Bridging Language and Culture Helps Children Succeed

SouthSide buzzes with activity every day, especially at morning dropoff time. A symphony of languages fills the hallways as parents walk their children to classrooms for the daily “handoff” to the teachers before heading off to work. The majority of our families speak English or Spanish at home, but some speak French, Vietnamese, Oromo and increasingly, African dialects. This cultural and language diversity mirrors our early history, when families of German, Czech, Italian and Hungarian heritage joined longtime SouthSiders at what was then known as South Side Day Nursery. Today, St. Louis city is third in the country for its diversity in new refugees, and 17 percent of St. Louis city families speak a language other than English at home.[1]

Respect for and understanding of our families’ diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds are core principles of SouthSide’s early education program. We recently received a grant from the Daughters of Charity Foundation of St. Louisto strengthen our cultural competency. Simply put, cultural competency is the ability to relate to different languages, cultures and behaviors in a positive and effective way through intentional policies and attitudes that permeate the culture of an organization. Our Daughters of Charity grant will help us build even stronger relationships with our families of different cultures, funding parent outreach and referral programs so that families can improve their quality of life and achieve goals that might otherwise seem out of reach. We will even be able to bring a nurse practitioner on-site to help bridge cultural gaps in understanding the American health care system and practices such as immunizations, pediatric health and developmental milestones and access to routine health care for parents.  In turn, this critical work with families promises to improve outcomes for our children for the long term.

Early education research indicates that building teachers’ cultural and language competency improves outcomes for children, especially when, as at SouthSide, many children have a developmental disability or delay. Telling the difference between cultural / language challenges and developmental issues can be difficult.  In June, we are engaging United 4 Children trainers to work with our teachers and parents in a workshop on cultural competency, further strengthening our ability to effectively reach families that may feel isolated by language or culture barriers. We want all of our families to feel welcome and respected and to know they are SouthSide’s partners in their children’s education and success.


Daughters of Charity Foundation of St. Louishelps fund SouthSide’s Family Support Services program.

United 4 Childrenprovides leadership, coordination, technical assistance and advocacy for organizations serving children from birth to 18.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Minority Health, provides a nice glossary of terms relating to cultural competency.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children(NAEYC) studied measures of cultural competency in its Quality Benchmark for Cultural Competence Project.

The University of Vermont’s Preschool Refugee Children Project trains early educators to use best practices in cultural competency.


BlogCleo Fisher