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Written by Laurie Faith, Carol-Anne Bush, Peg Dawson, Aliyana Hirji, and Mouna Abdallah

Adapted with permission from Guilford Press, Faith, L., Bush, C., Dawson, P. (2022) Executive Function Skills in the Classroom: Overcoming Barriers, Building Strategies.

Each student arrives at school equipped with a lifetime of unique knowledge,  experiences, skills, strategies, preferences, and interests, and so does each teacher. On some occasions, these cultures will match up. A student may enter a classroom, for example, to find a photo on their teacher’s desk depicting something they know a lot about – perhaps it is a recreational activity at a special location. The student may then comment on it using a colloquial phrase that the teacher recognizes, journal about similar experiences in a way that the teacher finds delightful, and engage imaginatively in math lessons that the teacher has tailored around it. Meanwhile, many other students will find themselves in the presence of a teacher and peers with whom they have very little in common, and, unless that teacher is very careful, will experience several predictable and seriously negative consequences. How can we ensure that school is responsive, supportive, and nurturing for all students, even if they do not experience that connecting first interaction?

The following discussion will characterize the needs of the multicultural student body we hope to support, outline the challenges typically faced by teachers trying to achieve cultural responsivity, and then describe the ways that a socially shared approach to learning regulation may help to steer us all in the right direction. Finally, six straightforward, feasible, and immediate recommendations will be provided to guide teachers in improving their culturally responsive practice.

The Needs of a Multicultural Student Body

Let’s consider the learning needs and challenges faced by a hypothetical student named Aarav. He is a child of immigrants, has a sister with a severe illness, is intellectually gifted, is a little disorganized and intense, loves learning languages, went to an arts-based Grade 3 program, and, like his mom, is quite drawn to math and computers. He is a rich and complex individual, and shifts between his many ways of knowing depending on who he is with and what he is working on. If you ask him for advice he may offer a compassionate response, suggest a technical workaround, or steer you away from confrontation.

How will Aarav do in school? Research suggests that he will likely face persistent and pervasive disadvantages:

  • In terms of content, Aarav will usually be presented with academic topics, examples, or materials that are unfamiliar and do not engage his pre-existing knowledge, which will make it more difficult for him to fully grasp and remember new learning (NASEM, 2018). Cultural projects and curriculum, when available, may present Aarav with superficial and reductive versions of his identity and culture (Mahfouz & Anthony-Stevens, 2020).
  • Pedagogically, Aarav will have to adapt to unfamiliar communication and engagement styles (e.g., constructivism, student-orientation, discipline, collaboration, and use of resources; OECD, 2009). In response, he may discontinue important cultural and value-based learning preferences and practices that he has mastered from his elders, home communities, or cultural teachings (Tyler et al., 2008).
  • Socially, we know that while most children go through phases of feeling like they don’t fit in, girls, immigrants, students of colour, and students with low socioeconomic status tend to report these feelings most consistently. On a scale of 1-5, Aarav may circle high scores when asked if he feels like an outsider, feels left out of things, has a hard time making friends, feels awkward and out of place, suspects that other students don’t like him, or feels lonely at school (OECD, 2017). In a more general sense, his daily interactions may often be influenced by biased and simplified understandings of his culture (Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2012). Researchers have demonstrated that feeling interesting and important to others, or as though you “matter,” is a crucial aspect of overall well-being, and a shortage of it is associated with delinquency, depression, and anxiety (Rosenberg & McCullough, 1981).
  • Emotionally, loneliness and isolation may have profound effects on Aarav’s learning. Children who don’t feel accepted, valued, and included experience a reduced sense of safety, which can close the door to optimal executive functioning, the pursuit of high goals, and the taking of academic risks (Brownlie & King, 2011). In general, Aarav may experience decreases in emotional well-being, self-efficacy, and self-esteem, and increases in anger and self-depreciation (Arunkumar, Midgley, & Urdan, 1999; Evans, Turner, & Allen, 2020).

Culture is about more than just race. Each one of us, like Aarav, has a completely unique identity based on an ever-evolving list of qualities including gender, religious affiliation, disability status, level of family resources, sexual orientation, formative memories, talents, skills, and interests (Nash, 2008). Aarav, however, is also a child of immigrants, so, like more than half of all U.S. children, he is part of a non-white ethnic group (U.S. Census Bureau, 2015). Canada is expected to hit this milestone by 2036 (Statistics Canada, 2017), while the UK projects 30% by 2061 (Rees, Wohland, Norman, & Lomax, 2017). These dramatic changes to the composition of our schools promise a more global and dynamic learning community, while also posing complex social and academic challenges. Marginalized for so long, cultural responsivity is now necessary to meet the basic learning and emotional needs of all students.

Challenges to Our Ability to Provide Culturally Responsive Education

Before we propose a solution, let’s add up the time, resources, and attention equitable teaching may require. Even if you begin with the basics, it’s a fairly tall order. The first thing you should do, according to the most well-accepted frameworks, is validate each student’s identity. That means making their cultural, linguistic, and social uniqueness your business, and also getting to know their particular dispositions, attitudes, and approaches to learning (Brown-Jeffy & Cooper, 2011; Gay, 2000; Hollie, 2019). Considering the complex range of origins and cultures in our classrooms, and the natural limitations of our ability to gather, learn, and remember information, this will be quite a task. Oh shoot, we may think, is Aarav the one who grew up in Mexico, or is that Juno? Your second job is to purposefully incorporate these qualities into the curriculum and skills taught, the materials used, and the manner of instruction applied in the classroom. The goal is to know enough about the cultures among (and beyond) your students to intentionally plan learning that incorporates them. The most respected voices on this topic encourage educators to develop not one or two new techniques, units, or lessons, but a multifaceted approach that will transform the school day and allow a broad range of students to succeed (e.g., Hammond, 2015; Ladson-Billings, 2021). Toward this goal, teachers will do all of the usual tricks – build a nice collection of mentor texts and teaching manuals, follow certain blogs, and attend workshops to get ideas from other educators. This is such important work, but how will we “afford” such a deep and broad change when our time, resources, and attention are already so stretched? We don’t blame you for feeling overwhelmed. This is a lot of work for one teacher to do in the background while integrating the demands of a language, math, and social studies curriculum.

A Responsive and Supportive Approach: Socially Shared Learning Regulation

After presenting their carefully planned culturally responsive curriculums, teachers spend a lot of time on follow-up interactions with students to help them calm down, get started, organize, plan, keep going, and attend to learning tasks. These capacities are commonly associated with executive functioning, and their impact accounts for over half of all of the variation in performance we see in classrooms (Visu-Petra, Cheie, Benga, & Miclea, 2011). Herein lies the opportunity we wish to present. Instead of enacting status quo responses to support students’ executive functions, often driven by a teacher’s own ways, wisdom, and need for efficiency (Kistner et al., 2010), teachers can slow down and do something more responsive.  Culturally responsive environments can be created by shifting towards socially shared learning regulation, a more metacognitive, social, and transactive process (Hadwin, Jarvela, & Miller, 2018, pg. 86). In this process, teachers simply gather students together to facilitate a shared discussion about regulation, engaging the whole class to explore, first, “What are your/our barriers to this work?” and then, “What strategies can you/we use to be more successful?” In the following section, we will unpack the ways that this simple pedagogy supports cultural responsivity. It is important, however, to remember that teaching practices involving explicit task analysis, planning, prediction, judgment and reflection, and a focus on problem-solving are also well-known supports to learning, resourcefulness, and independence (Hattie, 2018; Oettingen & Gollwitzer, 2010; Winne, 1997). You really can’t go wrong exploring socially shared learning regulation.

How a Socially Shared Approach Boosts Cultural Responsivity

“Okay, everyone. This task feels hard for us right now. Let’s all talk about the barriers we’re facing, and the kinds of strategies we can use to be successful.”

Using this approach to stimulate socially shared learning regulation, you can actively share voice, participation, and authority with your students (Perry, Yee, Mazabel, Lisaingo, & Maatta, 2017). Take a look at Table 1. Each of three vignettes contains a subject-by-subject account of the way learning regulation can feel for Aarav: a self-regulated learning style through which he manages his own performance, an externally regulated learning style through which his teacher takes over and regulates learning for him, and a socially shared learning regulation style (see review in Panadero & Jarvela, 2015) through which he is encouraged to bring his culture and experiences to bear on the learning regulation taking place among the peers in his class.


culturally responsive classroomTable 1. The Impact of Self, External, and Socially Shared Learning Regulation on Aarav's Experience at School

Click here to view and download Table 1. The Impact of Self, External, and Socially Shared Learning Regulation on Aarav's Experience at School.

Using a socially shared approach, Aarav’s learning problems will no longer be solved by a single teacher who puzzles and scrambles and worries over how to correctly and deeply incorporate his unique cultural background and range of skills. Rather, Aarav himself will be pulled into the process and invited to weigh in alongside his peers and teachers. For example, instead of his teacher, alone, trying to figure out how to make the solving of math problems culturally relevant, Aarav and his peers can be gathered and curiously and humbly asked, “What are our barriers to this challenge?” or “Does anyone have any experience with this type of problem?” or “Has anyone been in a similar situation that we can draw from?” Then, Aarav’s teacher can begin to elicit possible solutions, such as “What can we do to be successful?” or “Does anyone have a strategy or trick learned outside of school that we can use?” In response, Aarav and his classmates can share a diverse range of strategies and solutions for handling their challenges. In the 2020 Handbook of the Cultural Foundations of Learning, Darling-Hammond insisted that “if education policy reforms are going to succeed in protecting and loving children of color… white teachers must willfully learn from students’ lived experiences” (p.193). When a teacher guides a class in asking questions, showing interest, and learning about the values in each individual’s perspective, the process of socially shared learning regulation aligns with this goal of equitable teaching.

Engaging in a socially shared way, in meaningful community with his peers, provides an ideal context for Aarav’s engagement and learning to grow (Mahfouz & Anthony-Stevens, 2020). When children’s perspectives and strategies are validated on this stage, it cements their feelings of autonomy and competence in the third essential factor for motivation: relatedness and a sense of belonging (Deci & Ryan, 2000). In contrast to feeling alone, unknown, and unimportant, a child can share an old family organization trick, a calming strategy they learned from their grandparent or a mindset they learned in their place of worship and feel appreciated for their most personal qualities. Experiences like these are associated with a decrease in peer rejection, and a deepening of understanding and respect (Kotluk & Aydin, 2021). Furthermore, by providing communal space for classmates to participate in the regulation of their learning, we make it possible for children with many different backgrounds to help one another on a strategic level. By this approach, when a learning problem arises, the processes of understanding it and figuring out what to do next are no longer tethered to the experience, habits, and biases of one particular teacher. Rather, within open large-group conversations, students are free to share ideas that may be worlds apart from those of their teacher. This process allows students to belong in their fullness in the classroom.

How often do you think students engage in truly autonomous self-regulated learning when faced with challenging problems in your classroom? Or, in its place, how often do you think you wind up taking over and switching into externally-regulated learning? If you think you might support students with external regulation as a go-to, it is interesting to wonder whether they are discouraged by it (Medin & Jutengren, 2020) and if they may quickly be re-invigorated by a more communal, socially shared approach. By interrupting your habitual teaching practices several times a day to actively recruit your students’ expertise, knowledge, creative thinking, and voice, you place your own power, biases, and perspective in check. You also create authentic and meaningful opportunities for cultural learning among your students and for yourself.

Culturally Responsive Teaching is For Everyone

You might know an extraordinary teacher who has transformed their classroom, materials, and teaching practice and is making huge strides towards a universally responsive program. You may have seen their posts on social media or listened to them speak at a conference, and you may feel inspired by their work and called to action. We think it is important to remember that culturally responsive teaching is not only for those who eat, breathe, and sleep the issue. Our schools will be truly equitable when multiple cultures can flourish and thrive in every classroom. While socially shared learning regulation is a powerful practice for leaders in multicultural teaching, it is also a great, self-contained starting point for teachers with more general interests. It can be adapted to an almost infinite variety of classroom situations, and it is compact and manageable enough to be used by regular ed. teachers. Using a more socially shared approach, teachers can begin to offer students’ experiences, cultures, backgrounds, and unique wisdom the voice and power they deserve in the classroom.

Six Ways to be Culturally Responsive Right Now

culturally responsive

Click here to view and access the handout "Six Ways to be Culturally Responsive Right Now".

About the Authors

Laurie Faith, Ph.D., OCT, is the creator of an international EF-based teaching movement called Activated Learning. She has been teaching in special and typical classrooms for 17 years and currently works at OISE, teaching courses in special education.

Carol-Anne Bush, B.Ed., M.A., is a K-12 educator and administrator whose experience spans three continents and over three decades. She currently runs a private EF coaching practice for children and adults.

Peg Dawson, Ed.D. has over 40 years of clinical experience working with both children and adults with executive skill challenges. She is a co-author of numerous books on the topic of executive skills.

Aliyana Hirji is a student in the Master of Arts in Child Study and Education program at OISE at the University of Toronto. Her undergraduate degree is in Speech Communication from the University of Waterloo.

Mouna Abdallah is a student in the Master of Arts in Child Study and Education program at OISE at the University of Toronto. She is interested in responsive cultural pedagogy with an aim for equity, inclusion, and diversity.


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