Skip to main content

by Crystal Williams, Ed.M.

As a follow-up to OneOp’s 2018 Virtual Conference, the Family Transitions team developed five blog posts to help early childhood professionals apply these concepts to their work with children and families. Other blog posts in this series are linked at the bottom.

As you read each blog post in this series, you may find this Personal Storytelling Journal helpful. You can download it and complete it at your own pace after reading and reflecting on each blog post. You can also download a copy of these blog post questions and activity to complete here.


Dr. Anne Phibbs says listening is a key component of cultural competence and defines it as “attending” and “being present” with others. It is important that early childhood professionals create space for listening to others and listen effectively to develop and improve relationships with children, families, and colleagues.

Creating space

In a society with a history of oppression towards people of color, it is crucial to create space for all people to share their experiences and perspectives. Dr. Phibbs warns against relying on or asking marginalized voices to share their stories to educate others. The responsibility for learning about the history of marginalization rests on those who have not experienced it. Instead, the goal is to create space in which all feel welcome and heard when they choose to share their experiences and perspectives. This means not offering advice or solutions, not questioning, or expressing doubt about a person’s experience. Use phrases like, “I’m sorry you have experienced this,” or “How can I support you?”

As an early childhood professional, it may be difficult to slow down and create space for listening in your work. An even bigger challenge may be how you can create space to listen to children, families, and colleagues. Answer the questions in the chart below for each group of individuals with whom you work.

  Question Children Families Colleagues
1. What opportunities do you currently have to listen?
2. What other opportunities can you create to listen?
3. What do you currently say/do to create space for individuals to share their experiences and perspectives?
4. What else can you say/do to create space for individuals to share their experiences and perspectives?  

Listening Effectively

It is not enough to just find time in your day to listen to others, but it is also important to consider how you listen. The following strategies can help you listen effectively.

  1. Take time to be present.

When individuals share their experiences, they are not always looking for someone to solve their problems. Many experience pain and trauma related to systemic oppression, which cannot be solved easily. One way to be a part of the solution is to be present with others: to listen, truly appreciate when others share their experiences with you, and show empathy.

  1. Notice what you listen to.
    Individuals may not hear and notice everything that is being communicated (verbally and nonverbally). For example, individuals are more inclined to hear facts than feelings and information that confirms, rather than disconfirms, their worldview. Consider the following questions while an individual is sharing their experiences and/or perspectives with you.

    • How does their perspective/experience align with my worldview?
    • How does their perspective/experience expand my worldview?
    • What facts, feelings, and values are they communicating with me?
    • What is their body language telling me?
  2. Be empathetic, rather than sympathetic.

Empathy is feeling with others, by taking on their perspective and showing them that they are not alone. In contrast, sympathy is a feeling of pity or compassion that is often felt at a distance.

Watch this 3-minute video in which Brené Brown speaks about empathy. Reflect on the scenarios in the left column of the table below. Think of 2-3 sympathetic and empathetic responses for each scenario. Your responses may include both verbal and nonverbal behaviors. Consider the four components of empathy discussed in the video:

  1. Perspective taking
  2. Staying out of judgement
  3. Recognizing emotions
  4. Communicating others’ emotions

For this activity, focus your response on the individual sharing their experience with you.

Scenario Sympathetic Response Empathetic Response
Your colleague shares their frustration that people are not using their correct pronouns. Example:

“I know it’s frustrating, but at least you have me.”


Take on their perspective by reflecting on how it would feel if someone called me by the wrong gender, name, etc.

“Your frustration is valid. I would not like it if someone referred to me by the wrong name/gender etc. Is there anything else you want to tell me about it?”

A student in your classroom storms off from a group of children she was playing with and goes to the quiet corner. When you approach her, she tells you the other children keep touching her hair without permission. Example:

“I’m so sorry that happened. What do you want to play with to take your mind off it?”


“It sounds like you were frustrated that they weren’t respecting your body.”

A mother of one of the children with whom you work tells you that her child was diagnosed with autism, and she begins to cry.    
One of the boys in your classroom tells you that another child called him a girl for playing dress-up.    
You arrive for a home visit and the dad who is not normally there invites you in. You mention how good it is to see him and he confides that he lost his job this week.    

Previous blog posts in this series can be found at the links below:

Seeking Out Stories to Build Cultural Competence in Early Childhood Settings

Practicing Humility to Build Cultural Competence in Early Childhood Settings