What does Ms. Rollison need to understand about student behavior?

Page 2: Cultural Influences on Behavior

Did You Know?

In 2007–2008:

  • 83% of public school teachers were White
  • 45% of public school students were part of a racial/ ethnic group other than White

(U.S. Department of Education, 2011)

Just as many beginning teachers do not expect students to misbehave, they are even more surprised to discover that a student’s classroom behavior can be influenced by cultural factors. In increasingly diverse classrooms, this is especially important to understand, given that teachers often come from a cultural background different from that of their students. To be effective when they interact with students, teachers must keep in mind two culturally influenced factors:

  • Styles of interaction
  • Response to authority figures

Without adequate knowledge and understanding of different cultures’ styles of interactions and responses to authority figures, a teacher might misinterpret a student’s behavior. This can result in conflicts within the classroom.

Styles of Interaction


Teachers must recognize that typical styles of interactions between students or between a student and an adult might vary from one culture to the next. Therefore, a teacher needs to understand how culture can influence a student’s:

  • Interactions with others
  • Interpretation of others’ interactions

Similarly, the way in which students interact with adults and peers in their homes might be different from what is typically considered appropriate in a school setting. Interaction styles across cultures might vary in regard to:  

Teacher meeting with parentsDegree of Directness: The appropriate way to approach an issue or topic during a conversation can vary by culture.

  • In some cultures, it is preferable to get right to the point or to say what you have to say in the most unequivocal manner possible, without considering how the listener might feel.
  • In other cultures, where the manner described above might be considered rude, preference is given to less-direct communication styles that include more elaborate introductory or intervening discourse and greater deference to how the message is received.

thumbs upLevel of Emotionality: Cultural variations exist in the extent to which outward signs of emotion are displayed in interactions with others.

  • Some cultures demonstrate dramatic emotions through speaking volume, tone of voice, gestures, and facial expressions.
  • Other cultures might place more emphasis on emotional restraint, depending more on the speaker’s words to convey the intended meaning.

adult gesturingDegree of Movement: There are cultural differences in the amount of physical movement that is considered appropriate when communicating with others.

  • In some cultures, it is acceptable to use body movement and gestures as a means of enhancing a story or emphasizing a point.
  • In other cultures, excessive body movement might be considered boastful or inappropriate.

A frustrated teacherVerbal Turn Taking: The extent to which an individual is comfortable taking turns during conversation, instead of talking while another person is speaking, might be culturally based.

  • In some cultures, it is common for speakers to engage in conversations in which more than one person speaks at a time or for the listener to interject commentary (e.g., “That’s right,” “Tell it”) as a means of signaling approval to a speaker.
  • In other cultures, this practice is viewed as an interruption and considered rude.

person reads in chair - another stands nearby listening to musicExpressions of Consideration: Students might show consideration for others by refraining from behaviors that might offend. Likewise, students might show consideration for others by being tolerant of behaviors that they find unpleasant or offensive.

  • In some cultures, one might show consideration by not playing loud music because others may be disturbed by it.
  • In other cultures, there might be a greater tendency to show consideration by learning to tolerate loud music if someone else is enjoying it.

friends talking on bedAttitudes Toward Personal Space: The level of tolerance for others entering one’s personal space might vary across cultures.

  • In some cultures, it is customary for speakers to remain at least two feet apart when speaking to one another. Failure to recognize this is often interpreted as a desire to seek intimacy or as a prelude to aggression.
  • Other cultures accept closer interactions as commonplace. The physical distancing of oneself may be interpreted as aloofness.

arguing about sharingAttitudes Toward Sharing: Ideas about personal ownership vary by culture and, consequently, influence attitudes and values related to sharing or borrowing objects.

  • Some cultures might emphasize communal property rights and reinforce the notion that “what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine.”
  • Other cultures might be less inclined to embrace a communal property philosophy and place greater value on individual ownership.

Response to Authority Figures

A teacher should also understand how culture shapes a student’s response to authority. They should recognize that the ways students are expected to respond to authority figures in their culture might be incongruent with what is expected at school. Although some kinds of student behavior—for example, avoiding eye contact—might seem inappropriate or disrespectful, in the student’s own culture they might be regarded as appropriate and respectful. Click on the links below to learn more about how culture might influence a student’s response to authority figures. 


No matter the school, students view their interactions with others through their own experiences and cultural backgrounds. It is important for teachers to reflect on how culture might influence a student’s interactions with both peers and adults.

Listen as Deborah Voltz, an expert in diversity and urban education, discusses how a teacher can become aware of whether culture is influencing a student’s behavior. Next, Lauren Acevedo, who teaches first-grade students in an urban elementary school, discusses how she became aware of the cultural influences on her students’ behavior.

Deborah Voltz
Deborah Voltz, EdD
Dean, School of Education
Director of the Center for Urban Education
University of Alabama
Birmingham, AL

(time: 1:27)

View Transcript

Lauren Acevedo
Lauren Acevedo
First-Grade Teacher
Nashville, TN


(time: 1:02)

View Transcript


Are You a Culturally Responsive Teacher?

Even teachers who believe themselves to be culturally responsive might benefit from an occasional self-assessment in five major components:

  • Reflective Thinking About the Students and Their “Group Membership”
  • Efforts To Develop an Authentic Relationship
  • Effective Communication
  • Connection to Curriculum
  • Sensitivity to Student’s Cultural and Situational Messages

Complete this activity to rate your cultural responsiveness to these components, each of which is made up of several related attitudes and practices. When you are done, click the “Finish” button to get some feedback. To begin, click here.


Adapted from “Double-Check: A Framework of Cultural Responsiveness Applied to Classroom Behavior,” by P. A. Hershfeldt, R. Sechrest, K. L. Pell, M. S. Rosenberg, C. P. Bradshaw, and P. J. Leaf, 2009,Teaching Exceptional Children Plus, 6(2).

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