Brief 11 - Culturally Responsive Classroom Management For Native Learners

Written By Elizabeth West

Native American students are persistently over-represented in special education locally and nationally and this disproportionality represents a significant dilemma as it indicates systemic problems of inequity, discrimination, and marginalization within education.

Classroom management contributes to this over-representation and continues to be a topic of concern for teachers, administrators, and schools. Novice teachers rank behavior discipline amongst their biggest challenges and an area that they are continuously seeking more preparation in (1-4). Classroom management and behavior support have been consistently reported as among the most important teaching skills by both general and special education teachers (5). Furthermore, management problems are a significant cause of teacher burnout and, in many cases, why teachers leave the profession (3-4). This attrition is largely felt in Native communities, where teachers frequently leave only after a few years.

Culturally responsive classroom management (CRCM) is an approach for all classrooms with all children, not simply for racial/ethnic minority children. More than a set of strategies or practices, CRCM is a pedagogical approach that guides the management decisions that teachers make.

Out-Of-School Suspension Rates for boys in Washington State by Race/Ethnicity, 2011-2012 (6)


The type of classroom environment you create and encourage can either increase or decrease a student’s ability to learn and feel comfortable as a member of the class.

A key factor in ensuring student success is your own understanding and appreciation of how culture shapes academic and social development. This is particularly crucial when students come from cultures different from the teachers’ own.

Creating safe and productive classrooms is about building positive and trusting human relationships and in a sense this is a process that must be undertaken anew with each new group of students you teach.

Recognize your own personal biases and values, and reflect on how these influence your expectations for learning, behavior, and interactions with students.

Cultural Diversity & Classroom Management

Classroom management is more than controlling student behavior. Students who are categorized with disruptive behavior problems are usually associated with low academic achievement, poor attendance, high risk for placement in special education, and overall school failure (7-8). Research suggests that disciplinary measures do not necessarily work, and in most cases, students continue to exhibit the same behavioral problems throughout the academic year (5, 9-10).

Most classroom management training that teachers receive embodies a disciplinary approach that reflects the perspective of the dominant culture and fails to take into account the ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and socio-economic needs of the diverse students they serve (11-14).

Students of color, poverty, and disability are in jeopardy of suffering the most from such unfair differential treatment and attitudes (15). Unfortunately, misreading behaviors or communication patterns of culturally and linguistically diverse students can result in punitive disciplinary measures and excessive referrals by the teacher. This cultural mismatch may serve as a powerful reason for the present trends in the discipline gap, for example, refer to the graph on page 1 of this brief. (14, 16).


  • How do the members of your organization understand and appreciate how culture shapes development?
  • How does your organization develop genuine relationships with families, students and communities?
  • How does your organization define classroom management and what guiding principles have been established?
  • “The more variance that there is between students’ cultural, racial, ethnic, and intellectual characteristics and the normative standards of schools, the greater are the chances their school achievement will be compromised by low or negative teacher expectations” (15, p. 614).

    Cultural Diversity & Discipline

    Many teachers struggle with classroom management, and a lack of multicultural competence and culturally responsive classroom management practices in increasingly diverse classrooms only adds to the challenges teachers face17. Teacher concerns about classroom management are sometimes intensified in urban settings where “students’ languages, experiences, ethnicities, religions, and abilities may be highly diverse and may or may not be shared by the teacher” 11 p. 561. Often teachers take a more reactive approach when dealing with disruptive behaviors by removing students from instruction. This act perpetuates the vicious cycle for students who may already be struggling, who end up receiving less instruction, and could fall even more academically behind.

    Minority over representation in school punishment has been documented in the school discipline research for over 25 years18-19. The Civil Rights Data Collection 20146 reveals that students of certain racial or ethnic groups and students with disabilities are disciplined at far higher rates than their peers, beginning in preschool.

    → American Indian and Native-Alaskan students are disproportionately suspended and expelled, representing less than 1% of the student population but 2% of out-ofschool suspensions and 3% of expulsions.

    → American Indian and Native-Alaskan girls (7%) are suspended at higher rates than white boys (6%) or girls (2%).

    Culturally Responsive Concepts & Strategies

    Equipping teachers with culturally appropriate methods of classroom management is an essential element in addressing cultural disparities in school discipline. Establishing a classroom that is caring, engaging, and embracing of the social, personal, cultural, and academic needs of students is integral to learning20. Integrating culturally responsive strategies with classroom management becomes an instrumental tool for improving student discipline and meeting the diverse needs of all children19, 21.

    A classroom management approach should balance and integrate establishing control with creating culturally responsive classroom communities that support the participation and empowerment of Native learners. A more comprehensive approach to management issues should be adopted by practitioners - one which includes systematic attention to outcomes related to students’ personal and social development, and to values and skills related to participation in the civics of classroom life.

    Weinstein, Tomlinson-Clarke and Curran (22) developed a five-part concept of CRCM derived from the literature on culturally responsible pedagogy, multicultural counseling, and caring: recognition of one’s own cultural lens and biases, knowledge of students’ cultural backgrounds, awareness of the broader social, economic and political context, ability, and willingness to use culturally appropriate management strategies, and commitment to building caring classroom communities. See page 4 of this brief for more information and example activities.

    Areas For Future Research

    Creating safe and productive instructional environments for a diverse student population requires an expansion of the current classroom management pedagogical approach (23). Many of the current practices rely solely on the teacher establishing control and compliance. There is a paucity of practical tools that address both the need for teachers to establish control and their needs to build a strong community. Although teachers distinguish classroom management as one of the essential components of their practice, and despite the importance of it on effective teaching, few researchers focus on the topic, and it is often an area overlooked in teacher preparation programs (1, 3, 24-25.).

    Teachers are often inadequately prepared to work with the increasing numbers of such culturally diverse populations and spend energy managing and disciplining misbehaving students instead of “designing lessons and teaching students” (21, pg. 289, 16, 26-28). Research must shift to establishing culturally responsive classroom management practices that are not representative of the dominant society but are reflective of the cultural values and beliefs specific to a school and community.


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    2. Sandholtz JH. Preservice teachers’ conceptions of effective and ineffective teaching practices. Teac. Educ. Quart. 2011; 38(3): 27-47.

    3. Wubbels T. An international perspective on classroom management: what should prospective teachers learn? Teaching Educ. 2011; 22(2): 113-131.

    4. Little SG & Akin-Little A. Psychology’s contributions to classroom management. Psych. in the Schools 2008; 45(3): 227-234.

    5. Skiba RJ & Peterson RL. School discipline at a crossroads: From zero tolerance to early response. Exceptional Children 2000; 66(3).

    6. U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights 23 Civil Rights Data Collection: Data Snapshot (School Discipline), March 21, 2014.

    7. Bradshaw CP, Mitchell MM, O’Brennan LM, & Leaf PJ. Multilevel Exploration of Factors Contributing to the Overrepresentation of Black Students in Office Disciplinary Referrals. J Educ. Psych. 2010; 102(2): 508–520.

    8. Arcia E. Achievement and enrollment status of suspended students: Outcomes in a large, multicultural school district. Educational Administration Abstracts, 2007; 42(4).

    9. Atkins MS, McKay MM, Frazier SL, Jakobsons LJ, Arvanitis P, Cunningham T, Brown C & Lambrecht L. Suspensions and detentions in an urban, low-income school: punishment or reward? J. Abnormal Child Psych. 2002; 30(4): 361–71.

    10. Tobin T, Sugai G, & Colvin G. Patterns in middle school discipline records. J. Emot. & Behav. Disorders 1996; 4(2): 82-94.

    11. Milner HR & Tenore FB. Classroom management in diverse classrooms. Urban Educ. 2010; 45(5): 560-603.

    12. Hammond H, Dupoux E & Ingalls L. Culturally relevant classroom management strategies for American Indian students. Rural Spec. Educ. 2004; 23(4): 3-9.

    13. McCarthy J & Benally J. Classroom Management in a Navajo Middle School. Theory Into Practice 2003; 42(4): 296–304.

    14. Sheets RH. “You’re just a kid that’s there”: Chicano perception of disciplinary events. J. Latinos & Educ. 2002; 1(2): 105–122.

    15. Gay, G. Culturally responsive teaching theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). New York (NY): Teachers College Press; 2010.

    16. Bucalos AB & Lingo AS. What Kind of “Managers” Do Adolescents Really Need? Helping Middle and Secondary Teachers Manage Classrooms Effectively. Beyond Behavior 2005; 14(2): 9–14.

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    18. Skiba RJ, Horner RH, Chung CG, Karega Rausch M, May SL & Tobin T. Race is not neutral: A national investigation of African American and Latino disproportionality in school discipline. School Psych. Rev. 2011; 40(1): 85–107.

    19. Skiba RJ, Michael RS, Nardo AC & Peterson RL. The color of discipline: Sources of racial and gender disproportionality in school punishment. Urban Rev. 2002; 34(4): 317–42.

    20. Gay, G. Connections between classroom management and culturally responsive teaching. In Handbook of Classroom Management: Research, Practice, and Contemporary issues. Eds. Everstone CM & Weinstein CS. New York (NY): Routledge; 2006. p. 343-370.

    21. Shin S & Koh MS. A cross-cultural study of teachers’ beliefs and strategies on classroom behavior management in urban American and Korean school systems. Educ. and Urban Society, 2007; 39(2): 286-309.

    22. Weinstein C, Tomlinson-Clarke S & Curran M. Toward a conception of culturally responsive classroom management. J. Teach. Educ. 2004; 55(1): 25-38.

    23. Bondy E, Ross, Dorene D, Gallingane C & Hambacher Elyse. Creating Environments of Success and Resilience: Culturally Responsive Classroom Management and More. Urban Educ. 2007; 42(4): 326–348.

    24. Hammerness K. Classroom management in the United States: A view from New York City. Teaching Education 2011; 22(2): 151-167.

    25. Stough LM. The place of classroom management and standards in teacher education. In Handbook of Classroom Management: Research, Practice and Contemporary Issues. Eds. Evertson CM & Weinsten CS. New York (NY): Routledge; 2006. p. 909-923.

    26. Voltz DL, Brazil N & Scott R. Professional development for culturally responsive instruction: A promising practice for addressing the disproportionate representation of students of color in Special Education. Teach. Educ. & Spec. Educ. 2003; 26(1): 63–73.

    27. Hains AH, Lynch EW & Winton PJ. Moving towards cross-cultural competence in lifelong personnel development: A review of the literature. Early Childhood Research Institute Technical Report #3; 2000.

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    29. Noel J. Developing Multicultural Educators. Long Grove (IL): Waveland Press Inc.; 2000.

    30. Brown DF. Urban teachers’ use of culturally responsive management strategies. Theory into Practice 2003; 42(4): 277-282.

    Images courtesy of EMMAS Project: Native Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math Summer Youth Program, 2015.



    Indigenous Education Tools is a part of the Building Capacity And Cultivating Innovation project (BCCI). BCCI is designed to develop resources and practices that will have exponential impacts on efforts to improve Native student success across a variety of sectors.

    Indigenous Education Tools / BCCI Project Contacts:

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