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Cultural Influences on Behavior

September 15, 2021, The IRIS Center

Lori Delale-O’Connor, Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education, discusses cultural influences on behavior and explains the importance of re-examining classroom practices and perceptions of acceptable student behavior. She also discusses how demographic differences can lead to cultural gaps that negatively impact students and offers examples of how teachers can implement culturally sustaining practices to create inclusive classrooms where all students feel supported (time: 15:27).

Questions asked Lori Delale-O’Connor in this audio:

  1. What is culture and how does it influence student behavior? Additionally, how might you address student behavior that is not consistent with the overall expectations of the school culture?
  2. Can you describe how demographic differences can create cultural gaps? With this in mind, how can teachers implement culturally sustaining practices that not only accept but foster students’ cultural norms and values?
  3. How can teachers implement culturally sustaining practices in a classroom in which many different cultures are represented?

Lori Delale OConnor

Lori Delale-O’Connor, PhD
Assistant Professor of Education
University of Pittsburgh School of Education

Transcript: Lori Delale-O’Connor, PhD

Narrator: This interview is brought to you by the IRIS Center, a national center funded by the Office of Special Education Programs.

Dr. Delale-O’Connor, can you tell us what culture is and explain how it influences student behavior? Additionally, how might you address student behavior that is not consistent with the overall expectations of the school culture?

Lori: Culture is those taken-for-granted behaviors and practices of who and what we are. And so if it’s at home, those are the things that make up what we do and how we engage. If it’s at school, those are the things that make up who we are and what we do and what’s expected. And we just think of it as “normal,” so it’s often completely unexamined. I think there are a lot of examples between ways we might see variation in the culture of the school and the culture that students are expecting or students are engaging in. Of course, it varies from place to place and even sometimes from classroom to classroom, depending on the young people that make up that classroom. But one place, I think, you can see it in a very broad way is around expectations for student engagement and maybe even more of how a student would participate in the classroom community and demonstrate their understanding, their knowledge, their participation, and the expectations in particular around, say for instance, who’s talking and who has the floor and who is able to engage. And I think especially when young people are in spaces where they talk at the same time or they talk over each other, where they’re engaging with each other, in addition to engaging with the adults in the room–that could be teachers, that could be other educators–it’s recognizing if you are a teacher that feels like we need to go one at a time, or we need to make sure that that exchange comes from the teacher asking the question or the teacher posing something, as opposed to being more generated by students or more exchanged across the students.

I think sometimes, as teachers, they feel like they need to manage that. And the expectation is, if I’m not managing that, I’m not the one in charge, and I’m not maintaining a good classroom environment. And so recognizing why might students want to engage that way. Why might that be the way they’re used to engaging and what might be gained from it? I think, in general, when we examine cultural shifts in our classroom practices or in our schools, that it’s what is the current climate serving? Who is it serving? And how could any of these shifts be better in particular for students? At the core, it is supporting students in their learning and their understanding, in developing the skills we want them to develop then we need to have them at the core and think about how we center their experiences and their ways of being. And one way of doing that is flipping the script and saying, okay, so let’s try it your way, and let’s see what that looks like. And sometimes that means feeling uncomfortable as a teacher because it looks different than the practices that we’ve engaged in before. Sometimes that may mean feeling uncomfortable as a building principal, as an administrator, because the school may look a little bit different. But then seeing does that serve? Does that mean that you have students who are more engaged or who are happier to be in school, who are achieving in various ways that they maybe weren’t before? And, again, you may reexamine that cultural shift and say, okay, this isn’t serving us well, either. But it’s sort of the willingness and the humility to say maybe we could try this a different way. And so I think in terms of student engagement that’s one thing that we see regularly across classrooms that teachers and students can examine in concert with one another. Even the youngest students can recognize, oh, hey, you expect me to sit still in this particular way and not talk to my friends, but talk directly to you, and let’s try it a different way and maybe it’s a little louder, a little more challenging, but maybe there’s still really good learning happening. And so I think that is one practice that seems to be common across places and across ages that certainly bears examination.

You could also imagine a space where classroom engagement aligns with what students are used to at home or used to when they’re in the community, but it basically undermines learning. And that would be where then teachers would have to say, look, this isn’t serving us right. This is not serving our classroom community. Again, you could use the example of student engagement and say, it is more common for me to be physical, or it is more common for us to talk over each other? But if no one’s being heard there might need to be other parameters, rules, put in to support that engagement. I’ve seen it in spaces, particularly with younger kids, but you can do it with older kids, as well, where you might have a ball. So now I’ve said something, and rather than the teacher calling on somebody, the person that is leaning forward and they’re saying, I want to participate, you toss them the ball. Or something that can move around so that engagement still happens. But we are still able to hear each other and have that exchange, and we feel like we’re participating. So something like that can sort of serve to mediate and keep it from breaking out into total chaos in the classroom, because of course we don’t want that either. I think at the core it’s not, again, what’s easy or what’s serving the teacher best but what’s serving the classroom as a whole.

Narrator: Can you describe how demographic differences can create cultural gaps? With this in mind, how can teachers implement culturally sustaining practices that not only accept but foster students’ cultural norms and values?

Lori: We know that our teaching population in the United States is primarily white, is primarily female as well. And that looks very, very different and continues to be increasingly different from the student population. And recognizing that the education system itself was built and continues to be built on what is deemed appropriate typically is a reflection of white, middle class cultural norms and values. And so I think it’s important to note the potential gap between students and teachers because of these demographic differences. And making sure that teachers are not acting in ways that are culture neutral or that they believe are culture free, because that just doesn’t exist. One of the things that I think is most important to emphasize as we think about culture and what it looks like in your classroom, what it looks like in your school: As you’re seeing and engaging your students, it can be hard to see beliefs. And normally where we see culture show up is in norms and practices that we think of as just being normal and being the things that we do.

There are highly visible aspects of culture many times, including clothing, food, language, events that are celebrated. And so I think that part is important and can be a nice inroads for teachers to engage and support students in very positive ways around their culture and to learn around their culture. And that can be a wonderful first step. And I think it’s important to recognize that it’s a first step, to see those differences and to support students and see how awesome and wonderful those differences are. And I think, especially for younger children, that can be a really great way for them to recognize the differences and be able to articulate them themselves, that this looks different. We eat different food at home than some of my friends do at school or than they serve in the school cafeteria, and that’s connected to my family’s culture. And so that can be a really great first step or we practice this holiday and that looks different than the other students in the classroom or than the teacher or these are events we celebrate in my family. And again I think that’s a great first step. That’s a great way to support younger kids especially. It supports the inroads into understanding those more-subtle aspects of culture. So what do our interactions look like? What are the things that my family values? How do I know that they value those things? What do I believe based on what I’ve learned and how I’ve been raised about the role of my teacher or the role of learning? And so those more-visible things then support teachers in recognizing and then having conversations about or engaging in activity around those more-subtle things, because those are the things we do every day. And, again, we don’t necessarily recognize about ourselves and don’t recognize that we are aware of in our students unless we’re actively acknowledging them. One other important point, as we think about the impacts of cultural differences between students and teachers in particular, that there are often negative impacts the entire way through from preschool through high school for children of color, particularly Black and Latinx children in terms of being disciplined more frequently, disciplined more harshly than their white peers, and this discipline is often the result of subjective understandings of young people’s behavior on the part of teachers. So they may misinterpret or interpret students’ behaviors as rude or disrespectful, and that can result in outcomes such as suspensions or expulsions and students being pushed out of school into juvenile detention, even into arrest, which we know can ultimately result in students dropping out of school and all of those things can, at least in part, be connected back to culture and misunderstandings or misinterpretations of students’ behavior.

Narrator: How can teachers implement culturally sustaining practices in a classroom in which many different cultures are represented?

Lori: When you bring a culturally sustaining model or culturally sustainable practices into a classroom that is filled with many different cultures, I think it is that much richer because that also includes the teacher’s culture. We all have cultures, and they look different from each other. Even when we’re from the same community and in the same classroom community, some of them could be vast differences. Where you’re like, wow, we do things completely differently in the culture that I’m growing up in as a student versus the culture that the person sitting next to me is growing up and in their home. And we might be part of the same broader community. We also have communities within the community that we are part of. And so part of it is learning from each other. And there are very concrete ways you can do that. In terms of practices, you might say, okay, how do you do this at home? And we might round-robin and say, oh, wow, that looks different than the way I do that at home or the way my grandmother tells me that I’m supposed to do this or the way that my mom says that we’re supposed to do this. So some of it is just asking, and we talk about those differences and see them.

I was fortunate to be a social studies teacher so we could talk about from a historical perspective, what has that looked like in the context we’re in, in the United States. If that’s where you are in a particular region, this is how it was done. And then you could ask students, how does that connect or align or totally contrast what your experience of that was or what you know about that or how your family talks about that? Another really great way is bringing in outside texts. I’m a huge fan of the novel because students can see how different people live and how they learn and how they engage. And it doesn’t have to be a real person. It doesn’t have to be an example from their classroom. And then they can write about or talk about or engage with each other about like, wow, that looks really different. That wasn’t something I knew or, oh, that looks exactly like the way I do this. And that can be done across content areas. I’m a big fan of picture books across ages. I was fortunate when I taught high school, we would use picture books to teach literacy skills and other things because everybody can use that as a foundation. And sometimes older students would be, like, we’re using a picture book, but they would engage it because you could see, oh, hey, in the picture… It didn’t matter what people’s reading levels were. You could talk about some of those comparisons and talk about some of those differences. And then, as you are building curricula and I would say really focusing on working with students to build that curricula, incorporating those different ways. Hey, we’re going to do this. And you might have three different assignments because some students are, like, I want to do it in a way that allows me to bring in my family. I want to do it in a way that allows me to do it in song. I want to do it in a way that allows me to present with my friends, and we can talk about those contrasts.

And so I think one of the keys around being culturally responsive is not saying, oh, hey, now I’m going to do it this way. I’m going to shift from a very hard way of doing things to a different, hard-and-fast way of doing things. In some ways it’s sort of like a river. It’s always changing the flow. And so it’s, like, okay, well, now I have a different set of students who have different experiences in my classroom, and I’m going to respond to what they know and then support them being able to incorporate that knowledge into their own communities, recognizing that that’s going to look different from student to student. I think that that element of transparency, if I’m saying, hey, the way you practice, that’s interesting to me because I’ve never seen that before, and in my family or in my community, that would be so disrespectful. I have been very much taught that we don’t do that. And then the teacher can help facilitate that conversation and say, you know, those are two different practices. Why might that look different or how might you take this back? If you were talking to your parent or if you’re talking to your grandparents, would that change the way you practice? Maybe not. And part of what that supports all the students doing is recognizing also that we engage in different ways depending on the spaces that we’re in. And supporting young people in examining these practices and recognizing, again, when they’re different, because sometimes it’s just that they’re different or when they really are not supporting their humanity, not supporting their growth and development and are undermining their ability to learn and grow.

Narrator: Thank you for listening to this episode of the IRIS Center podcast. For more information about the IRIS Center and its resources, visit us at [].

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