Cultural Competence

Cultural competence is defined as a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, agency, or among professionals and enables that system, agency, or those professionals to work effectively in cross-cultural situations. Cross T., Bazron, B., Dennis, K., & Isaacs, M. ( 1989).

There are four basic cultural competence skill areas. They apply to individual educators, to the schools where they work, and to the educational system as a whole.Growth in one area tends to support growth in another.

1. Valuing diversity: Accepting and respecting different cultural backgrounds and customs, different ways of communicating, and different traditions and values.

2. Being culturally self-aware: Understanding that educators’ own cultures—all of their experiences,background, knowledge, skills, beliefs, values, and interests—shape their sense of who they are, where they fit into their family, school, community, and society, and how they interact with students.

3. Understanding the dynamics of cultural interactions: Knowing that there are many factors that can affect interactions across cultures, including historical cultural experiences and relationships between cultures in a local community.

4. Institutionalizing cultural knowledge and adapting to diversity: Designing educational services based on an understanding of students’ cultures and institutionalizing that knowledge so that educators, and the learning environments they work in, can adapt to and better serve diverse population

Cultural competence leads to more effective teaching. As students become more diverse, they are likely to benefit from different teaching strategies.8 But educators will not cue into these differences and address them appropriately, unless they use the students’ culture to build a bridge to success in school. Culturally competent teachers contextualize or connect to students’ everyday experiences, and integrate classroom learning with out-of-school experiences and knowledge. Helping learners make the link between their culture and the new knowledge and skills they encounter inside school is at the heart of ensuring that all students achieve at high levels.

3 topics discussed Throughout this course:

Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory

This theory looks at a child’s development within the context of the system of relationships that form his or her environment. Bronfenbrenner’s theory defines complex “layers” of environment, each having an effect on a child’s development. This theory has recently been renamed “bio ecological systems theory” to emphasize that a child’s own Biology is a primary environment fueling her development. The interaction between factors in the child’s maturing Biology, his immediate family/community environment, and the societal landscape fuels and steers his development. Changes or conflict in any one layer will ripple throughout other layers. To study a child’s development then, we must look not only at the child and her immediate environment, but also at the interaction of the larger environment as well.

Value of Play

From earliest infancy, play is the primary way children learn. Through play, children eagerly use all the “tools” they have at their disposal—their bodies, their relationships with their family and peers, and the world around them. Play, more than any other activity, fuels healthy development of young children. It is through play that much of children’s early learning is achieved. Children play because it is fun. Play takes many forms, but the heart of play is pleasure. And with pleasure comes the powerful drive to repeat such activities. With repetition comes mastery. And mastery brings a sense of accomplishment and confidence


Students’ experiences in the classroom directly affect their ability to learn, their overall academic performance, as well as their feelings about themselves and others. To help determine how the classroom experience supports and exposes students to diversity, students were asked to respond to a series of questions about their comfort level in classes, their interaction with faculty, their level of class participation, the inclusiveness of class materials, and the exposure to diversity among their professors. Responses were analyzed based on students’ race/ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.

Value Of Diversity

Teachers must provide students with an environment that is conducive to learning. If a student feels uncomfortable, unsafe, or not respected, then their chances of success in that class dramatically decrease. Also, as our society becomes more diverse, it is important that students learn to value and use diversity to the greater good. Teachers already have a number of roles in the classroom; yet, valuing diversity is one of the most important ones a teacher must fill. Below is a list of just a few things that teachers can do to create an environment where each student feels valued and respected.

  • Take the time to learn about your students' background, interests, and learning style.
  • This will allow you to create an environment that is conducive to each individual student.
  • Allow time for the students to learn about each other and gain an appreciation for the diversity they bring to the classroom. 
  • Remind them how boring it would be if we were all alike and there were no differences among us to make each person unique.
  • Teach students that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. When working in teams encourage students to take advantage of the strengths of the team members in order to produce the best possible results.
  • Bring in different people to the class as resources that students might be able to connect with.
  • Search out people that are different from yourself and that might share certain qualities with your students.
  • Students need role models. Many times when they see they are connected in some way to a person they will be more apt to listen and learn from them.
  • Never tolerate bullying, teasing, and other put-down behavior at any time in the classroom.

Communicating with Families

People who have good relationships are more likely to work on their conflicts in more healthy ways. Relationships sometimes just happen, but more often, they need to be initiated and then nurtured. Commit yourself to working constantly on the total relationship, not just the conflict.

Know yourself

Be clear about what you believe in. Be aware of your own values and goals. Check to see heather your behavior reflects your values and goals. If you are in tune with yourself and are clear about what you believe in, you’re less likely to present a strong defensive stance in the face of cultural bump. It is when we feel ambiguous that we come in the strongest.

Work to bring difference out in the open

Be sensitive to your own discomfort in response to the behavior of others. Tune in on something that bothers you, instead of just ignoring it and hoping it will go away. None of us like to do it but it’s an important part of relationships and clear communication.

Discuss differences

Discussing difference isn’t easy to do. Some people shy away from direct discussion of sensitive areas. Many want to cover up difference because they perceive that recognizing them will complicate the relationship. Some have never thought about values until they bump up against a set that is different from their own.

Become an effective cross cultural communicator

Learn how to communicate instead of shutting down. Work to build a relationship with the person or people with whom you’re in conflict. Learn about communication styles that are different from yours. Teach your own communication style. Become aware of body language, voice tone, posture and position.

Problem solve

Use problem solving approach to conflicts rather than a power approach Dialogue, communicate. Notice when you’re getting defensive. Defensive indicates that you have some kind of emotional issues around this conflict.

Commit yourself to education

Learn about other cultures. Become a student of culture if you are in a cross cultural situation. Educate yourself and educate others as well

Cultural Awareness

In seeking to develop an advanced level of cultural awareness, there are several key factors to consider, including:

  • Communication: This is perhaps the biggest challenge facing leaders in the international business environment. Outstanding communication skills are valuable in any employee and at any organizational level; they’re even more important when dealing across cultures. Subtle differences in how people communicate, both verbally and non-verbally, can make the difference between a deal going through and an agreement falling apart. Certainly, it’s helpful to speak the local language. However, with a thorough understanding of the local culture and a skilled translator, it’s possible to be an effective communicator in any country.
  • Observation and sensitivity: There are several ways to become more culturally aware. Studying up on the target market is an obvious first step. Still, the most reliable tools could be your level of sensitivity and your powers of observation. When you’re in a foreign country, learn how those around you conduct themselves and their business. Listen more than you talk and chances are you’ll learn more, faster
  • Flexibility: When doing business internationally, you may face situations in which you are not in control or don’t have all the answers. You will have to deal with uncertainty, especially in cultures where communication may be more subtle and nuanced than in the United States. Be patient with yourself as well as with business partners or potential customers. Keep the focus on the big picture.
  • Self-awareness: It’s not easy to absorb and understand everything that is happening around you in cross-cultural business settings. At such times, it can be beneficial to tap into your self-awareness skills. Ask yourself, “Why do I think this?” and “Why am I feeling this way?” and then adjust your responses or actions as necessary.  

Counteract any bias or prejudice

Creating an Inclusive Environment

  • Make sure that classroom posters, pictures, books, music, toys, dolls, and other materials are diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, age, family situations, disabilities, and so on. Varied representations are not only important for making diverse student populations feel included; they are important for teaching homogeneous student populations about the world beyond their classroom.
  • Try to involve other supportive teachers, administrators, staff members so that you are not the only one modeling a concern for inclusive classrooms and school settings.
  • Make a special effort to use language that is unbiased, inclusive, and does not divide students unnecessarily. For example, "Okay everyone..." is less likely to reinforce gender divisions than "Okay, boys and girls..."

Addressing Children's Questions and Concerns

  • When children ask a question related to prejudice or group differences, be sure to answer directly rather than side-stepping the question or changing the topic. Otherwise, children may infer that they should not ask about these issues, and that there is something shameful to avoid. Instead, reinforce children's natural curiosity, and explain the distinction between noticing social differences and being prejudiced.
  • Keep parents involved and informed. Tell them what types of questions their children are asking and what answers you are giving. This will lessen the chances that children receive mixed messages from school and home.

Integrating Children's Own Experiences

  • Use whatever diversity exists among your students to model inclusiveness. For example, if students are about to do an activity that is difficult for a disabled student to do, invite students to help adapt the activity so that everyone can participate. Under the right circumstances, such an approach can establish a norm of inclusiveness and reward students for valuing each other's participation.
  • If you notice gender or racial segregation during play times, reorganize the activities or play area to foster integration and reduce stereotypes. For example, if girls gravitate toward playing house and dressing up, relocate woodworking tools near the house for home repairs, and include dress-up props such as a doctor's bag, police badge, tool belt, or hard hat.

Dealing with Discriminatory Behavior

  • Do not ignore discriminatory behavior. Avoiding the problem will not make it go away, and your silence may even give the appearance of tacit approval. Instead, make it clear that you will not tolerate racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, or other offensive jokes, slurs, or behaviors, and explain why. If you cannot respond at the time the incident takes place, respond as soon after as possible before the problem worsens.
  • Be a role model who walks the talk and takes a stand for social justice. Reflect and practice inclusive multicultural values in all aspects of your life, not just while class is in session. Demonstrate that you respect and value the knowledge, talents, and diversity of all people.

Community Resources

Social networks

Some families already see themselves as part of a larger social network, and they know both how to contribute to and make use this network. The school or early care program itself can provide the catalyst for bringing families into a new social network that of the school, center or family child care program.

Developing broad base of support

In healthy families each member has a broad base of support and knows how to get strokes from people outside the immediate family. You can help families broaden their base by connecting them with other families in the program.

Forms of social networks may take

For some families, the neighborhood where they live may be the most important part of social network. Neighbors can become a close knit group that provides friendship, social life, and mutual aid, social services, support, counseling, and education, along with worship services, celebrations and spiritual guidance.

Community institutions that serve families

Other formal and informal groups and institutions with specialized functions make up a part of the social network of community such as police, and fire department. Public libraries are longtime institutions that provide variety of services to families, services that have expanded way beyond books, especially with the development of computer technology, which continues to expand ways of communicating and gaining information and knowledge.


  • Lindsey, R., Roberts, L., & Campbell-Jones, F., The culturally proficient school: An implementation guide for school leaders. Corwin Press, 2005.
  • Keyes, Marian, Burns, Rebecca, Kusimo, Patricia, It Takes A School: Closing Achievement Gaps Through Culturally Responsive Schools, 2006.
  • Educational Leadership, Vol. 64, No.6, “Responding to Changing Demographics”, March 2007.
  • National Association of School Psychologists,
  • Provision of Culturally Competent Services in
  • the School Setting, 2004.
  • Stiff-Williams, H.R., ”Increasing Teachers’ Cultural Competence to Promote Improved Student Performance, Conference Address, VDOE, 2006.
  • Lindsay, R., Robins, K., & Terrell R., Cultural Proficiency: A Manual for School Learners, 2003.
  • Sheridan, D. (April 2006). Cultural competence in the classroom:
  • An advocacy guide (Mimeograph draft). Washington, DC:
  • National Education Association.
  • 2 Diller, J.V. and Moule, J. (2005). Cultural competence: A primer for

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