The Multicultural Classroom: How to Celebrate Differences and Foster Respect

Diversity is one of the greatest strengths in schools today. Having students from different backgrounds promotes meaningful social and cultural exchanges for students, which can enrich them both now and in years to come.

To ensure that students understand one another’s differences as gifts, however, it’s important to incorporate tolerance into your daily activities. Here’s how to create a more open-minded classroom environment with students from different backgrounds.

How to Foster Multicultural Understanding

While you can incorporate tolerance into lesson plans, modeling tolerant behavior is key to fostering intercultural communication. Students of different backgrounds have different relationships with their cultures, families and communities. Teachers are responsible for understanding the nuances of these differences and creating a learning environment that supports all students, explains Jill F. Keith at Tribal College Journal of American Indian Higher Education.

“Teachers affect student learning—and their effect may be positive by creating a collaborative, multicultural learning environment; or negative by utilizing few teaching methods and failing to incorporate the necessary tools that address various learning styles and students.”

Keith is speaking specifically about the experiences of American Indian students, but her ideas can apply to students of any and all multicultural backgrounds.

Fostering multicultural understanding means that teachers have some behind-the-scenes work to do, too. Teachers may have innate biases that are culturally and socially reinforced, and these patterns can be hard to break, TeachAway’s Kathy Deady says. Recognizing how you interact with people from different backgrounds can ensure that you have what it takes to build meaningful relationships with student families.

In turn, this will open up a line of communication between you and your students’ families so that you can be an advocate when needed.

Multicultural understanding isn’t just important for building strong relationships with families, though. It’s also about helping students succeed, educator and author Dr. Farooq Wasil explains. “Teachers’ unconditional positive regard for all students through support and trust is exponentially linked to high student engagement as students feel a sense of belonging and value in the classroom,” he writes.

When students feel that they’re important, they feel like they belong where they are. A sense of belonging makes students comfortable, allowing them to learn in a safe and supportive environment they need to thrive.

multiculture classroom

Sharing Stories to Reduce Fear and Build Trust

Helping students understand the beauty of their differences can reduce hateful rhetoric and increase acceptance. Understanding and knowledge is at the heart of this shift. That’s why it’s so important to let students share their stories and teach others about their life experiences and cultures, says education writer Brianna Flavin.

“Nothing is quite as powerful as hearing other people’s stories. Many biases begin in assumption. So no matter how much experience you’ve had, letting people tell their stories and listening to them can show your students that everyone deserves respect,” she writes.

This can make students of different backgrounds more self-aware of their own unique traits, helping them see their differences as benefits.

A simple way to help students become more familiar with one another’s differences is to host a sharing and introducing session early on in the year. Students should talk about where they’re from, what things they like, and what their parents and families do. These introductions can be repeated when new students join the classroom. During the sessions teachers and students can ask questions about things that are unfamiliar, says Andrea Pesce at Busy Teacher. Someone’s differences might be seen as scary, but bringing these into the light can help reduce that fear and carve out more room for acceptance.

The language you use in the classroom can inform students’ perspectives of those around them. Simply changing a few words when describing people can foster understanding and empathy. Instead of saying “Stephanie is disabled,” for example, you might say “Stephanie uses a wheelchair” to indicate that her identity is separate from the disability.

Building Positive Behavior and Understanding

Children need to be exposed to diversity from a young age in order to embrace differences rather than fear them. Professor Maurice J. Elias explains that the fear-based reactions very young children may experience are “developmentally normative and adaptive.” By reducing the sense of unfamiliarity and threat associated with people who are very different from them, teachers can do their part to build trust and meaningful connections.

Elias shares a lesson plan that involves telling a story about a new boy from a different place who gets picked on at school. Students are asked to think about why the boy is different, why he was made fun of, and how a student at his school might make him feel more welcome. Then, Elias asks students how they could be more accepting of Elias and what behaviors might make him uncomfortable. The end result is that students are asked to consider how to practice kindness in real life at schools.

Another idea is to foster discussion around conversations that you hear the children having.

“Use the children’s words to frame the class discussions,” suggests early childhood educator Dana Bentley. For example, you might say “I remember that Emma said that girls were storm troopers too. What do you all think?” Using your students’ words as a jumping point for a discussion helps validate their feelings and thoughts, which makes the conversation more meaningful.

Ideas for more cultural discussions can be found on the All ESL blog. These activities spark wonder and intrigue about different cultures. Sharing information about different foods, towns and societies can spark cultural exchanges.

multiculture classroom

Classroom Events and Activities

Hosting a unit that invites people of different backgrounds to speak in class can also break down bias and hate. As Matthew Lynch, Ed.D. at The Edvocate writes: “Welcoming guest speakers into the class that hail from differing backgrounds and have all made a positive contribution to important fields can also help dispel any preconceived notions that students might possess about the relative competence and value of people from different cultures.”

He adds that this can help humanize different types of people that students haven’t had the opportunity to meet.

Similarly, hosting cultural days can give students a chance to experience new languages, foods and music. An easy beginning to global food studies could be to introduce students to different types of breads eaten around the world, says former teacher Tania K. Cowling. Then you can invite parents to participate in a globally influenced potluck lunch. Students should bring a dish that represents their heritage and each person should talk about their dish and how it is made. Recipes can be compiled into a cookbook which students can take home.

The cookbook can also be stored on a shelf in your multicultural library. Having a library of different resources and ideas from around the world is a great way to support student curiosity of other cultures. “For example, a science book written by a Hispanic author could show students that people from different cultures have a place in the American classroom. Reading books about Chinese or African children sends the message that Anglo American books are not the only books and ideas present in the classroom,” explains Heidi McIntyre at Bright Hub Education.

Having books representing a variety of culture and people makes for a more interesting classroom. Plus, the books can serve as a discussion points for meaningful conversations about culture, society and differences. Teacher Cheryl Mizerny agrees that having a multicultural library is important. In addition, she displays motivational quotes from all different types of people around her classroom. By representing races, ethnicities, genders, abilities, religions, ages and sexual orientations in this way, it shows that people of different backgrounds are intellectually equal.

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