In our new book, Ministering to Marginalized Children, there is an entire chapter dedicated to culture. Culture in Bible classes is not just about the cultures in the Bible, but also the cultures in our world today. What you may not have been aware of is how the cultures to which you or your students belong can impact classroom behavior and/or your expectations for student behavior.
Below is an excerpt from the chapter, Ministering to Children in a Multicultural World. To read the entire book, just click on the link to be taken to our website and the free ebook.
Classroom Management and Culture
When one thinks of cultures, things like language, food, music and other similar aspects come to mind. There are other elements of culture that can impact behavior, attitudes and language. These in turn can impact the classroom environment. The impact should be positive or neutral, but if ministry volunteers are ignorant of these cultural differences, there can be misunderstandings, hurt feelings and even anger between the various cultural groups represented in your ministry.
Cultures exist on a spectrum with collectivist cultures on one end and individualistic cultures at the other. Collectivist cultures value the community over the rights of any individual within that community. Individualistic cultures, on the other hand, place the rights and needs of the individual over those of the community as a whole. While few cultures are entirely one or the other, most will have a preferred place on the spectrum. Forces outside and inside of a particular culture can also move it along the spectrum in either direction over time. As a result, older generations in a particular culture may appear to be operating from a different place on the spectrum than younger generations in the same culture.
Children from collectivist cultures will generally behave differently in the classroom than children from more individualistic cultures. There are other aspects of various cultures that will also define acceptable classroom behavior in different ways. It is important to understand that if an adult teaches or ministers to children who are from a different culture than the volunteer, what is perceived by the volunteer as misbehavior may actually be viewed as appropriate classroom behavior in the child’s culture.
It is important for volunteers to understand that students from some cultures will be louder, talk over each other, call out reactions during a lesson, use gestures when talking and generally appear more emotional when communicating. Students from other cultures may speak almost in a whisper, look down when speaking, only speak when pressed and give few emotional cues when speaking.
Communication in the classroom can also be impacted by cultural ideas of honesty and directness. Some cultures favor telling the entire truth – often in a very direct or even blunt fashion, while others may be more circumspect in their communication. How children communicate to adults also varies from culture to culture. Some children are taught to show respect to all adults and may even have specific ways they are allowed to address adults and communicate with them. Other cultures stress children showing respect only to adults in certain positions of authority within the community. Still other cultures allow children to treat adults as peers, believing respect must be earned.
Students from different cultures may also have widely different ideas of personal space. Some children may feel comfortable being only a few inches apart from the person to whom they are talking, while others will only feel comfortable when there is substantial distance between them and others. Children from some cultures will hug and kiss everyone, while children from other cultures may be reluctant to even touch others or be touched by them.
Classroom behaviors can also be impacted by cultural norms of questioning and disagreeing. Children from more collectivist cultures will pressure anyone who disagrees with the group to change to match the group – even in matters of opinion. Children from more individualistic cultures may balk at the idea of rules or anything that appears to emphasize conformity. Some cultures encourage students to ask questions and express their opinions forcefully in a classroom environment. Other cultures encourage questioning and debating only when done respectfully, while still others discourage any perceived open challenges to teachers.
One cannot assume or assign classroom behaviors as being cultural, however, without a thorough knowledge of the child and what he or she has been taught is acceptable classroom behavior. One child may belong to multiple cultures with varying ideas and possess some combination of those norms as his or her idea of acceptable classroom behavior.
Since it can be confusing to both volunteers and children to determine all of the possible cultural influences on classroom behavior which could impact any particular group of children, it is perhaps best to work on creating a unique ministry culture. This ministry culture can be refined even more if particular classes add personal touches to their classroom culture.
Creating a unique ministry or classroom culture begins with a discussion of what volunteers and children have been taught is acceptable classroom behavior. Decisions can be made as a group as to which elements will be included in class or ministry rules and practices. Do not forget to add elements of fun to your class culture. You may want to develop a special way of greeting each other, have special scripture or faith songs that are favorites or even choose a verse as a theme for the group.
Creating a unique ministry or classroom culture will level expectations for acceptable behaviors and attitudes within the group. It may take some time for everyone to remember and adjust their attitudes and behaviors to match the agreed upon group standards. Once children have mastered any expectations that are new to them culturally, it will be easier to determine when a classroom behavior does not meet the standards the group has agreed upon. When these standards are violated, it will be easier to determine whether a behavior is a cultural misunderstanding or an act of defiance.
It is important to remember that if your ministry volunteers have come from another culture to minister in an area that is culturally different from their own, it is not appropriate to attempt to change the local culture. Cultural assimilation has long been a controversial topic in ministry. Cultural norms regarding preferences in areas like music, language, clothing and more should be respected. Culture should only be encouraged to change when it goes against God’s commands. Creating a unique, temporary classroom culture is not attempting to force children to assimilate their culture to another, but rather create a cultural norm in that setting that everyone understands and has agreed upon for any time spent together in that environment.