Culture is a central part of everyone’s life and identity. Everyone belongs to a culture he or she learned from their parents and environment. Children begin to develop a cultural identity early, and it is well established by 5 years of age. However, different cultures have different views on family, relationships, expressing oneself, authority, and other aspects of life. A difference in cultural backgrounds between a child and his or her teacher or peers can lead to serious misunderstandings and stress, which can negatively affect his or her development and future life.
Cultural Differences in a Learning Environment
A key difference between cultures is whether they value individualism or collectivism. Although the dominant culture of the U.S. is individualistic, most of the world’s cultures are collectivistic (Kaiser and Rasminsky 92). Individualistic cultures value self-reliance, competition, and standing out as a unique individual. Collectivistic cultures value interdependence, harmony, and fitting in as a good member of the group.
Because of these differences, behavior that is acceptable and encouraged in one culture is considered rude or inappropriate in another (Kaiser and Rasminsky 93). For instance, people from some cultures prefer standing closer together while talking; some discourage physical contact while it is an important part of communication in others; and for some, direct eye contact is rude (Kaiser and Rasminsky 93-119). These differences in common, everyday behaviors can lead to serious misunderstandings when people who are unfamiliar with one another’s culture act in ways that are culturally appropriate to them.
A learning environment (preschool, school, university) can be one’s first significant encounter with a culture clash. Especially for young children, this can cause stress that is sufficiently heavy to affect their development (Kaiser and Rasminsky 98). Furthermore, behavior that is appropriate to a child’s home culture can be misunderstood by his or her teacher, who is unfamiliar with that cultural context (Kaiser and Rasminsky 100).
The teacher then misjudges this behavior, resorting to discipline or “even regard[s] culturally unfamiliar behavior as a problem that requires intervention or special education” (Kaiser and Rasminsky 100). Such misunderstandings, especially when they cause disciplinary action or suspension, can cause children to view their school as an inhospitable place (Kaiser and Rasminsky 101). Because of this, they can become less motivated to succeed, more likely to repeat grades, or drop out of school (Kaiser and Rasminsky 101). Therefore, it is important for a teacher to understand both his or her cultural assumptions and those of the children he or she teaches.
As one’s cultural background significantly affects how he or she communicates with others. For instance, a child may not understand that a teacher asking him or her to do something is actually giving a command (Kaiser and Rasminsky 97). Similarly, in some cultures, it is expected to explain the reasoning behind requests, while others expect authority figures to be strict and disallow questioning (Kaiser and Rasminsky 115-117).
Speaking out of turn and loudly can also be a positive thing in one’s home culture, but it is considered rude in the dominant American culture (Kaiser and Rasminsky 100). Such misunderstandings based on cultural assumptions can be mistaken for challenging behavior and, if a child’s home culture is not acknowledged, cause a child to feel isolated and alienated (Kaiser and Rasminsky 99). These feelings lead to stress and possibly actual challenging behavior, which negatively affects a child’s development and ability to succeed.
The cultural discontinuity between one’s home and learning environment can be a serious threat to his or her future life. It damages one’s self-concept, motivation to study and learn, and academic achievement. For younger children, this can lead to stress, challenging behavior, and negative effects on their development. Discontinuity affects older students, as well, and can cause them to lose motivation, repeat grades, or drop out. Therefore, it is crucial to understand, acknowledge, and accommodate a student’s home culture regardless of setting or age.
Kaiser, Barbara, and Judy Skylar Rasminsky. Challenging Behavior in Young Children. Understanding, Preventing, and Responding Effectively. 4th ed., Pearson, 2017.