George Lucas Educational Foundation
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School behavior problems often originate outside of the classroom. For example, asthma is the number one cause of absenteeism. When asthmatics are unable to sleep at night, they miss class or arrive at school so sleep drunk and irritable that disruptive behavior ensues, getting them tossed out of class. Consequently, they fall more behind in classwork, which increases academic struggle. More outbursts and further truancy results.

Poverty and race nitro-accelerate the cycle. Compared to only 1% of white children, 17% of black children suffer from asthma because low-income African-Americans are more likely to live in substandard, allergen-dense housing. Also, they have less access to preventative medicine. And that’s just one cause of classroom misbehavior.

Don’t blame asthmatic students, their parents, or their teachers. Blame a brutal ecosystem that is riddled with the following inequities:

Society pays a high price for these inequities. According to data revealed at a Columbia University Teachers College symposium on “The Social Costs of Inadequate Education,” dropouts die 9.2 years earlier than students who graduate high school and annually cost $4.5 billion in lost income taxes and earnings.

What can teachers do to reduce these inequities?

Take the Cultural Competence Test

Our perceptions and values might feel stable, but they’re actually influenced by social forces. For example, you might be surprised at how different ethnicities respond to this prompt:

“Suppose you are on a boat with your mother, your spouse, and your child.  Suddenly, the boat begins to sink.  You determine that you can only save one of the other passengers.  Whom do you save?”

Of the U.S. citizens who answer the question, 60% decide to save their spouse and 40% save their children. In contrast, Asian populations assert that they would save their mothers nearly 100% of the time because you can spawn more kids and marry again, but you only get one mother. The point is that multiple cultures looking at the same problem often invent different solutions -- solutions that individuals without cultural competence would label as “wrong.”

Cultural competence is the ability to successfully communicate and empathize with people from diverse cultures and incomes, skills needed to close the achievement gap, according to the National Education Association. Teachers, in particular, need to engage in on-going examinations of their attitudes about identity and cultures, and strive to minimize racial disparities.

To determine your cultural competence rank, complete the Cultural Proficiency Receptivity Scale.

Cultural Competence Begins With Relationship-Building

There is no way to memorize the social nuances of every subculture. So be curious. Ask questions of cultural brokers (individuals who can facilitate understanding between two cultures) and show students that you care. In their article, Classroom Management in Diverse Classrooms, authors Richard Milner IV and Blake Tenore interviewed a middle-school science teacher in a poor community:

One thing I try to let kids know this year is that I really do care about them, you know, whenever I see them. You know, I love you. I want to see you play basketball. I want graduation invitations. You know, that’s not going to happen though, if you don’t straighten up in class.

To build rapport, talk directly to children outside of class, using their names. Also begin class by checking in -- asking kids how they’re doing -- even if the misbehavior of the previous class reached biblical proportions.

Culturally Responsive Classroom Management

Culturally Responsive Classroom Management (CRCM) seeks to provide “all students with equitable opportunities for learning” by minimizing discriminatory school discipline practices that occur when the behaviors of nondominant populations are misinterpreted. A white paper on the topic, produced by New York University’s Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, comprehensively explains the model. Meanwhile, here are some tips related to CRCM:

What positive classroom management techniques work in your classroom?

  1. Monitor your discourse style. Indirect requests (“Would you like to let me finish reading the directions?”) can confuse some children who are used to receiving explicit directives from their working-class parents.
  2. Clarify expectations. If you put students into groups, for example, explain and model the difference between “helping” and “doing the work for” a partner.
  3. Be sensitive to how diverse cultures deal with conflict. Many citizens of Asian countries avoid open conflict, believing that differences are best worked out quietly. Written exchanges might be preferred over face-to-face conflict resolution.
  4. Emphasize a positive environment, not punishment. A study from the Council of State Governments Justice Center reports that classroom rule breaking decreases when “welcome parties” and other inviting measures are enacted. Increasing punishment fails to change student behaviors.
  5. Use humor. In their investigation of a disciplinary alternative school with students from nondominant racial backgrounds, Debra Pane, Lynne Miller, and Agela Salmon describe how one culinary teacher, “Mr. Jenkins," earned students’ consent and trust through humor. “When students from other classrooms walked in without passes to buy food, Mr. Jenkins examined the bootleg pass, humorously sending them back to class -- I’m supposed to do this, ain’t I?”

Although it is natural for teachers to want to bolster their authority in classrooms that have a rocky start, focus on building relationships. It can make all the difference.

What positive classroom management techniques work in your classroom?

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Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)

Thanks Melanie...I learned a lot about the subject---seems like we're just scratching the surface of an important subject.

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)

Thank you Don! I'm hoping to learn much more about the subject in weeks to come.

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)

Thank you so much. I'm going to share that resource on Terrell and the Carson quote with my preservice teachers!

Kristin Davis's picture

Is the link to the Cultural Proficiency Receptivity Scale supposed to take us to Cecil County Public Schools' website? I was having a hard time finding the scale. We just discussed this topic in PD at our school yesterday, and as an 8th grade world cultures teacher, I'd like to introduce the year by having my students become more aware of their own culture so that they understand others' cultures in a deeper way. Thanks for a well-written article!

BrianK's picture

When I first started studying TESOL/TEFL, one of the most useful references was Swan & Smith's "Learner English"--a compendium of contrastive analyses that provides a detailed description of English language learner challenges by language/culture. Is there anything similar for culturally responsive classroom management (CRCM) that provides a comparison of cultural learning styles & customs to use as a reference?

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Hi there Brian, this book chapter from ASCD might help a little, it contains strategies to use in the classroom plus discusses curriculum design. I also wrote a post recently about being mindful of cultural difference: I didn't include teaching strategies that go with each behaviour, it would depend on the teacher as well as the learning outcome. Let me know if that helps.

BrianK's picture

Thank you, Rusul--your post was very useful. Much appreciated. Do you know where I might find the link to the ASCD book chapter you referenced? Thanks again!

Yaa Adoma's picture
Yaa Adoma
Rethink education/teaching/learning in Mali; aiming to change the statistics, one child at a time.

A very helpful article, Todd. Interesting, that question about whom you would choose to save first (mother or spouse). It is often used as an icebreaker in Ghana by peddlers of herbal concoctions on commercial buses; I never thought of the cultural connotations of the responses.
Would you mind sharing the link to that competency scale again? What is here leads to a File Not Found page. Many thanks.

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