Clip & Save Checklist: Understanding Cultural Differences in Student Behavior

  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

This article was adapted from Teaching English Language Learners: Strategies That Work by Katharine Davies Samway and Dorothy Taylor, © 2007, published by Scholastic.

In today's diverse classrooms, sometimes cultural differences can be mistaken for student behavior problems. This checklist offers some possible cultural explanations for 16 perceived behavior problems you may encounter in your classroom. Understanding that certain behaviors may be the cultural norm for some of your students may help you find ways to more effectively engage them in learning and classroom communication.

  • Perceived behavior #1: Student avoids eye contact.
    Possible Cultural Explanation: Keeping eyes downcast may be a way of showing respect. In some cultures, direct eye contact with a teacher is considered disrespectful and a challenge to a teacher's authority.
  • Perceived behavior #2: The student tends to smile when disagreeing with what is being said or when being reprimanded.
    Possible Cultural Explanation: A smile may be a gesture of respect that children are taught to employ to avoid giving offense in difficult situations.
  • Perceived behavior #3: The student shrinks from or responds poorly to apparently inoffensive forms of physical contact or proximity.
    Possible Cultural Explanation: There may be taboos on certain types of physical contact. Buddhists, for instance, regard the head and shoulders as sacred and would consider it impolite to ruffle a child's hair or give a reassuring pat on the shoulder. There is also significant difference among cultures with respect to people's sense of what is considered an appropriate amount of personal space.
  • Perceived behavior #4: The student appears to be overtly affectionate with other students.
    Possible Cultural Explanation: In many cultures it is not uncommon for friends (girls and/or boys) to link arms, hold hands or greet each other with a hug or kiss on the cheek.
  • Perceived behavior #5: The student refuses to eat with peers.
    Possible Cultural Explanation: Some students may be unaccustomed to eating with anyone but members of their own family.
  • Perceived behavior #6: The student refuses to eat certain kinds of foods or doesn't eat at all at certain periods.
    Possible Cultural Explanation: Many religions have food taboos and fasting periods. Young children are often exempt from fasting, but many choose to participate.
  • Perceived behavior #7: The student does not participate actively in group work or collaborate with peers on cooperative assignments.
    Possible Cultural Explanation: Cooperative group work is never used by teachers in some cultures. Students may thus view sharing as "giving away knowledge" and may see no distinction between legitimate collaboration and cheating.
  • Perceived behavior #8: The student displays uneasiness, expresses disapproval, or even misbehaves in informal learning situations involving open-ended learning processes. (For example, exploration).  
    Possible Cultural Explanation: Schooling in some cultures involves strict formality. For students who are used to this, an informal classroom atmosphere may seem chaotic and undemanding, while teachers with an informal approach may seem unprofessional. Such students may also be uncomfortable with process-oriented learning activities and prefer activities that yield more tangible and evident results.
  • Perceived behavior #9: The student talks loudly and sometimes overlaps speech with the others in the group or class.
    Possible Cultural Explanation: In some classrooms around the world, students have more freedom to speak. They're not as closely regulated. Students talk a lot more, and the talk more loudly. What is considered interruptive or rude behavior in North American classrooms would be considered task-oriented behavior in the home country's schools.
  • Perceived behavior #10: The student refuses to participate in extracurricular or in various physical education activities. For example, swimming, skating, track and field. 
    Possible Cultural Explanation: Extracurricular activities may not be considered part of learning or may even, along with some physical education activities, be contrary to a student's religious or cultural outlook. Some students may also be required to use after-school hours to generate income or help out with a family business.
  • Perceived behavior #11: The student seems inattentive or does not display active listening behaviors. 
    Possible Cultural Explanation: In some cultures, the learning process involves observing and doing or imitating rather than listening and absorbing through note-taking or other forms of active listening.
  • Perceived behavior #12: Performance following instruction reveals that the student does not understand the instruction, even though he or she refrained from asking for help or further explanation.
    Possible Cultural Explanation: In some cultures, expressing a lack of understanding or asking for help from the teacher is interpreted as a suggestion that the teacher has not been doing a good enough job of teaching, and is considered impolite.
  • Perceived behavior #13: The student is unresponsive, uncooperative, or even disrespectful in dealing with teachers of another gender.
    Possible Cultural Explanation: Separate schooling for boys and girls is the norm in some cultures. Likewise, in some cultures the expectation for boys and girls is quite different. The idea that girls and boys should have the same opportunities for schooling and play comparable roles as educators will therefore run contrary to some students' cultural conditioning.
  • Perceived behavior #14: The student appears reluctant to engage in debate, speculation, argument, or other processes that involve directly challenging the views and ideas of others.
    Possible Cultural Explanation: In some cultures, it is considered inappropriate to openly challenge another's point of view, especially the teacher's. In other cases, there may be a high value attached to being prepared, knowledgeable, and correct whenever one speaks.
  • Perceived behavior #15: The student exhibits discomfort or embarrassment at being singled out for special attention or praise.
    Possible Cultural Explanation: To put oneself in the limelight for individual praise is not considered appropriate in some cultures, where the group is considered more important than the individual.
  • Perceived behavior #16: The student fails to observe the conventions of silent reading.
    Possible Cultural Explanation: Some students may be culturally predisposed to see reading as essentially an oral activity and will therefore read aloud automatically. For others reading aloud is associated with memorization.

  • Subjects:
    ESL and ELL, Childhood Behaviors, Classroom Management, Culture and Diversity, New Teacher Resources

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