How to Create a Culturally Responsive Classroom

Every semester, I receive the following questions about the culturally responsive classroom from my pre-service and inservice teachers: How can I create a culturally responsive environment for my students? What does classroom management look like in a culturally diverse environment?

It’s critical to consider classroom management techniques when you build a culturally responsive learning environment. You should be aware of culturally dependent interpersonal behaviors. Otherwise, you might misinterpret behaviors that are normal within the scope of a student’s culture as a behavioral problem or learning disability.

In general, conflicts between teachers and students are likely to arise if the teachers haven’t educated themselves about their students’ cultures and accompanying behavioral patterns. For instance, many Asian children are taught by their community that it is a sign of disrespect to look an adult in the eyes. On the other hand, in the European-American community it is considered a sign of disrespect if you don’t look someone in the eyes when they’re speaking to you. A teacher who is not sensitive to such nuanced cultural differences may interpret a sign of respect in entirely the wrong way.

As another example, consider the standard style of discourse in a European-American classroom. Students are expected to sit quietly in rows of desks and absorb information that their teacher chooses to share with them. Students who wish to participate are required to indicate this by raising their hand and waiting patiently until they are given permission to communicate their thoughts. On the other hand, in the African American culture, interaction is much more assertive and straightforward. If an African American student blurts out the answer to a question without permission, a teacher in a traditional classroom would be likely to mistake profound interest in the material for deleterious rule breaking.

When a teacher quashes culturally normal behavior, the message to the student is that his or her style of discourse is “wrong” while the instructor’s style of discourse is “right.” Instead of engaging in authoritarian classroom management techniques, an instructor in a culturally responsive classroom creates a caring, nurturing bond with their students, and the students think twice about jeopardizing their relationship with the instructor by making poor behavioral decisions.

Potential methods for building rapport with students include spending time on social-building games over the first few weeks of class, starting up conversations with students outside of class, and starting the class in a welcoming manner despite whatever behavioral problems may have occurred during the last meeting of the class. Such an amicable partnership between student and teacher usually fosters a healthy learning environment.

A key principle of culturally responsive classroom management is explicit instruction about rules in a caring way. If students fail to adhere to a rule, contact is initiated in a caring fashion. The instructor should consider that children do things for a reason and that it is the instructor’s job to figure out what that reason is. Is it due to a culture clash? Is it a reaction to a perceived power differential or social injustice? If so, the rule itself may need to be revisited.

Creating a culturally responsive classroom can be challenging, but the results are well worth the effort. If you use the strategies outlined here, you will have a well-managed, culturally responsive classroom in no time.


Culturally responsive teaching is a theory of instruction that was developed by Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings and has been written about by many other scholars since then. To read more of her work on culturally responsive teaching and other topics, click here to visit her page.

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