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The Importance of Culturally and Linguistically Affirming ECE for Babies and Toddlers


By: Manuel Fierro, Associate Director of Early Childhood Policy; JunHee Doh, Senior Manager of Early Childhood Policy; and Karina Hernandez, Policy and Research Analyst

The first three years of life is a period of incredible growth that sets the foundation for children’s cognitive, social-emotional, and language development. Babies build their knowledge of the world through loving, consistent caregivers who provide a sense of safety and stability and through language-rich experiences. 

California’s babies and toddlers, many of whom come from families with a home language other than English, are dual language learners (DLLs) or multilingual learners who acquire their knowledge of the world through two or more languages. Cultural and linguistic affirmation from the earliest years is foundational to their life success. Nurturing children’s home languages develops their positive sense of self and cultural identity, which leads to resilience. It also maintains strong ties with family and community and supports their social, behavioral, and emotional regulation.

The best time to learn a language is when you are young. Birth through 36 months is a critical period of linguistic and cognitive development when babies have enormous capacity to learn more than one language. We want to honor the cultures and languages of our families and ensure our program reflects the students and community.” - Nicole Baitx-Kennedy, Executive Director of Early Education and Expanded Learning at the John F. Land School,  Westminster School District

The district has been a trailblazer in partnering with the community to identify the home languages of families and designing dual immersion programs in Spanish and Vietnamese for Pre-K to 8th grade. They are also leading the way on expanding dual immersion programs to the district’s youngest learners. This is evident at the John F. Land School, where their Spanish Dual Language Immersion Program serves babies - as early as four months old - in their infant and toddler classrooms. Established in 2019 with General Child Care and Development (CCTR) funds, the infant/toddler program currently has a waitlist of 147 families, many of whom are Spanish and Vietnamese speaking. With nine spots for infants and 12 spots for toddlers, the school is eager to expand their infant/toddler dual immersion program to include Vietnamese and other home languages in the community. 

“My son began [inside] the infant room and has since transitioned into the toddler room. I have encountered nothing but friendly and professional staff [that] has always greeted my son by his name. The observations shared with me from inside the classroom mirror what I see at home. Among many benefits [...] was the introduction of visual and kinesthetic learning as well as foods. More excitingly, our home's second language (Spanish) is supported inside his classroom. This has assisted me in promoting my family's culture and heritage. His cognitive skills are greatly increasing inside the classroom and at home as a result of having dual language teachers.” - Mother of Udell (20 months) 

The infant and toddler rooms emulate a welcoming, home environment. The ambiance is natural and warm. Miniature tables, chairs, and furniture exhibit neutral hues. Pops of color are seen through bins filled with colorful toys. Materials are labeled in English and Spanish, and culturally representative art is displayed on ceilings and walls. Prepared for licensing and Title 5 program standards, the set up of the rooms is intentional with hard wired carbon dioxide detectors, low sinks and toilets, clean diaper changing areas with sinks, and two rows of cribs with wheels for fire drills. The room feels spacious, with a 3:1 child-teacher ratio. Early educators sit on plush mats doing tummy time with the babies, giving them individualized attention and care. The teachers’ love radiates through their warm smiles as they feed the children with bottles and solids and intentionally engage in language-rich play-based strategies including reading and singing to the babies in Spanish and English. These qualities are essential to their healthy growth and development. 

“As a full time student, employee and parent, I have been very fortunate to have the love and support of the Land team. My [8 month-old] daughter has developed alongside such supportive and positive teachers. The [tools used in the classroom] allowed me to stay included in my child's day to day activities [and] makes me feel like I am a part of the classroom because I have the ability to witness my daughters play based learning several times a week! ” - Mother of Charlie (8 months)

Yet, many of California’s families do not have access to dual immersion infant/toddler programs like the John F. Land School’s. In order to leverage the gift of children’s home languages and further prevent home language loss, the State of California (State) needs to invest resources to expand culturally and linguistically affirming programs that are foundational to their success and start from the first three years of life. In 2016, California voters passed Proposition 58, repealing English-only education for English Learners and recognizing bilingualism as an asset. To realize this vision, government leaders passed policies to support bilingual education, such as the English Learner Roadmap and Global California 2030 initiative. In 2018, the State allocated $5 million to provide DLL-specific training for early educators. Research from Sobrato Early Academic Language shows that ongoing, assets-based professional development to support DLLs for early educators has been associated with positive student engagement and academic outcomes. While the $5 million investment was a promising beginning, additional funding is needed to scale programs such as Land’s across California.