* Before reading this document, please review this caution statement: It is important, when speaking about any group of people, to keep certain cautions and principles in mind.  Please read carefully the numbered items found next.

Cautions to Observe when Considering Cultural Influences on Learning Style, Behavioral Patterns, and Value Orientations.

Discussing “cultural differences” and the influences of one’s heritage on learning style preferences, behavior patterns, and deeply-held values is fraught with hazards.  At any moment, we are just a few syllables away from inflicting verbal self-injury and perhaps unintentionally alienating ourselves from those with whom we wish to connect.  In order to prevent stereotyping and overgeneralizing (or on the other extreme, denying that cultural differences exist which fails to recognize and honor the characteristics that give a group their sense of peoplehood) we need to remember that:

1. All behaviors are found in all cultural groups.

2. Some behaviors are demonstrated more so in some cultures than in others, but the first point still applies.

3. Individuals within a particular culture display the traditional traits and cultural markers of that group to varying degrees… from “not at all” to “exclusively and intensely”.  These variations can be due to ethnic group differences with the larger culture, socio-economic status, degree of acculturation to the mainstream society, gender, religion, and myriad other factors.

4. If a student displays a behavior that is common and accepted within his/her cultural group, it should be viewed as “a difference” from the ways of the mainstream society that are promoted in the schools; NOT as a “deficiency” or “disorder”.

Source:  Tom McIntyre (1996).  Behavioral Disorders, volume 21, number 2, pages 137-144.


 The Report of the Task Force
 of the CCBD AD Hoc Committee
 on Ethnic and Multicultural Concerns


In 1991, The Council for Children with Behavior Disorders (CCBD) established The Ad Hoc Committee on Ethnic and Multicultural Concerns.  Later, in 1993, a task force (chaired by the CCBD representative for multicultural concerns) was established.  Its charge was to develop a paper that would offer direction to the field with regard to cultural issues.  This document reflects the efforts of that task force.

Note: "Culturally different" refers to youngsters from other than a European American/Canadian background.  It also refers to students who are immigrants, limited English proficient, multi-racial/cultural, and/or gay/lesbian/bi-sexual.  The word "culture" refers to the integrated patterns of human behavior that include the communication styles, actions, customs, beliefs, values, and institutions that give a group with a common heritage a sense of "peoplehood".

 Diversity, while a desirable condition within schools and treatment programs, brings about challenges that must be addressed by conscientious professionals.  Issues of race, class, culture, language, gender, and sexual orientation often impact upon programming for youngsters with emotional and/or behavioral disorders (EBD), and advocacy efforts conducted on their behalf.  In order to assure the fair, appropriate, and respectful treatment of culturally different1 youngsters with emotional and/or behavioral disorders, this Task Force urges educators and mental health professionals to undertake efforts to ensure that the following goals are achieved in their facilities:

1.Removal from special programs of all culturally different students who are not truly exhibiting emotional and/or behavioral disorders, but rather are displaying culturally based behavior.
     The overrepresentation of culturally different learners in programs for the disabled (Chinn & Hughes, 1987; Lauritzen & Friedman, 1991; McDonnell, 1990; Ogbu, 1990a), including those for students with emotional and/or behavioral disorders (Anderson, 1992; Chinn & Hughes, 1987) can be explained to some degree by the cultural mismatch that commonly exists between professionals and the youngsters they serve (McIntyre, 1995a; McIntyre, 1995b).

 Behavioral patterns and value orientations often vary by culture, as do actions considered to be aberrant (Light & Martin, 1985; McIntyre, 1992a; McIntyre, 1992b; McIntyre, 1993; Toth,1990).
 This commonly results in actions considered "normal" in some cultures being misinterpreted as "abnormal" by teachers not from those groups (Grossman, 1990; McIntyre, 1992b; McIntyre, 1993; McIntyre, 1996).  Additionally, students with limited English proficiency frequently are misplaced in programs for students with emotional and/or behavioral disorders (Lasky, 1994; Rothwell 1982).
 Youngsters from any background should not be labeled as EBD for displaying traits reflective of their cultural upbringing (Forness & Knitzer, 1992; McIntyre, 1993; McIntyre 1995; McIntyre, 1996).  The Task Force realizes that making the distinction between EBD and cultural differences in behavior can be difficult, and recommend the use of culturally competent assessment practices described within this paper.

2. Provision of respectful and culturally appropriate educational     and treatment services to culturally different youngsters who do possess emotional and/or behavioral disorders.

     Unfortunately, many culturally different children and youth in need of help for their emotional and/or behavior disorders do not receive needed services (McIntyre, 1993; McIntyre, 1996).  For example, children of undocumented immigrant families, and youngsters from war-torn and politically repressive countries, are especially vulnerable to emotional and/or behavioral disorders, yet are unlikely to have their needs recognized by professionals (Coburn, 1992).  Additionally, while many lesbian, gay, or bi- sexual youngsters are at risk for being identified as EBD when no disability exists, others who do have emotional disabilities may not be identified (McIntyre, 1992b; McIntyre, 1993).
 To ensure that the self esteem and motivation of every youngster with EBD is fostered, professionals are advised to develop understanding of cultural differences, and demonstrate respect for these culturally different values and behaviors by modifying practices to better match the cultural style of their charges (Lee, 1995; Lee & Richardson, 1991; McIntyre, 1993; McIntyre, 1996).  By modifying typical practices, a productive environment that values the culture of one's students/clients can be created (Jones, 1991; McIntyre, 1996).

 If certain culturally based actions (e.g., a more flexible view of being "on time", domineering behavior towards others, adolescent male rejection of female adult authority, etc.) interfere with educational success or prosocial interaction with others, educators should provide services to culturally different students to assist them in becoming "cultural chameleons," capable of displaying "school behavior" when they arrive at the schoolhouse.  Typically, this is accomplished via social skills training.  However, these curricula tend to promote middle class European-American values and behaviors to the exclusion of prosocial attitudes and actions of other cultural groups (McIntyre, 1992c; McIntyre, 1996).  When teaching new behavioral patterns, educators must assure that pride in the validity of the students' original cultures is promoted.

 It is paramount that educators create an atmosphere of both cultural self-pride and the acceptance of others' heritage.  This is best accomplished by proactively adapting one's classroom management style to the culturally based characteristics of one's students (Grossman, 1990; Light & Martin, 1985; McIntyre, 1993).  Otherwise, the mismatch between the expectations of home/neighborhood/culture and school can create emotional and/or behavioral difficulties (Grossman 1984; McIntyre, 1996).

     In order to better match the culturally-based learning and behavioral styles of their students, teachers must become skilled in modifying traditional procedures that often penalize culturally different pupils (Jones, 1991; McIntyre, 1992a; McIntyre, 1992b; McIntyre, 1993; McIntyre, 1996).  By modifying classroom practice to work with, rather than against a pupil's cultural traits, positive student self esteem and motivation can be built (Grossman, 1990; McIntyre, 1996).  Guidance in developing a culturally competent style of teaching can be found in the numerous texts and articles on multicultural education.

3. Implementation of culturally and linguistically competent assessment procedures.

 The assessment of pupils for the possible presence of EBD is a complex process (Walker & Fabre, 1987) that becomes more complicated when students are from a culturally different background (Council for Children with Behavior Disorders, 1989).  The subjective nature of the assessment process is inescapable and becomes most evident with these youngsters (Harry, 1992).
 There is a pressing need for the development and implementation of more appropriate and accurate methods of assessment for culturally different youngsters (Duran, 1989; Figueroa, 1989; McIntyre, 1995; Ortiz & Polyzoi, 1986).  This need is especially pertinent to the area of emotional and/or behavioral disorders, wherein students who display culturally different behaviors are particularly susceptible to diagnosis (Hanna 1988; McIntyre, 1995; Sugai & Maheady, 1988).  Recent immigrants are at especially high risk (Grossman, 1990; Sugai, 1988).

 Assessment must involve more than just altering the surface facets of norm-referenced instruments (Council for Children with Behavior Disorders, 1989).  Culturally based behavioral styles often differ from what is considered normative on assessment instruments (Cummins, 1984; Figueroa, 1989), and cultural biases and prejudices are embedded in standardized instruments assessing self-concept (Ogbu, 1990b; Ysseldyke, Algozzine, & Thurlow, 1992).

 Accurate assessment of whether behavior is culturally based is difficult because most individuals truly understand only their own culture, and frequently find it difficult to appreciate behavior that is different from their own (Garcia, 1978; Grossman 1990; Lasky, 1994; McIntyre, 1992a; McIntyre, 1996).  Teachers who are unaware of cultural differences often misinterpret culturally determined behavior as being evidence of EBD (McIntyre, 1992c; McIntyre, 1993; McIntyre, 1996).

 While, at this time, there exists a dearth of appropriate assessment instruments for making the determination between EBD and cultural differences, certain recommendations can be forwarded.  Evaluators would be wise to choose assessment instruments in which normative information is provided for groups of youth with cultural/racial traits similar to the youngster of concern.  To further protect culturally different youngsters from being wrongly labeled as EBD, typical assessment devises and procedures might be used in conjunction with the one instrument (McIntyre, 1996) available at this time that is designed to assist in differenting EBD from cultural differences in behavior.  Inclusion of members of a student's cultural group as consultants on the pre-referral intervention committee, and/or post-referral evaluation team, is also thoughtful practice.

 CCBD supports culturally sensitive assessment practices as described in its "white paper" on this topic (Council for Children with Behavior Disorders, 1989).  Criticisms of this document (McIntyre, 1993) also should be considered.

4. Recruitment of culturally different professionals

While parents would probably prefer a good teacher of any culture to a poor one from their own (Havinghurst & Levine, 1971; McIntyre, 1992a), it is more difficult for an instructor who is unfamiliar with a certain culture to meet the educational needs of learners from that group (Chinn & McCormick 1986; Education Week, 8/1/90; Figuero & Gallego, 1978).  In special education classrooms, a disparity in cultural background between instructors and their pupils often exists (Chinn & Hughes, 1987; Lauritzen & Friedman, 1991; McDonnell, 1990; McIntyre, 1992b; Ogbu, 1990a).

 This difference in background exists to an even greater degree in programs for youth with EBD. While 80% of students possessing EBD are males (Lauritzen, 1990), and African American and low income youth are overrepresented (Anderson, 1992; Chinn & Hughes, 1987; Viadero, 1992), approximately 80-85% of their instructors are European American females (Lauritzen, 1990).  The gender issue also is critical because female teachers refer students (especially boys) for behavioral reasons more often than would be expected, while men are less likely than expected to make referrals (McIntyre, 1988).  This disparity undoubtedly will increase as fewer males (Nicholas, 1990) and culturally different individuals (Wells, 1988) choose teaching as a career.  This means that increasing numbers of teachers will be from a different gender, culture, and socioeconomic background than their students.

 The acute shortage of educational professionals from diverse cultural backgrounds brings about serious problems including: isolation of non-minority students from teachers of culturally different groups; lack of same-culture role models for students from diverse cultures to emulate; inadequate cultural and linguistic expertise to promote the involvement of culturally different parents in the educational process, and; lack of "cultural informants" to assist others in modifying practices to be more "culturally friendly".  Enhanced recruitment in this area would lead to a countering of lowered teacher expectations and the overrepresentation of culturally different youngsters in programs for EBD.

     While the Task Force realizes that one's cultural background does not, in and of itself, guarantee the ability to relate and work effectively with youngsters exhibiting EBD, the need for recruitment of professionals from culturally different backgrounds is evident.  It is through diversity in the professional ranks that tolerance and information spread.

5. Provision of preservice and inservice training in modifications of practice that better address the characteristics of culturally different youngsters with emotional and/or behavioral disorders.

It is important for training efforts to produce culturally competent professionals and organizational systems.  "Cultural competence" is defined as a set of congruent attitudes, practices and policies that enable systems, agencies, and professionals to work effectively in cross-cultural situations (Cross, Bazron, Dennis & Isaacs, 1989; Wharry & Wharry, 1991).   A culturally competent system and its representatives acknowledge the importance of culture at all levels, incorporating practices that are culturally aware, sensitive, and appropriate.  This requires vigilance toward the dynamics that result from cultural differences, the expansion of cultural knowledge, the assessment of cross-cultural relations between various components of the system and its participants, and the adaptation of services to meet culturally unique needs.

 To better serve culturally different youngsters, educational and mental health personnel need to develop an understanding of how cultural background affects the way one behaves, and conversely, how one perceives and judges the behaviors of those not like oneself.  Their own cultural notions about how young people should behave have an effect on the education/treatment provided (Anderson, 1992; McIntyre, 1996).  When trained to knowledgeably examine culturally-based behavior, professionals can ensure that they are treating their charges in a fair and equitable manner (McIntyre, 1992c).

     It is higher education's responsibility to ensure that information regarding cultural diversity is passed on to front-line personnel (CCBD, 1989; McIntyre, 1993; McIntyre, 1996).  At this level, it can be assured that future professionals will study culturally sensitive and appropriate practices, and be guided in their use in practicum settings.  In general, however, teacher training programs are not meeting their responsibility for imparting cultural information (McIntyre, 1993; McIntyre, 1996; Yates, 1988), as most university faculty in education are unaware of cultural differences in behavior (McIntyre, 1992a; McIntyre, 1993; Yates, 1988).

 Before university faculty can impart information regarding cultural characteristics to future practitioners, they must first educate themselves in this area.  If teachers (and mental health professionals) are to be expected to implement culturally competent interactional, instructional, and disciplinary practices, a restructuring and refocusing of preservice training efforts is essential (McIntyre, 1992b; McIntyre, 1993; McIntyre, 1996).

 Inservice training regarding cultural differences, appropriate assessment, and intervention/educational modifications also is needed (Chinn & Hughes, 1987; McIntyre, 1992c).  Schools and agencies should promote cultural awareness and understanding in a number of ways ranging from conducting inservice sessions with national level consultants or local civic leaders of particular cultures, to hiring individuals from culturally diverse backgrounds who are able to communicate information about their group across cultures (Armstrong, 1991).

 Presently, preservice and inservice training efforts, while improving, still are inadequate.  Most educational and mental health professionals must, themselves, become cultural detectives, searching for knowledge and information that will assist them in better meeting the needs of their culturally different charges.

6. Creation of welcoming institutional atmospheres in which culturally different youngsters with EBD feel valued, respected, and physically and psychologically safe.

 While many schools have modified their facilities, curriculum, materials, and practices in an attempt to make their environments less alienating and more welcoming to their culturally different clientele, in general they still tend to reflect the values and expectations of the majority culture (i.e., European American middle class and those who display similar beliefs, values, and behaviors) (McDonnell, 1990; McIntyre, 1992a; McIntyre, 1996).  This organizational structure is not surprising given that, at present, over 90% of the teaching force has a middle class European-American background.  By the turn of the century, this figure will rise to 95% (Henry, 1990), while one-third (Grossman, 1990) to one-half (Wilson, 1988) of the school age population will be from a culturally different background.

     Traditional school environments often penalize students with values, beliefs, languages, and behaviors at variance with those of "the mainstream American" (Hanna, 1988; Lasky, 1994; McIntyre, 1993; McIntyre, 1996).  Even culturally different students proficient in Standard English and who are aware of the expectations of the mainstream culture may be penalized by teaching methods that conflict with their culturally determined learning and behavioral styles (Focal point, 1988; Grossman, 1984; Grossman, 1990; McIntyre, 1992a; McIntyre, 1992b; McIntyre, 1996; Ogbu, 1990).

 Few educators realize that many culturally different youth view the traditional North American school environment as alienating.  The same phenomenon appears in counseling situations, wherein many culturally different individuals reject services, practices, and recommendations that reflect the lifeview of middle class European Americans (Lee, 1995; Lee & Richardson, 1991).

 As with beauty, "acceptable behavior or bothersome behavior is in the eye of the beholder." (Light & Martin, 1985, p. 42).  In educational and mental health settings, the beholder usually is a member of the middle-class majority culture.  Because persons, no matter what their background, tend to think of their ways as being "the best" (Gollnick & Chinn, 1990; Hallahan & Kauffman, 1994; McIntyre, 1992a), professionals often lack tolerance for cultural differences (McIntyre, 1992c), expecting their charges to deny centuries of heritage and adopt majority culture behaviors overnight.  Grossman (1990, p. 335 & 344) warns "...cultural differences that exist between teachers and school administrators and minority students in the school can contribute to behavior problems in numerous ways."  For example, youngsters from historically oppressed minorities (Ogbu, 1990a; Ogbu, 1992), may misbehave as a strategy for resisting perceived pressures to think and act "White" in the schools (Fordham, 1988; McIntyre, 1993; Ogbu, 1990a).

 In our schools, African American, Mexican American, Native Hawaiian, and Native American youth often are under great pressure from their peers to not achieve (Hanna, 1988; McIntyre, 1993; Ogbu, 1990a; Ogbu, 1992).  Due to historical oppression and an emphasis on cultural cohesion and cooperation rather than competition, individual success in schooling is often viewed as rejection of one's cultural group (Fordham, 1988; Hanna, 1988; Ogbu, 1990a; Ogbu, 1992).  Because of this peer pressure, even those who do strive for academic excellence may feel the need to camouflage their efforts (Fordham, 1988; McIntyre, 1993).

 Educational and clinical personnel who lack cross-cultural awareness are at risk for reacting to culturally-determined behavior in ways that are ineffective, inappropriate, counterproductive, or offensive (McIntyre, 1992b; McIntyre, 1996).  A lack of knowledge regarding culturally different youngsters contributes to the creation of the above-mentioned alienating environments, filling the classroom and clinic with confusion, disaffection, disinterest, estrangement, rebellion, and conflict (McIntyre, 1995).

 Instead of viewing behaviors as being "right" or "wrong," the actions of youngsters are best judged by how well they are suited to the demands of the educational and/or therapeutic environment (McIntyre, 1992c).  However, programs and facilities also must assess how well they are meeting the needs of their culturally different youth, parent, and professional populations.  For our settings to become more culturally sensitive and competent in procedures and practices, changes will need to be implemented at each organizational stratum (McIntyre, 1992a; McIntyre, 1993).

 Those serving youngsters with EBD must acknowledge culture as a predominant force in shaping behaviors and values, and respect the culturally defined traits of their charges.  Today, more than ever, the necessity of considering the influence of cultural factors on the classroom environment is evident.

7. Enhancement of the cultural knowledge base of professionals, clients/students, and the public at large.

Programs, institutions, and professional groups continually must strive to educate professionals, youngsters, and the public at large regarding cultural issues.  In addition to training sessions, this might involve the printing and distribution of leaflets, pamphlets, brochures, magazines, and journals.

 To insure accuracy and sensitivity in writing, it is recommended that editors of publications include their culturally different subscribers and other knowledgeable individuals as readers of manuscripts submitted for publication.  Conference and meeting organizers should recruit presenters who can speak knowledgeably and in a non-confrontational manner regarding the influence of cultural factors on student behavior, practitioner intervention, and parental involvement.


Given the multiple influences that impact upon each person, there is, even within groups of peoples, diversity.  Consistent and clearly delineated distinctions do not exist between races, cultures, sexual orientations, or generational status after families have moved to North America.  Congruently, there are no specific educational or clinical strategies designated appropriate for certain groups of students based solely on their heritage or group membership.  Youngsters often come from, live in, and emulate the behaviors of multiple, overlapping cultural groups.  This means that cultural identities, cultural issues, and the educational/therapeutic practices that revolve around them can be multi-faceted and complex.

 Culturally competent professionals view culture and it's influence from multiple perspectives.  For them, there is recognition that some behaviors and values are indeed more common in some groups than others.  However, sterotyping is avoided and the individuality of all persons is noted.  At the same time, there is cognizance of the fundamental commonalities (e.g., needs, desires, general social regulations and perspectives) that exist among all peoples despite differences in background or heritage.  These universal standards (e.g., trustworthiness, respectful behavior towards others, justice, excellence, etc.) although displayed in various ways, give cohesion to multicultural societies such as our's.

 Whether apparent variations from common-culture code are due to EBD, or simply culturally different expressions of those universal observances, should be a critical factor in the special education evaluation process.  In combination with the use of standard procedures for assessing EBD, consideration of cross- cultural commonalities, along with the cultural differences that give a group their sense of identity, peoplehood, and community, all assist in devising a framework or context within which to determine whether variations from a societal norm are disordered or merely different.

 In nearly all cases, culturally divergent behaviors are to be respected.  However, intercession on the part of conscientious professionals might be required at times to assure that one person's pride, beliefs, or actions, even if claimed to be "culturally based", do not demean or ride roughshod over those of different others.  While a certain culture's traits might be correlated with success in certain areas of endeavor, claims of overall cultural superiority are ill-founded, and fail to respect the accomplishments and intrinsic value of others.  We cannot support, condone, or excuse behaviors, even if culturally based, if they undermine basic human rights and the more commonly held values of humankind.  Educational and mental health facilities should be places of civility that promote and require respect for the inherent dignity of others.

 While much remains to be accomplished, strides have been made in better serving culturally diverse youngsters with emotional and behavioral disorders.  This Task Force recognizes the strong efforts put forth by its parent organization on behalf of culturally different youngsters with EBD.  CCBD's journals (i.e., Behavioral Disorders, Beyond Behavior, and Severe Behavior Disorders of Children and Youth) have published numerous articles concerning issues of diversity.  These publications continue to welcome quality manuscripts pertaining to this area.

 CCBD has conducted a number of advocacy efforts.  In 1989, its "White paper on best assessment practices for students with behavioral disorders: Accommodation to cultural diversity and individual differences" was published in Behavioral Disorders.  From 1991 to the date of this publication, CCBD, along with the other parent organizations comprising the Mental Health and Special Education Coalition, developed a proposed definition for "emotional and behavioral disorder" designed to replace the present definition for "serious emotional disturbance" (CCBD Advocacy and Governmental Relations Committee Report, 1991; Forness & Knitzer, 1992).  The proposed definition considers cultural influences on the behavioral and emotional state of students referred for services for EBD.

 We expect that the definitional criterion regarding cultural norms will draw special attention, and recognize that "grey areas" and points of contention will continue to exist regarding the provision of services to culturally different youngsters with EBD (McIntyre, 1993; McIntyre, 1996).  Assuming that the proposed definition is incorporated at some later date, schools, programs, administrators, and teachers will be seeking guidance in meeting the letter and intent of the new definition.  We are confident that CCBD, as the leader in the field of emotional and/or behavioral disorders, will continue to guide and direct future policy, practice, and procedure in this area.

     The Council for Children with Behavior Disorders, in its efforts to promote culturally competent and respectful assessment/treatment/educational practices, also has engaged in other actions.  To assist agencies in implementing more comprehensive staff training, CCBD developed an expert witness and consultant service which contained the names of many individuals knowledgeable regarding the impact of cultural and linguistic diversity upon assessment, instruction, behavior management, and treatment.  ( Additionally, a permanent at-large member for cultural concerns has been appointed to the CCBD executive committee, and an ad hoc committee on ethnic and multicultural concerns has been formed.  These representatives are charged with the task of advising the executive board on diversity issues pertaining to the field of emotional and/or behavioral disorders.)

 Further steps to be undertaken by CCBD in the area of cultural issues related to EBD have been delineated (Sweeney, 1995).  In addition to recruiting authors to write articles in this area, a survey of members from underrepresented groups is to be conducted.

 This Task Force recommends that CCBD continue to seek and engage in collaboration with other groups interested in the welfare and education of culturally different learners.  Within the Council for Exceptional Children, this would involve interaction with the Division for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Exceptional Learners (DDEL), the staff of CEC's Ethnic and Multicultural Bulletin, and the CEC caucuses that represent professionals and youngsters from various cultures and microcultures.
 In summary, this Task Force recommends continued development and promotion of culturally competent practices/policies for the education and treatment of culturally different youngsters with emotional and/or behavioral disorders.  We encourage all professionals and their representative groups to join us in our efforts.


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Task Force Members: Donald Wharry (Chair), Eleanor Guetzloe, Thomas McIntyre
Document author: Thomas McIntyre

Other readers and contributors:  Rosemarie Buote, Sharon Collins, Patricia Silva, Virginia Tong, and Anita Weintraub.
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