As a new teacher, what do you need to know about managing student behavior?
Page 2: Cultural Considerations and Behavior
Culture is a word we use to describe any of the practices, beliefs and norms characteristic of a particular society, group, or place. When cultural practices involve easily observable characteristics such as the clothing people wear, the food they eat, the languages they speak, and the holidays and traditions they celebrate, we often refer to these practices as visible. However, many cultural practices are more subtle: people’s interpersonal relationships, family values, familial roles and obligations, interactions between peers and community members, and beliefs about power and authority. It’s important for teachers to understand that culture can:
- Influence the behavior of teachers and students alike
- Influence the behaviors and actions that occur daily in the classroom setting
- Affect teacher-student interactions
- Impact the extent to which teachers are able to manage behavior
For Your Information
Race is not synonymous with culture. However, racial identity is the product of social, historical, and political contexts, and thus students’ racial and cultural identities often share many commonalities.
It is also important for teachers to recognize that their students’ cultural practices and beliefs might well be different from their own. These differences, or cultural gaps, frequently lead to disparities in the ways teachers respond to behavior. Click here to view examples that illustrate certain specific perspectives and approaches that might result in cultural gaps.
Teachers should identify and anticipate potential cultural gaps that may influence their behaviors and interactions with students. To more effectively do so, teachers should have an understanding of their own culture and their students’ cultures. Click on the tabs below to learn more.
Before teachers can begin to navigate the complexities of the diverse student backgrounds in their classrooms, it is crucial that they take time to examine their own beliefs and cultural practices. Teachers may not realize how much of their daily routines and practices are influenced by their cultural practices and upbringing. From the holidays and traditions they celebrate, to the way they interact with others and show respect to those in positions of authority, many of the choices and actions teachers make each and every day are influenced by culture. These beliefs and actions can affect the way they operate their classrooms, including how they go about creating rules, procedures, and consequences, and execute their classroom behavior management plan.
Listen as Lori Delale O’Connor discusses why it’s important to understand one’s own culture, as well as how the culture in classrooms and schools impacts students.
Lori Delale-O’Connor, PhD
Assistant Professor of Education
University of Pittsburgh School of Education
To gain a better understanding of your own knowledge, attitudes, and practices, as well as to identify areas of strength and growth, complete the Double-Check Self-Assessment. When you are done, click the “Finish” button to get some feedback.
Note: If you have worked through Classroom Behavior Management (Part 1): Key Concepts and Foundational Practices, you may have completed this assessment.
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).
Students and teachers may have similar cultural backgrounds and experiences, share only certain cultural experiences, or be altogether different from one another. When cultural gaps are present, students may not understand what is expected of them or how to interact with others. Learning about students’ cultures can help teachers:
- Identify areas in which students may need more support and explicit teaching of behavior rules and procedures
- Create rules and consequences that align with students’ cultural beliefs and practices
Following are some examples of how teachers can learn more about their students and their cultural backgrounds, experiences, and practices.
- Instruct students to write an autobiography.
- Have students interview each other about their family’s culture and practices then provide them with an opportunity to share what they learned about their peers with the class. Alternatively, instruct students to interview one or more family member(s) about culture and practices and ask them to share what they have learned with the class.
- Incorporate works by writers that reflect the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of the students.
- Encourage students to discuss how their cultural practices or beliefs may differ from how they are depicted in literature and other media.
- Invite family members to teach a lesson or to share something about their culture, traditions, holidays, or cuisine.
Listen as Andrew Kwok discusses the importance of teachers understanding their students’ cultures. Next, KaMalcris Cottrell highlights how her school creates a safe space where students are able to share their beliefs and values.
Andrew Kwok, PhD
Assistant Professor, Department of
Teaching, Learning, and Culture
Texas A&M University
School Behavior Support
To learn more about student diversity, view the following IRIS Modules:
Although many different cultures are represented in schools across the country, what is commonly perceived as “appropriate behavior” typically reflects white, middle-class cultural norms and values. These norms are reflected in classroom rules and procedures around behavior, communication, and student participation. Some students (or groups of students) may thrive within a particular school setting because their norms and practices align with these rules and procedures. In other words, they have the cultural capital—the acquired skills and behaviors that are accepted within a group and which give that group an advantage in a given environment. On the other hand, students with different cultural backgrounds may not innately grasp or understand traditional classroom rules and procedures because they do not align with what is considered appropriate or standard behavior in their home or community.
As noted above, when a student’s culture does not align with that of the classroom, this can result in cultural gaps. Cultural gaps can cause teachers to misinterpret students’ behavior—especially more subjective behaviors (e.g., disrespect, noncompliance)—which can lead to conflict. These conflicts can have a range of effects:
- Students feeling misunderstood or marginalized
- Escalation of misbehavior and aggression
- Higher rates of discipline referrals
- Students leaving school altogether
Let’s explore the effects of teachers misinterpreting student behavior in more depth. Black and Latino students, in particular, are subject to more frequent and harsher discipline compared to their white peers. This holds true starting as young as preschool and continues through high school. Oftentimes, this discipline is the result of subjective understandings of student behavior such as interpreting an action as “rude” or “disrespectful” rather than understanding that the behavior may stem from cultural differences. These subjective interpretations lead to negative outcomes for students that further exclude them from learning opportunities, including higher rates of suspensions, expulsions, and even students leaving school.
Checking in with Mr. Medina
Mr. Medina considers it respectful for his students to make eye contact when he is speaking to them. Preeti, on the other hand, has been taught that making eye contact is disrespectful to adults, and so she looks at the ground when Mr. Medina speaks to her. Mr. Medina’s understanding of culturally based responses is critical to deciphering Preeti’s intent. If the teacher does not understand Preeti’s culture, a seemingly insignificant action like looking at the ground could be misinterpreted as defiance, apathy, or lack of respect and could result in the teacher administering a negative consequence.
During the 2017–2018 school year, Black students in grades K-12 accounted for approximately 15 percent of total student enrollment. However, Black students were overrepresented in disciplinary actions. They accounted for approximately:
- 31 percent of in-school suspensions (one or more instances)
- 38 percent of one or more out-of-school suspensions (one or more instances)
- 38 percent of all expulsions (with and without educational services)
Additionally, data from the 2018–2019 school year indicate that Black students with disabilities ages 3–21 were overrepresented in disciplinary removals—incidences involving a student being taken out of an educational setting for disciplinary purposes (e.g., in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension, expulsion, removal to an alternative educational setting, removal by a hearing officer). In the table below, note how the number of disciplinary removals for Black students is twice the average among all racial/ethnic groups and nearly three times the average for White students.
Average Number of Disciplinary Removals Among Students with Disabilities
(Sources: National Center for Education Statistics; U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights; U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs)
When teachers understand how cultural gaps negatively impact some students, they can more effectively develop a culturally sustaining classroom behavior management plan (e.g., rules, procedures, and consequences). Although the plan should be developed before the school year begins, it is important to be flexible and allow for changes throughout the school year as teachers learn more about their students. Some ways to make the plan more culturally sustaining are to:
- Ask for student input — Discuss components of the classroom behavior management plan (e.g., rules, procedures, consequences) with students. This discussion can include:
- Acceptable behavior at home or in their culture
- Fair or appropriate behavior in the classroom that allows everyone to be successful
- Compromises needed to address discrepancies in cultural norms. For example, some cultures prioritize the sharing of resources (e.g., pencils, paper) while others value independent ownership. A good compromise might be to allow both but with criteria for when each is appropriate.
- Seek family input — Learn more about the cultural practices of the student and family and what promotes the student’s success. This information can be gathered formally or informally through:
- Meetings (Meet the Teacher night, parent-teacher conferences)
- Frequent two-way communication (emails, phone calls)
- Build relationships with students — When teachers and students learn more about and develop a mutual respect for each other:
- Teachers gain a better understanding of what students need to engage in class and to succeed
- Students gain a better understanding of why particular rules and procedures are necessary to help the class run smoothly and to help the class succeed
- Encourage relationships among students — When students get to know each other, they are more likely to:
- Understand and respect each others’ differences
- Help one another to learn and grow
Listen as Lori Delale O’Connor discusses cultural capital and what it means for students in the classroom. Next Andrew Kwok discusses the discrepancies that may exist between the school and classroom culture and students’ cultures. Finally, he talks about developing a culturally sustaining classroom behavior management plan.
Lori Delale-O’Connor, PhD
Assistant Professor of Education
University of Pittsburgh
School of Education
Andrew Kwok, PhD
Department of Teaching, Learning, and Culture
Texas A&M University
Discrepancies between classroom and students’ cultures
Developing a culturally sustaining classroom behavior management plan
Keep in Mind
Many classrooms include English language learners (ELLs) who are in the early stages of learning English or are still acquiring academic English language skills. What may appear as noncompliance to a verbal/written instruction or rule may in fact be a language misunderstanding. To support ELLs in understanding classroom rules and procedures, teachers should:
- Model appropriate behaviors and expectations
- Use pictures or other graphics to support language comprehension
- Use positive statements (e.g., “You can sit down.”) instead of negative statements (e.g., “Don’t get up from your seat.”)
- Use peers/school staff who speak the student’s home language to help explain rules and procedures
- Provide the rules and procedures in the student’s home language (when possible)
To learn more about English language learners, visit the following IRIS Module:
For more information on cultural influences on behavior, view the following IRIS Module: