Culture, Communication & Conflict with Dr. Chris Amirault

Happy Real World Wednesday! Slide1This week we have the pleasure of introducing Chris Amirault.  Dr. Amirault is the President of the Rhode Island NAEYC affiliate, Chair of the Council for NAEYC Accreditation, and served as a founding facilitator of the NAEYC Equity and Diversity Interest Forum for many years. He directs Brown/Fox Point Early Childhood Education Center in Providence RI. Prior to directing Brown/Fox Point, Chris was the Director of the Institute for Elementary and Secondary Education at Brown University. He has taught early childhood at several universities and facilitated workshops on diversity and equity for almost three decades.

As a part of his work, he’s been designing and facilitating workshops on culture, communication, and conflict. This fall, we’re looking forward to a week-long series of interactive posts that dive deeper into this important and complex topic.  But for now, Chris engaged the Forum in a rich reflection exercise and discussion on our Facebook page.  He prompted the group to:

Reflect on your relationship to your culture, your communication style, and conflict, and finish these sentences:

When in conflict, here’s what I do well:
When in conflict, here’s what I don’t do so well:
When in conflict, here’s what drives me absolutely crazy:

This is how I communicate best with others:
This is how I prefer to address conflicts:
You can help me be a better colleague by…
I will work to be a better colleague by…

Many participants–including Chris himself–shared their answers publicly, demonstrating a great deal of openness, honesty, and vulnerability.  Reflecting on the activity, one participant then asked, “I wonder how much the questions relate to personality rather than culture?”  Chris responded,

One of the key points from the literature on conflict resolution and diversity is that we all live our cultures in our own ways — and, typically, we can’t see those particular habits, values, behaviors, judgments, and so on. These questions are meant to prompt both awareness of those things and to require that we all state explicitly how we live them.

Another participant added, “A key piece to resolving conflict is recognizing the individual participants in the conflict as inherently different folk – most likely in culture and personality. By using tools like the one Chris presented, we are encouraged to recognize our own culture (which, especially in dominant cultures, is largely invisible to us)* AND its effects on our personality. That is to say – we should be striving to ask and answer questions that…

  • Help us identify how our culture and personality affect our practice.
  • Help us identify how our personality and culture affect each other.
  • How our culture and personality benefit and enrich our practice, and…
  • How our culture and personality could be hindering or otherwise having a negative affect on our practice.

…and then use what we’ve discovered to approach our workplace relationships in more productive and fair ways.”

Chris concluded the thread by sharing:

Thanks to everyone for participating! As you can see, different individuals inhabit their cultures in a variety of ways, but conflict brings out a lot of unspoken values, assumptions, and challenges to our work. Of course, as early childhood educators, part of our job is to provoke conflict in developmentally appropriate ways with the children we serve; scaffolding the shift from parallel to cooperative play is a good example of this.

In addition, early childhood educators can get stuck in their own very adult conflicts, which create toxic learning environments for children. Very often, shared cultural values are exposed within those conflicts, and often they contribute to the conflict rather than helping to address it. What does it mean to listen? to engage? to respect? to value? to collaborate? to “have my back”? to trust? to defer? to accept? to negotiate? to concur?

The folks at the Harvard Negotiation Project remind us that every difficult conversation has three parts: the “what happened?” component, the feelings component, and the identity component. Learning how to move through the components requires respectful listening that engages and incorporates another’s perspective, starting with the historic details and drilling down to the very notion of who we are. While these three components are very broad brush strokes, in my own work on equity and diversity they’ve been helpful in illuminating the insights that conflicts offer.

Of course, that’s hard to do when you’re in a conflict! So often we have to start with the simple act of trusting someone whom you really, really don’t want to trust, so that you can view the world through that person’s perspective. And that’s where the commitment to equity and diversity fits in: if you are going to commit to doing this work, you have to accept that conflicts can only be resolved by learning to accept the perspectives of others, including those who may or may not share your culture, your power, your values, and especially your deeply held truths.

If you found this exercise interesting, I urge you to share it with a colleague. At the end, repeat back what your colleague has told you, to demonstrate that you’ve listened and learned. Then keep your eyes peeled for an opportunity to engage in a week-long interactive experience around this same topic soon!

To learn more, check out Stone, Patton, and Heen’s “Difficult Conversations,” or click on this useful overview of these issues with the University of Colorado’s Conflict Information Consortium:

*I really appreciated this point about the dynamic in which members of dominant cultures are often unaware that they have culture too. I’ve found that the Center for the Study of White American Culture has lots of great resources:


Opportunities to Advance Racial Equity in the Head Start Performance Standards

From left to right: Megan Madison, Catherine Corr, Katherine Paschall, Deborah Daro, Leah Bartley, Alayna Schreier

From left to right: Megan Madison, Catherine Corr, Katherine Paschall, Deborah Daro, Leah Bartley, Alayna Schreier

This week the Forum’s co-facilitators Megan Madison (far left) and Dr. Catherine Corr (second to left) were busy attending the annual meeting of the Doris Duke Fellowships at Chapin Hall in Chicago. They are part of a small group of emerging scholars focusing on interventions and systems aimed to promote child well-being.

Given their collective expertise and experience with Head Start programs, the group engaged in a rich discussion about the newly proposed Head Start Performance Standards.

On our Facebook page, Katie (Katherine Paschall) shared her thoughts:

Clearly, it is difficult to create regulations and policies for such a diverse group of families, but it is my wish that Head Start programs can continue to be responsive to the needs of their local communities; the strengths of the proposed updates allow for greater flexibility and strength in addressing the needs of vulnerable families, as defined by local communities. The weaknesses are those that threaten the strength of local communities/grantees to deliver the most appropriate program to their community.

From my view, the proposed standards include several commendable and appropriate updates to current enrollment policies, implementation strategies and focuses; the updates guided by research evidence are the clear strengths. For instance, Head Start will open slots to pregnant women experiencing homelessness & foster children, and intentionally incorporate evidence-based strategies for promoting the development of these particularly vulnerable populations.

The largest and most publicized update is the movement from half-day to full-day care, which is a double-edged sword. I am concerned, as are many others, that this will reduce the number of children who can be served, and that this will be an impediment to currently operating programs. I agree with the National Head Start Association that this should be one option, offered with the full support of the Office of Head Start, rather than a mandate.

All in all, the way the standards are written include few mandates, with plenty of “wiggle room” for programs to adapt them to their populations. However, some of that wiggle room can be problematic, such as the de-emphasis on family engagement. I look forward to hearing from my colleagues and am so glad to have the opportunity to publicly comment on these standards!

The group then compiled their thoughts into a formal comment.  All in all, they identified multiple ways in which the revision of these performance standards provided an opportunity to advance equity in early childhood education.  To read the group’s formal comment, click here.

Developing Democratic Family-Professional Partnerships

Happy Real World Wednesday!

This week we are pleased to introduce Margaret (Maggie) Beneke! Maggie is currently a doctoral student at the University of Kansas studying Early Childhood Special Education. Her research focuses on inclusive*, equitable practices that support young children and families from diverse backgrounds. Her current research centers on the ways adults and young children co-construct social identities and negotiate power through discourse. In collaboration with her doctoral advisor, Dr. Gregory Cheatham, she has been analyzing language interpretation during Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) meetings with families who do not speak English. Her most recent publications center on developing democratic family-professional partnerships and inclusive approaches to supporting families who speak non-standard English. Prior to beginning her PhD program, she taught in an inclusive, anti-bias early childhood program in the Boston area.

We asked Maggie to tell us about (1) what democratic family-professional partnerships are and (2) some tips for our own work with families.  Here’s what she said:

Thank you for this opportunity!

1. What are democratic family-professional partnerships?
John Dewey’s 20th-century ideals of family–professional partnership remain relevant to the 21st-century challenges of social inequity and educational discriminat
ion (Dzur, 2004; Fischer, 2004; Skrtic, 2013; Sullivan, 2005). In true democratic family–professional partnerships, Dewey explained that professionals and citizens share responsibility through mutually beneficial alliances (Dzur, 2004; Sullivan, 2005). Deference to professional expertise can be debilitating for citizens (i.e., families), particularly those from historically marginalized backgrounds (Dzur, 2004; Fischer, 2004). When teachers and families are positioned in expert–client relationships, families’ perspectives or wisdom may be overlooked. Instead, educators can deconstruct and reconstruct expectations for family–professional partnerships to be more democratic and equitable, transforming the role of educator from expert to facilitator (Dzur, 2004; Fischer, 2004; Skrtic, 2013; Sullivan, 2005).

A democratic approach to cross-cultural family–professional partnerships (e.g., engaging families in problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration) can empower families from historically marginalized backgrounds. Educators can help families to identify strengths, goals, and problems, setting the democratic agenda in the interest of the common good. Educators can then apply specialized knowledge to address these shared goals (Fischer, 2004). In these reciprocal relationships of positive interdependence, expertise is both shared and advanced (Skrtic, 2013). As families in early childhood programs become increasingly diverse and the population of practitioners remains relatively homogeneous, practitioners and families may be positioned on opposite sides of a widening sociocultural divide. A value for democracy in early childhood means calling attention to the implicit and explicit processes that create inequity for families from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

2. What are some tips for our own work with families?
Developing democratic family-professional partnerships is not simple, and can take time. Self-reflection and dialogue can help educators can move toward conceptualizations of both culture and language that may support more democratic family-professional partnerships. This includes recognizing that: (a) there are many diverse, legitimate ways of speaking, thinking, behaving, and being; (b) mainstream cultural processes represent privileged ideologies that produce inequitable relationships; and (c) language enacts and produces relations of power in context.

To build awareness of families’ diverse, legitimate ways of speaking being, thinking, and behaving, educators can raise their awareness of and reflect on their own cultural participation. Using the ABC model (i.e., autobiography, biography, and cross-cultural comparison; He & Cooper, 2009; Schmidt, 1999) educators can write detailed autobiographies recounting aspects of their own family cultures and personal values, read the biography of a parent or caregiver with a different cultural background and differing values, and compare cultural and value differences between the two narratives. Exposure and analysis of cultural continua for social values and behavior may be beneficial in helping educators recognize the varied and valid ways culture is expressed (Cheatham & Santos, 2011; Lynch & Hanson, 2011).

Structured dialogue can be useful in supporting pre-service teachers to examine their own practice (Hollins, 2011). During professional development time, educators can use protocols such as those listed on The School Reform Initiative’s website ( to discuss issues about cultural inequity (e.g., inequitable parent participation expectations that may perpetuate mainstream views of family involvement; Hollins & Guzman, 2005) and grapple with what these issues might mean in their partnerships with families. Educators may also share documentation of families’ experiences to discuss deficit perspectives on family childrearing practices. Through discussions of these dilemmas, educators can engage in critical conversations as they contend with issues of inequity that may emerge in cross-cultural partnerships (Fults & Harry, 2012; Gay & Kirkland, 2003). When structured conversations about cultural bias are connected to self-reflection, educators can develop critical consciousness, recognizing the cultural values of families that may be privileged or marginalized. Practicing this critical stance can be beneficial for educators in advocating for democratic cross-cultural partnerships with families. Educators can also look at the oppressive ways in which language can function.

For instance, educators can analyze the discourses and dominant linguistic values that play out in educational arenas (Ayers, 2014). Acknowledging the dominant use of standard English and English as a first language in EC/EI/ECSE programs in contrast to language use at home and community can help teachers self-reflect on linguistic advantage and disadvantage that may influence their communication with linguistically diverse families (Delpit, 2006). Finally, pre-service teachers may also benefit from studying models and examples of successful dialogue with families from diverse backgrounds (Gay & Kirkland, 2003).

Maggie also provided the following tips for fostering self reflection for newer and more veteran professionals:

Reading vignettes about families who integrate traditional and mainstream cultures to create new parenting practices (Choi et al., 2013; Halgunseth et al., 2006) or video clips of those parents with differing cultural backgrounds who merge cultural practices in light of mutual goals for their children (Crippen, & Brew, 2013) to guide discussion with educators. Teacher educators or anti-bias leaders can then introduce and revisit a collaborative problem-solving process approach to working with families (Fults & Harry, 2012), urging educators to see the dynamic nature of culture by engaging the individual interests and needs of families.

• Given family consent, new or seasoned teachers can video or audio record and analyze conversations they have with families. Teacher educators or anti-bias leaders can then guide educators to attend to families’ subtle facial expressions, use interviewing techniques to clarify understanding, and provide wait time in conversation during their interactions with families; educators can identify linguistic processes, which contribute to pragmatic inferences about family attitudes and characteristics (Cheatham & Santos, 2011).

• Using case studies or vignettes that highlight the ways in which individual families have been marginalized based on differences in language use may help teachers to brainstorm ways to inclusively reach out to individual families.

Critically comparing conversation transcripts of educators and English-speaking families with the conversations of educators and families for whom English is a second language may help pre-service teachers identify missed opportunities for inclusive, democratic partnerships (Cheatham & Jimenez-Silva, 2012; Cheatham & Ostrosky, 2011).

Thanks for sharing all this knowledge, Maggie!

*My work draws upon Artiles and Kozleski’s (2007) expanded definition of “inclusion,” a term that typically and exclusively refers to inclusion of children with disabilities. Instead, I think inclusive education means cultivating an equitable learning community in which all children and families are regarded as valuable members. Conceptualized as a legitimizing space for multiple and diverse ways of being, Artiles and Kozleski assert that inclusive education consists of developing and advancing practices to be inclusive and equitable for those individuals from historically marginalized groups (i.e., groups who have experienced historical discrimination based on ethnicity, race, language, culture, socioeconomic status, gender, religion, etc.). Inclusive education, then, is a dynamic and flexible process that involves constant attention, reflection, and action toward understanding how historically marginalized populations of children and families can more equitably participate in educational processes and communities (Artiles, Kozleski, & Waitoller, 2011). I believe an inclusive education approach can be embraced to support positive and meaningful partnerships with families.

Building Authentic Relationships with Families

This Real World Wednesday we had the pleasure of learning from Tanya Jefferson-Fitts!11705353_1618514891771572_7783077469476539302_n

In her current position, Tanya provides one-to-one therapy to children who may be delayed in one or more developmental domains. Prior to this, she worked as an early childhood teacher for 10 years at a center based program. She has been in the early childhood field for 15 years and has a Masters Degree in Early Childhood Education with a concentration in Teaching Adult Learners.

As many teachers and families are forging new relationships this month, we asked her for some of her tips on building strong partnerships with families. This is what she said:

Some things that early childhood professionals should keep in mind as they work to build authentic relationships with families are:

  1. Building trust
  2. Respect and consider the families, culture, experiences, opinions, and values
  3. Be approachable and available

All of the tips that I provided I live by and believe in whole heartily. First to have any relationship there must be trust, keep conversations private,being a great listener and providing suggestions to help out when needed. Respecting the families ideas and beliefs is vey important; and by this I mean no two families are the same, we must consider a family’s culture, because it affects their beliefs, values and parenting practices. Lastly; being a warm, welcoming person and making time for the families. After all time well spent is how we build any relationship.

Thanks, Tanya, for your fantastic advice!