* Before reading the article, please take a moment to read 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”.


This manuscript was originally published as: McIntyre, T. (1992). The culturally sensitive disciplinarian. Severe Behavior Disorders of Children and Youth, 15, 107-115.

It was reprinted with permission in Children with Behavior Disorders and Autism.

It was reprinted a second time in a compilation by the Council for Children with Behavior Disorders of the best 10 articles written on behavior management in the previous twenty years:  Management and discipline of students with emotional/behavioral disorders (1997).

 The Culturally Sensitive Disciplinarian



Given the increasing cultural diversity of the school age population, teachers must become more aware of cultural differences in behavior.  This article addresses some of these differences and recommends behavior management modifications.

     Since their inception, our schools have changed from predominantly white institutions to  multicultural environments.  While the 25 largest school systems have a student population comprised mostly of minority students (National Information Center for Children and Youth with Handicaps, 1988), non-urban areas are also seeing such developments (Alston, 1991).  By the year 2000, one third (Grossman, 1990) to one half (Wilson, 1988) of America's school students will be from a minority group.

            At present, 92% of the teaching force is from the white majority culture.  This figure will increase to 95% by the turn of the century (Henry, 1990).  The contrast in cultural background between teachers and students applies to an even greater extent in special education where minority youth are over-represented in various programs for the disabled, including those for pupils with emotional or behavioral disorders (Chinn & Hughes, 1987; Viadero, 1992).  Much of this phenomenon may be attributable to the mismatch between the expectations present in the students' home and those of the school environment (Almanza & Moseley, 1980; Grossman, 1990).

          Behavioral patterns and actions considered to be abnormal vary by culture (Light & Martin, 1985; Toth, 1990).  When educators and their charges come from different backgrounds, it can be expected that each will often display behaviors different from those in the other's culture.  Given that most individuals truly understand only their culture and find it difficult to appreciate behavior culturally different from their own (Garcia, 1978; Grossman 1990; McIntyre, 1992a), there is a strong chance that teachers will misinterpret their pupils' culturally based behavior as requiring a referral for special education or at least disciplinary action (Foster, 1986, Grossman, 1990; Hanna 1988).  Indeed, children who display culturally diverse behaviors, especially recent immigrants (Sugai, 1988), are particularly susceptible to diagnosis for behavior disorders (Hanna 1988; Sugai & Maheady, 1988).

Cultural Differences in Behavior
     A lack of appreciation and tolerance for cultural differences is often found among educators.  These teachers expect their students to adopt majority culture behaviors overnight, denying the validity of centuries of cultural practice.  "The teacher's expectation is that the student should be compliant, docile, and responsive to authority.  The student is expected to conform to a standard of behavior that the teacher is familiar with, the compliant child standard that was indicative of the teacher's upbringing." (Dent, 1976, p. 178)  These teachers are at risk for reacting to culturally determined behavior in ways that are insensitive, inappropriate, counterproductive or offensive to students and their culture.

          As an example of culturally disrespectful intervention, consider that in the majority American culture, a child is expected to look at the authority figure when being disciplined.  Lowered eyes are associated with deceit or inattention (Armstrong, 1991; Grossman, 1990).  To gain eye contact, the instructor may lift the student's chin and say "Look at me when I'm talking to you."  The educator may not realize that in many Asian, black and Hispanic homes, children are taught to lower their eyes when being disciplined as a sign of respect and submission (Armstrong, 1991; Grossman, 1990; Nine-Curt, 1976).  Canter's Assertive Discipline (1976) and other behavior management systems that recommend gaining eye contact while disciplining, unknowingly fail to respect the behavior promoted in the student's home environment.  Additionally, the teacher probably fails to realize that direct eye contact by these students during disciplinary situations typically indicates defiance rather than respect (Grossman, 1990; Hanna, 1988).  The educator may also not realize that many culturally diverse children smile during disciplinary situations, not to express defiance, but rather due to anxiety, appeasement attempts or confusion as to why the instructor is confronting them (Henkin & Nguyen, 1981; Nine-Curt, 1976).

         Minority students are often penalized by teaching methods which contrast with their culturally based preferred style of learning (Blackorby & Edgar, 1990).  Consider, for example, the individualistic and competitive environment of the typical classroom which works against the more cooperative learning style common among Hispanics, blacks and Native Americans (Brendtro, Brokenleg & Van Bockern, 1991; Focal Point, 1988; Grossman, 1990).  While displaying their culture's helpfulness, brotherhood or generosity, students may assist their peers or allow them to copy their answers, not considering this to be "cheating" (Grossman, 1984).  If criticized for doing this in front of their peers or made to compete against their will, these pupils may rebel against such treatment, or withdraw from further attempts to succeed in school or relate to their teachers (Grossman, 1990).  Majority culture educators may then use their own culturally based disciplinary behavior; removing affection (Grossman, 1984).  However, this reaction is less commonly found in the students' culture and may not gain the desired results (Grossman, 1984).

        Other traditional methods of promoting positive classroom behavior such as checks, gold stars, sweets, and prizes may also be less effective with Hispanic and other learners.  The reason, explains Grossman (1984, pp. 37 & 40) is that "Hispanics tend to be more interested in and dependent on the approval of others than Anglos who are more likely to be receptive to more impersonal and materialistic forms of recognition."  Instead, teachers should use praise, hugs, pats on the back and other personal contact.  They should also stress that Hispanic students' families will be proud of them and share the honor of their accomplishments.  This particular strategy might also be useful in motivating Arab and Asian students who wish to bring pride to their families (Nydel, 1987; Wei, 1980).

        While touch is often recommended as a reinforcement procedure, especially for cultural groups that use a great deal of bodily contact, it may be contra-indicated for some Asian students.  Those whose heritage was influenced by Confusionism view the body as being more sacred as one approaches the area of the head where the soul is believed to reside (Kaczor, 1988).  Given this wide body spacing and the lack of touch between Asian individuals (Yao, 1980), teachers should avoid certain actions that are used to motivate and reinforce Hispanic, Arab and Black students (e.g., hair mussing, placing hands on the shoulder, back slapping).

     While the majority culture places great emphasis on promptness and working diligently on task (Althen, 1988), most other groups have a more flexible view of time (Nine-Curt, 1976; Sung, 1987).  As a result, minority students may be late to school or might not complete classroom work as quickly as their majority culture peers.  They may be viewed as being "off task" and tersely told to "get to work".  When rushed, or told to stop working before completion of that assignment in order to begin the next task with their peers, the students may resist, appearing to misbehave (Grossman, 1984).

     Other groups may also be negatively affected by the demands of the traditional school setting.  A teacher's expectations for quiet, non-active student behavior would be in opposition to the more active and emotionally outspoken contributory styles of Arab students (Nydel, 1987).  This can result in the students' behavior being viewed as inappropriate.  A similar learning style is frequently evident among African-American pupils who show attention and cognitive involvement with vocal responses, exuberance, and physical movement (Gay, 1975; Ogbu, 1984).  Teachers oftentimes consider these students to be inattentive, restless, disruptive, or hostile (Gay, 1975), and evidencing "an attitude" (Gilmore, 1985).  They may impose disciplinary procedures rather then incorporating spontaneity, performance and audience reaction into their lessons.

     Another common misunderstanding involves a teacher who explains a task to an Asian student and then asks if the directions are understood.  Although the student says "Yes", upon later review, the teacher finds that the instructions were not comprehended.  He or she is perplexed by the apparent dishonesty of the student, unaware that the pupil may have been attempting to "save face" (Woo, 1985).  Among the Asian cultures there is a commonly held belief that one should avoid conflict or public embarrassment which would shame not only the individuals involved, but by extension, their families (Wei, 1977; Henkin & Nguyen, 1981; Leung 1988).  The student in the testing situation may have been trying to prevent the dishonor or humiliation of admitting that he or she was incapable of understanding the directions (Woo, 1985), or perhaps the pupil was trying to avoid humiliating the teacher for not having done a good job of explaining the task (Wei, 1977).  These students may also fail to volunteer answers during class discussions for fear of giving an incorrect response (Henkin & Nguyen, 1981; Woo, 1985).

     The same applies to the "pow-wow" (Hobbs, 1966), in which a student's report on whether he or she has achieved pre-selected goals is followed by peer commentary as to whether they agree.  This could be quite uncomfortable for Asian students as they might publicly "lose face" if goals have not been attained. Therefore, teachers should not assume that the less direct and more subdued behavior common in the Asian cultures is indicative of "sneakiness" or non-compliance.  While penalizing the student for this behavior is inappropriate, any shame and    embarrassment is compounded when public reprimands such as those in the warning system recommended in Assertive Discipline (Canter & Canter, 1976), are used (Jones, 1991).  Listing the student's name, followed by checkmarks indicating recurring misbehavior, may cause Asian students (and many Arab students whose families also place great emphasis on family honor) to "lose face".  A private rather than public critique of behavior is the intervention of choice.

     Contrary to the facesaving behavior promoted by certain cultures, other groups provide an upbringing which may increase the likelihood of teacher-student conflict.  For example, in the Hispanic culture which tends to be male dominant (Arredondo, 1991; Devore & Schlesinger, 1987), adolescent boys may resist complying with commands from female educators (Grossman, 1984).  With these students, cooperation is best gained through non- authoritative methods which request rather than demand compliance (Grossman, 1984).

     Defiance may also be demonstrated to a great extent by low income urban black youth whose parents often teach them to fight to avoid being victimized in their tough neighborhoods (Hanna, 1988; McIntyre, 1991; McIntyre, 1992b). Growing up in these areas is more likely to produce traits that impede success in school (eg. a more physical style of action, a greater approval of the use of violence, less disguised aggression, lack of subtlety in verbiage, and ridiculing of others) (Hanna, 1988; McIntyre, 1991; McIntyre, 1992b).  These behaviors and the previously mentioned learning style differences may explain why black youth receive one-third of the corporal punishments (Quality Education for Minorities, 1990), are twice as likely as whites to be suspended (Gibbs, 1988), and are suspended for longer periods than whites (Gibbs, 1988).

     Few teachers realize that African-American, Mexican- American, Native Hawaiian and Native American youth are often under great pressure from their peers not to achieve in school (Gollnick & Chinn, 1990; Hanna, 1988; Ogbu, 1990).  Individual success in schooling or professions is viewed as inappropriate if the group does not also advance (Fordham, 1988; Ogbu, 1990).  For many students, merely attending school is viewed as evidence of rejection of their culture (Fordham, 1988; Hanna, 1988).  For others, misbehavior is a strategy of resistance to being pressured to think and act "white" in the schools (Fordham, 1988; Gibson, 1988; Ogbu, 1988; Ogbu, 1990; Quality Education for Minorities, 1990).  Because of the peer pressure, those who strive for academic excellence may feel the need to camouflage their academic efforts (Fordham, 1988).

     This rejection of schooling may result in disciplinary action or referral for behavior disorders services.  Teachers can best assist and support these students by using private disciplinary action (and even allowing usually compliant students to misbehave at times), modifying instruction to better match their culturally determined learning styles, allowing them to downplay accomplishments, and avoiding public recognition unless approved by them (McIntyre, 1992b).  Teachers can expect that these students might not respond well to public praise and rewards for actions which may be perceived as "acting white".  Even devoid of racial influences, defiant and aggressive behavior occurs more often in the lower socio-economic stratum (Strom, 1965; McIntyre, 1992b).  As a result of harsh and inconsistent home discipline (Horton & Hunt, 1968; Hanna, 1988), low income urban pupils may have developed an escape and avoidance reaction style to discipline, or come to view physical punishment as a sign of caring (Rosenfeld, 1971; Silverstein and Krate, 1975).  They may be confused by the subtle and supportive behavior management practices of middle class teachers (Hanna, 1988; Harrison-Ross and Wyden, 1973).

     While some educators support corporal punishment in the belief that these students are best disciplined by a style to which they are accustomed (Bauer, Dubanoski, Yamauchi & Honbo, 1990), most middle class oriented educators believe in permissiveness and an appeal to reason.  The first group's methods are ineffective because schools cannot offer aversive consequences as severe as those at home.  The second group fails to realize that lower class youth have a different frame of reference regarding discipline that involves physicalness and toughness (Foster, 1986; McIntyre, 1992b).  These youth "test" teachers to see if they can "make" them behave (Foster, 1986) and come to view whites and middle class minorities as passive and weak if they cannot do so (Hanna, 1988).  Implementing a structured behavior management approach in which predetermined penalties are consistently administered for violations of clearly stated rules gives one "clout" and influence.  However, this should still be blended with reinforcement for appropriate behavior in order to promote a positive classroom climate.

     The emphasis on positiveness also applies to working with Native American students.  The imposition of authority in a demanding or demeaning manner typically results in passive resistance and withdrawal on the part of these pupils (Hurlburt, Gade & McLaughlin, 1990; Kleinfeld, 1972).  An appeal to their good nature and the use of appropriate reinforcement is more productive than coercive or confrontational strategies (Brendtro, Brokenleg & Van Bockern, 1991).

     The same principle applies for Arab-American students.  As in the Hispanic and Native American cultures, frank criticism may be perceived as a personal insult (Nine-Curt, 1976).  Best practice includes indirect criticism, mixed with encouragement and praise regarding any positive points or expectations that were met (Nydel, 1987).

     It is imperative that educators practice respect for culturally different behavior.  Instead of viewing behavior as "right" or "wrong", it is best judged by how well it is suited to the demands of the educational environment (although schools must also assess how well they are meeting the needs of their culturally diverse populations).  To better serve their charges, educational personnel need to develop an awareness of how cultural background affects the way one behaves, and conversely, how one perceives and judges the behaviors of those not like oneself.

    As Light and Martin (1985, p. 43) point out, "An understanding of cultural expectations and roles can contribute to the development of child management techniques specifically designed to eliminate value differences between a child's family, the school system, and the larger society."  By working with, rather than against a culture, any student resentment about having to behave differently in school can be managed (Grossman, 1990).  One recommendation regarding discipline which pertains to all groups is to be positive rather than negative or confrontational.  A skilled culturally sensitive behavior manager entices rather than coerces students into "proper" behavior (Bauer, Dubanoski, Yamauchi & Honbo, 1990).

    For students from the black, Hispanic, Native American and Arab cultures which place greater emphasis on socializing and bodily contact than the white and Asian cultures (Kleinfeld, 1972; Nine-Curt, 1977; Nydel, 1987), teachers can increase their effectiveness by displaying more "warmth" (Kleinfeld, 1972).  This involves reinforcing students via the use of touch, hugs, smiles and closer body spacing.  When discipline is necessary, because of their desire to socialize with peers, "time out" may be especially effective with these pupils (Hanna, 1988).

        In order for our schools to become more culturally sensitive in their disciplinary practice, changes will need to be implemented at each educational stratum (McIntyre, 1992a).  Teacher training institutions must assume the large share of the burden of imparting cultural information.   At this level, it can be assured that future teachers will study this information and be guided in it's use in practicum settings.  Generally, however, university programs in education are not presenting this information (Garcia, 1978; Yates, 1988).  Before teacher trainers can impart information regarding cultural characteristics, instructional modifications and culturally sensitive behavior management practices, they must first educate themselves in this area.

     Schools can promote cultural 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 minority groups who are able to communicate information across cultures (Armstrong, 1991).  Additionally, schools might provide services to culturally diverse students to assist them in becoming "cultural chameleons" capable of displaying "school behavior" if their culturally based actions interfere with educational achievement or interaction with others.  This is not an easy decision for educators and the community at large who must wrestle with the issue of whether to promote and/or teach majority culture behaviors to the student population.  Caught in the horns of a cultural dilemma, they must decide whether to chance making one culture look preferable to another, or hazard impairing student's future employability by failing to expose them to the expectations of the typical workplace.

     If it is deemed necessary to teach "white" behavior, this can be accomplished via specially designed lessons perhaps utilizing activities from published social skills curricula.  Students would then role play common situations.  Career education lessons that focus on the benefits of being able to display "office behavior" might also be planned.

    Paramount at the classroom level, however, is the creation of an atmosphere of cultural tolerance and acceptance.  Students of all ethnic cultures need to feel valued, respected, and psychologically and physically safe.  This is accomplished by proactively adapting one's classroom management style to their culturally based characteristics (Grossman, 1990).

     Finally, it is imperative that professional organizations concerned with cultural diversity and behavior disorders focus more on culturally based differences in behavior and culturally sensitive behavior management practices in their publications and conference planning.

     Teachers oftentimes create much of the "misbehavior" about which they complain.  Via modification of traditional behavior management procedures one can create a productive classroom environment that values the culture of one's students (Jones, 1991).  When educators are knowledgeable of and able to critically examine differences in culturally based behavior, they can be more confident that all students are being treated fairly and respectfully.


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