Child Development Policy Brief 8. Retrieved from

  • Genesee, F., Paradis, J., & Crago, M. B. (2004). In Dual language development and disorders: A handbook on bilingualism and second language learning. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

  • Lynch, E. W., & Hanson, M. J. (2004). Developing cross-cultural competence: A guide for working with children and their families. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

  • Rolstad, K., Mahoney, K., & Glass, G. (2005). The big picture: A meta-analysis of program effectiveness research on English language learners. Educational Policy, 19(4), 572–594.

  • Slavin, R. E., & Cheung, A. (2005). A synthesis of research on language of reading instruction for English language learners. Review of Educational Research, 75(2), 247–284.

  • U.S. Bureau of the Census. (2000). Statistical abstract of the United States (120th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

  • Zehler, A. M., Fleischman, H. L., Hopstock, P. J., Stephenson, T. G., Pendzick, M. L., & Sapru, S. (2003). Descriptive study of services to LEP students and LEP students with disabilities. Final report to the U.S. Department of Education, Office of English Language Acquisition. Arlington, VA: Development Associates, Inc.