How would life be if you had no tools to use to act upon your environment and to interact with friends, loved ones, business partners, clients, and strangers?

No tools—no phone, no computer, no spreadsheets, no vehicle, no language!

Culturally responsive instruction begins with cultural awareness and understanding that all children bring their own “cultural tools” to the classroom in order to act upon their environment and to interact with each other. As educators, we often silence students when we condemn, restrain, or “restrict” the tools they bring to the classroom to use to navigate their educational experience. “Restricting tools” is a process of creating norms and rules that prohibit the use of certain tools in the classroom.

Language—a Cultural Tool 

One of the most powerful tools that we all use is language, and many of our Black students use African American Vernacular English (AAVE) while interacting during instructional time. In response to their use of AAVE, teachers often overcorrect students to the point that students become embarrassed about the ways in which they speak and eventually become silent in the classroom (this is very prevalent when there are only a few Black kids in a classroom filled with White kids and a White teacher).

Culturally Responsive Instruction Begins With Knowledge and Cultural Awareness

When I train educators on culturally responsive MTSS, SEL, or trauma-informed work, the most common question I get is, “What can I implement in the classroom that will boost engagement among culturally diverse learners?” The answer is, culturally responsive instruction is not simply about “What can I do to engage students of color or culturally diverse learners.” No, culturally responsive instruction begins with knowledge about culture and cultural awareness, and it is a process of becoming aware of cultural values, cultural tools, and cultural clashes or tensions that present in the classroom between culturally diverse learners and teachers and students who come from different cultural backgrounds.

When students do not respond in the classroom (i.e., MTSS) or when they disengage, become disruptive, or refuse to establish or maintain relationships with teachers or students (which often leads to special education referrals), it is critical that we consider how cultural tools might play a factor, rather than believing students are unmotivated, oppositional, or defiant.

This Question Should be A Part of Every MTSS or Problem Solving Team:

One question that should be a part of every MTSS or problem solving team meeting, when addressing the performance of culturally diverse learners: Are students able to use their tools to interact, to act upon their environment, to establish relationships, and to express themselves in meaningful ways? If the answer is “no,” or if the answer is “I’m not sure . . .” then this question should be the focus of discussion during MTSS meetings and when problem solving to move students through tiers.

Just because a student is disruptive doesn’t mean he or she has an emotional disturbance issue, and just because a student underperforms and does not respond to instruction within a specified time period does not mean that he or she has a learning disability. Considering culture within the context of educational practices (i.e., MTSS, SEL, trauma-informed work, PBIS, restorative practices) requires that we understand how culture and cultural tools mediate all that we do as humans — and how cultural tools mediate relationship building among students and teachers. If we do not begin with culture, our MTSS and other educational practices will reflect deficit thinking, and we will continue to misdiagnose and misplace culturally diverse learners in special education programs who really do not have needs that require specialized services.

How do you use the cultural values, interests, and passions of students to boost engagement in the classroom?