2014, Volume 17, Special Issue: Early Childhood Policy

Supporting Participation of Indigenous Families in Early Childhood Education

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Full Reference
Corridore, E. (2014). Supporting participation of indigenous families in early childhood education. NZ Research in Early Childhood Education Journal.  Special Issue: Early Childhood Policy,17, 147-160.


Original Policy Paper

Supporting Participation of Indigenous Families in Early Childhood Education

Elizabeth Corridore


This paper examines specific discrepancies between Australian Indigenous communities’ values, beliefs and approaches to education and those of mainstream Australian communities. It includes an analysis of relevant impacts of this mismatch on successful participation by Indigenous children in early childhood education settings. Cultural competency, as described in the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) and expanded upon by current thinking and learning, predominates as a professional skill required in educating young Indigenous children and communities. The confronting issue of colonisation has impacted on the participation levels of Indigenous families and is deserving of significant space and time for reflection around Western education institutions and what they represent and value.

Key words: Indigenous; Australia; values; indigenous; culture; communities; participation; policy, curriculum, Early Years Learning Framework.



Strategies for future action within teacher preparation acknowledge that “education systems are culturally bound” (Sims, 2010, p. 1) and encourage reflection by educators on their own cultural competence and how this impacts on children’s educational outcomes. The Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, 2010) for Australia asks educators to embrace the holistic cultures of Indigenous Australian communities.  Indigenous values around early childhood education include the basic premise of ‘belonging, being and becoming’ upon which the EYLF is modelled.  Educators therefore have a positive starting point as they work collaboratively with Indigenous communities, whose diverse cultures are “based on the principles of relationships and balance.  Everything and everyone is connected and balanced through relationships” (Townsend-Cross, 2004, p. 2). Educators able to deconstruct the social, political and power relationships that normally go unquestioned can effect change in early childhood education (MacNaughton & Williams, 1998). 

Socio-cultural theory will be discussed in this article as one answer to bridging the gap between varying learning approaches and working within a holistic framework respectful of all cultures. Contemporary research informs discussions of various approaches to early childhood education and how these may address concerns around respectful delivery of early education to young Indigenous Australians. Cultural competence and education approaches applicable to improving early childhood education participation for Indigenous children are discussed, while remaining mindful that the EYLF is designed to be inclusive of all cultures in Australian society.  The intention of this article is to acknowledge that Indigenous families may not have been served adequately and to suggest ideas for improvement today. 

Working and researching in the Australian multicultural education context has increased my belief that equity in education is the basis of national prosperity. Inclusive of psychological, physical and cultural safety within education and work environments, prosperity can no longer be measured by productivity or economic success alone. When colleagues recognised and respected the diverse values and beliefs families contribute to the context, children subsequently felt secure in the environment and learnt more effectively. If we value Indigenous contributions and create trust amongst the communities, we can enhance participation in early education and hence develop pathways which enable all Australians to partake in a fulfilling future.


Why indigenous Australian communities’ and Western education values may be mismatched

“Indigenous families understand that gaining Western education is important for their children.  They want their children to have access to the same range of educational and economic opportunities and choices as are available to other Australian children” (DEST 2006; Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council 2006 cited by Anning, Cullen and Fleer, 2009, p. 93).  Western education culture in Australia, accepted as the norm, differs markedly from Indigenous Australian education cultures, creating a significant challenge for all Australians to ensure Indigenous families’ aspirations are reached. 

Broadly speaking Western schools segregate children from daily activities of adults. Typically Indigenous children learn while participating in daily activities with their family.  Instead of a single adult teacher instructing a class of children allocated to that class by birth date, Indigenous children traditionally learn from a range of educators within a multi-age environment. Indigenous educators understand the kinship obligation to teach and care for their family members.  Indigenous children learn in a familiar environment that is predictable and allows the stress-free learning so desired for optimal outcomes. These features line up with the ecological approach of Bronfenbrenner, which is “family-focused, emphasising partnership with families, authentic assessment and learning in natural settings” (Anning et al., 2009, p. 82). Applying this theory in early education contexts involves understanding a community’s strengths and values, encouraging learning and assessment through participation in a range of contexts. 

Rogoff’s research (1995 in Anning et al., 2009) raises the question of shared understandings and the connection between families, communities and learning and development.  The difficulties for children constantly crossing between very different micro-systems (although these can be productive experiences) should be considered, particularly if assessment is involved, as Indigenous children will have strengths and skills honed in their family context which may not be evident in an early education Western context.  “The social situation of development will not only be community defined and culturally determined, but it will also be family specific” (Fleer, 2005, p. 83).  Because learning occurs during daily activities, acceptance of mistakes in a non-judgmental atmosphere becomes an impetus for developing life skills as these “imperfections” are role modelled by others.  Time and space allows children to make their own decisions and follow their interests.  Meanwhile there exists strong inter-dependence, obligation and collaboration as values that strengthen bonds, security and effectively allow children to take on positions of responsibility, particularly for younger siblings, earlier than Western children might.  Preparation for family roles begins early as children learn and understand the importance and purpose of learning various daily skills. 

Motivation to learn comes from the obvious linkage of learning with becoming an effective member of a community.  Western education’s attempts to motivate children through grading, gold stars and the like, is a disjointed concept for Indigenous children (Anning et al., 2009). Fasoli et al. (2004 in Guilfoyle, Saggers, Sims and Hutchins, 2010) claims that Indigenous families are unlikely to use formal childcare services which do not centrally locate the child and respect the connectedness of family, contact with elders and cultural identity. 


Strategies that may help bridge the gap

Children need to feel accepted before learning occurs. A holistic framework for learning which incorporates the values held within mind, body and spirit and respects the interconnectedness of all three, while acknowledging the diversity of Indigenous culture might promote acceptance and understanding which then promotes learning. “From before birth children are connected to family, community, culture and place. Their earliest development and learning takes place through these relationships. As children participate in everyday life, they develop interests and construct their identities” (DEEWR, 2009, p. 7).  The deep embededness that Indigenous children experience in their community and consequent learnings they experience is reflective of socio-cultural theories.  “Belonging, being and becoming are not new concepts to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.  They are the essence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identities” (DEEWR, 2010, p. 22).  Educators need to respect these cultures, languages and abilities by referencing education theorists, such as Dewey, who believed education was a dynamic process, Vygotsky, who argued that development occurred both biologically and within a socio-historical and cultural framework (Fleer, 2010), and more recent, but congruent theories of Rogoff (Fleer, 2005, 2010, Miller and Pound, 2011) and Hedegaard. “Both Vygotsky and Hedegaard, have conceptualised development not as a process within the child, but rather as taking place as children participate in practices within their own cultural community” (Fleer, 2010, p. 190).

The linear development model of earlier theorists created expectations that were normed against the European and Northern American contexts at the time. “The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that all children have the right to an education that lays a foundation for the rest of their lives, maximises their ability, and respects their family, cultural and other identities and languages (DEEWR, 2009, p. 5). The Early Years Learning Framework for early childhood educators, predicated upon this convention, guides educators to design curricula that recognise all children’s experiences, allow for diverse methods of demonstrating and assessing skills and knowledge, and that ensure equitable access to learning opportunities. Indigenous education would be more comfortable sitting with theories informed by the significance of social orientation and whole environment influences, such as Bronfenbrenner and Vygotsky. Contemporary educators may effectively achieve equitable curricula when sociocultural approaches inform practices.

As recently as 2003 the Australian Government National Agenda for Early Childhood espoused developmentally appropriate practices as the best method of achieving education outcomes (Fleer, 2010, p. 4).  In 2010 “the Council of Australian Governments (made a commitment) to closing the gap in educational achievements between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians within a decade” (DEEWR, 2010, p. 3).  This requires a new worldview for early childhood education in Australia. Where many educators developed their teaching and learning around developmentally appropriate practices, individually and stage oriented, shifts in knowledge and understandings will be required to improve the quality of Indigenous early education.  The Early Years Learning Framework provides an opportunity for educators to work towards change, with the expectation that current thinking and culturally appropriate practices will be absorbed by educators.  Teachers’ personal and professional pedagogy will ultimately inform and guide practical theories and outcomes. Developing a practical framework supports “the ability of teachers to examine their own concepts, theories and beliefs about teaching, learning and subject matter, and the ability to monitor their decisions about what and how they teach” (Posner, 1996, p. 24). Teacher educators working collaboratively with novice teachers to develop pedagogy that meets the expectations of the EYLF is one step towards flexible, responsive education.

The Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) provides the guidelines for improving the quality of early education throughout all Australian contexts.  A question remains around the word “quality”.  What does “quality” mean?  Almost universally educators of young children would aspire to the achievement of quality, however “as soon as we begin to define it more tightly, our consensus begins to disappear” (Bertram & Pascal, 1995, p. 53).  Some feel high-quality programs are reliant on well-trained staff members (Decker and Decker, 2001), however longstanding problems with training and retaining staff in early childhood threaten the development of connections and cultural competency within services. Advocacy has improved the profile of early childhood education and care, and new ratios have been introduced, however one needs to ask whether quantity of staff has been equated with the quality interactions all children deserve.  Increased remuneration and retention of staff, combined with effective holistic up skilling may increase the cultural competency of workers. Of concern, as I visited services as a workplace assessor is that services which have become used to the accreditation and licensing processes of the recent past continue to be occupied predominantly with compliance in the newer National Quality Framework system. Areas where services feel they do not comply are “treated” with in-services to solve that problem, creating a learning culture that is focused on attaining a goal instead of gathering the learnings along the journey.  Little time and space is created for reflection under these circumstances. As evidenced by satisfactory ratings achieved through the National Quality Framework assessment processes, culturally responsive services may still describe tokenistic experiences, the provision of equal resources for all children, vague goals and generalisations when asked to define this.

The EYLF for Australia (DEEWR, 2009 in Sims, 2011) “defines cultural competency as involving skills for living within Indigenous communities, knowledge of culture, history and contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies and a willingness to explore difference”.  Achieving this in the future will entail authentic respect for Indigenous cultures, effective communications which all parties are comfortable with, a strengths focused attitude towards Indigenous children as equal members of society, an understanding of the relevance of beliefs, such as interdependence, child-rearing practices, lifestyle, and close and constant involvement of the extended family in the education of young Indigenous children. 

Ultimately, the “responsibility for improving educational outcomes must be a shared one.  That can happen when Indigenous families become more familiar with, confident about and engaged in the work of early childhood education settings – and when, in turn, the educators in these settings become more knowledgeable about, engaged with and respectful of the backgrounds, lives and aspirations of their Indigenous families” (Commonwealth of Australia, 2013b). Educators will need to provide community members with opportunities to talk about their aspirations and expectations.  Indigenous families could be asked what forms the gatherings might take.  Diverse opportunities for family participation can start the slow process of partnering with families, which is essential to good early childhood practices. 

Knowledge and understanding of diverse values and true acceptance requires educators to challenge perceived barriers to cultural competency (Driscoll & Nagel, 1999, p. 200).  Indigenous children and families arrive at early learning settings with experiences, values and socialisation as valuable as any which teachers from different backgrounds may value.  Non-indigenous educators may struggle with different beliefs around child rearing and the role of parents in education.  Some may not have grown up with Indigenous communities and ignorance may cause fear.  The lack of Indigenous workforce in early childhood education quite innocently leaves non-Indigenous workers comfortably educating within their own belief systems. 

“Only by understanding and constantly monitoring their own behaviour can teachers have any chance of engaging effectively” (Briggs & Potter, 1999, p. 257) and herein lies a challenge. The federal government has committed to improving outcomes for Indigenous children and has validated the significance of early childhood education on long-term outcomes through research and the subsequent production of legislation and guiding documents.  The reality exists that educators require professional development and support to both “acknowledge that each family is affected by the community contexts in which they engage and to base [their] work on contemporary perspectives on research, theory, content, knowledge, high-quality early childhood practices and [their] understanding so the children and families with whom [they] work” (Early Childhood Australia Inc., 2007, 11.8 and vii.i), are served. Discussions with colleagues and early childhood educators has led me to think that dynamic approaches to quality, which involve a non-judgmental learning community, support from advisors and perhaps a change of mindset will foster the development of quality education for Indigenous Australians in early learning settings.  Cultural competence is fostered through understanding that quality will look different in different contexts and “must facilitate and encourage the expression of the values, preferences and opinions of all those who play a part in the life of the setting” (Bertram and Pascal, 1995, p. 53).

Although the Commonwealth of Australia (2013a) concluded there were no racially or culturally based learning styles, given my own experiences as a teacher and learner I wondered if this was a way of assimilating all learners into the dominant learning and assessment methods.  If learning styles are not focused on in the classroom, under the assumption that everybody learns in their own way, are educators including the techniques used by Indigenous families to educate young children?  Using as many techniques as possible must include the techniques that benefit Indigenous learners. 

As they arrive to a service already socialised into a learning culture, if this culture (which values different methods of learning, but which aspires to the same educational outcomes as non-Indigenous cultures) is not evident at the educational setting could this account for “Indigenous people [being] less likely to participate in preschool education and show[ing] significantly lower rates of literacy and numeracy skill development before leaving primary school?” (Press & Hayes, 2000, p. 13). 

Children are exposed to Western systems of assessment that are “less likely to examine what children do when supported by others” (Anning et al., 2009, p. 131) and might not demonstrate the strengths that Indigenous pre-schoolers possess.  Thoughtful planning might see these strengths demonstrated during experiences chosen to mimic Indigenous daily activities, which involve interdependency and relationships with others.  Rogoff (2003, in Anning et al., p. 95) argues that:

when both systems of education are compared, we can see that within Indigenous culture, learning is built on collaboration in on-going activities, and the purpose of the daily activities and reasons for learning are obvious to the children. Rather than step-by-step increments that do not require children to understand the purpose of the learning experiences, children contribute to real-life family activities where the purpose and the significance of such activities are clearly understood. Essentially, the children are not being prepared to participate in their communities at a later date:  instead they learn while they are participating in and contributing to their families and communities.

Western educators may expect Indigenous families to organise themselves around the educational context, which promotes independence and timetabling.  A learning style (technique) which allows a child free movement, decision making at a very young age, learning by observing and participation surrounded by family, would disadvantage children in a classroom of individuality, competition and learning that appears disconnected from community. From this perspective, using the family-focused ecological approach, Rogoff’s ideas of shared understandings and Vygotsky’s theory that development takes place as a child participates in their community, would enhance the possibilities for positive participation of Indigenous preschoolers.  Thinking of the family as an institution with its own values, beliefs, practices and learning styles, fits with socio-cultural theory.  Development occurs within a group, with Indigenous children seeing themselves as part of this collective.  A developmental view of early childhood development requires updating to include “reaching out to the external world” (Fleer, 2005, p. 41).

Identifying individual strengths and interests, and the government’s willingness to separate Indigenous communities into “child” had the author thinking about colonialism and how this is reflected at all levels in Australia.  It is tempting to think all are equal and all should be treated the same as far as educating young children is concerned.  The author agrees with MacNaughton and Davis (2009) that educators should reflect on their own identities and decide how these are positioned within early education settings.  Some will find white identity to be quite central, whereas ideally, it should be valued as one among many diverse cultures. 

In order for educative work to explore cultural diversity and “race” and construct relationships with children, families and colleagues that are equitable and socially just, educators, especially white educators, must work to see their own cultural identities as being part of a culturally diverse mix.  In this, white educators must see the object for foci and analysis not in the exotic “other”, but instead work to locate their own white cultural identities, recognise their identities as “race” and see themselves as intimately connected with issues surrounding “race” (MacNaughton & Davis, 2009, p. 114). 

This confronting exercise can see educators move the problem of early Indigenous education participation away from the family and onto the theories and practices used in the early education setting.  “Recognising the unique position of Indigenous Australians and the impact of colonization, exploitation and generations of disadvantage is essential in thinking through service delivery in Indigenous communities and with Indigenous families” (Sims, 2011, p. 8).  The responsibility is a shared one with collaborative relationships at the core.  I believe it is imperative that educators should concern themselves with building these connections which will serve to show educators the child’s (and family’s and community’s) strengths which might not otherwise be demonstrated.

Educators must also become cognisant of beliefs being passed onto non-Indigenous children. “MacNaughton (2005) points out that young Australian children recognise skin colour and use this recognition in making decisions around self-worth and the worth of others… [She] found that Anglo-Saxon preschool children employed colonial understandings of Aboriginal people as “the other” (MacNaughton & Davis, 2009, pp. 143-4).  Educators must become aware of how Aboriginality is represented to children.  Does the exotic, dark-skinned distant representation exist?  Are didgeridoos, face painting and bush tucker experiences children link with Indigenous culture?  Importantly, the contemporary aboriginal culture should be represented to avoid Indigenous children feeling marginalised.  What is their identity if they are pale skinned?  Both white and Indigenous children operate within a paradigm that places power with white skin, going so far as to judge their own family in racist ways because they are not white (MacNaughton & Davis, 2009).  Low participation in early childhood education amongst Indigenous families may reflect the continuing representations in society that white equals power.  Early childhood educators can challenge this racism by challenging the perceptions of Indigenous Australians.  A young child can be racially aware, as MacNaughton found.

Actively building post-colonial knowledge through speaking of the impact of colonisation, revealing similarities and shared understanding between Australians, allowing the Aboriginal voice to define their own identity and be represented in the education setting as they prefer and supporting young children in dealing with exclusion and the development of identity will begin the process of being a culturally strong early childhood education service.  Reflecting on interactions to ensure stereotypes are not being reinforced, or that post-colonial rhetoric is being used is important.  “Educators should be aware of the power relations between dominant and ‘minority’ languages and cultures, be alert to any incidents of negative attitudes, disrespect or discriminatory behaviour within the setting and respond in ways that indicate that these attitudes and behaviours are unacceptable”  (Arthur, Beecher, Death, Dockett & Farmer, 2012, p. 45).  Observing, listening and actively educating will require professional reflection and possibly professional development.

To support the home environment, possibly requires deeper understandings of culture and heritage than those gathered at entry-level qualifications.  Teaching and assessing in the vocational education system, including following students through to higher qualifications, has caused the author to note a significant difference in reflection and professional practice amongst educators, with those with higher qualifications being more aware of contemporary thinking.  “Elders and other respected members of the community are central to teaching children the importance of maintaining relationships and the role of social behaviour” (Guilfoyle et al., 2010, p. 70). Other educators’ willingness to include community members in programmes will foster self-identity for Indigenous children and foster greater understanding for non-Indigenous children.  Visiting the Elders in the community context or even where the Elders choose (if this is not the education institution) might enhance this learning.

The EYLF is a guide, or check system for educators.  Within this framework there is room to use whichever approach is considered applicable to the context.  Of interest, due to the related issues faced by New Zealanders, is the Te Whāriki curriculum, and how some of the components might be used to strengthen relationships with Indigenous communities in Australia.  A significant strength of Te Whāriki is the “repositioning of the teacher as facilitator of learning within the socio-cultural context” (Ritchie, 2010, p. 2). This positioning has been grounded in the Indigenous Maori culture and could be extrapolated to the Indigenous Australian early childhood context. 

At its outset Te Whāriki was seen as innovative, following socio-cultural theories such as those of Barbara Rogoff (Ritchie, 2010) to ensure the cultural deficit theories that had not served Maori were replaced with a philosophy that actively sought Maori contributions, promoting the development of strong identities amongst Maori children.  Te Whāriki “focused on protecting diversity, involving families, connecting people of different cultures, play and the natural environment, an inclusive curriculum and commitment to a bicultural society” (Miller & Pound, 2011, p. 141) - all relevant to the Indigenous Australian community and their early education practices.

Believing children to be competent co-constructors of learning could be of value for all cultures attending a service and is a core component of the Early Years Learning Framework. Socio-cultural theories however much researched and recommended, need to be understood and applied broadly, deeply and reflectively to be of benefit when working with Indigenous families.  Exposure to various approaches during training and afterwards, with an understanding that many theories and practices can be followed while also following the EYLF could enhance outcomes.

Initial training and subsequent professional development might include divergent approaches to programming that can then be tailored to each context.  Educators should feel empowered, through knowledge, to make decisions regarding appropriate curriculum in a given context, with the follow-on effects of empowering the communities in which they work.  This is of particular significance when the power relationships have been in place for a long time, yet mostly invisible to the dominant race, such as in early childhood education settings.  Unless training on socio-cultural theories is provided to existing workers, particularly Diploma qualified workers, change will be difficult.  Many teachers ask, “Why are we not moving forward?” One answer might be that the grounding required to implement the National Quality Framework via socio-cultural theories, with particular emphasis on redressing Indigenous early education issues, is not happening widely enough.  This was a concern when Te Whāriki was introduced - although a socio-cultural curriculum was provided, educators’ “initial commitment to delivering culturally responsive practice [required] ongoing professional learning” (Ritchie, 2010, p. 3), including centre management arrangement of workshops and professional development opportunities. In time, Te Whāriki practitioners “were implementing programmes that were steeped in cultural inclusiveness.  This inclusiveness extended beyond token attempts to include Maori language to a much wider arena, or way of being.  This way of being genuinely enacted the Te Whāriki principles of empowerment, holism, families and communities and relationships” (Ritchie, 2010, p. 5). Strategies for developing these characteristics in Australian contexts are available - opportunities for professional development and collaboration with Indigenous communities could develop relationships and understandings which ultimately result in the best early education for children.



The social situation of development in contemporary, predominantly socio-cultural theories or their variants, such as those of Dewey, Vygotsky, Rogoff and the Te Whāriki approach used in New Zealand, were introduced as significant in the application of holistic programming in early childhood education.  Specifically, the similarities between these approaches and the educational value systems of Indigenous Australian communities, provides educators with research and contemporary thinking which supports the goal of higher participation rates by Indigenous Australian children in early education settings.

Many differences in education values were examined, however, the future directions are positive and able to be enacted with direct support from the Early Years Learning Framework documents.  The holistic framework of EYLF when applied by early childhood educators who have reflected upon cultural competence, and who are working towards culturally strong programs, incorporates the values held by Indigenous communities of mind, body and spirit and respects their interconnectedness with each other and with learning outcomes. 

The confronting issue of colonisation was shown to have an impact on participation levels of Indigenous families and is deserving of significant space and time for reflection around Western education institutions and what they represent and value.  Professional and critical reflection by early childhood educators is seen as important before the process of advocating for change can continue.

Some future strategies for enhancing early childhood educators’ engagement with Indigenous Australians include challenging stereotypes, collaborating broadly, including whole Indigenous communities in early education and improving knowledge, skills and attitude.  Cultural competency, as described in the EYLF and expanded upon by current thinking and learning, predominates as a professional skill required in educating young Indigenous children and communities.



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About the Author

Elizabeth Corridore has worked in the early childhood education sector for many years. Experiences in kindergartens, long day care services and out of school hours programmes have informed the course of her interests and therefore further study areas. Equity in education is a firmly held value, resulting in a personal and professional desire to share and create knowledge around this topic with others. Currently teaching in the Vocational Education sector, delivering courses in early childhood education and care, Elizabeth continues to reflect upon and research equity issues and the significance of these to early childhood education outcomes.



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