Cultural Norms Can Cause Classroom Clashes

student-1922565_960_720Cultural Norms Can Cause Classroom Clashes

Cultural norms impact not just the way we interact socially, but the way we think and feel, the way we perceive situations we encounter, and the way we react to them. Consider the chart below:

Cultural Norms pngDownload a PDF here: Cultural Norms Chart

Most people focus immediately on the surface features of culture because they are the most readily identifiable. Some features of culture are very obvious- dress, food, music, language and religion provide members with a collective identity. Others are much more subtle- such as beliefs about one’s role in society, notions of privacy, and the appropriateness of demonstrating emotion. While some cultural norms are spoken and conveyed explicitly, others are intuited by members of a culture group and may be less obvious to those on the outside of the group. Outsiders may perceive behaviors within a culture as odd or unsettling, without understanding the underlying beliefs and thoughts that perpetuate them.

English Learners that come into US classrooms bring with them a myriad of cultural practices, perspectives, and products. These can clash with classroom expectations if they are not taken into account and explicitly addressed. For example, notions of cheating may be foreign to members of a collectivist culture who rely on working together to accomplish tasks. The idea of self-control may be unfamiliar to a child used to an authoritarian-style of teaching who has been taught to rely on an external locus of control. Such a child, used to strict physical enforcement of behavioral expectations, may be perceive its lack as permissive and engage in misbehavior. Teachers cannot afford to ignore the influence of students’ home cultures on classroom interactions and should seek to educate themselves about students’ cultures so that they can better understand and navigate differences that arise.

Also keep in mind, culture is dynamic, continuing to evolve and change as the needs of the group shift and change.  While people tend to make sacred cows out of some aspects of culture (like eye contact), the reality is that culture is adaptive and fluid. Unspoken norms may be spoken under the right circumstance (such as when a norm is perceived to have been violated).  A parent may prompt a young child to hug an elderly relative.  A teacher may insist children work independently or collaboratively. What is “normal” can change based on a myriad of factors such as the audience or situation. What is appropriate at home may not be at school or church. What is acceptable behavior at one age may not be at another. Behaviors discouraged in a female may be encouraged in a male or vice versa. Children come to school with these behavioral patterns, beliefs, and expectations, some of which they may not even be aware of. Behaviors, such as crying or withdrawing, may get one result at home and another at school. When the behavior does not get the expected result, children may increase the behavior in an attempt to get a desired outcome. Sometimes making the implicit explicit can help children become aware of differences in home culture and school expectations.

Consider a discussion of the following when or before a conflict arises:

  1. What is considered normal, polite, and/or acceptable in the situation?
  2. How does this expectation differ in other countries/cultures?
  3. Why does each group engage in their particular behaviors?
  4. What are the expectations of this classroom community in this situation?

All humans adapt to navigate different situations (Consider the way one might chat with a girlfriend versus act in an interview vs. engage with a mother-in-law.).  Children are no different, capable of learning to navigate multiple cultures, just as they learn to navigate multiple languages. One does not have to negate or replace the other necessarily. For children whose home cultural norms differ greatly from American norms, being aware of differences and having tools to help students successful navigate those differences can help reduce the clash of cultures that sometimes occurs and ensure that the classroom is a welcoming place for all.


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