In class kids

A Fresh Look at Cultural Responsiveness

How Culturally Responsive Teaching Re-Draws the Boundaries of the “In” Crowd

Why is it that so many kids crave to be part of the “in” crowd? What do they hope to gain? Regardless of what they’re looking for, being a part of the “in” crowd is a healthy desire.

We’re not talking popularity status. We’re talking about the astounding evidence that shows how students in the “in-group” and “out-group” have a vastly different life and educational experiences. Spoiler alert: you play a HUGE role in determining which students feel part of the “in-group.”

The Research

This post is about understanding how students in the right “in-group” tend to do better in your class. You’ll discover the secret to expanding the boundaries of the “in-group” to include ALL students.


You can see “in-groups” form when thousands of complete strangers gather in a stadium (pre-COVID) to cheer on their favorite sports team. For 2-3 hours, a social miracle of human bonding occurs. Nearly every person in the stands accepts and cheers WITH every other person, regardless of their age, political affiliation, gender, ethnicity, or knowledge of the sport. All it takes is sharing just one common, passionate value (our home team) to forge an “in-group.”

Other in-groups form as people gather in the streets to protest police brutality. Maybe they disagree on 25 other things, but on the one topic of police brutality, they have a common bond, and they’re all in the temporary “in-group.”

The groups an individual identifies themselves with are his/her “in-group.” Members of the “in-group” display co-operation, good-will, mutual help, and possess a sense of solidarity. There is a feeling of brotherhood and readiness to sacrifice themselves for the group (Masuda & Fu, 2015).

In a classroom, the “in-group” is typically the group of students whose culture matches (or is embraced by) the teacher. Teachers could be inclusive or exclusive in how they build their “in-group.”


“Out-groups,” on the other hand, refer to those groups with which individuals do not identify themselves. Contrasting in- and out-groups are Democrats and Republicans, Yankee fans and Red Sox fans, and Pakistanis and Indians.

In- and out-groups will form in any classroom, even if the teacher does nothing but teach. It is true that “birds of a feather” will flock together. On their own, students usually create their own “in” or “out” groups. In-group members use the term “we” (vs. “they” for the out-group.) They identify with “our class” more than “the class.”

In a classroom, the “out-group” is the group of students whose culture is different from (or not acknowledged by) the teacher. Yet savvy teachers create an entire class as their newly organized “in-group”, and continually embrace others and expand it to include ALL the students as part of their BIGGER class “in-group.”


Cultural Responsiveness!

The well-established “empathy-gap” between teachers and students of different cultures creates a barrier to learning worthy of attention. Recognizing and respecting all cultures in your classroom will yield high results both relationally and academically (Bottiani, Bradshaw, & Mendelson, 2016).

A student’s culture includes their ethnicity, religion, sexuality, language, skin color, and more. It is how a teacher responds to each student’s unique cultural identity that determines whether they feel part of the “in-group” or “out-group.” Teachers can positively respond by supporting students whose culture is different from their own.

Why does that matter?

Because not only do teachers influence the students’ choices of which group to be part of, the students who feel part of the “out-group” perform and behave below the “in-group” norms.


The short answer is: Feeling excluded, isolated, or rejected increases the levels of cortisol in the brain. Simply put, feeling a part of the “out-group” is stressful. And the chronic stress experienced by minority cultures is causing devastating impacts on their body and brain. (Stanley & Adolphs, 2013).

When your culture (something HIGHLY relevant to you) is excluded or discriminated against in ways you can’t easily control, it is stressful. When this continues for months, years, or a lifetime, it is classified as chronic stress.

(For a quick review of other forms of stress – healthy stress and acute stress – revisit last month’s post The 3 Biggest Lies You’ve Been Taught About Stress)

1. Chronic Stress and Student Behavior

As you might recall from last month’s issue on stress, a useful approach to reducing stress is to seek more control and/or make things less relevant. However, when students engage in one of these strategies in the classroom, they can be perceived as “behavior problems.” A culturally responsive teacher sees the real problem is the over-exposure to chronic stress.

In the classroom, a student may behave a bit edgy, aggressive, or have a verbal outburst. Another student may appear to be disinterested or apathetic toward learning. A culturally responsive teacher recognizes these behaviors as a biological survival response to chronic stress – get more control or make things less relevant. They take the student’s response as feedback and seek out more relevant learning activities.

2. Chronic Stress and Student Academic Performance

Chronic stress associated with being part of the “out-group” impacts several areas of the brain (including the emotional systems, attentional systems, memory systems, and more.)

The constant worry of “Do I fit in here? Am I (and my culture) seen here? Will I be harassed today?” consumes the emotional systems of the brain, led by the amygdala. Since (social) survival is of greater importance than dividing fractions to the brain, attention is diverted away from the math lesson. This, in turn, significantly decreases the likelihood of accurate memory formation (Quaedflieg & Schwabe, 2018).

Put simply, stress hormones from chronic stress block cognition. When this plays out day after day, the result is students who don’t feel part of the “in-group” experience lower levels of academic achievement (Frazier, Gabriel, Merians & Lust, 2019).

This can lead to students in the “out-groups” being mislabeled and placed in special education classes. Without support or intervention, these patterns can be perpetuated and confirmed by teacher biases.

3. Chronic Stress and Student Social Connectedness

The defining feature of students in the “out-group” is a lack of belonging to the larger community. As social creatures, feeling isolated contributes to a stressful experience at school.

However, the majority of minority students perceive they are discriminated against by their teachers. Although a teacher might not think they are discriminatory, it is the student’s perception that matters most. And because of this common perception, minority students commonly report feeling their academic efforts are pointless (D’Hondt, Eccles, Houtte, & Stevens, 2016).

Practical Applications

There are many systemic changes needed to reduce the chronic stress experienced by students whose culture doesn’t place them in the “in-group.” As we work as a society to make those needed changes, there are things you can do in your own classroom and school to foster greater cultural responsiveness. Start opening the arena of success to more students with the tools below:

A Culturally Responsive Approach to Behavior

  1. Let empathy guide your discipline strategies. On the surface, it might seem appropriate to invoke a harsh discipline on a student who is using explosive vulgar language toward you. What happens when you look a layer deeper? Underneath the surface, a neuro-biological survival process is at play. In a classroom, this survival behavior often makes it difficult for the student, whose culture puts them in the “out-group,” to act well-behaved. Re-think whether a suspension is an appropriate response for a student who feels left out and may have responded with anxiety or distress.As you examine your discipline strategies, consider approaches supporting students getting more control over their minds and bodies. Instead of, “That’s it – go to the office!” consider, “I can see you are very upset right now. How about you take 3 minutes to step outside and take a few deep breaths. I’ll come out in a minute to see how else we can help you get re-centered.”
  2. Proactively teaching self-regulation skills will always yield better results than reactively trying to manage a student’s behavior. Invest the time to teach your students ways to build their stress resilience. Here are a few suggestions based on the most well-researched stress preventers/reducers:- Start each class with a brief gratitude exercise. Students can share something they are grateful for with a neighbor, write in a journal, or drop it in the chatbox (Rusk, Vella-Brodrick, & Waters, 2016).- Daily exercise builds stress resilience. Incorporate more movement in your teaching (high knees for 30 seconds in between each practice problem) or invite students to meet up with you before school for a 20-minute powerwalk around the schoolyard (Puterman et al., 2010).

    – Mindfulness practices build your ability to control what your mind is focused on. Start by inviting students to focus on their breath, a picture of nature you display, or a calming visual in their mind for 10 seconds. Slowly build up to 60 seconds (Wielgosz et al., 2019).

A Culturally Responsive Approach to Academics

  1. Maintain high expectations for ALL students. Those who feel part of the “out-group” already feel less than their peers. Carefully examine your mindset for any “deficit thinking.” Deficit thinking is the pattern of assuming deficiencies among students (often based on race, SES, family structure, or language spoken). This type of teacher mindset is in direct contrast to culturally responsive habits of maintaining high expectations for all students.Challenge yourself to identify the strengths of each student you work with. Write them down by their name in your grade book or another document you often visit to remind you of these strengths.
  2. Culturally relevant instruction. As you prepare for each upcoming unit, evaluate your curriculum to ensure it represents all the students you teach. Your reading materials, characters you study, the music you play in your classroom… it all sends a message to your students. Make adjustments to ensure all students can find a way to connect to the characters, stories, and themes of your curriculum.
  3. Use culturally-specific holidays or events as an opportunity to teach the rest of the class about a cultural tradition. Knowledge and awareness are the seeds from which tolerance and compassion grow.

A Culturally Relevant Response to Social Connectedness

  1. Find a common purpose. Savvy teachers create an inclusive, whole-class “in-group.” This is often done by finding one common purpose that all students can get behind – similar to the diverse sports fans who all rally around their home team. Some teachers get the “whole class” behind helping hurt animals, getting others to vote, wounded warriors, or the community food bank. The whole class fights hard all year (or semester) for that “one big thing.” This could be the “we, the class team” vs. “others.”
  2. Be a Caring Adult. For some students, their classroom community at school is where they feel most safe and accepted. When familial stability or connection is low, the teacher-student relationship can mitigate the effects of a poor home environment (Benner & Mistry, 2007). You don’t have to be their teacher AND their parent – just offer the same safety and warmth that every child should feel at home.
  3. Seek for Equity, not Equality. Some students have a greater need for a caring adult than others, based on their home life. As you get to know each student personally, invest your time with students who need a supportive relationship that you can offer. Remember, equity is giving more to those who need it most. Those who are already in the “in-group” and have supportive home lives are already in the arena of success.Spend time with students who would be considered in the “out-group” in your classroom or school. Learn about their lives. Listen. Ask questions. Then listen some more. There is evidence that spending just a few minutes a day with individual at-risk students can improve the teacher’s view of that student (Driscoll & Pianta, 2010).

Every culture-based barrier for students has been built over time. Now is the time to break down the barriers excluding those in the “out-groups” from the opportunities afforded those whose culture matches yours. Start with one of the ideas above and continue on your path of becoming a more culturally responsive teacher and leader.

How Would Your Students Describe Your Classroom?

Would Your Students Describe Your Classroom as Boring or Chaotic?

“This month seems like a lost cause for learning.” Have you heard someone say something like that before? I’ve got an idea for you this month to keep you green and growing all the way till the school year’s over. It’s never too late to try something new that can boost student learning.

This is a great time of the school year for an experiment. Practice going a bit too far in either direction with the strategies below and see if you discover more boredom or chaos. Your student’s not-so-subtle pushback will be the precise feedback you need to find the balance between … Read more

Getting Priorities Right

What should your priorities be this year? From a personal standpoint, managing your health through good food, exercise, and stress management are pretty smart paths to follow. After all, if you’re not at your best, both you and your students miss out.

From a professional standpoint, ensuring that students become strong learners should be a top priority.

Since you don’t have time for every idea on earth, what factors will support your student’s growth the most? For now, we’ll focus on just one of the top five factors that drive student achievement. The study we draw from is grounded in work from several thousand teachers, so the sample size is impressive.

Focusing on what matters most is one sure way to “disaster-proof” your teaching.

PART ONE: Research

A human being is born less able to cope on its own than any other mammal. However, this provides the brain with extraordinary flexibility to adapt to its environment. The method it uses is a monster’s appetite for environmental adaption based on experience. Yet, I’ve always said that our brain is primarily a “gist processor.” That means that we are more interested in being effective (goal acquisition) than we are being efficient, being a deep thinker, or knowing a lot of background. In the classroom, this means that most kids (unless we shape their brains differently) would much rather get quirky headlines, YouTube clips, and do activities all day.

To become effective, the brain relies on an exquisite collection of feedback processors. Read more

A New Insight to the Brain and Nutrition Puzzle

Why You Might be Losing Your Mind

Recent Discovery

Is there anything new in nutrition that you haven’t already  heard? This week I listened to a neuroscientist talk about the research on glucose and the brain. It’s possible your school cafeteria is hurting your kid’s academic performance. It’s also possible your own brain is in trouble. How? Many who are unwilling to read the research claim that what you eat doesn’t matter very much. They are wrong.

Let’s take the simple (ha!) subject of sugar and your brain.

Is your school cafeteria helping or hurting your kid’s academic performance? Many who are still unwilling to read the research claim that what you eat doesn’t matter very much. They are wrong. Many early studies were not done with a strong experimental protocol or they were done on malnourished kids. But more recent ones have used the “gold standard” in research (blind studies, large sample sizes, cross-over design) and they have found that school nutrition does matter.

Here’s what I learned that was new…

Read more