Teach By Design
Social Relationships
Nov 10, 2020

Go, Engage, Connect: Welcome Student Identity & Improve Equity

Embedding culturally responsive practices in PBIS implementation requires creating a space where all students’ identities are affirmed and validated from the moment they walk in the building.

No items found.
Apple Podcast Button

Last month’s Teach by Design article weighed in my mind long after I published it. I kept thinking about how lately, my stress sits like a rubber band ball in my stomach and how that persistent feeling affects my ability to truly engage in my work, my friendships, and my home. I kept thinking about students across the country trying their best, often in spite of their own stress, and being told their best may not belong in school. I thought about the way Madison described not being able to reach her students the way she normally would and the way she encouraged her peers to focus on building relationships with their students as their top priority. I kept thinking about what Keith Hickman said during our Expert Instruction podcast last month, how the practices we implement are “interventions and preventions by which we do something bigger, something larger, something more impactful.”

When I thought about all of that, I wanted to know what comes next.

Over the last four weeks, I’ve been on a journey exploring the history of education in the United States, researching culturally responsive practices, and listening to how practitioners across the country have implemented them in their schools.

So, what is a culturally responsive practice?

Culturally Responsive Practices

I started by stepping up my Google game to explore the idea of implementing culturally responsive practices in schools. Culturally responsive environments hold high expectations for all students; they use students’ cultures and experiences to enhance their learning; and they provide all students with access to effective instruction and adequate resources.[1] As Dr. Christopher Emdin would say, culturally responsive schools are ‘ratchetdemic’ - a phrase he coined. Take a listen. We join him about halfway through his TED Talk.

Dr. Emdin describes ratchetdemic spaces as spaces that tell students, “You can be as you are, but I won’t lower expectations; the rigor is still high the standards are still high. If you come in a little loud, that’s ok. If you dress a little funny, that’s alright. If you speak with a voice inflection, that’s ok. If you’re an English language learner and you have a thick accent, that’s ok. You can be who you are and I will accept you as you are even if it makes me uncomfortable in the pursuit of our academic attainment."

When you imagine your own school, isn’t this the kind of place you want it to be? A place where every student succeeds and finds greatness in who they inherently are. What we often build instead are places that reflect our own belief systems, our own values, our own vision of acceptable behavior and communication styles. When we set up systems like this, we only see brilliance in students who behave like we do. Embedding culturally responsive practices in PBIS implementation is one way to deliberately create a space where all students’ identities are affirmed and validated from the moment they walk in the building.

The Center on PBIS’ Cultural Responsiveness Field Guide defines five core components to consider when building culturally responsive PBIS practices:[2]

  • Identity
  • Voice
  • Supportive Environment
  • Situational Appropriateness
  • Data for Equity

As with most things we do here at PBISApps, today, we begin with data.

Data for Equity

When it comes to implementing culturally responsive practices, it’s best to start by taking a closer look at the impact your current systems and practices have on students and families. Referral data disaggregated by race/ethnicity reveal whether your disciplinary practices disproportionately affect students of color. Specifically, there are three graphs to check out more closely: the Risk Index, the Risk Ratio, and the Rates by Student Group.

  • The Risk Index is the percentage of students within each group with at least one referral.
  • The Risk Ratio is the likelihood for a specific group to receive at least one referral when compared to a different group of students.
  • The Rate by Group is the average number of referrals received per student in each group.

All three reports work together, but it’s the Rates by Student Group report that helps you answer the question: “How often do we refer this group of students to the office?”

Rates by Group 1.png

If your team sat down during a meeting and saw this graph on the screen, you’d know students who identify as Black/African American receive an average of 2.15 referrals per student…the highest referral rate of any student group in your building. If your team saw this report and asked itself the question, “Do we have a problem” the answer would most certainly be yes.

It’s time to get precise.

Drill down into your referral data and you see this:

Drill Down Problem Behavior 1.png

Of the 149 referrals given to students who identify as Black/African American, about a third were given for a subjective problem behavior: Defiance. Explore the problem behavior further and you find these referrals happened when students were in class, issued across multiple grade levels throughout the day by many staff members.

Research tells us if we change the way we refer students for subjective behaviors like defiance, disrespect, and disruption, we can create greater equity in our discipline processes.[3] To address the disproportionality you find in your school’s referral data, start by exploring how your current systems and practices favor a specific culture or set of values while negatively affecting others. Start by exploring the identities present in your school and surrounding community.


Remember Dr. Emdin from the Rachetdemic video above? Off of a recommendation by a colleague, I picked up his book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too.[4] It’s a guide of sorts for anyone who teaches in low-income, urban schools on how to bridge the gap between traditionally-defined acceptable behaviors and behaviors you see out in the neighborhood blocks. He urges educators to look at urban youth culture as an asset to incorporate in their classrooms, rather than a deficit to discipline. He calls this approach ‘reality pedagogy’ and it stands in contrast to the practices centering whiteness and western culture that have been part of our schools for centuries.

Dr. Emdin starts by looking at the similarities between the experiences of Native American students attending the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in the 1880’s and low-income, urban youth attending local public schools today. At the Carlisle School, students were forced to give up their cultural identities, beliefs, and languages to assimilate to western standards. I immediately thought of the session from this year’s PBIS Implementer’s Forum where they shared this set of photos from The Carlisle Indian School.[5][6]

These are photos of the same three Lakota boys. Their names are Wounded Yellow Robe, Timber Yellow Robe, and Henry Standing Bear. The photo on the left was taken as they arrived at the Carlisle Indian School with their long hair, wearing multicolored clothes made of animal hides, detailed with beads and feathers; their posture is relaxed. The photo on the right was taken three years later. Their hair has been cut short and parted on the side. They’re wearing monochromatic wool suits with buttoned-up jackets. No part of their culture is visible from the outside.

Dr. Emdin suggests when schools today expect students to learn under a specific set of norms – especially if those norms run counter to their cultural identities – students experience the legacy of deculturalization that happened in The Carlisle Indian School.

“Urban youth who enter schools seeing themselves as smart and capable are confronted by curriculum that is blind to their realities and school rules that seek to erase their culture. These youth, because they do not have the space/opportunity to showcase their worth on their own terms in schools, are only visible when they enact very specific behaviors. This usually means they have the focus of the teacher only when they are being loud and verbal (often read by educators as disruptive), or silent and compliant (often read by educators as well behaved)… Students quickly receive the message that they can only be smart when they are not who they are. This, in many ways, is classroom colonialism; and it can only be addressed through a very different approach to teaching and learning.”

Consider this:

  • When a student is loud, are they disrespectful or are they excited and enthusiastic about the things they’re learning?
  • When he questions a teacher’s rule publicly is he defiant or does he value knowing the purpose of a rule before he’ll follow it?
  • When she can’t stop tapping her pencil on her desk, is she disruptive or does she use rhythm to help her learn?

The goal of implementing culturally responsive practices is to see excellence in students’ identities and create spaces that validate their experiences and values. The Cultural Responsiveness Field Guide says that by doing this, practitioners seek to understand how their own identities influence their classrooms and begin to acknowledge that their experiences are not universal. For many, the work around exploring identity will require professional development…which is not something we can accomplish here. However, Dr. Emdin offers us a 3-step process in his chapter called “Content + Context” for how to get to know your students’ cultural identities…and that’s something we can certainly talk about today. He developed this process when he worked in an urban school, but these steps work wherever you are.

Step 1: Go Where Your Students Live

Schools have a culture all their own; so do neighborhoods. Your students spend time in both places. Do you? In the same way you want students to respect the expectations established in your school, students look for the ways you incorporate their values in your classrooms. It’s time to get to know what matters to your students and how they communicate with each other outside of the classroom.

Dr. Emdin shares a story about how one day he made his way over to the housing projects across the street from his school to join a group of students playing basketball. Once his students realized he was there to play and not to get them in trouble, they all just started playing ball.

If playing basketball isn’t your thing, Dr. Emdin invites you to start by going into the businesses around the school. The people inside are well aware of your students and know what they’re like when they’re outside of school and around their peers. You’re likely to run into some of your students while you’re there, too…and we all know how strange it is for your students to see you OUTSIDE. Did you see Ms. Cave at the Walgreens yesterday? What was she doing there?

When you’re ready, venture a little farther away from the school and a little closer to where your students live, places like churches and community centers. Take your dog on a walk through the neighborhood. Start to notice the way people talk to each other, interact with each other, where they congregate, and how you can make your classroom look a little more like what you see.

Step 2: Engage Where Your Students Live

That one game of basketball turned into second game the next day. Pretty soon, Dr. Emdin got invites to BBQs, churches, and block parties. By playing basketball with his students, he extended himself beyond the classroom and became part of the community where his students lived. He stopped focusing on how to create an engaging lesson plan and started asking the question, “How do I create classrooms that students are connected to in the same way that they are connected to their block or street corner?”

Basketball games showed Dr. Emdin his students could work as a team and enjoyed being competitive with each other. He noticed the way they nodded their heads and immediately knew to drive to the hoop. When he noticed these things, he asked his students about what he saw. He asked about the memorial on the corner for the young person who died of an asthma attack. He noticed the way it was always clean and often had new pieces added to it during the week.

Engaging in the communities where your students live takes time, energy, and commitment. Depending on how different your personal identity is from your students’, the exercise of immersing yourself in their spaces could be uncomfortable. It could even feel embarrassing. The lesson to learn here is the discomfort you feel in this space reveals something about the discomfort your students feel when they walk into your classroom. Hold onto the feeling and use it as a catalyst to make your classrooms more welcoming to your students.

Step 3: Connect Your Classroom with Where Your Students Live

The basketball games exposed Dr. Emdin to a space which, from the outside, looked and sounded very different than his classroom. From the inside, there was plenty about the neighborhood he could incorporate into the way he shaped his classroom culture.

Connecting what you learned about the spaces where your students live with the content you’re trying to teach lets students know they don’t have to change who they are when they walk into your building. It shows them they can bring with them all of the parts of where they come from and use them as assets in their education. One of the ways to do this is by including tangible things or symbolic gestures from their community in your school.

Tangible artifacts would be things like water from the river running through the city or dirt from the university’s baseball stadium to use in a science lesson. They could be the local newspaper’s box scores to use in math when you talk about statistics and probability.

Symbols refer to the intangible things from the spaces where your students live. These are things like the head nods he saw on the basketball court or even something students say to each other. Dr. Emdin snuck one of these phrases into his Rachetdemic video above. Did you catch it? Go back and listen. It comes right around the 10:16 mark. He was speaking faster and faster as he started to bring all of these concepts together and just as he was about to offer his solution to the audience he took a beat and said, “Y’all ain’t wit me.” He broke up his speech by using a colloquial phrase from his student’s language to let us know he wanted us to pay attention to what he was about to say.

You can do this, too.

Yes. It’s going to sound weird the first time you do it. Yes. Your students will probably laugh. But then you’ll do it again, and then again, and then eventually your students will respond like they do with their peers in their communities and your classroom will start to feel a little more comfortable to them.

This is all just the beginning of our conversation around culturally responsive practices. We haven’t even scratched the surface. These two components lay the foundation for everything that comes next. When your school is really ready to talk about equity and the way your current systems impact students, start by looking at your data. Review your school’s referral risk index, risk ratio, and the referral rates for each student group. Identify with precision how deeply the disproportionate outcomes run. Are they limited to a specific grade level? Are they systemic? Then, begin the work of understanding your students’ identities. Go to the places where your students live, engage in those places, and connect what you learn to the expectations you hold in your school. Start creating classrooms your students can connect to the same way they connect to the corner on the block.

…and then come back next month so we can keep exploring this topic together. There’s so much more to talk about.

1. Klingner, J., Artiles, A., Kozleski, E., Harry, B., Zion, S., & Tate, W. et al. (2005). Addressing the Disproportionate Representation of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students in Special Education through Culturally Responsive Educational Systems. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 13, 38. doi: 10.14507/epaa.v13n38.2005.
2. Leverson, M., Smith, K., McIntosh, K., Rose, J., & Pinkelman, S. (2019). PBIS Cultural Responsiveness Field Guide: Resources for trainers and coaches. OSEP Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. www.pbis.org.
3. Girvan, E., Gion, C., McIntosh, K., & Smolkowski, K. (2017). The relative contribution of subjective office referrals to racial disproportionality in school discipline. School Psychology Quarterly, 32(3), 392-404. doi: 10.1037/spq0000178.
4. Emdin, C. (2016). For white folks who teach in the hood - and the rest of y'all too. Boston: Beacon Press Books.
5. Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives [#57,490], https://siarchives.si.edu/.6. Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives [#125], https://siarchives.si.edu/.
6. Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives [#125], https://siarchives.si.edu/.

Download Transcript

Megan Cave


Megan Cave

Megan Cave is a member of the PBISApps Marketing and Communication team. She is the writer behind the user manuals, scripted video tutorials, and news articles for PBISApps. She also writes a monthly article for Teach by Design and contributes to its accompanying Expert Instruction podcast episode. Megan has completed four half marathons – three of which happened unintentionally – and in all likelihood, will run another in the future.

No items found.