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NASP Communiqué, Vol. 38, #3
November 2009

Multicultural Affairs

On the Need for Cultural Responsiveness

By Amanda L. Sullivan & Elizabeth A'Vant

A diverse student population is a basic characteristic of many of the schools in which we work. Of the nearly 54 million students enrolled in America’s schools, 44% are racial minorities, 20% are linguistic minorities, 16% are considered economically disadvantaged, and 9% are identified as disabled (Planty et al., 2009). Within the field of school psychology, nearly 93% of practitioners are White, while more than 98% serve CLD students, including nearly a third who work in predominantly CLD settings (Curtis, Lopez, Batsche, & Smith, 2006). At the same time, the cultural gap between these students and a predominantly White, middle-class, female education work force, and the lack of preparation in effective multicultural practice and cross-cultural knowledge and practice has been repeatedly recognized (e.g., Athanases & Martin, 2006).

This gap between demographics and training, combined with evidence of pervasive educational disparities, is a cause for concern. These disparities include persistent, systematic differences in educational access and opportunities to learn (e.g., access to early childhood education, quality materials and facilities, qualified effective teachers, college preparatory classes) and educational outcomes (e.g., special education identification, grade retention, achievement on standardized assessments, graduation, discipline, postsecondary enrollment). These inequalities in access, opportunity, and outcomes suggest that our educational systems may not be organized to adequately support the learning of an increasingly diverse student population. Given that all demographic indicators suggest that the trend toward increasingly multicultural populations will only continue, the need to create systems that are responsive to student diversity is imperative.

As a society, we cannot afford to undereducate such a substantial portion of students because of the negative implications both for their quality of life and their social contributions, among other things. Indeed, educational attainment is an important determinant of individuals’ health, employment and earning potential, civic engagement, and socioeconomic status, all of which have powerful implications for the communities in which they reside. Developing and supporting equitable educational systems is the cornerstone to safeguarding the nation’s social, civic, and economic future. In many educational systems, policies, procedures, and practices need to be reconceptualized in order to ensure equitable opportunity and access for all students.

Multiculturalism emerged as a means of promoting cultural competence and educational equity through various dimensions of educational practice (e.g., pedagogy, curriculum, assessment, discipline). At its most basic level, multiculturalism is about recognizing diversity; more progressive conceptualizations focus on cultural pluralism, challenging racism, and embracing difference. Indeed, there is a continuum of perspectives that range from emphasizing assimilation, to pluralism, to criticality, to social change.

From a more pluralistic multicultural perspective in particular, an entire literature emerged to tackle the issue of how to best educate students of color, with particular attention to Black students, as they have been among the most persistently and systematically marginalized within America’s schools. More broadly, the need for multiculturalism in education is defended as a necessary element of multiculturalism in society at large, with schools characterized as a microcosm of the larger society. Multiculturalism and pluralism are highlighted as a means of preparing all students to be contributing citizens in a multicultural society. However, despite decades of attention to this area, there has been surprisingly little progress in closing achievement gaps or creating more equitable education systems. So we must ask whether multicultural approaches have been successful, and what changes continue to be necessary in order to create systems with the capability of supporting diverse learners.

Moving Toward Culturally Responsive School Psychology

Multiculturalism must move beyond basic knowledge and appreciation of diversity and cultural difference to embody responsiveness to difference in order to facilitate real change. This incorporates the emphases on pluralism and critical awareness while focusing largely on structuring practices and systems in ways that truly, substantively support the development and learning of all students. School psychologists must provide services that are not only technically, empirically, and theoretically sound, but culturally responsive as well if we are to meet the demands of an increasingly multicultural society.

A culturally responsive perspective embraces the varying sociocultural histories and experiences that students come from and legitimizes their funds of knowledge and lived experiences. That is, students’ cultural knowledge, experiences, and performance styles are used to facilitate their educational experiences through the careful, critical reconsideration of how we conceptualize learning and performance. A culturally responsive approach to education is grounded in the belief that all students can excel in academic endeavors when (a) their culture, language, heritage, and experiences are valued and used to facilitate their learning and development; and (b) when they are provided access to high-quality programs, services, and supports (Klingner et al., 2005). Such an approach to school psychological practice encompasses several key characteristics.

Affirmation of diversity. At its most basic level, a culturally responsive perspective requires affirming diversity and difference. Culturally responsive practitioners respect and value the cultural differences of students, families, communities, and colleagues. This will require moving beyond superficial descriptions of the differences between groups in order to understand the social realities and histories that shape individuals’ lived experiences. Attention to diversity must be infused throughout one’s practices, including assessment, consultation, and academic and behavioral interventions. Practitioners must strive to understand the experiences and cultures of all students and use that understanding to facilitate the services provided. Being culturally responsive means negotiating new standards and norms that acknowledge the differences and similarities among different groups so that the cultural heritage, contributions, and strengths of all members of school communities are acknowledged and valued.

Cultivation of sociocultural consciousness. In order for practitioners to be culturally responsive, they must understand how race, culture, language, and experience influence learning and behavior. This will require the often difficult process of examining assumptions of power and privilege, in addition to questioning structures that support or hinder equitable access and participation in educational opportunities for members of different groups. Viewing our field specifically, and educational systems generally, from a culturally responsive perspective means considering how certain assumptions or practices benefit some and not others, and for what purposes, and formulating a vision to prevent the marginalization, denigration, and oppression of individuals on the basis of membership in a particular group (e.g., students identified as Black, English language learners, disabled, homosexual).

As school psychologists, we have to remember that schools are institutions of socialization. Within schools, the community plays a major role in the development of expectations and norms for learning and behavior. Culture and ideology of a particular community influence perceptions and beliefs regarding knowledge, learning, causation, normality, and abnormality. What’s more, conceptualizations of disability and pathology are determined by the parameters of the particular context and those in positions of power. As such, boundaries of acceptable knowledge and action are relatively specific to a given context. Students’ behaviors are considered pathological when they represent a significant discrepancy from the behavioral norms of the particular context and are based on judgments founded in cultural constructs.

When students and families come from CLD groups, there is the potential for a culture clash in terms of these constructs because of the differences within and between groups. Be aware of the potential mismatch between the knowledge, experiences, and values of particular children and the dominant culture. Too often, educators assume an etic perspective—that is, that the laws of psychology, learning, and behavior are universal. In contrast, an emic perspective recognizes that much of behavior, learning, and development are culturally mediated. Different cultures vary in how they value traits, temperaments, knowledge, and behavior, and we have to recognize that not all members of our school communities share the same values or beliefs. Instead, pluralistic norms, which recognize and account for such variation, are preferred in a culturally responsive approach.

Engagement in critical reflection. We must consider how our own cultural backgrounds shape our theory and practice and how culture has shaped the theory and practice of our discipline. Neither pedagogy nor school psychology is culture-free work. Instead, they are based in certain assumptions of development, learning, behavior, psychopathology, etc. Another way to frame this consideration is to remember that all practices are culturally based. Often, in assessment and intervention, an etic philosophy is taken for granted. Test construction, for example, has been criticized for assuming a Euro-American context, ethnocentric views of behavior, and a one-size-fits-all approach to assessment. This means that, at times, particular practices may fail to represent or account for the beliefs and/or values of people who differ from the mainstream. We must ask ourselves whether certain practice, interventions, instruments, etc., have demonstrated reliability and validity with students like those with whom we work.

Practitioners must confront and deconstruct these issues to appropriately serve students who differ from themselves. This will necessitate honest engagement in selfanalysis and reflection to examine how your own experiences and beliefs influence your practices. We must regularly engage in personal reflection to ensure that our expectations for students generally, and our clients specifically, do not reflect racial, ethnic, gender, or religious bias or the self-fulfilling prophecies associated with certain stereotypes. We have to be aware of how culture influences our perceptions, what we judge, and what we miss when we consider how children live and behave. This awareness should be present when we work with any student, since there will rarely be an exact match between our clients and ourselves when the various dimensions of culture and time are taken into account. So, we must look for the nuance of each student’s experience and ask ourselves whether particular practices or instruments are appropriate.

Examination of the different cultures that shape schools. Fostering cultural responsiveness also requires recognizing and examining the cultural nature of schooling and educational practices. We must be cognizant that in addition to the cultures from which individuals come, specific cultures are created within schools and classrooms. Consequently, systems and practitioners develop formal and informal “regularities” (e.g., beliefs, theories, policies; Sarason, 1982) that guide professional behavior (e.g., selection of practices, instruments, etc.). Often these regularities are enacted with little conscious thought; they are simply “the way things are,” which is also assumed to be the way things should be, which blinds us to the possibility of change or improvement. We must also be aware of the organization and distribution of power in the system of education, from the federal level to individual interactions. Power relations are manifested in classrooms, buildings, districts, and communities—And the way in which they play out must be considered for their implications regarding student learning and behavior. School psychologists should think about how students and families are involved in defining the norms and expectations within a school.

As we engage in various aspects of school psychology practice, a culturally responsive approach necessitates that we strive to stay vigilant for the ways in which our particular workplace influences the ways in which we conceptualize our students and the work that we do. Indeed, every building and every classroom has a particular culture that defines how professionals, students, and families operate within it. Often, because notions of learning, achievement/failure, and ability/disability are locally negotiated, different settings develop particular nuanced perspectives on, for instance, special education identification. We must be wary of falling back on biased ways of routinely conceptualizing students in a manner that is stereotyped and potentially detrimental (e.g., deficit perspectives).

A reflective practitioner should instead examine these regularities and work to make them transparent in order to determine whether they are adequately serving those intended purposes, and even whether those intended purposes are appropriate. It is particularly essential to examine their efficacy, and to consider the following types of questions: How do we know they are effective? Are they the best way to support students? Are they effective for a particular student? If not, why? Beyond reflecting on our own regularities, as we engage in assessment, intervention, and consultation, we should always strive to identify the regularities of the specific setting (i.e., classroom, school, program, etc.) and determine their impact on the student(s) in question. There are times when unexamined, unchallenged regularities contribute to students’ difficulties because they contribute to the development of rigid learning environments that are a poor fit for some. Consideration of the environments in which the students learn (both school and nonschool) should be a standard practice in all assessment and intervention cases in view of their implications for learning and behavior.

Promotion of change. A culturally responsive practitioner should work to foster positive change and collaborate with educators to promote equity. Given that systemic change is difficult, start with your own practice and work out and up. An important element will be engaging educators and families in collaborative work. Whether engaging in assessment, intervention, or consultation, seek to engage all relevant stakeholders, including students and families, in the processes from the onset. Work to establish positive, respectful relationships with them, and arrange ways for them to engage meaningfully in the process, integrating the input from all in the final decisions and processes (e.g., problem definition, data collection, interpretation, generation of option, implementation plans, evaluation, etc.). Change efforts, whether large-scale or small, have greater chances at success when they meaningfully involve all of those directly and indirectly affected by the change.

Where ineffective policies, practices, or procedures exist, practitioners must speak up and promote more equitable alternatives. We should encourage knowledge and skillbuilding in the areas necessary for cultural responsiveness throughout our schools; consider learning professional development activities for teachers and administrators. Know that systemic, sustained change will require effort at the individual, school, and district levels, and will tap your expertise in a variety of domains. Develop a network of like-minded colleagues from whom you can seek support, guidance, and assistance in these efforts. Remember that creating equitable systems will require stepping outside of the realm of special education to assist teachers and administrators in creating more effective general education environments. This may entail becoming involved in planning instruction, curriculum, policy, and discipline, as well as early intervening, academic and behavioral prereferral interventions, and assessment.

Put another way, being part of meaningful change will require acting as instructional consultants, systems consultants, mental health practitioners, and children’s advocates to ensure that the schools in which we work are transformed to be responsive to the needs of the diverse students we are here to serve. This will necessitate working to ensure that various parts of the school system work together to foster equitable outcomes via a shared vision of equity, effective leadership and teaching, involvement of stakeholders at all levels, ongoing evaluation and reflection, and a commitment to continuous improvement in order to create system capacity in which personnel, resources, and professional effort are aligned with the shared purpose of fostering improved educational access, participation, and outcomes for all.

Seeking professional learning. In order to meet the needs of CLD populations, school psychologists must be equipped with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to work effectively with diverse learners and their families. We must also build the skills necessary to confront barriers to responsiveness and equity. This means being prepared to address issues of race, culture, and racism (as well as classism, sexism, ablism, heterosexism, ethnocentrism, and more) in order to promote culturally responsive practices and to combat cultural deficit beliefs that undermine multicultural competency (e.g., beliefs that certain racial groups are intellectually inferior or that they do not value education).

Independent scholarship and professional development activities should reflect a commitment to exploring the histories, cultures, and contributions of various cultural groups and how these can be used to facilitate students’ educational experiences. School psychologists should reject assumptions that unilaterally blame children, families, or cultural groups for educational failure without examining the educational context for factors that contribute to students’ academic and behavioral difficulties (e.g., poor-quality instruction, discriminatory policies or practices). Doing so requires certain preparation because these are challenging activities.

As such, practitioners should regularly engage in professional learning to not only learn practices that support learners, but to engage in collaboration, consultation, and systems change so that they can contribute to the development of more equitable, responsive educational systems. Professional learning opportunities should emphasize the need to develop multicultural knowledge while exploring professional identities, encouraging practitioners to reflect on their beliefs and knowledge, as well as the contextual and institutional demands that shape their work through an ongoing, collaborative process of discourse, reflection, inquiry, and practice that is geared toward the ultimate goal of improving students’ opportunities and outcomes (King, Artiles, & Kozleski, 2009). Professional learning communities have been shown to be an effective approach for teachers and may be a promising way for school psychologists to come together to reflect on their practice and develop the knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed to improve effectiveness and foster meaningful, sustained change in the settings in which they work.

Concluding Remarks

Part of our charge as school psychologists is to advocate for evidence-based, culturally competent practice and to assist schools in the process of changing those practices that contribute to inequitable outcomes (NASP, 2009a). NASP is committed to ensuring that all children receive appropriate education (NASP, 2009b); this will be difficult to achieve without ensuring that our practices are responsive to the needs of the students, schools, and communities we serve. Given that nearly all practitioners will be working with diverse students, lack of cultural knowledge and/or an orientation toward responsiveness will likely limit one’s effectiveness to practice effectively. Cultivating cultural responsiveness is an ongoing process of development as an individual and as a professional. Recognizing the need for such a perspective is the first step. Committing to personal growth and confronting difficult issues is the second. The purpose of this article is to introduce practitioners to the notion of cultural responsiveness and to highlight the basic features as a starting point for beginning this process. We hope that we have driven home the point that being culturally responsive is not just about developing our knowledge and understanding of various cultures, but is also about expanding the ways in which we think about the various dimensions of culture and how they shape every aspect of schooling and professional practice, and how this understanding can be used to facilitate the development of practices that support the academic, emotional, social, and behavioral needs of all students.

References & Resources to Support Practice

Athanases, S. Z., & Martin, K. J. (2006). Learning to advocate for educational equity in a teacher credential program. Teaching and Teaching Education, 22, 627–646.

Curtis, M. J., Lopez, A. D., Batsche, G. M., & Smith, J. C. (March, 2006). School psychology 2005: A national perspective. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Association of School Psychologists, Anaheim, CA.

Henning-Stout, M. (1994). Responsive assessment: A new way of thinking about learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

King, K. A., Artiles, A. J., & Kozleski, E. B. (2009). Professional learning for culturally responsive teaching (Practitioner Brief). Retrieved August 18, 2009, from http:// nccrest.org/Briefs/NEW_professional %20learning% 20for%20culturally%20 responsive%20teaching_v1.pdf

Klingner, J. K., Artiles, A. J., Kozleski, E., Harry, B., Zion, S., Tate, W., et al. (2005). Addressing the disproportionate representation of culturally and linguistically diverse students in special education through culturally responsive educational systems. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 13(38). Retrieved December 14, 2005, from http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v13n38

National Association of School Psychologists. (2009a). Appropriate behavioral, social, and emotional supports to meet the needs of all students (Position Statement). Bethesda, MD: Author.

National Association of School Psychologists. (2009b). Appropriate academic supports to meet the needs of all students (Position Statement). Bethesda, MD: Author.

Planty, M., Hussar, W., Snyder, T., Kena, G., KewalRamani, A., Kemp, J., et al. (2009). The condition of education 2009 (NCES 2009-081). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC.

Sarason, S. B. (1982). The culture of the school and the problem of change (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.