Chapter 13: Effectively Negotiating and Resolving Conflict Related to Issues of Diversity

Krischa Esquivel; Emily Elam; Jennifer Paris; and Maricela Tafoya

Chapter Objectives

After this chapter, you should be able to:

  1. Articulate the importance of celebrating diversity
  2. Discuss why cultural differences may lead to conflict between families and programs
  3. Explain how to develop relationships with families that are inclusive and supportive
  4. Outline how to create practices and policies that respond to differences respectfully
  5. Describe three steps to deal with cultural differences in early childhood education programs


Differences and Conflict

Working in an early education setting, with children, family and coworkers from varying backgrounds, conflict is inevitable. However, if managed correctly, conflict can be a learning and growing experience for all.

In her book Diversity in Early Care and Education: Honoring Differences, Janet Gonzalez-Mena discusses the need to honor, learn about and explore not only other cultures different than ours, but acknowledge how our own beliefs play a role in our professional caretaking roles. She shares her own process, “They say we teach what we need most to learn. I am a good example. I’m working on my dialoguing skills. The problem is that when I have a strong reaction to something that doesn’t fit my system, I usually consider it a problem…..My natural reaction is to become defensive and start arguing.” This is a common response for many because our upbringing has taught us that our way is the ‘right’ way, so anything different simply doesn’t feel right.

As professionals, it is imperative we build relationships with families and create a classroom of inclusiveness that celebrates diversity.

Preventing Conflict

Some conflict can be prevented when we build relationships with families based on a willingness to listen to hear about who they are and what they want for their children. Here are some cultural considerations to keep in mind as you work to understand the experiences and values families have and how you can best meet their needs:

  • Many families are most comfortable keeping young children at home with a parent, relative, or friend, especially with families from the same cultural background. So, when they do rely on out-of-home child care, they may experience some discomfort and may not be aware of licensing requirements and restrictions.
  • Some cultures may expect that the mother’s primary role is taking care of children and the home. However, both parents may need to find work due to financial need and thus depend on out-of-home child care. This can create guilt, shame, fear, and discomfort.
  • Families with limited English skills are likely to have difficulty gathering information about the varied early care and education options and may rely on word of mouth or recommendations from others within their ethnic or religious community.
  • Families may seek reassurance that early care and education providers understand and respect their family’s religion and will not inadvertently violate the family’s religious practices (e.g., abstaining from pork products).
  • Families of a child with a disability may not be aware of the legal educational requirements, learning possibilities, and school options for children with disabilities.
  • Hiring staff from the same culture and language as families and providing opportunities for families from the same cultural or linguistic backgrounds to connect may encourage family engagement and mutual support.
  • Some cultures show respect for teachers by not being intrusive and interfering with their job (e.g., not offering suggestions or sharing negative opinions). By American standards, this can look like lack of interest. Families may not know the expectations for family engagement in school.

We can start conversations that will help us understand where families are coming from and how we can effectively and respectfully engage and communicate with them. Questions to ask might include:

  • What are some ways staff can learn more about your perspectives and needs?
  • How would you like to communicate and partner with staff?
  • Describe what school was like in your country of origin (if the family has immigrated or are refugees).[1]

Navigating Cultural Differences

Cultural differences can lead to conflicts. For example, people may disagree on practices for handling a baby, responding to crying, or feeding. Home visit staff may be concerned over how and when to intervene in family arguments. Staff and families in early childhood education programs may differ about how programs should support children’s home or native language. Given the wide range of cultural ideas, it is not surprising that adults can have differences that are rooted in the core of their being.

Gonzalez-­Mena (1992, 2001, 2008) indicated that these disagreements may be when adults from different cultural backgrounds may find that their familiar ways of working with children are different or when adults within the same culture can disagree. In both of these situations of conflict between program staff and families, Gonzalez-­Mena identified four possible outcomes:

  • All sides gain understanding, negotiate, and/or compromise, leading to resolution of the conflict.
  • Program staff understand the families’ perspective(s) and change their practices.
  • Families take on the perspective of the program staff and change their practices.
  • No resolution is reached (here, the conflict may continue or intensify; or both sides can cope with the differences).

Of course, conflicts can occur over numerous issues. To help program staff make progress, Gonzalez-­Mena challenges them to question their own assumptions about child development practices (e.g., “My way of thinking about X is not the only way to think about it. My way of doing Practice Y is not the only way to work with the child.”). Once this commitment to test one’s own assumptions is in place, two goals for a conflict situation are: (1) to minimize (or eliminate) extreme differences in practices; and (2) to resolve the situation for the benefit of the child. Program staff are encouraged to take a child centered look at any situation of conflicting practices.[2]

The process for each varies greatly not only based on cultures, but even within similar cultures. These practices can often times go against program policy and best practice as we have been taught in the field.[3]

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Pin it! Differences in Feeding Practices

The following is a scenario from the NAEYC’s publication, Diversity and Infant/Toddler Caregiving:

Junior, who is new to the center, is excited when he sees a bowl of food. The baby makes happy sounds, kicks his legs, and waves his arms. But when Helen puts Junior in the high chair and places the bowl in front of him, he just sits there and makes no attempt to feed himself. He looks confused and becomes distressed. Finally he slumps over, a glazed look in his eyes.

His mother explains later that she has taught Junior not to touch his food. In fact, her son has never been in a high chair; he has always been fed on his mother’s lap, wrapped up tightly in a blanket to discourage him from interfering with her.”[4]

Gonzalez-Mena and Bhavnagri suggest that when the family and program do not agree about a practice or policy, early childhood educators should ask themselves:

  1. What is the family’s cultural perspective on the issue?
  2. How do the family’s child care practices relate to their cultural perspective?
  3. What are the family’s goals for the child? How has the family’s culture influenced these goals?
  4. In review of these goals, is the family’s practice in the child’s best interest?
  5. Is there any sound research that shows that the family’s practice is doing actual harm?
  6. Is the program’s practice or policy universally applicable, or is it better suited to a particular culture?
  7. Did the family choose the program because of its particular philosophy, even if it is based on a different culture from their own?
  8. Have program staff members attempted to fully understand the family’s rationale for its practices, the complexity of the issues, and other contributing factors?
  9. Have staff members attempted to fully explain the rationale for program practices? Have they looked at how their own culture influences their perspective?
  10. What are some creative resolutions that address the concerns of both partners and the program?[5]

The point is to begin and continue to dialogue with families and to exchange information with the goal of resolving the conflict for the benefit of the child. The “bottom line” is really: What is in the best interest of the child? As stated in the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s Code of Ethical Conduct, our first and foremost ethical responsibility to children is to do no harm.

By learning more about the goals that families have for their children, and about the types of behaviors or practices that families prioritize and implement as they raise their children, program staff can more easily match the learning experiences of the classroom to those of the home. For example, if a teacher is concerned that a 3-­year-­old in her class is not skilled with using a fork, she should first find out if this is a goal of the family. Do they scoop their food at home using spoons? Do they use chopsticks? Do they feed the child or allow the child to self-feed? It is best for the teacher to check what the family practices and goals are before they misjudge what this child needs from them in terms of support and understanding.

According to National Association for the Education of Young Children’s developmentally appropriate practice one of the tenets is to be culturally responsive. In preparing an environment that supports children and families, we need to ensure that we have considered the beliefs, values, and needs of the family to deliver curriculum that addresses the child both individually and as a group.[6]

These exercises can be done individually and at a staff/team meeting. It’s important to involve the family and all caregivers as a way to ensure all perspectives are heard. Now that questions have been identified, having the conversation to gather the information is next; however, this comes with challenges. As you enter into the conversation, it’s important to put personal biases and beliefs aside and be ready to actively listen to hear and learn about the family and their point of view.[7]

Dealing with Differences

The Program for Infant/Toddler Caregivers (PITC) has outlined three steps in their training Dealing with Differences: Acknowledge, Ask, Adapt that can be used in early childhood programs that serve children of all ages.

Step 1: Acknowledge

How does the caregiver recognize the need for communication with the family? How does the caregiver’s attitude convey sincere interest and response? What can the caregiver say to the family to communicate awareness that there is a problem they need to jointly solve?

  • Take time to think about how you feel about this issue and get clarity on the reasons behind your feelings.
  • Listen carefully to the other person’s concern. If you bring up the concern, do it respectfully with an attitude of wanting to understand the issues.

Step 2: Ask

What questions can the caregiver ask the families to get information that will help her or him understand more precisely the families’ point of view?

  • The next step is about data gathering, trying to get to the real sources of conflict or misunderstanding for the family, the child or you. Ask questions that seek to clarify (and allow families to ask questions to understand the program’s point-of-view).
  • Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal responses. Restate what you think is being said, take time to be sure you are meaning the same thing in the language you are using.

Step 3: Adapt

How does the caregiver work with the family to define the issues and boundaries of the problem? Does the caregiver seek “common ground” as the basis for negotiation? How does the caregiver open up a negotiation with the family about what to do?

  • Once the issues have been defined, seek out the common ground by stating your areas of greatest importance to each other. Listen carefully for areas of common agreement.
  • Negotiate around the areas of important agreement and boundaries. Come to a resolution that addresses the real/major issues. Sometimes we have to agree to disagree.[8]

While using this method is a great start to get the most desired results, there will be instances when it won’t take place. A few outcomes to become familiar and comfortable with are different outcomes that may come during the conversation.

  • Sometimes there may be a resolution through mutual understanding and negotiation. Both parties see the other’s perspective which is where both parties give a little or a lot.
  • There may be a resolution that takes place through gradual education and understanding of the caregiver and seeing the perspective of the family.
  • There can also be a resolution through the process of family education. This happens when the family sees the caregiver’s perspective and decides to change.
  • Lastly, and it’s common, there can be no resolution. When this happens, the professional should look at Community Care Licensing Regulations(CCL), as well as internal policies and procedures to ensure no laws or rules are being violated. There are times when internal processes are created, but can be adjusted to meet the individual needs to families. These discussions and determinations should be made with the assistance and input of the site administrators. In some circumstances, the program and family may come to a mutual decision that the program is not a good fit for the family’s needs.

Conflicts related to diversity are inevitable and should not be seen or approached in a negative way but rather with the goal of partnering to create the best environment for the child to thrive while in your care. The process of partnering takes time, mutual understanding and for at least one person to take the first, often uncomfortable step.

A few things to remember:

  • All families want what’s best for their child and are doing what they believe is best
  • Be curious: what are the expectations the family has from you? From the program and for their child? This will help guide any conversations and interactions.
  • Become self-aware: what makes you uncomfortable? What are your personal beliefs?

Question mark

Think About It…

Think about a time you had conflict related to diversity with a child in your classroom or family member. How could you have used these tools to create an equitable outcome?


We know that being respectful of difference is valuable in an early learning setting. As indicated, these differences can lead to conflicts between families, early childhood professionals, and the program their child is enrolled in. With strong relationships, some of that conflict can be prevented. Early childhood educators can be reflective when disagreements over practices and policies occur. And they can use the three steps outlined by PITC’s Dealing with Differences: Acknowledge, Ask, Adapt training to help mitigate the conflict respectfully.

  1. Family Engagement Tip Sheet by the US Department of Health and Human Services is in the public domain.
  2. Multicultural Principles by the US Department of Health and Human Services is in the public domain.
  3. Gonzalez-Mena, J. and Peshotan Bhavnagri, N. (2003). Diversity and Infant/Toddler Caregiving. Retrieved from
  4. Gonzalez-Mena, J. and Peshotan Bhavnagri, N. (2003). Diversity and Infant/Toddler Caregiving. Retrieved from
  5. Gonzalez-Mena, J. and Peshotan Bhavnagri, N. (2003). Diversity and Infant/Toddler Caregiving. Retrieved from
  6. Multicultural Principles by the US Department of Health and Human Services is in the public domain.
  7. Gonzalez-Mena, J. and Peshotan Bhavnagri, N. (2003). Diversity and Infant/Toddler Caregiving. Retrieved from
  8. A Guide to Culturally Sensitive Care by the California Department of Education is used with permission


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Chapter 13: Effectively Negotiating and Resolving Conflict Related to Issues of Diversity Copyright © by Krischa Esquivel; Emily Elam; Jennifer Paris; and Maricela Tafoya is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.