• by Hector Bojorquez • IDRA Newsletter • April 2019 •

Hector BojorquezIn teacher training sessions across the country, teachers repeatedly ponder a powerful shared idea: “We must value our students’ innate gifts and talents.” This understanding facilitates the ability of students, families and communities to be active participants in schooling. But in early childhood classrooms, we often see this idea twisted into language that implies the need to fix deficits in the home.

The education community itself has been known to carry the same incorrect messages, like low-income parents don’t read to their children, poor children don’t get beneficial life experiences like other students do, poor children’s vocabulary is stunted, and poverty damages children’s brains.  Apart from being wrong and empirically untestable, these ideas leave little room for agency on the part of educators. They represent the very definition of deficit-thinking, and they set a problematic and despairing narrative for children.

There is no doubt that early childhood education is important and benefits all children. However, we must approach it bearing in mind decades of experience around asset-based practices. IDRA recommends that educators consider the following fundamental ideas:

  • Early childhood education is the beginning of an investment that continues until graduation from college;
  • Asset-based practices must honor language, culture and diverse backgrounds; and
  • Asset-based practices must be grounded in strengths and actively engage students and families.

A Necessary but Insufficient Investment

A solid early childhood education is important and absolutely necessary, but it is not a vaccine against future educational inequity or undereducation. It is the foundation of a building, but it is not the entire building. Policymakers, educators and researchers must stop treating it as a panacea for all societal and educational ills, particularly when we fail to sustain equitable education throughout the k-16 pipeline.

Our responsibility is to engage all of our underrepresented students with the same degree of respect, expectation and dignity as any student from a middle-class background.

Too often, discussions describe early childhood education as the sole key to preventing dropouts, the most important weapon against future poverty, or the crucial foundation for college access and success. It is and is not all of those things.

Early childhood education does help to advantage students in at-risk situations but not because they are broken and in need of fixing. When we fail to view students as assets, we change the conversation. We demean them and their families. And, worst of all, we do violence to their potential future by seeing them as blank slates with neither culture or language.

Rather, early childhood education should be seen as the first in a long series of investments. We must recognize our students by what they are capable of and ensure they have excellent and equitable educational opportunities.

Honoring Culture

Even after decades of bilingual education and dual-language successes, many teachers and administrators across the country still refer to English learner struggles as “first language interference” or to accents as a “problem.” Families are consistently viewed as a hindrance.

The early childhood classroom is the place where many of these attitudes begin, as students are viewed as victims of poverty without any background knowledge or experiences. Our responsibility is to engage all of our underrepresented students with the same degree of respect, expectation and dignity as any student from a middle-class background.

What Asset-Based Practices Are and Are Not

The Association of College and Research Libraries provides a useful definition: “Asset-based teaching seeks to unlock students’ potential by focusing on their talents. Also known as strengths-based teaching, this approach contrasts with the more common deficit-based style of teaching which highlights students’ inadequacies” (2018).

IDRA’s decades of implementation around asset-based practices (also referred to as our “valuing model”) has taught us the following: All students and families must have active engagement in positions traditionally reserved for those deemed gifted or privileged. An asset understanding in education is premised on the fundamental recognition of the intelligence, potential, and wide skill and competency possibilities in all human beings. It is the conviction that all students can and will succeed.

But it is not simply a point of view or a philosophy. It is not a pre-recorded litany of daily affirmations that attempt to cover up a pobrecitos or bless-their-hearts attitude. Instead, it is best based on action. In the case of the IDRA Coca‑Cola Valued Youth Program, students who are in at-risk situations are not simply told that they are leaders; rather, they are put in leadership positions. In IDRA’s Education CAFE Network, families who are not typically part of decision making in schools provide leadership to change policies. For your youngest learners, the asset lens allows you to see deeply into the workings of the child’s mind, experiences and curiosity, and to design the learning environment so that the child connects and engages.

Asset-based practices recognize that all children can learn complex subjects if taught appropriately and are supported in their learning, and all children and their families have abundant cultural, linguistic gifts and experiences that contribute to the educational process.


Association of College and Research Libraries. (2018). 5 Things You Should Read About Asset-Based Teaching. Chicago, Ill.: ACRL.

Bahena, S. (June-July 2016). “Differences as Deficiencies – The Persistence of the 30 Million Word Gap,” IDRA Newsletter.

Cortez, J.D. (March 2009). “Engaging Ourselves to Engage Our Students,” IDRA Newsletter.

Dudley-Marling, C., & Lucas, K. (2009). “Pathologizing the Language and Culture of Poor Children,” Language Arts, 86 (5), 362-370.

Montemayor, A.M. (September 1996). “Keeping the Faith: Valuing Parents,” IDRA Newsletter.

Hector Bojorquez is IDRA’s Director of Operations. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at hector.bojorquez@idra.org.

[©2019, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 2019 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]