2.4: Work with providers/teachers and staff to create a culturally inclusive, positive school and classroom climate

Culturally Inclusive Classroom icon

Culturally responsive practices include intentionally teaching social skills, raising expectations of all children, and recognizing children’s positive behaviors in the context of their own culture. Teachers need to reflect on their own culture, lives, and biases. Focusing on good intentions and valuing diversity can help teachers, families, and children better understand each other. Culturally responsive practices need to be based on cultural awareness and an understanding of families, their experiences, and their cultural context. Understanding children’s culture helps teachers work better with their children and helps reduce suspensions and expulsions at your school.

Family-school partnerships are critical for all children. There are many benefits to healthy school-family partnerships, including in issues associated with expulsions and suspensions. When families and providers have a positive relationship, they can discuss children’s needs and strategies to meet those needs, well before exclusionary discipline is considered. Strong relationships also enable teachers to have a better understanding of what factors in the child’s home life may be contributing to their behavior in the classroom. This understanding can lead to empathy, and a more productive process for identifying and meeting children’s needs. Learning from families about their culture and customs is an important part of building an inclusive school climate. Family involvement can help reduce suspensions and expulsions in your school and has a positive impact on children’s learning and development and on their social, academic, and health outcomes throughout their lives. Family-school partnerships can also be very meaningful to families.

Check out this video of a mother and school organizer talking about how her child’s preschool teacher has worked to engage her, how important it was, and lessons for building connections between homes, schools, and communities.

See Recommendation 1.2 for more information about partnering with families, and Recommendation 2.2 for more on changing classroom environments.

How do I do this?

Step 1. Discuss and reflect. Work with your staff to set norms for your discussion.

  • These might include the following:
    • Self-expression: Respect that people express themselves in different ways. This might be based on culture, upbringing, region, personal quirks, etc.
    • Use “self-focus” and use “I” statements: Begin by talking about your own experience. It is helpful to make “I” statements when you talk about your experience, instead of saying “you,” “we,” or “one.” This makes space for many perspectives to be shared, especially when they are different.
    • It is OK to disagree and not OK to blame, shame, or attack ourselves or others because of our differences: It is important to let go of the need to think, be, or act the same as everyone else.
    • Be aware of intent and impact: Be aware that your good intentions may have a negative impact, especially across racial, gender, or other cultural differences. Be open to hearing the impact of the things you say and do.
    • Confidentiality: Personal sharing can be vulnerable. You can carry the teamwork of the group and what you learn out of the group. Let others tell their own stories. (These ideas are based on work from Visions Inc.)
  • Hold staff discussions about how to understand and accept children’s cultural context and shrink the discipline gap. Talk about the times when you expect children to conform to school norms, and when you accept children’s and families’ norms.
  • Hold respectful discussion between families and staff. Talk about how children’s home life and school life are different to better understand how children act.
  • Talk about the rules, discipline, and behavior expectations at home and at school. Come up with clear expectations about respecting home culture and adapting to school expectations.
  • Talk about race, gender, and ability and how to promote equity
    • Try to answer the question “Would a child need to give up who he or she is to fit into this program?”
      • Children cannot “turn off” their cultural identity or their disability and it is up to staff to make accommodations that both allow the children to participate and for the goals of the classroom to be met.
    • Talk about what data show about disproportionality of discipline.
    • Talk about why diversity is good and how to value diversity in your program.
    • Find out what staff and parents have in common and where their expectations are different to try to build cultural awareness.
  • Helpful resources to use for staff discussion and reflection:
    • This activity is designed to help children think about their communities, but it can be a useful tool for helping staff consider their community makeup and needs.
    • Use these quizzes from EdChange to help start conversations about culture and bias.

Step 2. Identify training needs. Work with your staff to set norms for your discussion. These might include the following:

  • Talk to your staff to answer the following questions:
    • Where does training need to be targeted?
    • Do staff have specific training requests?
  • Identify opportunities for professional development and growth to make sure that discussion and reflection have an effect on practice.

Step 3. Plan a course of action. Help teachers create written strategies for how to make the school climate more positive and inclusive.

  • Work with teachers to try using this self-assessment from the IDEA Data Center (IDC). It can help evaluate your school’s use of data and culturally responsive teaching to help all children succeed.
  • Use the checklists, practice guides, and video examples developed by the Early Childhood Technical Assistance (ECTA) Center to identify specific things your teachers can do to promote an inclusive environment that promotes natural learning opportunities for all children.
  • Be inclusive of families who speak languages other than English.
    • Try to hire staff who speak common second languages in your area.
    • Translate learning materials and other visual materials into children’s home languages.
    • Make sure materials for parents are translated into their home languages.
  • Promoting social-emotional development (Recommendation 2.3), having appropriate developmental expectations (Recommendation 1.3), and practicing positive discipline (Recommendation 2.2) are all part of creating a positive and inclusive school environment.

Step 4. Provide coaching and feedback. Coaching should teach anti-bias education, cultural awareness, and how to bring the desired practices into the classroom. There should be clear expectations about how training will help bring equity and diversity into everyday practices. Check your progress and talk about new needs on a regular basis (e.g., once a year, or as needed, such as when staff change). Reflect again on current strengths and needs, and plan a course of action.

Step 5. Create formal policies and procedures. Formal policies and procedures help establish culturally inclusive practices as a way of doing business for your program that is infused into the classroom materials and communication with parents and families. Policies and procedures on preventing suspensions and expulsions should be clearly communicated to staff.

  • In classrooms, teachers should have bulletin boards, posters, newsletters, etc., to show families what is available and demonstrate your engagement. Posters should reflect diversity and show different types of children and families.
  • Work to create a positive school climate by reflecting equity and diversity in your books. Check out this list of children’s books on bias, diversity, and justice from the Anti-Defamation League.
  • Establish communication pathways. Create opportunities for regular positive communication among staff and between staff and families. Keep regular conversation open about staff needs.

Step 6. Express gratitude and acknowledge progress. Recognize staff who have worked hard and made progress using new practices. Encourage teachers to acknowledge one another. This creates a culture of support and recognition.

  • In regular staff emails or newsletters, add a “shout out” section where administrators and other staff can submit a brief comment about a colleague’s hard work (e.g., “Thanks Ms. Johnson for reflecting and talking honestly and encouraging others during professional development. Your time and dedication to this process are greatly appreciated!”).
  • Administrators can personally call or send handwritten notes to thank teachers who are working hard to put training into practice and reflect on their teaching practices. Let your staff know that you see their hard work!

What Barriers Might I Run Into and What Are Solutions?

Potential Barrier: I don’t know how to influence or change my classroom or school climate.
Solution: You already have the tools to be a leader and help your staff create positive classroom and school environments. Here are some tips from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on changing school climates:

  • Have a “growth mindset” about yourself and your staff. Be willing to work together, have patience, and find ways to recognize success.
  • Reflect on your own strengths and weaknesses; be honest with your staff to build trust and break the ice.
  • Make staff morale and school culture a priority. Be a good listener and show that you value teamwork with staff and with families.
  • Listen to staff! Be understanding when your staff are uncomfortable, and be open to hearing about their concerns and suggestions for ways improve the school climate and reduce suspensions and expulsions.
  • Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone. Open and honest conversation and work to change school culture take courage, and you can lead the way for your staff!
  • Don’t be afraid if things don’t work immediately. Change takes time and often multiple tries. You don’t have to be perfect to be an example for your staff of how to create a positive school and classroom climate and be an advocate for children in your program .

Potential Barrier:I and/or my staff are uncomfortable talking about diversity, culture, race, gender, and ability in our school and the way they affect discipline.
Solution: That is OK! Many people feel uncomfortable talking about cultural contexts and racial, gender, and ability differences. Talking about bias should being with understanding what implicit bias is, that it is present in all people and institutions around the world, and that there are ways to address it. Discussion and reflection are key to building cultural awareness and creating a positive school climate, so your willingness to try is very important!

  • Before starting a conversation about implicit bias, inequity, and discipline, create a safe and welcoming space for staff to have an honest conversation. Work as a group to create ground rules for how everyone will contribute.
  • Check out this resource from EdChange for educators leading dialogue and reflection about diversity and equity. It includes steps to help you prepare and suggests ground rules, icebreakers, ways to reflect, and group activities.
  • The PBIS website has recommendations for addressing discipline disproportionality that can be helpful in starting your discussions! Under “Presentations” on the PBIS website, there is an Equity and PBIS two-part presentation that can help you talk to your staff and start group reflection.
  • For more information on how to include children with disabilities in your program and why this is important see this resource from the U.S. Department of Education and Health and Human Services.
  • Start small and then grow! Begin a conversation by talking about the posters and books that are available and how making them more diverse can help change school and classroom climate. Check out this list of children’s books on bias, diversity, and justice.
  • The book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most is a useful tool for any person or group who is learning how to talk about tough topics productively.

Potential Barrier: My staff and I are excited to engage families but are not getting many responses back.
Solution: Parents are sometimes unsure about engaging with teachers in school and out of school. Many things can stop parents from wanting to engage: language barriers, lack of time or transportation, not understanding how much it can help their child, lack of confidence that they can make a difference, feeling that they are not welcome at the school, or previous bad experiences with schools. These are hard things for you as staff to work against, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the effort! Even though it may take time, showing genuine interest in including families will help improve classroom climate and help teachers better understand children. It may take time to build interest and trust from the families, but using some of the strategies we have outlined here persistently over time should pay off.

  • Hold school events at times when working families can join in. Let them visit your site and see the hard work you have put into making it inclusive and welcoming for families.
  • Co-plan family nights with diverse parents to allow families to share and express their cultures with staff, other children, and families in the program/school.
  • Create a bulletin board or another easily accessible place for families to share their home photos showing the diverse home cultures.
  • Start a home visiting program that will let your staff connect with families in their own space. This can help build a respectful connection between families and staff that will help children grow and give teachers a resource aside from suspensions and expulsions when behavior problems come up.
  • Try making a bulletin board that shows how many home visits staff have made and how many parents have visited the school. Show families and teachers what your goal is and the progress you have made!
  • Check out these 19 tips for engaging families from EdChange.

Where do I go for more resources?


Elementary & Middle Schools Technical Assistance Center (n.d.). Disproportionality: The disproportionate representation of racial and ethnic minorities in special education: Frequently asked questions. EMSTAC Disproportionality. Retrieved from http://www.emstac.org/registered/topics/disproportionality/faqs.htm

Great Schools Partnership (2016). Equity. The glossary of education reform. Retrieved from http://edglossary.org/equity/

Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. (2015). Building a school culture that supports teacher leadership: Advice from teachers and principals. Retrieved from http://www.doe.mass.edu/edeval/leadership/BuildingSchoolCulture.pdf

Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory Into Practice, 31(2), 132–141.

National Education Association (2008). Promoting educators’ cultural competence to better serve culturally diverse students. Retrieved from http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/PB13_CulturalCompetence08.pdf

Russ, E. (2014). Zero tolerance, zero benefits: the discipline gap in American public k-12 education. New voices in public policy. George Mason University School of Public Policy. Retrieved from journals.gmu.edu/newvoices/article/download/485/389

Trumbell, E. & Pacheco, M. (2005). Leading with diversity. Providence, RI: The Education Alliance at Brown University. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED494221.pdf

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services & U.S. Department of Education. (2016). Policy statement on family engagement from the early years to the early grades. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/about/inits/ed/earlylearning/files/policy-statement-on-family-engagement.pdf

Weinstein, C. S., Tomlinson-Clarke, S., & Curran, M. (2004). Toward a conception of culturally responsive classroom management. Journal of teacher education, 55(1), 25-38.

U.S. Department of Education and Health and Human Services (2015). Policy Statement on Inclusion of Children with Disabilities in Early Childhood Programs. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/about/inits/ed/earlylearning/inclusion/index.html

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