- Define culturally responsive teaching.
- Explain how culturally responsive teaching leads to better learning outcomes for all children.
- Describe areas in your practice where culturally responsive teaching opportunities exist.
What do you think of when you hear the word 'culture’? How do you define it? You may think of several things, including the culture of a group of people (an office or neighborhood), or you may think of the culture that you associate with your family, race, and ethnicity. Culture can be defined in many ways, but at the heart of it, you will find a shared set of values, beliefs, habits, customs, and practices. Researcher, Donna Y, Ford defines culture in this way:
Culturally responsive teaching is a term that was created by researcher, Geneva Gay. The term evolved from culturally relevant teaching, which is a philosophy and way of teaching focused on three main components: student learning, cultural competence; and critical consciousness (Ladson-Billings, 1995). Culturally responsive teaching is centered on several different components, including:
- A strong understanding of cultural diversity.
- A culturally relevant curriculum.
- High expectations for every child, especially students of color.
- An appreciation for different styles of communication.
- The use of multicultural instruction - teaching styles and pedagogy.
Donna Y. Ford encourages educators to consider culturally responsive education to be grounded in equity. She also asks you to think about the term ‘responsive’, which means to address a need. Therefore, culturally responsive teaching uses the knowledge, customs, perspectives, and experiences of racially and ethnically diverse students to create better instructional opportunities. As Gay (2018) reminds us “virtually every student can do something well” (p. 1). Therefore, teachers are encouraged to learn to identify, celebrate, and connect students’ potential and skills with their teaching strategies. Think about how difficult it might be to teach or care for a child that you don’t know. While this may sound like a strange concept, too often this exact scenario happens when educators limit their knowledge about a child to who they are in the context of their program, ignoring all the other parts of the child’s identity and experiences. While Ladson-Billings's and Gay’s models include different components, their ideas are similar. Instead of looking at children of color from a deficit perspective, both models seek to focus on the assets that children of color possess, and then incorporate their knowledge and experiences into instructional practices and curriculum development and materials (e.g., books, videos, crayons, dolls, toys, and so on).
Components of Culturally Responsive Teaching
Below, you will find descriptions for the five key components included in culturally responsive teaching:
- A strong understanding of cultural diversity that recognizes the different cultural values and customs of various races and ethnicities, their traditions and impact on society, and then connects that knowledge to the support and instruction provided by the teacher.
- Curriculum that is culturally relevant. Teachers should provide multiple perspectives instead of only one perspective. Materials, including images displayed on walls and bulletin boards, should reflect a wide range of diversity. Issues involving race, gender, ethnicity and class should be placed in context for children and youth. Topics and materials are of interest to minoritized children, such as multicultural literature,
- Expectations are high to support the success of every child while still respecting and validating their cultural identities. This component is a reminder that every child deserves to succeed and should be supported to reach their full potential. As educators, we cannot allow some children to succeed, while allowing other children to fail, and remain OK with these outcomes.
- An appreciation for different styles of communication with the understanding that different cultures interact in different ways. For example, many communities of color have an active style of communication where an individual may begin speaking before someone else is finished. This may feel more conversational and less formal in these cultures but to someone outside of this community this manner of communication may appear rude or inappropriate and a child may be told to be quiet or wait until the other person is finished before talking. This could cause the child to stop engaging in the discussion due to the mismatch between their culture and the expectation of an educator.
- The use of multicultural curricular and instructional examples can be used by staff members to connect prior knowledge and cultural experiences to new information.
It’s important to note that while culturally responsive teaching is meant to make learning more relevant and effective for ethnically diverse students (Gay, 2018), all children benefit from culturally responsive teaching. Educational opportunities are often designed with middle class, White children in mind even though the populations of many programs do not fit this profile. White children from lower socioeconomic classes often have very different experiences than their wealthier White peers despite being from the same racial group. It is also important to remember that all White children do not have the same ethnic background or experiences. Culturally responsive teaching can incorporate ethnicity into the curriculum to help children recognize the diversity that exists within their own race and appreciate and celebrate the diversity found among other races and ethnicities. Culturally responsive teachers should look beyond racial identity and consider the other aspects of culture children and youth carry with them, including age, gender, religion, sexual orientation, social class, and the geographic location of their home (rural, urban or suburban). Educators can find ways to affirm all of these aspects of a child’s identity by connecting them to the activities and experiences in the classroom.
Culturally Responsive Teaching in Practice
Certain aspects of culturally responsive teaching will sound familiar since it includes elements of anti-bias and anti-racist teaching. Programs that practice culturally responsive teaching include a wide array of books that feature images and characters that represent various ages, genders, races, and ethnicities. A culturally responsive program will include a variety of books about diversity and will not be limited to one type of diversity, such as gender, race or ethnicity, since all aspects of diversity are important and must be affirmed in culturally responsive teaching.
Culturally responsive teaching shares multiple perspectives of historical and current information rather than a single story of a group of people. For example, when discussing the enslavement of African Americans, narratives told from the perspective of those who were enslaved should be shared, and narratives about the ways that the enslaved resisted and found ways to survive should also be included to provide a better understanding of that period. When children and youth learn about Indigenous people, they should learn that many of the struggles that existed for them in the past are still present, including the fight for their land and the fight for their human rights. Children and youth should also learn about the rich and beautiful culture of the Indigenous people. While some individuals still believe that children are too young to talk about race, culturally responsive teaching would provide insight into the critical role that young children played in the Civil Rights Movement and the important role that women played in the movement in terms of organizing, strategizing and leading groups of people to demand their civil rights. Too often, these narratives are left out of the larger story, but culturally responsive teaching seeks to correct these wrongs by shining a light on voices that are often overlooked or purposefully omitted.
In culturally responsive teaching, children are encouraged and given opportunities to draw from their prior knowledge and experiences and connect it to what they are learning. This validates the knowledge that children and youth may learn at home or outside of schools and programs and it allows them to make connections between their learning. Another important aspect of culturally responsive teaching is critical consciousness. Critically conscious children are given the tools to examine, critique, and analyze inequities in society. For example, rather than having youth simply read historical documents like the Pledge of Allegiance or the Declaration of Independence, culturally responsive teaching encourages them to carefully decipher the meaning behind the text and question whether the liberties that these documents talk about were truly meant for everyone and to consider what these historical texts mean in today’s context. Donna Y. Ford often shares the story of a teacher who was reading the inscription of the Statue of Liberty to third-grade children. One child whose family were undocumented immigrants was troubled and confused. “Teacher,” he asked, “why do some people want my family to go back to Mexico and build a fence’? She was unprepared for this question; had never considered how her students might feel based on their experiences and social media. How would you respond to this question? Would you have anticipated this child’s legitimate question and concern? Would you have already addressed it in your lesson plan?
Culturally responsive teaching considers how the routines and expectations of a program may not be supportive of all children and youth and works to change/remove inequities. For example, many programs may have rules around communication and encourage children to wait their turn before speaking. Culturally responsive teaching, instead, looks for ways to incorporate the cultural practices found in many communities of color where an overlap in communication is supported. This is known as ‘call and response’. With this awareness, children would not be seen as rude or inappropriate for talking at the same time as someone else. While this may seem like a small adjustment, oftentimes, children of color may be disciplined for a communication style that feels normal to them but is considered inappropriate or wrong in their school or program. This more accurately reflects the ways that schools and programs often do not match the cultural norms that children and youth are accustomed to at home.
It is important to note that most classrooms and programs reflect the culture, language, experiences, and norms of White children overall, but especially those who are higher income. What is often described as “best practice” and “developmentally appropriate” typically aligns with cultural frameworks derived from Eurocentric perspectives (Iruka et al., 2020, p. 60). As a result, many programs do not recognize or acknowledge the cultural clashes that occur between home and school. For example, some cultures focus on the collaborative effort and achievement of the group, as opposed to the effort and achievement of one person/students, which, to repeat, is primarily the focus in programs and schools. These two examples and many others can be difficult concepts and behaviors for students to navigate, especially younger children, and can lead to challenging behaviors and frustration. This is important to keep in mind when working with children from racial and ethnically diverse backgrounds.
The Opposite of Culturally Responsive Teaching
Some educators believe that they are practicing culturally responsive teaching when they are not. If programs are engaging in “Culture Week,” “Culture Month,” or hosting potlucks to get a glimpse into various cultures, they are not truly practicing culturally responsive teaching. Many refer to this practice as ‘tourism’. James A. Banks, the founder of a multicultural curricular infusion model, calls this the ‘contributions approach’, which is the lowest level of integrating multicultural content into the program and often promotes and reinforces stereotypes about people of color. Quick and shallow attempts to engage in culturally responsive teaching are not effective and do not represent the correct and desired way to teach. Adding a few diverse books to a bookshelf does not represent culturally responsive teaching, which Banks labels as the ‘additive approach/level”. It is temporary and disconnected from other aspects of what is explored in the overall curriculum. The various elements of culturally responsive teaching require more than a surface level effort to affirm the rich identities and heritage of children and youth.
Equally important, programs that ignore societal inequities or discuss them from a single perspective are not teaching in a culturally responsive manner. Programs that talk about culturally responsive teaching but continue to look at children of color as problems to be solved, individuals who need saving, or troublemakers that they must tolerate, are not teaching in a culturally responsive manner. Ford considers this to be ‘culturally assaultive’ and others refer to it as ‘curricular violence’. Therefore, the development of a critical awareness is so important and essential in this work because it will allow educators, children, and youth to connect current inequities to historical information and see how all the “deficits” that children of color supposedly have were created to marginalize them indefinitely. These deficit-oriented perspectives are intentional and allow the myth of a racial hierarchy to remain in place.
Culturally responsive teaching, like anti-bias teaching, must not appear in your curriculum for a part of the year and then disappear. Some identities should not make a guest appearance in your program, while other identities have a starring role during the year. Culturally responsive teaching is about affirming the lived experiences and prior knowledge of children and youth, and it allows them to draw from their customs and culture to make connections to their learning. Research has shown that when teachers and educators teach in culturally responsive ways, children and youth are more engaged and feel validated. This seems logical since it allows their experiences to be affirmed and it recognizes their knowledge. Rather than always being positioned as the learner trying to make connections to distant worlds, facts, and identities that do not resemble your own or anyone that you know, culturally responsive teaching makes it clear that children of color have experiences that must be included in curricula and in how it is taught. Again, culturally responsive teaching should not be an add-on to your lessons or something that appears as an afterthought in your planning. It should be central to your lessons and centered in your planning to achieve the goal of affirming the experiences, knowledge, and customs of children and youth of color. Gay reminds us, “The highest-quality educational programs and practices can never be accomplished if some ethnic groups and their contributions to the development of U.S. history, life, and culture are ignored or demeaned” (Gay, 2018, p. 21).
Creating Culturally Relevant Activities
When something is relevant, it has meaning, significance, and a purpose in your life or context. Before you begin the work of designing or adapting activities to be culturally responsive, you should first look at your current practices, content, and materials. You can do this in several ways. One way to get a better understanding of your current practice is to have the Training & Curriculum Specialist observe you several times throughout the week and provide you with feedback on how your practices align with the components of culturally responsive teaching. You can also record yourself engaging in several planned activities to see what practices you have in place that may align with culturally responsive teaching and what you can improve upon or eliminate. While reviewing your video recordings, keep the components of culturally responsive teaching nearby, so you can see which aspects are already in place and which ones you need to add to future activities and experiences. In time, this work will not require as much thinking and effort, as you will begin to find that it becomes more natural for you to center these elements in your practice. However, in the beginning, you will need to be very intentional about your planning and engage in careful reviews to see where the evidence of culturally responsive teaching exists or is missing. Be mindful of the degree to which your learning environment is equitable and inviting (Ford, 2015a, 2015b).
To ensure that you are not overlooking critical information as you review the recordings, it is important to have a colleague, coach, or someone who is familiar with the cultures in your program review the recordings as well. While reviewing, look to see how often you interact with children representing different genders, ages, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and income levels and social classes. Notice if your interactions with each group look the same or different and examine the reasons behind your choices. Also pay close attention to how you interpret nonverbal communication. Do you pay attention to this type of communication, or is it ignored, and why? As you begin to design more culturally responsive activities, remember that children can provide (in)valuable insight to help with your planning. Partnering with families can also provide insight into topics to adopt and explore. While you may not have all of the answers early on, it’s important to remember that answers are not as important as the questions that the children and youth will ask about you, their peers, and the world around them. Let their questions and observations encourage and guide you.
One example of a culturally responsive activity that could be included in your curriculum plans is an “All About Me” activity. This activity typically includes information about a child, such as their name, birthday, family members, favorite color, favorite food, songs or type of music they like, things they enjoy doing at the program and things they enjoy doing at home or outside of your program. “All About Me” projects can be a great way to build community and allow children to show pride in themselves. Just like a neighborhood study can be explored through culturally responsive teaching, a culturally responsive “All About Me” project could include information about the story behind a child’s name, or an opportunity for families to share how their child’s name was chosen. Families can be given an option to send a video or audio recording to share this information or they can write the information down so you can make “All About Me” books for each child. An “All About Me” project can also include information about the child’s race and ethnicity, languages they speak at home, family traditions, special foods and what makes them special and other information that is important to the child and family. It is important to note that all families may not have access to some or all of this information. For example, if a child in your program has been adopted, the child's parents may not be able to provide some or all of this information. Educators can have a conversation with their program directors and colleagues to brainstorm ideas to adjust their “All About Me” activity to ensure that it is inclusive for all of the children in the program.
Another project that could be designed with culturally responsive teaching in mind is a neighborhood study. Similar to an “All About Me” project, this would need to be adapted based on the age of the children so that it is developmentally appropriate. Neighborhood studies often center on community helpers such as the roles of firefighters and police officers (and school resource officers). While it is true that these individuals are community helpers, it’s important to recognize that not all communities see police officers as people/professionals they trust and would turn to for help with a problem or when in a crisis. While the majority of White, middle- and upper-class families may not have to think twice about calling the police for help, many racially and ethnically marginalized communities must weigh the consequences of calling the police. For them, a routine call for assistance could turn and has turned deadly. For many communities of color, when interactions with the police turn deadly, they are forced to endure additional harm when the legacy of their loved one is misrepresented and/or demonized in the media. Before the public has a chance to know anything meaningful about an individual, a media campaign is often orchestrated to erase signs of their humanity which can lead to recurring trauma for families as they are grieving the loss of their loved one. All of these factors, and others, impact the decisions of people of color when calling the police.
In some Black and Latine communities where individuals have a lower socioeconomic status, in addition to some immigrant communities, many people would not call the police for help due to the brutality and surveillance that many communities of color find themselves in. That can also extend to school resource officers. Large spotlights that shine bright lights into housing projects, common practices of stopping and frisking children, teenagers, and adults because they look “suspicious,” and continual images on television and online of police officers killing unarmed Black people has created deep tensions between these communities and the police. A culturally responsive lesson would consider these tensions and think of different helpers to highlight or find a way to include police officers in the study, but also include lessons that examine the long history of tensions between minoritized communities and police officers. The important historical context that provides insight into how we have arrived at the point where we find ourselves should not be discounted or ignored. As educators, we want to protect rather than further traumatize children of color.
It is important that child and youth professionals understand how culturally responsive teaching can lead to better learning outcomes for all children. Listen Iheoma U. Iruka, Research Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Founding Director of the Equity Research Action Coalition at Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, and other experts in the field discuss how to embed these practices in authentic and meaningful ways.
A culturally responsive program should include a variety of books about diversity. When choosing materials and activities for your program, consider how diversity is represented within them. Listen as a literacy specialist shares ways to ensure the books you provide are supportive of all children and families.
As you reflect on both culturally relevant and culturally responsive teaching, is there evidence of them in the curriculum of your program and how are they evident – in some, most, or all lesson plans and materials? Regardless of your response, it is possible for all content areas to be taught in culturally relevant and responsive ways. Math, language arts, science, music, art, literacy, physical education, and history can all be taught using a cultural lens. Additionally, developmental skills such as social-emotional, cognitive, and linguistic skills can be supported in a similar way. Below are steps to take as you create and/or review culturally responsive experiences and activities. Remember to work in collaboration with staff members and other individuals from minoritized backgrounds and refer to the components of culturally responsive teaching when planning lessons.
- Examine your curriculum and identify which cultures are present and which ones are missing.
- Examine your program to determine which cultures are present and which cultures you might want to include in your curriculum to expose children and youth to different groups of people.
- Review the expectations of your program, including communication styles and how children are nurtured to succeed. How inviting is your classroom and program?
- Analyze the perspectives shared in your program. Are you unintentionally creating stereotypes of groups of people by sharing a narrow and one-dimensional view of who they are as culturally different individuals and groups?
- Examine who you position as experts. Who are the people that children and youth are learning about from books, materials, videos, or visits? Why have they been selected? Does this provide a full understanding of a group of people, or does this limit the view that your children and youth are forming under your care?
An important step in engaging in culturally responsive care is partnering with families to learn about their home culture, caregiving practices, routines, traditions, etc. Use the questions in the Partnering with Families activity to reflect on ways you partner with families to understand and honor their cultural diversity.
Use the Culturally Responsive Children’s Books list to update your classroom or program lending library. As always, it is important to preview the books before you share them with the children, youth, and families in your program.
It’s important to be intentional about the activities and experiences that you provide children and youth to ensure that they are relevant, culturally responsive, and equitable. Use the age-specific All About Me activities below to create your own family questionnaire to learn more about the identities and cultures of the children and families in your program.
Culturally Responsive Children’s Books
All About Me (Infants & Toddlers)
All About Me (Preschool)
Child Welfare Information Gateway. (n.d.). Adoption and school.https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/adoption/adopt-parenting/school/
Ford, D.Y.(2015a). Culturally responsive gifted classrooms for culturally different students: A focus on invitational learning. Gifted Child Today, 38(1), 67-69.
Ford, D.Y. (2015b). Recruiting and retaining Black and Hispanic students in gifted education: Equality vs. equity schools. Gifted Child Today, 38(3), 187-191.
Gay, G. (2018). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. (3rd ed.). Teachers College Press.
Iruka, I., Curenton, S., Durden, T., & Escayg, K. (2020). Don’t look away: Embracing anti-bias classrooms. Gryphon House.
Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32 (3), 465-491.
Moll, L., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory Into Practice. 31(2), pp. 132-141.
Will, M. & Najarro, I. (2022, April 18). What is culturally responsive teaching? Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/culturally-responsive-teaching-culturally-responsive-pedagogy/2022/04.