Teaching Students How to Respect Cultural Diversity

Teaching Students How to Respect Cultural Diversity

When Tatiana Sandoval’s family first arrived in the United States from El Salvador, her parents were nervous to show up at her school because of anxiety about cultural and language barriers.

“They were scared that no one was going to understand what they were saying,” she said.

Almost 15 years later, Sandoval is the school community coordinator for a high school in Prince George’s County, Maryland, serving a campus that is markedly more diverse than the schools she attended as a young student.

She says the representation of many cultures on campus is what keeps her school community connected.

“People are more likely to go somewhere if they think someone that looks like them and speaks like them will be there,” she said. “When you want to gather families together, you have to meet the families where they are.”

But diversity alone may not be enough for immigrant students to feel affirmed in their identities. An inclusive school culture is one where students feel comfortable being themselves, and protected from the harm that comes from disrespect and discrimination. When educators, school counselors and administrators intentionally try to create a representative, respectful school culture, students’ socioemotional development can thrive.

Use the links below to navigate the resources in this article.

Teaching Respect and Self-Respect to Students

Children can perceive racial differences between themselves and others much earlier than adults often believe. When adults recognize and embrace children’s abilities to identify differences and group others together, they have an opportunity to frame these differences in a positive, open-minded manner.

Discussing and affirming differences in appearance such as hairstyle, skin color, clothing and other physical features can help children practice respecting others (PDF, 270KB) as they continue to learn about their peers’ backgrounds, cultural traditions, religious beliefs and more.

Practicing respect outwardly toward others can help young people foster self-respect, too.

“People tend to think respect is just what you give to other people,” Sandoval said. “Teaching self-respect is where you start taking care of yourself and learning that your health is all-inclusive. It's your emotions. It's your physical health. It's how you relate to others.”

Laying the foundation of these two terms early in cognitive development may help young students apply them to their identities later in life.

Defining and Identifying Respectful Behavior

icon representing respect

What Does Respect
Look Like?

  • Building connections rooted in kindness and trust.
  • Caring for others and where they come from.
  • Feeling like a part of your community.
  • Building a sense of belonging and purpose.
  • Trusting your own intuition and needs.
  • Feeling comfortable and proud of your identity.
icon representing disrespect

What Does Disrespect
Look Like?

  • Failing to feel empathy for others’ experiences.
  • Discriminating against other cultures or lifestyles.
  • Assuming others are going to betray you.
  • Fearing people who are different from you.
  • Losing the essence of your community and connection.
  • Feeling ashamed of your identity.

“Respect and identity go hand-in-hand,” Sandoval said. “If you don't respect each other, you lose your identity as a group, as a collective. That's where people feel lost and like they're not being heard, and that's where all the miscommunication begins.”

Miscommunication and misunderstanding, Sandoval said, are at the core of the barriers immigrant students and their families face when trying to become an active and accepted part of their new communities.

Amid the rising numbers of young migrants seeking asylum and residence in the United States, violence toward immigrant communities has also increased. Regardless of their immigration status, minors are legally entitled to a K-12 education in the United States, but it can be difficult to manage for young people who feel isolated and disrespected by their classmates or teachers.

When adults model respect through empathy, kindness and understanding, young students learn from watching their behavior, which leads to a more robust culture of respect among the student community.

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Building a Culture of Respect in K-12 Schools

Just as students evolve over time, so does a school’s culture. Therefore, making an effort to update guidelines, curricula and other resources can keep school culture relevant and applicable to the current student population.

“A constant needs assessment is important,” Sandoval explained. “Realizing who is in your building, what languages and dialects they speak,” can help school staff understand the range of identities students may have.

One way to fulfill a need for more culturally respectful standards is to incorporate multicultural education into the curriculum when possible.

Multicultural education is “teaching that incorporates the histories, texts, values, beliefs and perspectives of people from different cultural backgrounds,” and can be practiced at the individual, classroom or campus level.

Instructionally, this may look like teaching students about cultures different from their own, but Sandoval said there’s much to be learned from identifying and learning the cultures of student peers as well.

“My culture could be completely different from another El Salvadorian that has just arrived in the country,” she explained. “It's about coming together and learning about one another, learning what our culture looks like to us, and learning about those differences that could differ from how you've seen it before.”

Sandoval offered ideas for implementing multicultural education at the macro and micro level in a school setting:

Strategies for Incorporating Multicultural Education at School

Have school staff participate in multicultural competency and empathy training on a recurring basis.

Review curricula for exclusive, discriminatory or harmful content about specific cultures or ways of life.  

Implement bystander intervention training for students and staff to learn how to advocate for each other. 

Incorporate games or activities into lessons that help students learn about each other in a positive way.

Affirm cultural celebrations by allowing students to observe them at school or in class with each other.

Have translators available to communicate with parents and family members during parent-teacher conferences.

Post signage throughout the school that includes translations in multiple languages or dialects.

Employ school staff at every level who reflect the cultural diversity of the student population.

Offer orientation programs for students and their families who are new to the school or community. 

Use storytelling to build empathy and understanding among students, teachers and other staff members.

Storytelling can be a powerful tool (PDF, 8.1MB) to help students feel connected to their peers and their heritage. When students and teachers are able to share stories about where they come from, they create opportunities to find similarities among different cultures and build upon complex identities.

“Here is someone that is similar to where you're from, and this is what their story is like,” Sandoval said. “Having those moments of storytelling really makes it.”

On a personal level, learning about different lifestyles can help students understand they are more than the culture they come from; in fact, their personal style, hobbies, interests, musical tastes and more also shape their identities.

“Working with families that come from a variety of countries means that you really have to get to know the person for who they are individually,” Sandoval said.

The focus on individual needs is supported by research from the Middle School Journal published by the Institute of Education Sciences that says caring for the social and emotional needs of students is a crucial part of teachers’ roles when building a culture of respect. Identity formation is a pivotal part of adolescence, so creating a school culture rooted in individuals’ respect can support students in their identity exploration and self-actualization as they grow: 

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What Is a Culture of Respect?

icon representing student or teacher intervention

Students and teachers intervene when they witness bullying.

icon representing students feeling understood

Students feel understood by their educators.

icon representing students feeling emotionally safe

Students feel emotionally safe on campus and around school staff. 

icon representing school staff that knows and affirms

School staff knows and affirms the cultures of students and families.

icon representing student needs being taken seriously

Students’ needs are taken seriously by school staff.

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Activities for Teaching Students About Cultural Respect

Building an inclusive school culture can start in the classroom. Sandoval said interactive games are a helpful, low-stakes way to get students to open up and engage with each other.

“You really get to learn about the students and what they're doing in their culture,” she said. “But then the students, themselves, really get to see who has the same qualities in their culture.”

Even if none of a student’s peers has the exact same culture at home, Sandoval said it’s eye-opening for students to understand that every family has unique traditions and lifestyles, which can still help them feel less alone.

Educators can have students learn about each other through these teachable lessons and activities that can be used for in-person instruction or completed as homework. Click the buttons below to download and print each activity.

photo showing worksheet of in my culture

Activity 1: In My Culture

Description: Students can respond to a variety of topics about their culture, heritage or home life.

For K-12 students.

Download "In My Culture" worksheet (PDF, 354KB)

photo showing worksheet of iceberg

Activity 2: Iceberg

Description: Students can visualize the perceivable traits of their culture and heritage, and lesser visible or unconscious aspects of their culture.

For grades 6-12 students.

Download "Iceberg" Worksheet (PDF, 365KB)

photo showing worksheet of who am i

Activity 3: Who Am I? 

Description: Students will reflect and consider the variety of inputs that shape their identity.

For grades 6-12 students.

Download "Who Am I?" worksheet (PDF, 291 KB)

When students are given opportunities to build their identities and support for respecting themselves, they become socially and emotionally able to offer that same respect for others. These skills lead to a culture that lasts far beyond the length of the school year, and can turn into lifelong respect for themselves and people from different cultural backgrounds.

“​​This is a skill that they can continue to do in the future,” Sandoval said. “It’s that continuous advocacy that they learn with me, and one day, if they'll be parents, I hope that they continue to give back.”

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Additional Resources for Teaching Children about Cultural Respect

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