Early learning is informed by culture, family, and community

Before moving to the United States, Luisiana Meléndez, Ph.D., grew up, attended college, and taught kindergarten in the Dominican Republic. With one foot planted in the cultures of two very different countries, she is influenced by her own experiences to understand how aspects of culture, from language to family customs, impact children’s growth and development, particularly in the early years.

As director of Erikson Institute’s Bilingual/ESL Certificate Program and a professor in the teacher licensure program, Dr. Meléndez helps her students to think critically about culture in relation to child development. Learning, physical growth, and cognitive development all occur within the context of family and community, she explains, and the better students understand this, the more impact they can make in the lives of children and families after graduating from Erikson.

“Kids are becoming more culturally and linguistically diverse by the day,” she says. “Our Bilingual/ESL Program provides practitioners the knowledge and tools to work with children in a multicultural world to help them be successful in school.”

Preparation for Effective Educators

A faculty member at Erikson since 2003 Dr. Meléndez’s passion for preparing educators to work with children and families comes through in her classes. Students can expect a challenge, she says, but they will emerge as leaders in the field.

“When I was a kindergarten teacher, I knew I wanted to contribute to the development of other early childhood educators,” she says. “Today, through teaching and advising Erikson students, it’s my job to help them become strong and effective professionals.”

She studies how teachers are prepared to educate children in an increasingly diverse environment and recently presented her ideas on a new teacher candidate assessment in use throughout Illinois as well as other states.  The assessment, while strong in some areas, has been criticized for giving little consideration to candidates’ and students’ linguistic diversity, a drawback in today’s multicultural world. While most of her presentations are done domestically, she also has shared her work in the Dominican Republic.

Cultural Contributions

In addition to her work with current and future educators, she researches the role of culture and language in child development. For example, she and her Erikson colleague Sharon Syc, Ph.D., recently studied how early care and education programs support children age 3 and younger from linguistically diverse families. They found that success in promoting early bilingualism was tied to clear language development goals that were shared by practitioners and families, and an understanding that bilingualism can be important for multicultural infants’ and toddlers’ social-emotional and cognitive development as well as an advantage later in life.

In her classes on the Erikson campus and online, Dr. Meléndez provides a rigorous experience that includes academic coursework as well as opportunities for students to reflect on their own cultural backgrounds. Students’ personal cultural experiences help shape the discussions in her courses, while lessons are frequently informed by her own work in the field.

“I encourage my students look at issues from multiple perspectives so they become very good at not just accepting what they learn at face value,” she says. “It’s a philosophy that is at the heart of Erikson. Graduates must show competency in knowledge, practice, and reflection.”

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