Raising culturally aware and inclusive children

The term ‘melting pot’ is often used to describe Australia and the variety of cultural groups that call this country home. Our identity as a nation is defined by our diversity – making it of utmost importance to raise young Australians to value diversity, and promote the social skills of cultural awareness and inclusion. Journalist Sara El Sayed looks at how Australian children learn to be culturally aware and inclusive.

Teaching inclusivity

The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) 2015-16 net overseas migration figures account for 182,165 people. At 30 June 2016, 28.5% of Australia’s estimated resident population (6.9 million people) was born overseas.

According to KidsMatter – a mental health and wellbeing initiative set in primary schools and early childhood education and care services – school staff have a significant role to play in supporting children and families from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds. When staff are welcoming and approachable it helps to build a sense of belonging and trust for students and their families.

Cultivating a culture of respect, caring and inclusion of difference among the whole school community is important as it helps in supporting positive mental health and reducing school based risk factors for children from CALD backgrounds.

Schools and early childhood services are in the position to promote values of mutual respect and understanding among their students, and to effectively address problems of discrimination when they occur in the school setting.

Dr Lyn O’Grady, KidsMatter National Project Manager at the Australian Psychological Society, said children learn how to value diversity through the actions of those around them.

“Whether it is their parents, teachers or peers at school, children learn how to behave by watching others.

“Adults are very influential in this respect, as children pick up on not only what they say, but what they do.

“It is extremely important that adults – both parents and school staff, model behaviour that promotes inclusivity.

“The teaching of inclusivity is in the practice of inclusivity,” Dr O’Grady said.

KidsMatter’s information sheet Cultural diversity: Suggestions for school staff states that teachers can encourage a positive school environment for children of CALD backgrounds by inviting diversity into the classroom. This can be done by providing opportunities for children and their parents and carers to share their cultural stories in an atmosphere of respect and acknowledgement.

Mutual respect across cultures involves being open to learning different ideas and approaches, and appreciating the enrichment this provides.

National Project Manager for KidsMatter at the Australian Psychological Society Dr Lyn O’Grady

Emerging refugee communities

According to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Australia has a refugee population of 34,503 people.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recognises that forced displacement has reached historic levels and schools all over the world are welcoming into their classrooms an increasing number of refugee children.

Teachers also face the challenging task of teaching children about refugees, asylum and migration.

The subject is taught in most schools in some form, but with public debate intensifying and refugees and migrants featuring firmly on the world media agenda, it is important for teachers to have access to quality teaching materials which they can use to help students make sense of the concept of forced displacement.

The UNHCR provides a number of resources for educators to help engage students from refugee backgrounds, as well as promoting understanding of the refugee experience among all students.

These resources can be accessed via www.unhcr.org/en-au/teaching-resources.

The Centre for Refugee Research’s Roads to Refuge: Refugees in Australia education kit aims to teach children (10-12 year olds) and young people of Australia about the specific experiences of refugee children and young people.

Roads to Refuge emphasises the positive attributes of refugees, such as bravery, resilience and perseverance.

The key elements of the program are:

the meaning and experience of persecution and its impact
loss and grief
the difference between refugees and other migrants
survival on the refugee’s journey
the strengths of refugees and their determination to succeed, and
ways in which students and their families in the wider Australian community can create a welcoming environment for refugees, to assist them in settling successfully in Australia and contributing to our multicultural society.

Teachers can find out more about this program via www.arts.unsw.edu.au/research/forced-migration-research-network/

It is extremely important that adults – both parents and school staff – model behaviour that promotes inclusivity.

Honesty works

Research from the Australian Institute of Family Studies states that:

services are more effective for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families when teachers are aware of and address cultural competence in their service delivery

it is critical for non Aboriginal staff to be aware of how to engage and support all cultures, but particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures

honest engagement, building trust, and working with community members is essential, and

when working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, a focus on empowerment and working from strengths makes a difference.

Dr O’Grady said the most important thing for schools to do is to be open to working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in their communities.

“Connecting with people in the community and forming relationships with community Elders is extremely valuable,” Dr O’Grady said.

According to KidsMatter’s handbook Engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, the whole school community can only actively be involved when they are provided with the skills and opportunities to learn, discuss and practise together.

Schools should discuss with Elders and Aboriginal Education Workers (AEWs) how social and emotional learning can be culturally inclusive and adapted to the local community so it remains relevant.

“These practices are not only critical to ensuring the broad Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community is respected, but also helps cultivate a safe and inclusive environment for people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent to feel more comfortable and proud to be part of the school community,” Dr O’Grady said.

Teachers can access the Engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities handbook via www.kidsmatter.edu.au/atsi-resources.