Diversity recognizes the differences between people and includes different factors, such as religion, political orientation, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, race, ethnicity, language, socio-economic status, and family structure. Cultural diversity in the classroom involves celebrating those differences and creating a culture of inclusion and acceptance among students and the greater school community.
Types of cultural diversity in the classroom
Teaching diversity in the classroom is a key part in establishing an overall school or district policy of cultural diversity. Schools can do their part to promote policies and procedures for equality, diversity, and inclusion, but teachers can implement diversity and inclusiveness in the classroom on a daily basis with their students. Below are considerations teachers should take into account within the classroom.
Although the concept of race tends to be learned, children are still able to see skin color and the differences between them, especially in a racially diverse society like the U.S. Race acceptance and sensitivity should permeate the classroom across the board — between students and with teachers and students. It is just as important for teachers to respect and recognize the impact of race on their students as it is for students to recognize it among themselves.
Aside from the differences in appearance, culture and heritage make up a significant part of individual identities. While race is limited to several categories, ethnicities span across countries, towns, villages, and tribes. By understanding your students’ ethnicities, you can better recognize their unique interests and perspectives that are shaped by their ethnic backgrounds.
Ethnicity could determine a student’s primary or secondary language, and in some cases, students in immigrant families might speak something other than English at home exclusively. This could lead to language barriers between parents and teachers, or potential language barriers among students who may not have English proficiency.
Religions can be just as broad as ethnic backgrounds, and it’s important to honor each student’s religious beliefs and practices. Outside of parochial schools, religion is typically not brought into a student’s school life unless that student’s behavior is directly affected by their religious beliefs (e.g., dietary restrictions, staying home for a religious holiday). Teachers should further recognize that students may have trouble understanding the religious beliefs they were raised to believe may not fit in with the beliefs and lifestyle of their peers.
Students come from various socio-economic backgrounds that could be determined by the environment in which they were raised, the neighborhood where they reside, and their families’ income levels. These differences could show up in many ways, including personal tech devices, wardrobe, transportation, and holiday gifts from families. Some students may have to take on after-school jobs or rush home to babysit a younger sibling while other students are able to participate in extracurricular activities. Keep in mind that a student with few possessions might not be from a low-income family, while a student from a low-income family might have purchased a new iPhone with their own earned income. Not everything is what it seems, and every parent has different ways of providing for their children.
Sexual orientation and gender identity is a crucial aspect of a young person’s journey. It is often during their time as a student that they come into their own understanding of who they are. These personal journeys may involve the support from teachers and counselors or acceptance by peers, so educators should keep an eye out if they notice students struggling in any of these areas.
Importance of diversity in the classroom
Why is equality, diversity, and inclusion important in schools? A lack of diversity and inclusiveness in the classroom can lead to students feeling isolated, lead to increased stress levels for minority or otherwise marginalized students, and cause them to be victims of bullying at higher rates. Minority students, LGBTQ students, and students who engage in behavior that deviates from accepted gender norms are considered at higher risk of being bullied, which can lead to problems with academic performance, decreases in mood, and even suicide attempts. Intentionally creating learning environments in which students are empowered to acknowledge and celebrate differences is paramount to their safe education and protection.
Educators agree teachers who are culturally responsive and proficient, and perhaps diverse themselves, can help address racial disparities in student achievement. Part of an educator’s job is to help students understand the impact of each of their lives on one another and their ability to impact and shape the world at large. By encouraging and celebrating diversity in your classrooms, you can empower students to feel safe, build healthy relationships, and make meaningful impact on others. Diverse learning spaces are safe learning spaces. Below are more specific reasons diversity should be taught in the classroom.
1. Self-acceptance and confidence
It begins with the individual. Students whose differences are accepted in a culture of inclusion can build the confidence to accept themselves.
Acceptance goes beyond the self and into the community around us. Students who learn to be accepting and inclusive can develop empathy for others.
3. Reducing prejudices
The earlier values are instilled in a child, the more likely those values will carry on throughout the child’s life. When adults teach empathy, through diversity-driven lessons and modeling empathetic behavior, children can develop socially with less prejudicial attitudes.
4. Preparing students for being a world citizen
Children will inevitably interact with others around the world from different backgrounds, interests, and perspectives. Their future professions might take them into the global economy. They might even travel at some point in their young or adult lives. Having an understanding and respect for other cultures is an important aspect to being a responsible citizen of the world.
5. Collaboration and respect
When students are able to respect and celebrate the differences between people, they are better equipped to manage real-world scenarios in which varying perspectives and compromise come into play.
6. Social, cognitive, and academic benefits
Diverse classrooms have social and cognitive benefits, according to research. Students in integrated schools are more likely to have higher test scores and to enroll in college. The racial achievement gap is also smaller at these schools.
How to incorporate cultural diversity in the classroom
We want to provide our students with the safest educational environments and experiences we can. It is a duty as much as a desire, and includes teaching diversity in the classroom. It requires not only creating spaces that are physically safe and secure, but that also protect and promote the emotional health of students, making them feel validated, nurtured, and included. As educators, we can practice equality and diversity in teaching and how to promote inclusion among students. We can all strive to create culturally diverse safe spaces that encourage, welcome, and celebrate our differences through:
1. Getting to know students and families
The dynamics of a student’s home life can impact mood, stress levels, attendance, communication styles, and more. Finding out as much as possible about your students and their families will start you off on the right track toward creating a culturally inclusive classroom. Start the school year off by inviting families to fill out questionnaires sharing important family information, such as cultural backgrounds and traditions, parent professions, and household composition. Being aware a student comes from a military family, is in foster care, is homeless, or has a sick parent or sibling at home will allow you to partner with students and families to support them in the best ways and overcome any challenges that arise.
Tip: An intake questionnaire for families could include questions about parents’ and students’ preferred pronouns and names, as well as what names/nicknames students call their parents/guardians and siblings.
2. Representative media
Culturally diverse classrooms should incorporate a variety of photos, posters, books, music, flags, and media that showcase and tell stories of many ethnic, racial, and gender backgrounds, as well as reject rigid gender roles. Include media that is LGBTQ-inclusive and showcases a variety of family structures, including same-sex parent, single-parent, adoptive, and multi-generational households.
Role-playing activities help students gain cultural awareness. With younger students, this can include introducing culturally significant attire and foods into dramatic play and playing with dolls that represent different races and cultures. With older students, you can design more involved activities, such as giving students specific scenarios to act out over a week that embodies specific cultural experiences.
4. Inclusive language
Introduce a mixture of languages into your classroom. Label learning centers and classroom resources (“blocks,” “computer,” “library”), and post classroom rules in two or more languages. Review them often with students. Encourage mindfulness in students when new ideas, language, or food is introduced by discouraging the use of “weird” or “gross” to describe things that are unfamiliar. Avoid references to gender roles and norms both in the classroom and in discussions of home life.
Ex: “What do you and your family eat at home?” instead of “What does mom cook?” Encourage the use of gender neutral pronouns and terms like “family” or “parents” instead of “mom and dad.”
5. Group students for learning activities
Group learning can help students learn collaboration, teamwork, and leadership skills. To take that a step further, group your students heterogeneously so they reflect the diversity of the classroom. Students can learn just as much from each other as they can from the lessons you provide them, and it may open doors for interaction they might not otherwise have with one another.
6. Host “what can we learn about you?” days
Similar to show-and-tell, these classroom sessions allow students to get up in front of the class to introduce their classmates to something new, or to simply share what makes them unique or special. The student could teach a few sentences in a second language, show the class how to make a craft that’s unique to their heritage, or play a slideshow of holiday gatherings with their families.
Penpals can be a great way for students to learn about people with different cultural backgrounds and experiences. Connect with teachers at a local school or a school around the world to establish a penpal program for your class. Matching students with penpals of different racial and cultural backgrounds with shared interests can promote understanding of how we can have much in common with people whose backgrounds differ from ours.
8. Include Diversity as a lesson topic
Diversity doesn’t have to be limited to social studies classes. Regardless of subject, teachers can break at any point to provide a lesson in diversity, inclusion, and acceptance. Although there are many less direct ways to make students feel welcome and help students understand each other better, sometimes a direct approach can help students get their exposure and life lessons they need to be culturally sensitive.
How GoGuardian makes acknowledgement of classroom diversity for K-12 students easy
GoGuardian Teacher lets you push out browser tabs to students’ devices. One way to incorporate cultural diversity into a lesson is to push out a different link to each student to read. The link would contain information on a culture or lifestyle that’s different from the student’s. If you’re unsure of the student’s culture, now would be a great time to ask.
Another way to use this approach in a more interactive lesson is to push out the same tab two tabs to two students. Each tab would represent the culture of one of the two students. Instruct the students to find their tab partner, and have them discuss their respective cultures with each other.
This blog was originally posted on November 27, 2019 and was last updated February 9, 2024.