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Understanding and working with Chinese families in early childhood settings

Logo: Early Childhood Australia, a voice for young children.Ms Yvonne Yoke Yin Chan

Yvonne is an experienced early childhood teacher from Singapore, currently studying in Australia. Early Childhood Australia (ECA) is the peak, umbrella organisation for the children’s services sector. ECA is a non-profit, non-government organisation acting in the best interests of young children aged from birth to eight years of age.

ECA has been supporting early childhood professionals, parents and others interested in the care, education and wellbeing of young children since 1938 through the provision of quality-assured early childhood knowledge and information.  ECA is also a specialist early childhood publisher and supplier of other quality-assured publications.

ECA publications include:

  • Every Child magazine;
  • Australasian Journal of Early Childhood;
  • Research in Practice Series;
  • Everyday Learning Series;
  • ECA Voice newsletter;
  • Code of Ethics; and
  • Your Child’s First Year at School: Getting off to a good start.

In early childhood we know that parents are children’s first teachers, so it is important to understand and collaborate with families to successfully help their children learn.


Respecting Diversity within the Curriculum

I have had the privilege of volunteering and working in different centres in Australia while doing post-graduate early childhood study here. This has provided me with many valuable insights into the significance of celebrating the diversities of families.

Respecting diversity within the curriculum means valuing and reflecting the practices, values and beliefs of families. Educators learn to accept and value the histories, cultures, languages, traditions, child-rearing practices and lifestyle choices of families. As the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) identifies, they also learn to value children’s different capacities and abilities, and to respect differences in families’ home lives.


Understanding Beliefs and Practices

Growing up in a Chinese family I have been influenced by both traditional practices and heritage and also by ancestral knowledge. I have been shaped by the experiences, values and beliefs of my family and those in my community.

I remember vividly how on one occasion in an early childhood setting in Australia, my upset colleague asked me why a particular Chinese parent was so annoyed over her child being given cold milk to drink after reminding staff constantly not to give the child cold milk. I explained to the staff member that cold milk was believed to cause young children with low body resistance to develop coughs.

Steven Covey said that we should “seek first to understand.” By that he meant we should stop and listen carefully, ask questions using non-judgemental language, to make sure the essence of the other person’s point of view is clear to us. There are many variations in how families interact with their children. However, there are some values which many Chinese families share. Here are some of the more consistent values or beliefs among Chinese families, and the likely implications these have for early childhood practitioners. Keep in mind though that there are many individual differences among Chinese families.


Some Commonly Shared Values

Value of education—Chinese families generally believe in the Confucian concept that “He who excels in learning can be an official.” Some parents in early childhood settings may appear to be anxious about what their child is learning.  This is especially true for those who are new to early childhood education in Australia. They may need more time to understand the value of play and how children learn in these settings.

Value of respect for others—Chinese families value the importance of respect for authority, elders and families. Parents generally hold teachers in high regard. Likewise, when communicating with someone who is more mature in age, due respect is given to them for their life experiences. Seeking opinions and advice from the more experienced is a sign of acknowledging their wealth of experience and knowledge in the subject matter. Early childhood practitioners wanting to share constructive feedback with mature parents of their learners in those settings need to do this with tact and respect while being objective. Seeking parental insights and inputs about those situations may also be helpful.

Beliefs about the food we eat— Chinese families believe in the concept of yin and yang in the food they eat. It is believed  that certain foods have a heating or cooling effect on the body and some foods are perceived as being unsuitable for certain individuals. For example, foods such as watermelon or cold milk are cooling for the body, whereas too much fried food or too many biscuits are warming food for the body. This is especially relevant for very young children with weak immune systems and those recovering from an ailment.

Early childhood practitioners being requested to make special arrangements for these children may find the additional request unfair or unreasonable, but to the concerned parent of the child it may be a real worry for the wellbeing and development of their child.

Being open about our views—another important Chinese value is the cultivation of self-restraint and good conduct. Chinese parents are generally modest and quite reserved in sharing their frank opinions or unhappiness publicly. To encourage them to be able to share their views constructively, trust must be gained over time. Practitioners can build a rapport with families by communicating informally with them.

Above are just a few examples of possible concerns that Chinese families may have as a result of their values and beliefs. Educators, therefore, need to think critically about opportunities and dilemmas that can arise from such diversity. These opportunities can help practitioners to, as DEEWR describes, “… learn about similarities and difference and about interdependence and how we can learn to live together.” When in doubt, referring to guides such as DEEWR’s The Early Years Learning Framework or Early Childhood Australia’s Code of Ethics may be helpful in guiding practitioners in making professional judgments in these situations.


For a full list of references, please contact Early Childhood Australia at

Article first published in Every Child magazine, Volume 17, Number 2, 2011.