What does it mean to be culturally competent?


Photos_headshot1_editedThis week on We Hear You, Rhonda Livingstone, ACECQA’s National Education Leader, writes about cultural competence. 

Cultural competence is about our will and actions to build understanding between people, to be respectful and open to different cultural perspectives, strengthen cultural security and work towards equality in opportunity. Relationship building is fundamental to cultural competence and is based on the foundations of understanding each other’s expectations and attitudes, and subsequently building on the strength of each other’s knowledge, using a wide range of community members and resources to build on their understandings.[1]

We have known for a long time about the importance of respecting diversity and embedding a range of cultures in early childhood education and care programs.  However the term, cultural competence, is relatively new to many working in the education and care sector, having been introduced in the Early Years Learning Framework for Australia and the Framework for School Age Care.

Over the past two or three decades we have endeavoured to challenge and address injustice, racism, exclusion and inequity through legislation, awareness raising, rights education and an anti-bias curriculum. Cultural competence reinforces and builds on this work.

So what does cultural competence mean and why is it so important for children to have their culture and cultural backgrounds acknowledged, respected and valued?

Underlying cultural competence are the principles of trust, respect for diversity, equity, fairness, and social justice… Culture is the fundamental building block of identity and the development of a strong cultural identity is essential to children’s healthy sense of who they are and where they belong.[2]

It is more than being respectful of the cultures represented in the service or even the community. It is much more than awareness of cultural differences, more than knowledge of the customs and values of those different to our own.

Cultural competence is the ability to understand, communicate with and effectively interact with people across cultures. Cultural competence encompasses:

  • being aware of one’s own world view
  • developing positive attitudes towards cultural differences
  • gaining knowledge of different cultural practices and world views
  • developing skills for communication and interaction across cultures.[3]

Supporting this view, the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC) identifies that cultural proficiency “requires more than becoming culturally aware or practising tolerance”. Rather, it is the ability to “identify and challenge one’s own cultural assumptions, values and beliefs, and to make a commitment to communicating at the cultural interface”.[4]

Links with the Learning Frameworks

Cultural competence is a key practice in the learning frameworks, and the notion of cultural competence is embedded throughout. For example, principles within the learning frameworks relevant to cultural competence include fostering secure, respectful and reciprocal relationships, partnerships, high expectations and equity and respect for diversity.

Issues of respecting and valuing diversity and culture are embedded in the Being, Belonging, Becoming themes of the Early Years Learning Framework. This framework acknowledges there are many ways of living, being and of knowing. Children are born belonging to a culture, which is not only influenced by traditional practices, heritage and ancestral knowledge, but also by the experiences, values and beliefs of individual families and communities. Respecting diversity means, within the curriculum, valuing and reflecting the practices, values and beliefs of families.

There are links to cultural competence in Learning Outcome 2 – Children are connected with and contribute to their world, including:

  • children develop a sense of belonging to groups and communities and  an understanding of the reciprocal rights and responsibilities necessary for active community participation
  • children respond to diversity with respect
  • children become aware of fairness
  • children become socially responsible and show respect for the environment.

It is also important to remember that a guiding principle of the Education and Care Services National Law is that Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are valued.

What does cultural competence look like in practice?

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. Educators also seek to promote children’s cultural competence.

In practical terms, it is a never ending journey involving critical reflection, of learning to understand how people perceive the world and participating in different systems of shared knowledge.

Cultural competence is not static, and our level of cultural competence changes in response to new situations, experiences and relationships. The three elements of cultural competence are:

  • attitudes
  • skills
  • knowledge

These are important at three levels:

  1. individual level – the knowledge, skills, values, attitudes and behaviours of individuals
  2. service level – management and operational frameworks and practices, expectations, including policies, procedures, vision statements and the voices of children, families and community
  3. the broader system level – how services relate to and respect the rest of the community, agencies, Elders, local community protocols.

While there is no checklist to tick off to identify culturally competent educators, we can start to build a picture of the attitudes, skills and knowledge required. For example, educators who respect diversity and are culturally competent:

  • have an understanding of, and honour, the histories, cultures, languages, traditions, child rearing practices
  • value children’s different capacities and abilities
  • respect differences in families’ home lives
  • recognise that diversity contributes to the richness of our society and provides a valid evidence base about ways of knowing
  • demonstrate an ongoing commitment to developing their own cultural competence in a two-way process with families and communities
  • promote greater understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of knowing and being
  • teach, role-model and encourage cultural competence in children, recognising that this is crucial to ensuring children have a sense of strong cultural identity and belonging
  • engage in ongoing reflection relating to their cultural competence and how they build children’s cultural competence.

Ongoing reflection essential for the learning journey

A learning journey of cultural competence occurs when ongoing reflection and environmental feedback involves and supports educators to move along their culturally competent learning journey. The following diagram from the Educators’ Guide to the Early Years Learning Framework (p26) is a useful tool to share with teams, to discuss and to identify how individuals are progressing on their learning journey.


There are also many reflective questions in the Guide and Learning Frameworks to provoke discussion and reflection. For example:

  • Who is advantaged when I work in this way? Who is disadvantaged?
  • What does cultural competence mean in your practice, for children, family, community and educators?
  • What do you know about the language/s that the children bring with them?

And the case study[5] of a project undertaken by educators to develop processes that value and use the expertise of Aboriginal people in local communities may offer some suggestions for starting similar projects.


[1]Educators’ Guide to the Early Years Learning Framework p21 Educators’ Guide to the Framework for School Age Care, p57

[2]Educators’ Guide to the Early Years Learning Framework p23

[3]Framework for School Age Care in Australia p15 Early Years Learning Framework p16

[4]SNAICC 2012 Consultation Overview on Cultural Competence in Early Childhood Education and Care Services

[5] Early Years Learning Framework in Action p 27

2 thoughts on “What does it mean to be culturally competent?”

  1. Interesting article, just attended a conference where this was highlighted in Ireland, and learnt about the UNICEF site which has lots of useful ideas linked to the framework as well that teachers could read.

    1. Would you like to share this specific UNICEF site with me, I’m studying Early Childhood Education & Care?

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