Cultural competency in the classroom

male teacher helping child in classroom
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Five universal practices for making immigrant and refugee students feel more welcome

Schools in the United States are becoming more diverse, with more than 23% of students coming from other countries. Having various cultures in the same classroom can make supporting newcomer students a challenge, even if their English is fluent. Here are a few tips to boost cultural competency and promote the bond between educators and newcomer students.

1. Do some research about cultural competency

Take some time to learn about the student’s home country and history. However, do so with a keen eye on your own cultural assumptions and the biases that may be present in the content you encounter. You may reach the conclusion that females practicing a certain faith are usually introverted. Behavior is based on culture but can be trumped by an individual’s personality. Use the knowledge you gather as a framework, rather than a stiff set of beliefs. To start, you can access and download USAHello’s cultural background information.

2. Leave space for understanding

Newcomer students face more financial, emotional, and logistical challenges than students born in the United States. If you notice a student is withdrawn or frequently late to class, realize that defying rules may not be their intention. It’s possible they may not have a consistent way to get to school, or maybe they are experiencing psychological issues that they are not sure how to manage. Structure is an important part of an educational environment, but examine the root causes of the action before reprimanding.

3. Mirror body language

Frequent smiling and physical contact may not be the norm in a student’s country of origin. In fact, these attempts at being friendly can be off-putting. Be mindful of the student’s behavior around adults and friends. Do they prefer ample space between them and other people when talking? Do they look nervous when someone makes direct eye contact? Mirror their physical behavior and be sensitive to their reactions to create a sense of ease.

4. Offer resources

If you are aware that the student or family has a specific need, research local resources that they can access. Many families have not heard of all the organizations or public services that they could benefit from. They can also be directed to USAHello’s FindHello, where they can search for local resources in their area.

5. Utilize tact when communicating

Many newcomers come from indirect cultures, where sensitive information or criticism is implied rather than overtly stated. These cultures tend to be collectivist and to avoid singling people out and embarrassing them. They may answer a question with “possibly” instead of “no,” or will try to change the subject if they feel uncomfortable. Try rephrasing to a gentler tone. For example, instead of saying telling a student that his homework is late, asking what he thinks about starting to work on it a bit earlier.

a young woman teacher helping little girl
Resources for teachers and supporters

Sign up for our online professional development class or find cultural background information about refugees and asylum seekers – useful for professional educators and anyone who wants to support newcomer families.

Find resources
Opinions expressed and advice given in USAHello’s Voices and Hello blogs are the writers’ own. USAHello offers impartial information and online courses to help newcomers in the USA.