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Preschool Matters Today

AI/AN: Infusing PreK Curriculum with Tribal Culture


November 29, 2017
Jessica Barnes-Najor and Ann Cameron

Early childhood education research has rarely focused on supporting young children in tribal communities, hampering our capacity to understand and advocate for the kinds of high-quality practices grounded in American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) culture that can make a positive difference in children’s lives.

Despite these challenges, many tribes across the country are striving to provide high-quality early childhood education programs and services, recognizing that traditional values at the heart of tribal cultures support a more holistic and community-based view of raising and educating young children.

Head Start is the federally funded, national program supporting comprehensive educational, health, nutritional, and family engagement services to enrolled families and children from birth through five years of age to promote school readiness. The Office of Head Start supervises programs across 12 regions. While most regions are based on location, Region XI provides management of Head Start programs operated by federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) tribes or tribal organizations (Region XII includes migrant and seasonal Head Start programs).

AI/AN programs enrolled 22,894 children under age 5 during the 2016-2017 program year, according to the Office of Head Start Program Information Report. Of the children enrolled in AI/AN Head Start programs, 86% of enrollees identified as American Indian or Alaska Native. Approximately 8% of AI/AN Head Start program enrollees experienced homelessness during the enrollment year. Additionally, 7% of AI/AN Head Start program enrollees experience foster care during the enrollment year.

Because Head Start takes a comprehensive and community-based approach to supporting young children’s development, tribal communities may choose to incorporate tribal languages, practices, customs, and lifeways into the programs. The goal is to encourage stronger engagement with families and the community by respecting and reflecting tribal culture.

While there is variation in the degree to which Region XI Head Start programs incorporate these aspects of tribal culture into the classroom, there is growing acknowledgement that supporting tribes in developing culturally grounded, high-quality programming that fosters growth and development of young children is important.

Over the past 10 years, a group of researchers and practitioners have partnered through the Tribal Early Childhood Research Center, funded through the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), to build the tribal early childhood research base. In addition, a recent study conducted by ACF, the American Indian and Alaska Native Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey in 2015 (AI/AN FACES 2015), is the first national study of children and families in Region XI Head Start.

These restricted data will become available to researchers for analysis sometime in 2018. Prior to being granted access, researchers must apply and meet all data access requirements. Analyses of these data will add to our knowledge of Region XI Head Start children’s growth and development and contribute to a deeper understanding of what it means for curriculum to be infused with culture.

Indigenous scholars encourage all people living in North America to study and respect the culture and language of the tribal people who originally inhabited that land. Such an understanding is crucial– especially in the field of early childhood education — because culture and language shape the context of early development and, as such, frame cognition about the world.

Jessica V. Barnes-Najor, Ph.D. is an associate director for University-Community Partnerships in University Outreach and Engagement at Michigan State University. Dr. Barnes-Najor is a co-PI for the Tribal Early Childhood Research Center (TRC), partnering with American Indian and Alaska Native Head Start, Home Visitation, and Child Care grantees to promote community-engaged research and enhance early childhood program evaluation and research-to-practice activities across the nation. She is also a co-PI of Wiba Anung, a research collaborative including educators from Bay Mills Community College and community partners representing nine Michigan tribes.

Ann Cameron is the Head Start Director of the Inter-Tribal Council of Michigan, Inc., Head Start and Early Head Start Programs. She is a member of the Tribal Early Childhood Research Center (TRC) Steering Committee and is on the National Indian Head Start Directors Association Board of Directors.