Cultural competence: An ethical perspective

The ethical dimensions of becoming culturally competent are simultaneously challenging and extraordinarily life affirming.


When educators in early childhood education and care settings connect with children, families and colleagues in ways that recognise cultural identity with honour and respect, it is a powerful experience.

A family day care educator recently told me how she had invited a family to share their traditional Chinese New Year celebration. After a conversation about how everyone could be involved, the educator suggested that they create a celebration on a Friday night where all the families could come together to socialise and celebrate after the working week. It was a raging success because, in the act of exploring another’s cultural identity, the families had made powerful connections with each other and the educator.

There is evidence in this example of the educator enacting what the EYLF talks about when it says ‘Educators who are culturally competent respect multiple cultural ways of knowing, seeing and living, celebrate the benefits of diversity and have an ability to understand and honour differences’ (EYLF, p. 16). It is not an event or a token—it is about learning to be connected.


But just as becoming culturally competent can be a cause for festivity, it can also be an immense challenge. Families and educators come to early childhood services with deeply felt cultural perspectives—some of which are incompatible with our own and are difficult to navigate. We are foolish if we imagine that these will be left at the front door and that people will suddenly become a homogenous group. Rather, educators who are committed to creating culturally competent settings understand that we are all different and that these differences require a respectful and patient process repeated many times.

An educator shared a story about working with a family as they were settling their baby into the centre. The family had particular beliefs about routines (sleeping, eating and nappy changing) that educators tried to follow but things were proving difficult and a shared understanding seemed to elude them. The educator told me that she and the family had tried several ways to get ‘on the same page’ but each time things seemed to end in an uncomfortable agreement to keep trying. We talked about what might come next. My only response would be to keep on trying—keep on finding ways to make connections and stop doing things that drive you apart. If a brochure about healthy eating is not helping, stop handing them out; if making an effort to chat about what’s been happening over the weekend seems to work—keep doing it. Our ethical responsibility therefore is to listen, be mindful and take an interest. It is not to have all the answers.


The EYLF challenges educators to become culturally competent practitioners. Because this task is so closely associated with the relationships we form and nurture, educators who seek to strengthen their work in this area should use the ECA Code of Ethics to help them act in culturally affirming ways. First and foremost as we act in the best interests of children, but also as we act we seek to understand, listen and learn from ourselves, families and the communities we work with.

Catharine Hydon
Early childhood consultant