NASP Communiqué, Vol. 38, #3
On the Need for Cultural
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
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.
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://
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,
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.