Technical Report #14

by Tess Bennett,Janet Eatman, Georgia Earnest Garcia, James Halle, Jeanette McCollum, Micki Ostrosky, Laura Hojnar Tarnow, Ruth Watkins, Tweety Yates, and Chun Zhang

Cross-Cultural Considerations in Early Childhood Special Education

Table of Contents

Introduction: Considering Culture

Section 1: Cultural Definitions and Issues
Georgia Earnest Garcia

Defining Culture

Cultural Constructs, Characteristics, and Processes


Section 2: An Introduction to Cross-Cultural Communication
Ruth Watkins and Janet Eatman

Section 2 of this report is unavailable.

Cross-Cultural Communication


Section 3: Multicultural Views of Disability
Tess Bennett, Chun Zhang, and Laura Hojnar Tarnow

Meaning of Disability

Beliefs about Health and Healing

Expectations of Child’s Social Roles


Section 4: Cross-Cultural Conceptions of Child-Rearing: Implications for Reviewing/Evaluating Intervention Practices
Jeanette McCollum, Tweety Yates, Micki Ostrosky, and James Halle

Key Understandings


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Considering Culture

The United States is one of the most culturally, ethnically, racially, and linguistically diverse countries in the world (US Census Bureau, 1999). Currently, in urban environments and in some states such as California, children and families once designated as "minority" are now considered the "majority" (Garcia & McLaughlin, 1995; Lynch & Hanson, 1998). Demographic researchers project that by the year 2080, the majority of individuals residing in the United States will be from populations previously described as "minority," with Hispanics/Latinos comprising the largest cohort (Bacharach, 1990).

Today's professionals are likely to work with many families whose beliefs, values, customs, language, behaviors, and attitudes are different from their own (Hanson & Lynch, 1998; Hains, Lynch, & Winton, 2000). As a result, service providers' beliefs or values regarding child rearing, early intervention, parental advocacy, communication, and everyday activities related to feeding, sleeping arrangements, toileting and play may differ from those of some of the families they serve (Gonzalez-Mena, 1997). The extent of these differences may jeopardize even the establishment of a relationship between service systems and families. Service providers often will recognize these differences as legitimate only when they can identify and understand their own assumptions and practices (Barrera, 2000).

Craig, Hull, Haggart, and Perez-Selles (2000) wrote that many practitioners tend to be well-meaning yet uninformed when working with children and families whose backgrounds are different from their own. "These professionals are unable to see the ways in which their unconscious cultural perspectives shape and shade their own view of the teaching/learning process" (p. 7). Researchers have emphasized the need for us to gain an understanding of our own culture and to acknowledge the cultural framework or lens through which we view the world (Barrera, 2000; Gonzalez-Mena, 1997; Hains, Lynch & Winton, 2000; Kalyanpur & Harry, 1999; Lynch & Hanson, 1998). Understanding our own cultural lens will help us become more aware of the impact of our interactions with children, families and communities.

From 1996-2001, the OSEP-funded Early Childhood Research Institute on Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services (CLAS), which is a multi-university, multi-organization collaborative effort to enhance and improve services for young children with disabilities and their families from diverse backgrounds, has worked to support practitioners in increasing their understanding and awareness of the impact of culture and language in their interactions with children and families. The universities and organizations that make up the CLAS Institute include the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, California State University in Northridge and San Diego State University, The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education, and ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education (ERIC-EECE). The goals of the CLAS Institute are to identify, evaluate and promote materials and practices that are effective, appropriate and sensitive to diverse children with disabilities and families. CLAS has identified and reviewed practices and materials that address four major themes: Child Find and Child Assessment, Child Instruction, Family Services and Personnel Training.

This technical report presents four articles outlining some of the key concepts and underpinnings of the CLAS Institute. Chapter 1 provides a working definition of culture and identifies some cultural issues that have influenced the work of the CLAS Institute. Some of the issues that are explored include moving from an etic to an emic perspective, knowledge acquisition, and cultural constructs, characteristics and processes. The implications for early childhood practitioners are also discussed.

Chapter 2 provides an overview to the issues of cross-cultural communication. Key concepts are provided, as the authors identify several critical issues, including sources of misunderstanding in cross-cultural communication. The chapter examines differences in communication across individualistic and collectivist and high- and low-context cultures. Strategies for enhancing communication between service providers and families are provided.

In Chapter 3 a discussion is provided about beliefs about disability, beliefs about health and healing, and expectations of the child's social roles. While a number of factors impact a family's decision to access early intervention services, cultural beliefs about the cause of the disability and the expected development of the child have a significant influence on this decision. A number of cultural beliefs are explored to provide insight into the continuum of practices and values early childhood practitioners are likely to encounter.

Finally, Chapter 4 presents some understandings highlighting relationships between cultural context and parenting. Key understandings of the role of child rearing as a part of the larger cultural system are explored. Sample applications of the issues that presented are offered to assist practitioners in operationalizing the ideas discussed in this chapter.

The work of the CLAS Institute has been developmental. The project staff and collaborators have grown together on this life-long journey toward cultural awareness and cultural competence. The information presented in this report is intended to provide a part of our journey, as we work to understand the interplay between culture, language, and early intervention services. It is hoped that this report, along with the other Technical Reports in this series, will help form the basis for greater sensitivity to families among professionals.


Bacharach, S. (1990). Education reform: Making sense of it all. NY: Medina.

Barrera, I. (2000). Honoring differences: Essential features of appropriate ECSE services for young children from diverse sociocultural environments. Young Exceptional Chilren, 3 (4), pp. 17-24.

Craig, S., Hull, K., Haggart, A. G., and Perez-Selles, M. (2000). Promoting cultural competence through teacher assistance teams. Teaching Exceptional Children 32(3), pp. 6-12.

Garcia, E. E., & McLaughlin, B., (1995). Yearbook in early childhood education: (Vol. 6): Meeting the needs of linguistic and cultural diversity in early childhood education. New York: Teacher's College Press.

Gonzalez-Mena, J. (1997). Multicultural issues in child care (2nd ed.). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing.

Hains, A. H., Lynch, E. W., & Winton, P. J. (2000). Moving towards cross-cultural competence in lifelong personnel development: A review of the literature (Tech. Rep. No. 3). Champaign, IL: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Early Childhood Research Institute on Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services.

Kalyanpur, M., & Harry, B. (1999). Culture in special education: Building reciprocal family-professional relationships. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

Lynch, E. W. & Hanson, J. (1998). Developing cross-cultural competence: A guide for working with young children and their families (2nd Edition). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

U.S. Census Bureau. (1999). Current Population Survey. Washington, DC: Author.[on-line]. Available URL:

Chapter 1
Cultural Definitions and Issues

Georgia Earnest García

There are many definitions of culture that have influenced the work of the CLAS Institute specifically, in addition to the early childhood field in general. Trueba, Jacobs, and Kirton (1990) point out that the study of culture has become more complex as scholars have moved from describing cultures distinct from their own to working with groups of people from diverse backgrounds within their own culture. Scholars outside the specific domain of anthropology have embraced the concept of culture, and new methodological approaches for studying culture have been developed. A review of cultural definitions is somewhat cursory and introductory. Students of culture continue to grapple with definitions of culture. In fact, it is not unusual for them to write entire books or treatises on the concept of culture. In this section, a range of definitions is provided that supported the work of the CLAS Institute. For each set or category of definitions, a short section is provided that delineates some of the implications for early childhood programs.

Etic and Emic Concerns

Goodenough (1981) explains that the term culture originally came from the German word "Kulture." During the nineteenth century, "Kulture" reflected the "customs, beliefs, and arts" of the better educated classes of Europe. Societies were judged and ranked according to how close their customs, beliefs, and arts approximated those of educated Europeans. Then, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, many anthropologists adopted Tylor's (1903, p. 1) definition of culture as "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society" (as cited in Goodenough, p. 48). Although anthropologists began to view each society as having its own unique culture, many of them still focused on the exotic and described cultural characteristics of another population from an "etic" or outsider perspective. Few of them took into account their own cultural biases. According to Goodenough, many of them uncritically equated "one language, one culture, one people" (p. 3).

In 1964, Frake warned that anthropologists needed to go beyond merely describing cultural behavior, as reflected in Tylor's definition, to interpreting cultural appropriateness by specifying "the conditions under which it is culturally appropriate to anticipate that he [the observed], or persons occupying his role, will render an equivalent performance" (as cited in Trueba, et al., 1990, p. 112). Goodenough's (1981) work broadened the concept of culture to include norms that guided the behavior and thinking of members of the same culture. Goodenough conceded that it might not be possible to predict a specific individual's behavior within a culture, but he argued that it should be possible to predict the "standards" or norms that guided the individual's behavior and thinking. According to Goodenough (1963, p. 259),
Culture, then, consists of standards for deciding what is, standards for deciding what can be, standards for deciding how one feels about it, standards for deciding what to do about it, and standards for deciding how to go about doing it (as cited in Goodenough, 1981, p. 62).

The emphases on cultural appropriateness and norms eventually led to the advancement of the "insider's" perspective or the "emic" perspective - what the Spindlers (1987) called "the view of and the knowledge of the native" (p. 70). Prior to this time, anthropologists frequently used an etic or outsider's perspective to categorize and compare cultures (see Goodenough, 1981).

Although the etic perspective is still an important tool in anthropology, its role has changed. The Spindlers explain that, as ethnographers (researchers who are interested in cultural descriptions and interpretations), they begin with the "emic position...and work our way to the etic, interpretive position" (p. 70). They warn that it is the "interpretive product... that usually gets us into trouble with the natives when they read it [the cultural interpretation]" (p. 70).

Implications for early intervention practice. The distinction between an etic perspective and an emic perspective (including Spindler's warning about the former) seems particularly important for the early childhood field. In deciding whether practices are linguistically and culturally appropriate, we need to take an emic perspective. Otherwise, our interpretations will be ethnocentric, similar to those expressed when anthropologists used the "better educated Europeans" as the cultural standard. Jackson's (1993) article on multiple caregiving among African Americans and infant attachment is a good example of how an emic approach can guide research. She defines an emic approach as giving first priority to the identification of behavioral patterns that are normative for the cultural group.

An emic approach means that we will have to rely on individuals with expert knowledge about individual cultures or become experts ourselves. Lynch (1992) provides suggestions for how we can better prepare ourselves to work with children and families from diverse cultural backgrounds (heightening our cultural self-awareness, learning about other cultures by reading and studying, relying on knowledgeable individuals from the respective cultures to serve as our guides or mediators, actively participating in the culture, and learning the language of the culture, p. 39). It is critical that service providers engage in all of these practices.

Looking at what the cultural community considers to be unusual, a delay, a problem, or a disability (i.e., taking an emic perspective) will help us in our assessment and evaluation of culturally appropriate practices. In evaluating the appropriateness of practices, we need to be aware of how the norms that guide the practices, as well as the beliefs that underlie them, might conflict with those of a specific cultural community. Appropriate role differentiations also might affect how families or caregivers are approached and involved.

Goal Orientation

In the 1980s, D'Andrade (1984) focused on understanding cultures as systems or functions of meaning. He proposed four functions of meaning: the representational (representing knowledge and beliefs about the world); the constructive (creating cultural entities, allowing for adaptation, variation, and change); the directive (explaining how socialization results in our responding to needs and obligations); and the evocative (the creation of certain feelings). By viewing culture in this way, he could account for Tylor (1901), Frake (1964), and Goodenough's (1981) definitions, acknowledge that culture is both learned and transmitted, and propose that culture affected individuals' motivational goals and sense of satisfaction or anxiety. D'Andrade argued that "through the process of socialization, individuals come to find achieving culturally prescribed goals and following cultural directives to be motivationally satisfying and to find not achieving such goals or following such directives to be anxiety producing" (p. 98).

Critical theorists, such as Freire and Macedo (1987), also talked about culture and cultural processes in terms of goals and goal fulfillment. However, they focused on how social stratification and class relations resulted in unequal power relationships, and the influences that such relationships had on social groups and individuals' goal definitions.

Implications for early intervention practice. We need to understand to what extent certain practices heighten or reduce cultural groups' anxieties about soliciting, accepting, or rejecting services. Understanding how violations of cultural goals could result in high levels of anxiety would be helpful. Similarly, being aware of cultural groups' views of class relations and power relationships might help us to understand their willingness or reticence to seek out, accept, or continue services. In assessing children and recommending interventions, we need to keep in mind Freire's comment that "only those who have power can generalize and decree their group characteristics as representative of the national culture" (Freire & Macedo, 1987, p. 52).

Culture, Language, and Discourses

Although anthropologists historically have been fascinated with the link between culture and language, it was the work of Dell Hymes (1964) and subsequent sociolinguists that inextricably linked language and culture. Part of the controversy about the language and culture relationship was due to the fact that there are universal features of language that cut across cultures. However, research in the field of ethnography of communication demonstrated that patterns of communicative behavior (both verbal and non-verbal) comprise a key element of culture, at the same time that they are affected by the cultural context and relate to other elements of culture (such as belief systems, values, etc.) (Saville-Troike, 1989). As Wertsch (1987, pp. 20-21) explains, "culture either determines or at least it facilitates a conscious, collective choice of communicative strategies" (as cited in Trueba, et al., 1990, p. 126).

Communicative competence is a key construct for understanding cultural differences in communication strategies. According to Saville-Troike (1989), communicative competence refers to what a cultural participant needs to know both linguistically and in terms of roles and norms to communicate appropriately with other cultural members. Communicative competence extends to both knowledge and expectation of who may or may not speak in certain settings, when to speak and when to remain silent, whom one may speak to, how one may talk to persons of different statuses and roles, what appropriate nonverbal behaviors are in various contexts, what the routines for turn-taking are in conversation, how to ask for and give information, how to request, how to offer or decline assistance or cooperation, how to give commands, how to enforce discipline, and the like - in short, everything involving the use of language and other communicative dimensions in particular social settings (p. 21).

A number of researchers in the U. S. (see García, Pearson, & Jiménez, 1994 for references) have documented cultural differences in communicative practices of specific racial/ethnic groups that conflict with the communicative practices rewarded and expected by teachers. Gee (1990) discusses the link among language, culture, and thought in terms of discourses. He defines discourses as instantiations of specific roles by identifiable groups of people in terms of how they behave, interact, value, think, believe, speak, read, and write. Discourses reflect ideologies, tend to be tacit or taken for granted, and generally imply "what counts as a 'normal' person and the 'right' ways to think, feel, and behave" (p. xx.). In a sense, discourses reflect our membership or identification with a range of cultural subgroups because we all employ a number of discourses. For example, a mainstream educator generally will have a discourse related to the importance of learning and attaining a quality education that will involve specific communication practices and behavior expectations.

Implications for early intervention practice. Cultural differences in communicative strategies and competencies have major implications for how we convey information, assess children's progress, and recommend and implement interventions. If a cultural communicative practice, such as questioning strategies (see Heath, 1982), conflicts with a mainstream practice typically accepted and rewarded by schools and larger society, then we are confronted with a dilemma: Do we work to change the diverse cultural group's practice, violating what is considered to be communicatively competent within that culture, and possibly provoking resistance, an identity crisis, or high anxiety? Or, do we work to change mainstream society's practice, a particularly difficult task given the practice's wide-spread acceptance and presence. Or, do we work to bridge the differences, by helping students from the culture become aware of the mainstream practice, make teachers aware of the conflict, and work with both groups to bridge the differences (see García, 1992)?

Gee's (1990) work suggests that there is a discourse related to early childhood special education that is particular to mainstream interventionists and/or service providers. If so, it is highly likely that aspects of this discourse or the discourse itself will conflict with specific cultural groups' discourses about disability, communicative and cognitive delays, concepts of at-risk, authority, resources and services. It is important to be aware of these potential conflicts, especially as our field highlights our "recommended practices."

Knowledge Acquisition

Socio-cultural and socio-historical perspectives of learning, in which children are viewed as constructing meaning through social interactions, a la Vygotsky, have helped to focus attention on the role of culture in knowledge acquisition (Moll, 1990). According to Wertsch (1990), a socio-cultural perspective focuses on the roles that institutions, cultures, and history play in mental functioning. Tharp and Gallimore's (1988) work on activity settings is particularly useful in understanding how culture and social interaction can affect knowledge acquisition. According to Tharp and Gallimore, how and why children acquire knowledge are influenced by the five W's: who, or the activity participants; what, or how the activity is defined and executed; when, or the appropriate timing of the activity; where, the setting or context of the activity; and why, or the child's motivation for successfully pursuing the activity.

Trueba, et al. (1990) considered "reasoning, drawing inferences, and interpreting meaning" to be related to cultural knowledge and values (p. 112). From schema theory, we know that when individuals have background knowledge of a topic and are able to access this knowledge and integrate it with new related knowledge, they remember more relevant information (old and new) and make more relevant inferences and elaborations than when they do not have the background knowledge.

Implications for early intervention practice. Tharp and Gallimore's (1988) discussion of activity settings and knowledge acquisition have implications for appropriate assessment and intervention contexts and practices. We need to understand to what extent the assessment and intervention contexts and practices are culturally appropriate. Trueba's focus on schema theory reminds us that "new" information may not be well received or accurately received by children, parents or caregivers if they don't already have a culturally appropriate framework for this knowledge. In presenting new information, it probably will be useful to link its introduction to familiar topics or practices.

Culture as Survival

Bullivant (1993) defines culture as how a group survives and adapts to its environment. Culture includes the shared beliefs, symbols, and interpretations that help the culture to make sense out of the world around them. García Coll and her colleagues (1996) propose the concept of adaptive culture to explain how diverse cultures, in response to historical and current demands (such as societal racism, classism, and sexism) develop their own "goals, values, and attitudes that differ from the dominant culture" (p. 1896). Although all children proceed through similar universal cognitive, affective, and social processes, unique ecological circumstances faced by diverse groups in the U. S. will result in developmental adaptations. These adaptations may be necessary for the group's survival and maintenance of self-esteem.

García Coll et al. (1996) warn that it is important to understand the context in which a cultural practice, belief, and/or competency has developed. Culturally and linguistically diverse children in the U. S. face inhibiting and promoting environments (e.g., health care, neighborhoods, schools), which affect the ways in which they develop (cognitively, affectively, and socially). García Coll et al. use African-American and Puerto Rican mainland examples to illustrate the types of survival and face-saving adaptations that can occur.

Implications for early intervention practice. In evaluating practices and assessing children's development, we should not rely on a mainstream model that fails to take into account the ecological circumstances that diverse children and their families face. If we do rely on a European American middle class model, the consequence will be a deficit view of culturally and linguistically diverse children and families, which does not take into account the ways in which such families have adapted to meet the needs of their children. García Coll et al. (1996) also point out that variation within specific cultures also affects the developmental competencies of specific types of children. In evaluating practices, we need to be aware of the different issues García Coll et. al. raise, and how they could affect certain cultural groups.

Cultural Constructs, Characteristics, and Processes

Cultural Constructs

Hernandez (1989) discusses the distinction that anthropologists make between ideal and real culture and implicit and explicit culture. Ideal culture is what people say they believe or how they think they should behave; real culture is what they believe and how they actually behave. Implicit culture includes aspects of culture that frequently are hidden or not easily described or observed, such as values, attitudes, fears, assumptions, and beliefs. Explicit culture includes the more concrete and visible aspects of culture, such as housing, speech, how we dress, how we talk, etc. When service providers rely on cultural experts, they need to make sure that they are aware of how these four constructs are represented in the information or interpretations presented to them.

Cultural Characteristics (Dynamic, Variable, Continuous)

According to Hilda Hernandez (1989), and most other students of culture, culture is not static, but ever-changing and dynamic. Culture is influenced by the individuals who share and transmit it, at the same time that it is affected by their interactions and participation within and outside their cultural groups. García Coll et al.'s (1996) description of adaptive culture illustrates the potential changes and adaptations that can occur in values, attitudes, and beliefs.

Hernandez (1989) and Banks (1997) point out individuals within the United States are affected by the macro-American culture (dominant culture) as well as the micro-culture(s) or individual cultural groups to which they belong. How the macro-culture affects micro-cultures will vary according to the individual group's level of acculturation (contact with the macro-culture) and level and type of assimilation (integration within the macro-culture). Individuals also will vary in how they participate and identify with the macro- and micro-cultures according to their cultural identity and the inhibiting and promoting environmental factors that affect them (see García Coll, et al., 1996).

Hernandez (1989) discusses the continuous nature of culture. Culture is transmitted to children through socialization practices that involve their families, communities, and societal institutions. The invisible and taken-for-granted nature of culture makes it difficult for us to recognize its influence, let alone radically change it. In working with other cultural groups, we need to understand how difficult it is to change some cultural practices and beliefs.

Intra/Intergroup Differences

Numerous researchers point out the importance of recognizing the variation and differences that occur within and between cultural groups. García Coll et al. (1996) identify some of the factors that can differentially affect members of the same cultural group: gender, racial features (including skin color), occupation, education, discrimination, racism, oppression, socio-economic class, social stratification, and segregation. Age also can be a major variant. García Coll et al. explain that young children usually are assigned social status based on their families' status. However, when they become older, they can change their status. Other potential areas of variation include geographic locale, English fluency, bilingual status, religious affiliation, immigration pattern and generation, birth order, cultural identity and level of acculturation. Vega's (1990) literature review on Hispanic families (Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban) showed that family structures (and by implication family roles) varied according to economic marginality, labor market pressures, and physical relocation. In reviewing practices, we need to pay attention to how intragroup differences may affect the generalizability of findings to a cultural group. We also need to recognize that many of the factors affecting variation within groups are applicable to differences between groups.

Differences within "panethnic" categories, such as Latina/Latinos or Hispanics, Asians or Asian Americans, Native Americans, and African Americans are very important to acknowledge. For example, Cuban Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Mexican Americans tend to have different economic and educational backgrounds, levels of acculturation, political concerns and philosophies, employment opportunities, immigration histories, and patterns of entrance into U.S. society (Rumbaut, 1995; Smart & Smart, 1995; Vega, 1990). It is somewhat ironic that Asian groups (Japanese; Chinese - Taiwanese and the People's Republic of China; Korean - North and South; Filipinos; Vietnamese; Cambodian; Hmong, etc.), who have had historical confrontations (such as wars and armed hostilities), and who do not all speak the same language, are often lumped together. To avoid overgeneralizing or stereotyping, it always is best to specify the actual group for which the research has been reported. If research has not been done with a specific group, then we need to state this and question whether the findings can be generalized to the panethnic category. Rumbaut discusses the problems that "one size fits all" panethnic labels create for immigrants who come from various backgrounds. He explains that within these labels, individuals vary according to "national and class origins, phenotypes, languages, cultures, generations, migration histories, and modes of incorporation into the United States" (p. 749).

Just as there is variation within the panethnic categories used in the U. S., there is major variation among them and between them. Ogbu's (1987) cultural ecological theory attempts to explain how cultural groups - voluntary immigrants (e.g., Asians, Europeans) versus involuntary immigrants (e.g., African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and some Mexican-Americans) - have differentially responded to and been affected by U. S. culture. Current immigrant groups also differ from past immigrant groups. According to Rumbaut (1995), "class, not color, shaped the fates of the 'white ethnics' of earlier immigrations - Italians, Poles, Greeks, Russian Jews" (p. 750). Current immigrants include the most educated immigrants in the U. S. (Asian Indians, Taiwanese) and the least educated (Mexicans, Salvadorans), those with the lowest poverty rates in the U. S . (Filipinos) and the highest (Laotians and Cambodians). Fernandez-Kelly and Schauffler (1995) point out Haitians, Vietnamese, Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Mexicans differ not only in their experiences living in the U.S., but also in how they were received when they first arrived in the U. S. Factors that influence these differences include class, geographic destination, spatial concentration, and the length of time that others from their group have resided in the U. S. Although it is not unusual for researchers and educators to talk about the culture of poverty (see García, Pearson, & Jiménez, 1994), and the characteristics that many children in poverty share, it also is important to recognize the differences and adaptive strategies (García Coll, et al., 1996) employed by diverse groups.

Cultural Identity

Gollnick and Chinn (1986) state a person's cultural identity is influenced not only by the different groups to which the individual belongs (e.g., ethnicity and/or racial affiliation, age, gender and/or sexual orientation, religion, language, class, geography, residence, exceptionality) but also by the emphasis that the individual places on participation in the respective groups (in Hernandez, p. 22). So, two individuals who technically participate in the same groups will differ in their identities according to the importance they ascribe to each of the groups. Cultural identity also is affected by acculturation.

Trueba et al. (1990) point out "cultural ascription [or how others view the person's cultural identity] may be in conflict with cultural affiliation (one's own ethnic identity) as internalized by each individual" (p. 14). Inaccurate cultural ascription is particularly problematic when groups with a history of conflict are lumped together. Anxiety and anger are provoked when terms not accepted by the individuals themselves are used to describe them. Rumbaut's (1995) survey of 5,000 U. S.-born and non-U. S.-born adolescent immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean found that the youths varied considerably in how they identified themselves, depending on their cultural group, and whether they were born in the U.S. or abroad.

Interestingly, adolescents of Latin American origin who chose a panethnic category generally preferred Hispanic to Latina/Latino (although a high percentage of Mexican origin students born in the U.S. preferred the more radical and political term Chicana/o). Indochinese youths born outside of the U.S. generally did not choose the panethnic label of Asian American or Asian, preferring to identify themselves according to their national (e.g., Vietnamese) or ethnic (e.g., Hmong) origin.

Acculturation and Assimilation

The terms acculturation and assimilation frequently are used interchangeably in the popular press. However, acculturation refers to the cultural contact that occurs between two cultures, and the cultural modifications that occur as a result of this contact (for a discussion of acculturation and assimilation, see Banks, 1994, 1997; Hernandez, 1989). Assimilation refers to the integration of the less powerful culture into the dominant culture. Complete assimilation occurs when the less dominant culture disappears. Banks (1994) explains that with complete assimilation there is "complete elimination of cultural differences and differentiating group identifications" (p. 118). The separate cultural groups become part of the dominant culture.

Acculturation can be bi-directional. The macro-culture can affect individual micro-cultures, just as individual micro-cultures can affect the macro-culture. An example of the latter would be the integration of "blues" and "jazz" (which have historical African-American roots) into American mainstream music. When levels of acculturation are discussed, the authors usually are referring to the influence of the macro-culture. The reference to high levels of acculturation usually means that there is a high and accepted level of macro-cultural influence. However, acculturation, and even high levels of acculturation, do not mean that the micro-culture has disappeared.

Hernandez (1989) and Banks (1997) discuss two types of assimilation: cultural and structural. Cultural assimilation occurs when individuals from micro-cultures adopt cultural features of mainstream or macro-cultural life (e.g., dress, language or speech, hobbies, religions, values, etc.). Structural assimilation occurs when individuals from micro-cultures fully participate in social, political, and economic institutions of the macro-culture. Cultural assimilation is fairly easy for micro-cultures to attain; structural assimilation is much more difficult and is more often subject to racism, prejudice, and discrimination from the macro-culture. Problems in attaining structural assimilation result in the adaptive cultures discussed by García Coll et al. (1996) and in the power relationships discussed by Freire and Macedo (1987).

Rumbaut (1995) points out how immigrant children from within the same cultural group may follow diverse patterns of assimilation, with some of them directly assimilating into the majority culture, while others participate in downward mobility and assimilate into the inner city underclass. It is important to realize that identity issues and conflicts are resolved differently even within the same family. When children proceed through structural assimilation and intermarriage and are not faced with prejudice and discrimination, then they are more likely to identify with mainstream society than other children. Rumbaut's discussion of ethnic identity implies that immigrant children will have difficulty in adapting to the U.S. macroculture because as they construct their own social identities they must incorporate both the realities of their own cultural identities and those cultural identities imposed on them by mainstream society.

Julie and David Smart (1995) talk about the acculturative stress that is created when individuals are in the process of adapting to a new culture. They point out that newcomers must learn new social customs, a different language, and how to deal with a complex bureaucracy. They posit a psychological definition of acculturation, where "acculturation [is] the process of adapting to the rules and behavioral characteristics of another group of people" (p. 27). Acculturative stress adversely affects physical health and decision-making, limits occupational functioning, facilitates role entrapment and status leveling, helps create ineffective family-professional relations, reflects and contributes to a lack of role models, and may increase when there are minimal rewards for learning English. The amount of acculturative stress that occurs will vary according to the differences that exist between the two cultures.

The Smarts (1995) specifically looked at acculturative stress among the panethnic Hispanic category. They reported that there were major differences in acculturative stress among the different groups that comprise the Hispanic or Latina/Latino category. Nonetheless, they note that almost all Hispanic immigrants have had to cope with a sense of loss because they have left a familiar way of life. Trueba et al. (1990) discuss the acculturative stress of Hmong children.


Most of the manuscripts identified through the ERIC search focused on first and second-generation immigrants; fewer manuscripts focused on cultural groups with a long history of residency in the U.S. (such as African Americans or Native Americans). The authors of the literature reviews reported that considerable research has focused on first-generation adults or parents, but relatively little research has focused on the children of current immigrants. Rumbaut (1995) explained that we know very little about the "subjective experiences" of immigrant children, or how these experiences affect family unity or the self-esteem, psychological well-being, language shift, school and work performance of immigrant children. Vega (1990) argued that more researchers needed to conduct cross-cultural research on the variability in Hispanic family socialization patterns, attitudes, and values. Smart and Smart (1995) noted that we know very little about how individuals cope with acculturative stress. García Coll et al. (1996) proposed an integrative model for the study of developmental competencies in culturally and linguistically diverse children because they were concerned that no such model existed that built on the diversity and strengths of diverse populations. Finally, Trueba et al. (1990) stated that a theory of culture still needed to be developed to explain how cultural values affect the learning process and children's development of cognitive skills. It is clear there currently exists a tremendous need to expand the amount of research conducted with children and families from a variety of cultural and linguistic groups so we can begin to better understand this interchange between culture, learning, and development.


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Chapter III
Multicultural Views of Disability

Tess Bennett, Chun Zhang and Laura Hojnar Tarnow

The complexity of the belief systems and values affecting the perception of disability is central to understanding culturally and linguistically diverse families. These perceptions of disability are an important dimension of the history and tradition of many cultures. They are embedded in the everyday fabric of life and are not likely to change quickly. Perceptions of disability can influence family decisions about child-rearing, utilizing social services, and seeking medical care. These beliefs and perceptions about disability are important for early intervention professionals to understand and to respect. A true understanding of this concept is critical, as are the potential positive outcomes of working more effectively with families utilizing a family-centered philosophy.

The family's perception of disability may influence a family's decision in seeking early intervention services for the child with a disability. Groce and Zola (1993) point out that "many ethnic minority populations do not define or address disability and chronic illness in the same manner as mainstream American culture" (p. 1048). Atkins (1991) indicates that professionals from the European American culture often hold a medicalized view when they interpret disability. Such a view states that disabling conditions, being scientifically determined, exist within the individuals and that disabling conditions should be fixed with some remedy. Harry and Kalyanpur (1994) argue that the notion of disability is a matter of meaning, rather than a fact that can be objectively measured, especially in the case of mild disabilities. They point out that professionals who see disability as a condition inherent in an individual through a medicalized view in which scientific explanations are preferred may come into conflict with families having differing perceptions of disability.

Variations in belief systems exist within and between ethnic groups. Each family has its own distinct beliefs about illness, disability, and health. Generalizations about families cannot be made based on ethnicity, soci0-economic status (SES), religion, education, and geographical location. For example, many second- or third-generation Asian adults may not share beliefs about disability with their parents who hold more traditional beliefs. Culturally diverse families who reside in the community where the majority of the residents are European American families may be more assimilated by the European American culture and health practice. Keeping in mind the individuality of a family as a unit and having specific knowledge of a family's interpretation of disability, health beliefs, and expectations for the child's roles in a society will help professionals anticipate and understand why a family makes certain decisions about the child's early intervention services and health care.

In order to understand a family's perception of disability and the tremendous impact of these beliefs, it is helpful to understand beliefs about the cause of a chronic illness or disability, expectations for survival for the child with a disability, and the social roles that are appropriate for children who are disabled or chronically ill in a given culture (Groce & Zola, 1993). In this chapter, beliefs about disability, beliefs about health and healing, and expectations of the child's social roles will be discussed. Examples of perception of disability from culturally diverse families will be given for better understanding of these families. Guiding questions will be presented for professionals and for reviewing materials on the perception of disability.

Meaning of Disability

The way in which families perceive and interpret disability is of great importance because these perceptions may affect their attitudes toward their children with a disability (Lowenthal, 1996). Hughes (1992) indicates that the effect of the birth of a child with a disability changes family functioning and interaction. The way a child is perceived may depend on the family's traditional values, SES, support and resources. In many cultures, children with disabilities and their families are believed to be cursed by God, and the disability may be considered as a form of punishment for past sins (Lowenthal, 1996). Whether negative or positive, the meaning of disability significantly affects the family's adaptation to raising the child with a disability as well as decision- making in seeking services for the child. Traditional beliefs, spiritual beliefs or rituals, and religion play a very important role in shaping the meaning of disability for the family.

Traditional and Spiritual Beliefs

Traditional beliefs are embedded in each family's daily life. Families may rely on their traditional and spiritual beliefs for the interpretation of disability. Examples of the traditional beliefs about disability from representative families of culturally diverse backgrounds may shed some light on their differing perceptions of disability.

For example, Groce and Zola (1993) indicate that witchcraft is strongly linked to chronic illness and disability in a number of African societies. The individual with chronic illness or disability may be perceived as being witched, and close association with that individual may put others at risk for witchcraft. Similarly, some African Americans might attribute the cause of illness or disability to punishment from God or evil spirits (Willis, 1992).

Chan (1992) wrote that among many Asian ethnic groups, moderate to severe disabilities are traditionally viewed with considerable stigma. Traditional attributions regarding specific disabilities vary from person to person and from group to group. Chan (1992) states that Asian individuals who hold onto traditional beliefs may perceive a disability as evidence for transgressions committed in a previous life. Many families of Asian origin may attribute the child's disability to the moral wrongdoing (e.g., gambling) committed by the child or the child's ancestors in a previous life. The child's disability may be viewed as a form of divine punishment for past sins and moral transgressions. Spiritual explanations of the cause of disability often focus on evil spirits. Evil spirits such as demons or ghosts are believed to be involved in causing the disability. Many mothers of Asian origin may turn to naturalistic or metaphysical attributions. They may blame themselves for causing the child's disability by failing to follow a certain dietary and health care practice during pregnancy, or they may blame themselves for violating certain taboos. Some of these taboos include looking at certain ugly animals, knitting, using scissors, and attending a funeral (Chan, 1992).

Groce and Zola (1993) indicate that many Southeast Asian families may also attribute the cause of a chronic illness and disability to an imbalance of elements or humors in the body. The affected individual is supposed to take responsibility for the disability. The cause and the potential cure lie within the individual, who must try to reestablish equilibrium. D'Avanzo (1992) states that many Southeast Asian individuals may ascribe an infant's abnormalities to the wrong foods or activities or punishment for actions of the mother or the baby in a previous life. They may give up on infants with a severe disability or illness because they believe the child will suffer less in the next reincarnation. However, some cultural explanations of the causes of disability are quite positive. An example is a Hmong family who refused surgery for their son's club foot because the condition was viewed as a blessing for the whole community (Hmong family, 1991, as cited in Harry & Kalyanpur, 1994).

Risser and Mazur (1995) wrote that many families of Hispanic origin believe that the disability may have resulted from divine punishment for a crime committed by the pregnant woman or her family. They may also believe that a pregnant woman can cause permanent damage to her fetus by making fun of someone with a physical defect or by experiencing great emotional distress while pregnant. In addition, rare acts of nature, such as a hurricane or earthquake, are sometimes believed to cause a pregnant woman to have a child with a disability. Evil intentions of others or evil lurking in pregnant women are believed to cause disability in their offspring.

Garret, Michael, Tlanusta, and Myers (as cited in Harry and Kalyanpur, 1994) indicate that many Native Americans believe that life moves in related circles. This constant motion of life should not be disturbed. Each individual serves a purpose in life that is interrelated to every other individual. The belief that all things are alive and have spiritual importance contributes to the balance and harmony of nature. Discord results when one loses sight of one's place in the universe. For this reason, choice is extremely important. Each individual may strive for harmony and try to make the right choices to maintain personal equilibrium and the group's equilibrium with nature (Garret et. al., as cited in Harry & Kalyanpur, 1994). When an individual is born with a disability in a Native American community, there may be a strong belief that the disability was meant to be. Attempts to fix the disabled person may upset the balance, which includes his or her contribution to the group. The individual is not seen as deficient; instead, the individual contributes to the community in his/her own way regardless of disability. Further, if the condition does not seem problematic to the family, it is unlikely that they will respond favorably to the notion of treatment. In other words the family may accept the fact that the child is functioning as well as his/her abilities allow. Many Native Americans accept the fact that each family member will be different to some degree. This is viewed as the natural cycle in which life moves (McCubbin, Thompson, Thompson, McCubbin, and Kaston, 1993).

These examples about the meaning of disability from some culturally diverse families may help early childhood professionals understand families' attitudes toward disability. Professionals should accept and respect instead of judging and criticizing families' traditional beliefs. Religious beliefs may also shape a family's interpretation of disability.


Families' religious beliefs are very important to the interpretations of disability. Some families may believe that the appearance of a child's disability comes from God's will and that raising a child with a disability is a sacred task for the family; whereas, some families may believe that disability is a form of punishment from God. Whatever religious meaning of disability a family may have, these interpretations may affect the family's adaptation to childrearing and family functioning. Examples from some culturally diverse families are presented in the following section to illustrate the impact of religious views.

Dulan and Blacher (1995) indicate that many African Americans believe in God as a supreme being and believe all people are "God's children," including those with disabilities. The disabled are valued members of the family. Belief in a supreme being may provide support for a family raising a child with disability. Family members may think that a supreme being is in control and the family will be helped through suffering and hardships.

Some Hispanic families may have specific ideas of why and how a child obtained a disability. These beliefs may affect the family's understanding of the disability and the resulting treatments. These culturally distinct views of the cause of the disability are usually associated with religious beliefs and superstition. Intense religious faith is also a value of many individuals in Hispanic cultures. The dominant organized religions are Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Seventh Day Adventist, and Jehovah's Witness churches. The Roman Catholic church has been known as the primary religion of many Hispanic cultures. Because of the strong religious beliefs of some Hispanic families, a child with a disability is usually viewed as a child of God. The family may feel they have a religious duty to care for the child with a disability (Heller, Markwardt, Rowitz, & Farber, 1994). Moreover, research has shown an increased level of participation in churches in some Hispanic communities if the family includes a disabled member. The church may serve as an informal support to the family and the individual who is disabled. Faith in a higher power is a commitment in many Hispanic families (Harrison, Wodarski, & Thyer, 1992).

If families believe that disability is a punishment for past wrongs, this belief can be a deterrent to seeking early intervention services for the child with disability. On such occasions, the child may be isolated and hidden and assistance may not be promoted. It is very important for professionals to be aware of the traditional and religious beliefs of the family to determine if the family holds a negative, positive, or a continuum of views of disability. In addition, understanding families' beliefs about health and healing can help professionals identify why the family seeks certain health care and treatments for the child's disability.

Beliefs about Health and Healing

Each family, as a critical social unit, has cultural beliefs and practices regarding health, illness, and disability. Ahmann (1994) explains that the European American culture tends to view illness as foreign and intrusive with the cause being outside of the family (e.g., virus, infection). These families generally see the goal of treatment to be caring for or fixing problems. Other families may view illness or disability as originating from within the family (e.g., past wrongs, moral wrongdoing) and rely on a spiritual cure as one of the treatments. The type of health care and healing families seek may be determined by the degree families believe in folk medicine and treatment, Western medicine and technology, or in a combination of both.

Beliefs about Folk Medicine and Folk Healers

Health beliefs and practices vary considerably within and between cultural groups. Many families, especially those who are recent immigrants or those who are not familiar with the health care system in the United States, may rely on traditional medicine and healing for treatments. Being aware of the differing health beliefs of culturally diverse families may help professionals find a balance between being sensitive to these traditional health practices and using scientific medical judgment about effective treatments (Becerra & Inglehart, 1995). Understanding traditional treatments may help early interventionists and other professionals provide more appropriate treatments and services to children with disabilities and their families.

Willis (1992) wrote that some African American families who live in rural areas may prefer a holistic and natural approach to health. Some African Americans who believe in folk medicine may think that illness is either natural or unnatural. Natural illnesses are caused by nature's forces such as bad weather conditions, bad food, or water. They may use herbs, roots, teas, and foods for preventive and healing practices. Unnatural illnesses could be caused by evil forces such as voodoo and witchcraft. Groce and Zola (1993) indicate that some African American families, especially those strongly affiliated with the church, may hope for a miracle to heal the child. These families may hope that the doctors are wrong and think that God will make the child better. Anderson (1989) indicates that traditional cultural healers may be important to many African American families. Cultural healers may be highly respected for the physical and emotional support they provide to their patients. They may also be an asset to aid the provision of early intervention services.

In many Asian cultures, traditional Chinese medicine has had a significant impact on the health beliefs of individuals from many countries (e.g., Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) (Chan, 1992). Traditional Chinese medicine attributes illness to metaphysical causes. In most Asian cultures, illness and disease are thought to be caused by both internal and external factors (Tom, 1989). The holistic philosophy of Chinese medicine does not separate mental illness from physical illness. Keeping harmony between yin (cold) and yang (hot) forces of the body, mind, and emotions can maintain health (Chan, 1992). Some traditional treatment methods are herbs, self-restraint, meditation, and dermabrasive procedures including rubbing and cupping (McCormack, 1987). Traditional healers may use herbal medicines, acupuncture, and employ rubbing the "sick" area with a coin, or placing small heated cups over the area to draw out the "cold wind." These techniques originate from Chinese medicine which is based on principles of universal balance and harmony between the equal and opposite forces of yin and yang (D'Avanzo, 1992).

Folk medicine may emphasize the supernatural causes of illness and diseases. Many Southeast Asian families may believe that physical, emotional, and mental problems are associated with the loss of souls. Some Laotian and Hmong people believe that disease is caused by the wrath of gods (McCormack, 1987). The treatments are usually performed by or in consultation with a priest, shaman, or spiritual master using methods of soul calling, exorcism, chanting of sacred prayers, and other spiritual healing ceremonies (Kemp, 1985).

Many Hispanic families also hold traditional beliefs about disabilities and illness. These beliefs may play a crucial role in how the family will react to the child's disability. Many Hispanic families may rely on folk remedies to cure problems. These treatments vary greatly among the subcultures. Beliefs about the origin of the disability often influence choices for treatment. For example, if a Hispanic family believes that the child's disability was the result of someone transferring evil onto the child through staring at them with the evil eye, the family may want to use a folk remedy approach that will rid the child of the evil in their body (Groce & Zola, 1993). Some Hispanic families may want to implement a treatment for the child that employs both folk medicine practices and modern day practices (Krajewski-Jaime, 1991).

There are several types of folk remedies that are often highly regarded in the Hispanic community. The family may rely on "curanderos," who are faith healers, to assist and guide them in their decisions regarding the proper treatment (Risser & Mazur, 1995). Folk medicine concepts related to specific conditions, causes for the conditions and specific treatments, foods, medicines and rituals are sometimes used. Folk healers may address particular needs experienced by individuals who are in distress and use unique culturally specific methods to diagnose and treat specific ailments. There are five types of folk healers that exist among the three largest groups of Hispanic origin in the U.S.: Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Mexican Americans. The five types are called the Spiritist, Santero, Herbalist, Santiguador, and Curandero (Harrison, et. al., 1992).

Some Hispanic families may utilize these traditional healers when addressing specific concerns. Some folk medicine concepts include adherence to hot and cold balance, "mal de ojo" (evil eye), "caida de la mollera" (fallen fontanelle), "empacho" (stomach disorder) and "susto" or "ataque" (fright) (Risser & Mazur, 1995). Folk medicine remedies may be the first choice for some families to treat specific problems. Some Hispanic families, particularly those from rural areas, have great respect for faith healers and folk medicine remedies. These families may have used these traditional practices and spiritual rituals for generations.

Many Native American families may rely on their own health practices to assist a member of their community who is ill or disabled. The traditional healing practices that many Native American families follow may have been passed down for centuries. Many Native Americans view medicine as a spiritual rather than a biological concept. The medical practitioner for many Native American groups is called the Shaman or medicine man. The medicine man draws power from the Great Spirit in order to help his fellow man. There are many steps in the healing process, in which three different people will perform. The first person is the healer. He may use herbs and spiritual powers to heal. Next, there is the "tied one" who uses the power of the rawhide and stones in order to find a cure. Finally, there is the "conjurer" or "witch doctor" who may excavate the evil in a person's body. Herbs, ceremonies, sun dances, and sacred pipes are all methods that may be used to help an individual with problems or disability. The healing process is holistic incorporating the mind, body, and spirit (Garret et. al., as cited in Harry & Kalyanpur, 1994). These beliefs about health and healing may directly or indirectly influence a family's decision in seeking treatments for their child.

Western Medicine and Technology

Many families may not agree with the standard European American notion that a disability exists within the individual and that a disability needs to be fixed. The family' s choice for seeking early intervention services and medical treatments for the child with a disability may be strongly determined by families' traditional beliefs about disability and health. In addition, family's SES (e.g., ability to buy health insurance), knowledge about early intervention and medical services, and accessibility of these services may affect a family's decisions.

In some Native American cultures, the individual serves a distinct purpose in nature and contributes to the balance and harmony of life for the tribe. These beliefs of some Native Americans may inhibit the use of modern day western medical practices. First, these beliefs may contradict the philosophy behind western medical practices. Second, many Native Americans may be offended if medical doctors suggest and prescribe treatments that are meant to fix the person with a problem or disability and not acknowledge the potential and positive contributions that the individual may serve. For example, if a doctor recommends corrective surgery for a person with a disability, the family might see that as unnecessary (McCubbin, Thompson, et al., 1993). Sontag and Schacht (1993) report that Native American children in their sample were much less likely to have surgery and special medical care (e.g., genetic counseling, and special equipment and supplies). Some Native Americans may use western medicine only as a second opinion.

Many families may have a combined use of traditional or folk medicine and western medicine. For example, D'Avanzo (1992) indicates that western medicine and Chinese and folk medicine coexist in some cities in Southeast Asia. The poor who live in isolated areas usually turn to traditional methods of health care; whereas, the more affluent may go to western-style hospitals for medication and care. Health care for some families in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam is often crisis-oriented. Some Southeast Asian families may deal with illness by using self-care and self-medication.

Willis (1992) wrote that high technology medical care might be viewed by some less-educated or low-income families as care that is used in traumatic situations. Likewise, less-educated or low-income families of any culture may lack the knowledge how to locate and select family doctors. Sometimes families may be unaware of current health problems such as infant mortality, cancer, and AIDS, which may result in a lack of perception of major threats to their health (Willis, 1992). Due to the increasing number of American families who live in poverty, some families must wait for an illness to occur before seeking medical care (Willis, 1992). The health care system is usually a last resort for many low-income families (McCormack, 1987). Willis (1992) indicates that preventive health visits may not be sought, visits for infants and children may not be frequent, and many parents may not feel motivated to seek services for their children because they may find the eligibility procedures complicated, overwhelming, or offensive.

Professionals should realize that traditional healers are active within many communities. If professionals view traditional health beliefs as a legitimate topic for discussion, it may be beneficial in understanding the child, parents, and the entire family (Chao, 1992). Acknowledging a family's traditional beliefs and health practices should be blended with the standard medical diagnosis of the disability. Professionals need to balance the strengths and weaknesses of both views when working with families. Related to the meaning of disability and traditional health beliefs are the family's expectations for the survival and social participation of the child with a disability (Groce & Zola, 1993). A family's expectations for the child's survival and the child's social role are closely linked to a family's decision in accessing supports and services for the child.

Expectations of Child's Social Roles

Groce and Zola (1993) state that although sophisticated medical technologies in the United States can now ensure the physical survival of many at-risk children, many families may decide not to seek early intervention services for their children with disabilities. Some families may be very protective when taking care of their children; whereas, other families may be hiding their children from the public. Cultural expectations cannot be divided neatly according to specific ethnic groups. The manner in which a family believes their child with chronic illness or disability should be restored to health and their choice about seeking treatments and services may reflect their traditional expectations of the survival of the child with chronic illness or disability and the child's social role in a family and a community.

The Child's Role in the Family

Family attitudes toward the child's disability and expectations for the child's survival and social roles may determine the extent to which the family will invest in terms of time, energy, and resources (Groce & Zola, 1993). For example, if a family has a positive view of the child's disability and expects the child to live a normal life, the family will seek every opportunity and service for the child with a disability. Conversely, if another family holds a fatalistic view of the child's disability and does not expect the child to be an equal and contributing member of the family and community, the child's needs may be neglected. In some cultures a child with a disability, especially a child with a severe disability, is expected to live a dependent life in the family. The family may need to balance the needs of the other children at home when the family has limited resources; therefore, the other needs (e.g., social needs, education needs) of the child with a disability may not be met. In some cultures, a child's gender may also have a great impact on the family's efforts in seeking supports and services for the child. For example, Groce and Zola (1993) state that a Chinese family may go to greater lengths in meeting the needs of a son with a disability than those of a daughter.

The Child's Role in a Community

In many cultures, people with disabilities are not viewed as lesser members of society in their communities. Many Native Americans believe that as long as individuals make contributions to the group, no matter how insignificant, they are valued members of that community (McCubbin et. al., 1993). Anderson (1989) states that in some Hispanic communities, a child with a disability is not considered a burden. There is a strong value that all members are important in the community. Willis (1992) indicates that the attitudes and perceptions of the causation of disability do not have much effect on the interaction with families with children with disabilities in some African American communities. Many African families and communities have lived with and accepted individuals with disabilities for many years.

These examples suggest that the prevalent attitudes toward disability in a community do affect a family's way of life. In some communities where social integration of people with disabilities is encouraged, families may be more directly or indirectly involved in seeking opportunities for their children with disabilities to live a normal life. However, if a community is hesitant to accept people with disabilities as equal members, families may be embarrassed to participate fully in the community. Keeping the child at home and not seen by the public may be a preferable choice for them (Groce & Zola, 1993).

A family's traditional beliefs, beliefs about health and healing, and expectations of their child's social roles are closely related to family decisions in participating in early intervention services, in placing the child in inclusive or segregated settings, and in seeking medical care for their child with a disability. These belief systems of families have serious implications for professionals when they work with families.


This report has discussed the perceptions of disability and views of health and healing of some culturally diverse families. Some of these values and beliefs are quite different from those in the European American culture. Early intervention professionals can improve their practice by developing an understanding of these perceptions in order to form partnerships with families. Because these beliefs and values greatly affect decision-making and childrearing and are certainly important variables in developing the IFSP/IEP for the child, it is crucial that professionals become better informed. The potential for forming full partnerships will be greatly expanded with this knowledge. Families from culturally diverse backgrounds will benefit greatly if professionals demonstrate empathy and understanding of their beliefs about health and perception of disability.

Traditional beliefs are not static. In fact, as Groce and Zola (1993) explain, "Traditional belief systems on disability have at times proved to be quite adaptive, shifting in response to social, economic, and educational experiences gained through the acculturation process" (p. 1054). Professionals do not need to read every book about traditional beliefs of each culture they work with; however, in order for families to be better served by early intervention, professionals need to be aware of and sensitive to belief systems, be they traditional or scientific. Finally, they need to facilitate understanding, respect, and empathy so as to bridge the differences between the families and the service delivery systems.


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Chapter IV
Cross-Cultural Conceptions of Child-Rearing: Implications for Reviewing/Evaluating Intervention Practices

Jeanette McCollum, Tweety Yates, Micki Ostrosky, and James W. Halle

Child rearing practices vary considerably across cultures, as does the more narrowly defined domain of parenting practices: hence, across cultures, children develop in very different ecological contexts. Of importance in a complex or changing society is that variations in these contexts have been linked to the nature of the competencies (e.g., cognitive, social) that children develop. Because child rearing and parenting practices reflect the historical/contextual realities of their specific ecologies, similarities and differences among ethnic/cultural groups raise important issues with regard to how parents, families and communities may view the cultural validity of any particular intervention practice. A clear picture that emerges from cross-cultural studies is that, to be effective, intervention must be based on an understanding of the intervention practice from the perspective of the parent, given his or her own cultural context and history.

Many bodies of literature are relevant here, including those that address specific aspects of parenting (e.g., disciplinary practices, characteristics of parent-child interaction) in relation to specific child outcomes (e.g., social competence, school achievement), as they have been described within and across different cultural groups. In this brief overview of broad principles related to parenting as a cultural context for development, we will focus on broad concepts that will support understanding across a wide range of specific parenting arenas. A major impetus for developing this kind of understanding is to look beyond any particular parenting or child rearing practice toward interpreting the value and significance of the practice within the particular context.

In the next section, a set of key understandings will be presented to summarize general concepts that appear throughout this literature. These concepts depend heavily on research on, or thinking about, cultures outside of the United States and other
Western cultures. The purpose in focusing on what may be less familiar to us is to highlight relationships between cultural context and parenting. No claim is made here that the same relationships found in any one cultural context will be found in another, and in fact, the purpose in this brief paper is to question just such assumptions. Similarly, conceptualizations of any particular parenting styles or child outcomes selected for discussion in this paper will not apply directly or totally to any other particular cultural group, including those within the United States. By analogy, an important learning from this review is that conceptualizations of parenting also can not be assumed to be equally applicable across cultural groups within the U.S. (Coll et al., 1996).

For the purposes of this discussion, culture is defined as a shared approach to life, based on common social norms, beliefs and values that govern the roles, communication patterns, and affective styles of those who identify with the culture (Betancourt & Lopez, 1993); thus, culture may lie within or may cross ethnic or geographic lines, or may refer to subcultures within a larger group.

Key Understandings

Child rearing practices are part of a larger cultural system. The cultural context is composed of subsystems that mediate the child's developmental experience (Harkness & Super, 1995; Super & Harkness, 1986). These include: (a) physical and social settings which provide opportunities for specific types of interactions (e.g., when, how, what, with whom); (b) customs of child care adapted to the specific ecology and encoded in views of "good parenting," and (c) psychological characteristics of the caregivers (e.g., beliefs, ethnotheories about children and about child rearing techniques).

Rearing of children is geared toward preparing them to become adult members of a particular culture, as well as toward developing characteristics that are valued in children. Characteristics that are valued and emphasized through child rearing practices are those deemed necessary by members of the particular culture. Hence, valued behaviors and outcomes may be quite context specific. Harwood, Miller and Irizarry (1995), quoting Keesing (1981), noted that "Culture itself is ultimately defined as socially transmitted behaviors which are adaptive to an environment common to a specific group of people" (p. 22).

What is valued in children is related to the ecological and historical context of the cultural group. The ecological context (e.g., geography, economy) heavily influences beliefs and values with respect to desirable characteristics and parenting practices (Ogbu, 1994). The history of particular ethnic, linguistic or cultural groups, particularly if those groups occupy a minority position in a larger, dominant society, may also result in different values and desired outcomes for the process of child rearing. Beliefs about parenting, and the rituals that support them, are cultural constructs. Thus, a particular historical context may also yield parenting practices for which the rationale is no longer clear, but which are encoded in child rearing rituals, values, and behaviors (LeVine, 1977).

The relative value placed on different developmental outcomes, including outcomes related to interpersonal interaction, affective expression, intelligence, and motor ability, differs across cultures. Because personal and interpersonal competence are therefore defined differently in different cultures, valued developmental outcomes reflect the characteristics of adults who fit within, and who will carry on, the beliefs, values and practices that support the culture. What is valued determines what will be emphasized, channeling the ways in which children will develop (Harwood et al., 1995).

Different cultural groups have different beliefs about what children are capable of, how children develop and learn, and the role of parenting in influencing development and learning. Child rearing practices may differ dramatically depending on whether children are viewed as "growing up" or as "being raised." Beliefs about children also influence the parenting practices deemed necessary for achieving cultural goals. Hence, differences in beliefs about developmental timetables and about the role of children in society will influence both the "what" and the "how" of child rearing.

The daily experience of children influences development through the medium of childrearing practices. Beliefs about development and the nature of childhood determine the daily experience of children, which then organizes children's experience during daily child rearing routines (Lancy, 1996), and consequently their development and learning.
The routines of daily living provide the context from which the child extracts the social, affective, and cognitive rules of his or her culture.

Conceptions of self differ across cultures and are a major dimension for organizing and understanding parenting practices and how they relate to cultural goals. The environmental niche within which each child develops is instrumental in the development of self-definition. One aspect of self-definition studied extensively in cross-cultural literature relates to whether individuals define themselves as independent from or as interdependent with others. This dimension of self-definition has been conceptualized and labeled in different ways (e.g., independence/interdependence [Greenfield, 1994; Markus & Kitayama, 1991]; autonomous self/related self [Kagitcibasi, 1996]). Different perceptions of self along this dimension appear to characterize different cultural groups. Personal and interpersonal qualities related to different points along this dimension are mirrored in the developmental goals of the culture, and are viewed as necessary for taking one's role as an adult member of the culture. Hence, experience of self as developed by individuals within different cultural groups is closely intertwined with beliefs about children's development and about parenting.

When multiple cultures are juxtaposed, or when changes in economic conditions change the meaning of "competence" in ways that are not addressed in values, beliefs and practices of a specific culture, cultural rules and rituals may be challenged. Not only may there be conflict among individuals from different cultural backgrounds with regard to child rearing practices, but conflict may arise within the cultural group. In addition, any particular culture may have child rearing practices that do not support development toward necessary goals of the larger society. Members of non-dominant cultures may develop strategies for being part of more than one culture, and parenting practices may be adopted for achieving that goal (Coll et al., 1996). Members of different socioeconomic classes within larger cultural or ethnic groups may also differ with regard to socialization goals and views of appropriate parenting practices, such that there are similarities and differences horizontally across cultures as well as vertically within any particular culture (Howard & Scott, 1981). This is in line with a view of culture as a response to the constraints of different resource environments (Ogbu, 1994).

Cultural beliefs, values and behaviors with regard to children with disabilities may differ substantially from those that guide child rearing practices in general. Individuals from different cultures may perceive disabilities very differently, depending upon the same factors (e.g., ecological, historical) that form the basis of other beliefs, values and behaviors. Hence, views of disability interact with views of child rearing such that members of a culture may hold different beliefs about appropriate parenting with infants and young children with disabilities than they do with respect to other children.

Sample Applications

Two particular contexts of variations in child rearing are described here to illustrate the importance of the key understandings outlined above: (a) interactive play between parents and infants, and (b) disciplinary practices. Variations in each of these areas make a great deal of sense when viewed from within the perspective of cultural contexts of child rearing and socialization. Both also have importance for early intervention and early childhood education.

Research on parent-infant interaction has consistently pointed to the relationships between particular characteristics of early interactions (e.g., joint attention, turn-taking, balance of adult-child roles, mutual enjoyment, responsiveness to the infant's signals) and different types of developmental outcomes (e.g., attachment, language acquisition, achievement). The basic assumption of intervention directed toward assisting parents to integrate these characteristics into their interactions with their infants is that, if accomplished, infants will be afforded with more optimal developmental environments. Viewed from a cross-cultural perspective, however, it is not known which of these characteristics/constructs is meaningful to parents of different cultural backgrounds. Differing cultural goals, supported by differing child rearing routines, may not be achieved in these ways, or may not be deemed important by parents.

Cross-cultural studies have found differences among parents of different cultures in these characteristics. However, the results have often been confounded by (a) a lack of distinction between socioeconomic and cultural differences in study participants, and (b) a lack of interpretation of characteristics of interaction from the parents' perspectives. It may be that these behaviors, or the interpretation given to them in the West (from which most of this research is derived), are in conflict with values, beliefs and practices of parents from other cultural backgrounds. Further, the meanings given to specific interactive behaviors may be interwoven within the fabric of the culture in ways that are not easy to separate out. Markus and Kitayama (1991) demonstrated that differing cultural emphases on independence and interdependence might be intertwined with the characteristics of many types of interpersonal interactions, including those that are a part of parenting. With respect to parent-child interaction, for instance, Chao (1990) contrasted the meaning of behaviors used to define "authoritarian" parenting with those used to define "authoritative" parenting, demonstrating how child training, which would be interpreted as "directiveness" in the West, is interpreted by Chinese mothers not only as being supportive of development, but as being a maternal responsibility. Behavior that is valued in the Western literature, such as praising one's child, may be devalued in another as conveying that the child is doing well enough and does not need to try to do better.

Similar conclusions may be drawn about disciplinary practices. Discipline, as one aspect of child socialization, is directed toward assisting children to internalize moral standards and values considered important in the culture. Disciplinary practices therefore can be linked to socialization goals and parenting practices that evolved within the ecology of the particular culture. Kagitcibasi (1996) demonstrated that the meaning of "intelligent" varies across cultures, with social meanings being more important than cognitive meanings in cultures where social interaction is of primary importance for survival.

Within the United States, parenting goals that guide practices geared toward teaching children to survive within a larger, dominant culture, might well require disciplinary practices different from those of the majority culture. Thus, the "harshness" described in African-American parents may reflect the goal of teaching children to blend into settings dominated by a different and sometimes hostile majority culture. Another aspect of disciplining that may differ across cultural groups is the way in which different contexts are used for teaching appropriate behavior. For instance, Miller et al. (1997) describe how the purposes of personal storytelling differ between Taiwanese and European-American families, with the latter using stories about their toddlers as entertainment and affirmation, and the former using them to teach moral and social standards. An understanding of disciplinary practices may therefore necessitate an open-minded look at environments into which socialization practices are embedded. Any particular disciplinary practice may have very different meanings across cultures and very different consequences for the child's development.


Particular parenting practices do not stand alone, but rather are situated within systems of beliefs, values and behaviors. Child rearing practices may be defined as cultural adaptation that has been encoded into rituals, beliefs, values and behaviors, situated within beliefs about what and how children develop and learn, and directed toward the socialization goals of the culture. Thus, the meaning of any parenting practice may have very different meanings across cultures. Similarly, any given developmental goal (e.g., development of a sense of self) may be achieved in very different ways across cultures. Given this perspective, several key issues for intervention practice exist.

The same parenting behaviors may not have the same meaning across cultures; they may be interpreted differently by children, and may have different influences on development. Further, they may serve important functions within the context of the culture and the family. Interpretation is in the eye of the beholder. Constructs that have meaning in one culture may have different meanings (or may be unmeaningful) in another. This has major implications for the construct validity of measurement instruments used in intervention settings. Included within this are measures of parenting practices (e.g., measures of the qualities of parent-infant interaction or of authoritative vs. authoritarian parenting styles).

Culturally situated parenting goals, roles and rituals, as well as child-rearing arrangements typical of a cultural group, will determine how families view the goals, roles and rituals of early intervention. Goals and outcomes (what is being fostered/changed) as well as definitions of "teaching" may be major points of misunderstanding between families and interventionists. At the same time, this must be balanced with what may be required of the child within the context in which he or she will need to function as an adult.

Using the definition of culture outlined earlier, cultural views of child rearing in a society with multiple cultures and subcultures may be influenced by many factors, including socioeconomic status, minority status, generation, acculturation. Child rearing beliefs, values and practices also will be based on one's own childhood experiences and own unique configuration of cultural heritage. "Culture" can not be inferred from any individual factors, and individuals and families can not automatically be viewed as exemplars of a particular culture. Thus, parents and families must be viewed through their own eyes, using research related to different influences on parenting to inform our developing understanding.

Strategies must be developed for increasing cross-cultural understanding both in general and in relation to individual families, with the goal of seeing through the eyes of the family and the child. In addition, individuals who are members of multiple cultures must reflect on their own behavior and values from within the combination of these contexts. Interventionists should take no practice at face value, but instead should question and reflect on the beliefs and historical contexts in which it is based. Judgments about parenting practices can be made only within the context of what is appropriate for individuals from the particular culture. Finally, intervention practices must be designed within a broad framework of assisting children, interventionists, and families to build acceptable, two-way bridges between the cultural context of their own individual microsystems and the broader societies that form (and will form) the macro-contexts of their daily lives and practices.


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