Today’s classroom is increasingly diverse. In addition to having varied home lives, learning styles and emotional needs, students come from different cultures and ethnicities. As a teacher, you can set up your classroom to celebrate and embrace all of these differences.
While educators are well-meaning when it comes to promoting acceptance and inclusion, good intentions don’t always lead to measurable results. Use this guide to evaluate how you teach respect for ethnic and cultural differences in your classroom and to learn new ways to support your students.
Promote Differences and Ask Questions
In decades past, adults and children (and particularly white adults and children) leaned into the idea that they “don’t see color.” The goal was to promote equality, but this concept actually ignored the different lived experiences of people of color. From a young age, kids need to learn that it’s okay to be different and to discuss these differences in safe environments.
“Acknowledge differences,” write Jennifer Stallbaumer Rouyer and Patricia A. Davis at Children’s Mercy. “Kids notice them, so there’s no need to pretend they don’t exist. Emphasize the positive aspects of differences and be honest about the ways people are mistreated for their differences.”
Bringing discussions about racism to the classroom might seem too heavy if you teach young children, but you might be surprised by what your students understand and comment on. There are multiple resources online on how to have sensitive conversations about race with kids. And by talking about differences openly, you teach your students how to ask questions about different cultures and backgrounds as they get older.
“Sometimes, adults teach children that asking questions is rude and intrusive,” says Rina Joseph at Kidpillar. “Yet, it is actually an excellent way to teach and learn about differences that should be accepted and celebrated.” That said, Joseph encourages teachers to help students ask questions in thoughtful ways so that the question recipients don’t feel singled out.
Answering questions and having discussions are often preferred by people who are acutely aware of their differences, like someone who uses a wheelchair or wears a headcover for religious reasons. Too often, adults try to ignore these differences (making the individual feel invisible), while kids are left openly staring because the person they are looking at is unusual in their eyes.
“A culturally diverse classroom helps students develop their critical-thinking and problem-solving skills,” writes the team at educational publisher Continental Press. “Encountering new and different ideas and perspectives makes students evaluate their viewpoints.”
When kids feel like they can talk about different people, cultures and ideas, they are less likely to stick to one way of thinking or doing things. They won’t grow up with binary beliefs of good and bad and nothing in between.
Celebrate Diversity, Create Inclusivity
While celebrating diversity and highlighting differences is certainly important, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have created an inclusive classroom. Inclusivity refers to the safety students feel in an environment. An inclusive classroom is welcoming and safe for all students.
“An inclusive school culture is one where students feel comfortable being themselves, and protected from the harm that comes from disrespect and discrimination,” the team at Teach.com writes. “When educators, school counselors and administrators intentionally try to create a representative, respectful school culture, students’ socioemotional development can thrive.”
Every student in your classroom has inclusivity needs, whether they need a quiet space to learn on their own or are working to improve their language skills. Inclusivity works to acknowledge differences and provide support for them when needed.
“Over time, the concept of inclusion has broadened to recognize a range of other student needs—linguistic and cultural responsiveness, neurodiversity, and racial, gender and economic trauma and inequality—as well as awareness that individual students can be ‘twice or thrice exceptional,’ thus affected by more than just one variable,” says Denise Ahlquist, senior academic consultant at the Great Books Foundation. “In its most expanded sense, inclusion honors the varied ways in which we all learn, at times differently than how others learn, or from some presumed ‘norm.’”
It’s not easy to create an inclusive classroom. Kids are acutely aware of differences and are quick to label them as better or worse depending on their perceptions. As you work to make your students more inclusive, you will have to try to break down these binaries.
“Teachers and students need to understand that there is no such thing as being ‘better than’ or ‘worse than’ someone or something,” writes the team at Edvantic. “It is okay to be different.”
Bring Representation Into Your Classroom
Introducing students to different cultures in your classroom can make those cultures seem less foreign when they encounter them in their personal lives. However, cultural and personal representation is also important for your students who don’t want to be seen as strange or weird by their peers.
“If children do not perceive themselves as represented by the media or the literature they consume, they may also begin to feel invisible, unimportant or less important than others,” says children’s rights and child protection practitioner Arianna Braga. “If children do not have the possibility to see people with their identities and features being portrayed in a positive way, they may rely on the assumption that their identity is fully represented by…stereotypes which define who they are.”
Keep in mind that a student of color is more than just their skin tone. A student with a disability is more than their blindness or hearing impairment. They are multi-faceted human beings with different personalities and identities.
“If we accept that our identities are multi-layered with things such as race or gender only playing a part, then the idea that a single black character or female character will be able to capture all the representational needs of children of that gender or ethnicity runs contrary to common sense,” writes journalist Marcus Ryder, head of external consultancies at the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity at Birmingham City University.
Ryder shares his experience of “seeing himself” on TV for the first time as a child. He watched John John on Sesame Street, a small Black boy with an afro who was learning how to count. Ryder emphasizes that Sesame Street had multiple Black characters, but he particularly resonated with John John. Even the use of the hashtag #FirstTimeISawMe brings up connections with people that go beyond race and gender.
As a teacher, you have the power to make representation a priority in your classroom by bringing in characters of all backgrounds with different life experiences. You can help students see themselves in different roles and characters — showing them who they are and what they can be.
“Review your teaching resources with a critical eye and look for ways to increase diversity,” writes former teacher Erica Jabali. “Are you sharing a wide range of books and materials that reflect different voices, backgrounds, experiences and ethnicities? If you are using worksheets, do they use clipart and materials that are inclusive? Review your materials and adjust as needed to fairly represent your students.”
Support Individuality in Your Students
One of the main reasons why representation in multiple forms is so important is because your students are individuals. They might not fit within a certain box or set of cultural norms that you expect of them. Your students don’t want to be stereotyped negatively, but they also don’t want to be celebrated for a culture they aren’t part of.
“Be mindful that one student should not be seen as the representative of an entire cultural group—it’s important that you see your students as individuals because they may not identify with their cultural background,” writes M.J. Fievre, educator and author of “Raising Confident Black Kids.”
A student might come from a specific cultural background, but that doesn’t mean they speak the language, celebrate certain holidays or hold specific beliefs. They also might not want to serve as an ambassador for that culture to your classroom or get lumped in with students of similar backgrounds.
“The negative impacts of not belonging can be cyclical in the sense that you can have a negative or disconfirming experience about your identity or your place within the school and that might lead you to try to make up for that in some way, which could also lead you to do things you wouldn’t otherwise do if your belonging needs were met within that educational context,” says DeLeon Gray, associate professor of educational psychology and equity at NC State.
Let your students tell their stories and dictate who they are in the classroom. They likely already feel pressure from their peers and society to act and behave a certain way. They don’t need their teachers boxing them in as well.
“Individuality involves recognizing and being responsive to the unique strengths, interests, experiences, and needs of each child and family,” says Annie Moses, director of periodicals at the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “By understanding that individual variations not only exist but should be expected, educators can plan for and implement inclusive practices and environments.”
Celebrate Differences Through Cultural Appreciation
As you create a more inclusive classroom, take time to celebrate different people and ethnicities. Cultural appreciation is when someone seeks to learn about another culture in order to broaden their perspectives. You can take steps to introduce students to new worlds through class activities.
For example, blogger Nadia Tayob recommends doing art projects with your students that tap into the customs and traditions of other cultures. This is a great way to brighten your classroom and reinforce lessons about different cultures through hands-on crafts.
Additionally, you can create an environment for your students to show who they are and celebrate themselves.
“Encourage students to continue appreciating their home culture as much as they do the school’s,” writes the team at ArgoPrep. “For example, allowing for code-switching, or the combined use of one’s native language and English, ensures that students know that their own language is just as important as the grammar rules they learn in the classroom.”
You’ll want to approach every new experience with an open mind. Promoting diversity and inclusion doesn’t mean you need to know everything about every culture — you just need to learn how to listen and understand.
“Just as a general practitioner is not a specialist, we cannot be expected to know about every culture,” writes teacher Julie Yeros, creator of Globe Trottin’ Kids. “Embrace your curiosity and do the research–beginning with the cultures represented in front of you (no need to tackle the world all at once).”
Creating an inclusive classroom can’t be done overnight. Inclusivity comes from the lesson plans you develop, the conversations you have and how you treat your students. This means you probably won’t get everything right on the first try and you’ll make mistakes. However, if you keep learning, you can create an increasingly safe and inclusive classroom that celebrates cultures and ethnicities for all of your students.