Consider Culture Before Referral of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students for Special Education Services

A classroom of children raising their hands.

Megan Farnsworth is an Associate Professor of Special Education at Southern Oregon University. In this article written for Colorín Colorado, she explores different kinds of culture and explains the impact that culture can have not only on a child's experience in school but on how teachers interpret and evaluate that experience.

Video bonus: Dr. Alba Ortiz discusses the impact that culture can have on behavior in the classroom.

Recently, a colleague of mine approached me in the staff lounge ten minutes before school started. She exclaimed, “Rosa just isn’t getting anything. I’m a bit frustrated because she’s been here for two and half years, and I think she has a learning disability. I know the complications with standardized assessments, so I can’t rely on those. What should I do? How can I teach her?”  I am not surprised by this question, for general education teachers have been asking me it consistently over the numerous years I have been providing English Language Development to English Language Learners (ELLs) in both Oregon and Arizona.

I wanted to tell my colleague that I have been in her shoes. The first year I taught school was in a sixth grade classroom in central California. I had received my certificate for teaching Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CLD) students in my credential program, which was like training for an open water swim in a lap pool. That first year, 60% of my students were ELLs and I was overwhelmed with the language differences in my classroom. I did not know how to teach them, and referred two students in the beginning stages of language acquisition for assessment of SPED services. Like many teachers, I had confused language acquisition with a learning disability (Ortiz & Yates, 2002; Abedi, 2000).

Understanding the Needs of ELLs

During my years as a district ELL specialist, I attended more and more Child Study Team meetings, discussing why my CLD students were “failing.”  Over 25% of my students had been referred for assessment for Special Education (SPED) services, which is consistent with the national average (Artiles, Rueda, Salazar, & Higareda, 2000).  Over-representation of CLDs in special education remains a problem even after forty years of inquiry (Artiles, Kozleski, Trent, Osher, & Ortiz, 2010).  While the issue is complex, one factor contributing to the over-representation of CLD students in special education is that most general and special education teachers do not have adequate training for working with CLD learners, nor understanding of the specific needs of ELLs (Kushner & Ortiz, 2000).

Cultural factors


Over- and Under-Identification of ELLs with Disabilities

For more information on the challenges of appropriately identifying ELLs with disabilities, see our related resource section and videos.

Important cultural factors that affect teaching and learning need to be examined, for culture may be more influential than language in obtaining educational achievement. Culture becomes an invisible script that directs us through our daily decision making processes. Culture enables or constrains us, by blinding us to those who are different than us (Hollins, 2008).

For example, teachers and students from the dominant culture (i.e., Euro-American, middle class, monolingual standard English speaking) tend to be field independent (i.e., detail oriented and analytically inclined), value competition, and individual accomplishment (Banks & Banks, 2010).  Culturally and Linguistically Diverse students tend to be field dependent, approach learning intuitively rather than analytically and logical, and tend to perform better in cooperative learning contexts (Gollnick & Chinn, 2009).  This cultural mismatch contributes to teachers’ misunderstandings about student achievement. (See more about the differences between individual and collective cultural orientation in the book Managing Diverse Classrooms: How to Build on Students' Cultural Strengths.)

The Teacher Perspective

Teachers play a pivotal role in determining the quality of opportunities, experiences, and outcomes that students receive in schools (Gay, 1997).  Since teachers bring their own cultural lens (e.g., values and beliefs) into the classroom, they may unintentionally attempt to encourage students to conform to their values and beliefs (Hollins, 2008), which potentially can marginalize students who do not share the same cultural lens. As teachers, we must critically examine our beliefs and attitudes toward language and diversity by questioning our assumptions of CLD students (Gay & Kirkland, 2003).

I also wanted to encourage my colleague to examine her expectations of Rosa, for teachers’ expectations have a profound effect on student performances (Brophy & Good, 1974), especially among students from stigmatized groups (Jussim & Harber, 2005). Research shows that a teacher’s degree of concern about a CLD student’s needs is an important factor in referral to SPED (Algozzine & Ysseldyke, 1981), which is higher in a school with low minority enrollment (Collier, 1987) such as ours, with only 6%  CLD enrollment. The cultural mismatch between teachers and students contributes to teachers’ interpretation of CLD students’ behaviors in the classroom.

In interpreting student behaviors, teachers must look at the three cultures in the classroom:

1) the culture of the student (i.e., values and beliefs students bring to the classroom)

2) the culture of the school (i.e., existing values, expectations and practices)

3) the resulting culture in the classroom (i.e., students’ practices intersecting with school practices) (Gallego & Cole, 2001; Personal communication, Artiles, 2007).

Let's explore these different kinds of cultures through Rosa's story and what I learned about her as I looked for ways to support my colleague.

Culture of the Student

Funds of Knowledge

Culture and cognition are intertwined, and are negotiated through social interaction (Rogoff, 2002).  For example, a student like Rosa comes to school with a vast amount of rich experiences that contribute to her knowledge, skills and perspectives called, funds of knowledge  (González, Moll, & Amanti, 2005). Funds of knowledge are seen as household practices, daily activities, and how people think about what they do. Families accumulate bodies of beliefs, ideas, skills, and abilities based on their experiences in response to larger societal forces (e.g. social class, gender, religion) that affect the situations of students and their families (Moll, 2014). 

This premise is driven by an equity agenda that advocates for educators to build on students and their families’ knowledge and experiences as resources for connecting schooling practices. Funds of knowledge are most effectively uncovered through methods such as:

  • observations in and out of the classroom
  • student surveys
  • parent/family surveys or home visits.

Surveys or visits often begin with how and when the family arrived at the recent location and challenges they have faced. Collecting narratives of occupations, mobility, views of roles as caretakers, and how the family is connected to group support and access to economic resources (i.e., sociocultural capital) are important sources of funds of knowledge (Hollins, 2008).  After observing Rosa at school, and sending home a survey (in Spanish), I located some of Rosa’s cultural assets (see Table 1 for examples). 


Cultural Assets


Dress, celebrations, food, dance

Dresses in clean, nice clothes. Cleanliness is important.  Catholic holidays are celebrated.

Individualism, independence & competition, or collaboration

Competitive, relies on group and community.

Family structure, gender roles

Lives with mother, brothers, sisters and uncle. Traditional paternal values, and uncle makes family decisions.

Relationship to plants, animals, or land

From agricultural background.

Body language (eye contact, personal space, tone of voice, nonverbal, expressions);  Communication style

Confident and states her opinions with loud voice. 
















Social and Emotional Needs

The social and emotional needs of a child experiencing problems in the classroom may be both negatively and positively affected by changing from the home culture/language to that of the mainstream classroom. The differing culture change patterns of CLD children must be taken into consideration in assessment and instruction. The effects upon language, cognitive style, personality, and self concept affects development of a child’s full potential, especially when the child may have special learning/behavior problems in schools (Collier, 1987). Rosa’s family fled Honduras to escape violence, which creates the obstacles of acculturative stress, anxiety, homesickness and separation from support networks that affect creating positive interpersonal relationships. 

Although Rosa has been in the U.S. two and one-half years, she can still experience acculturative stress that may manifest by deviant behavior, psychosomatic symptoms and feelings of marginality (Berry, 1970, as cited in Collier, 1987). This type of stress has particular implications for educators as the side effects look similar to Emotional Behavioral Disabilities, and used to place children in special education classes (Hoover, 2004; Collier, 1987).  Students must learn the language of instruction and the content at the same time, as well as learn to participate in the classroom community. As a result, academic competence may be compromised by students need to develop social competence (Rymes & Pash, 2001). Students may show “passing” (Goffman, 1981), by looking to their peers’ cues, instead of drawing on their own experiences. Therefore, performance may reflect the child’s degree of acculturation to middle-class Western cultural norms and behaviors, and the culture of the school.

Culture of the School

Academic Discourse

U.S. schools often still operate under an efficiency model, which measures students against a “norm” of Euro-American middle class expectations, with hidden cultural rules and correct language usage. Some rules of language are explicitly stated with passage of legislation including English-Only laws (e.g., Arizona), but hidden rules also occur in academic discourse patterns. Specialized discourse patterns occur in literacy practices such as:

  • quizzing
  • questioning patterns
  • narrative styles
  • read-alouds.

Students must acquire the discourses of the school, and be able to communicate in them fluently for their performances to be perceived by others as successful (Hawkins, 2004).  Rosa does not use academic discourse patterns, so she has the potential to be marginalized. Classroom texts and teachers’ belief systems are also cultural scripts and measure the acceptance of the “right” answer (Mehan, 1984). Students must align themselves with the teacher’s knowledge to answer the question correctly, whether or not their background knowledge informs them of a different answer. Even when asking open-ended questions, teachers still may look for the “right” answer (Rymes & Pash, 2001).

Some children are socialized with academic discourses, and others are not. Middle-class Euro-American parents often segregate children from the adult world in child-focused activities, and play language games that involve test questions in the same format as academic discourses (Rogoff, 2003). Martini & Kirkpatrick (1996) found that parents ask their children about their day and helped them organize “reports” by restating children’s words in academic discourse. My colleague can provide students like Rosa with safe opportunities to practice academic ways of talking (O’Connor & Michaels, 1996).  


Expectations for academic discourse also exist in the right way to tell a story (Michaels, 1981). Children from middle-to upper-middle-class families typically use narrative styles in their homes containing story grammars consistent with ones used at school (e.g., characters, setting, problem and solution) (Heath, 1983).  If teachers expect students’ stories to follow a linear script, they overlook how CLD children use narratives in many contexts (Scott, Straker & Katz, 2009). Acquiring a standard format facilitates success in responding to standardized tests, but teachers need to accept children’s sociocultural narrative styles in developing oral literacy (Bloome et al., 2001).  Children tell stories not in isolation, but through interactions with peers and adults who help them make sense of their world. Stories are derived from real or imagined experiences, and contain cultural forms from the groups they belong to (Street, 1993).

For example, when Rosa retold me a story, she added personal experiences that were not included in the original version. The original story consisted of a linear story line about a dog who tried to cross a river, got stuck in the middle, and then was rescued by a boy with a stick. The story Rosa retold followed a similar linear organization; however, the boy was transformed into a security guard who employed several resources to complete the rescue. My task was to make a decision if this “version” of her story retell was acceptable. 

In accepting her version as an effort to integrate her background experiences with her current identity, I can affirm Rosa’s retell due to my belief in accepting multiple narratives as valid. My colleague can discover ways Rosa’s family tells stories by assigning homework in which Rosa’s parents tell her a story, and then Rosa retells it in class. In this way, teachers can bridge home to school in creating culturally responsive literacy practices.

Culture of the Classroom

The culture created in the classroom is a result of the moment-to-moment interactions of the school’s history meeting the child’s history. A teacher’s educational background, experiences, behavior management, personality, motivations, instructional paradigm, and commitment to social justice all have an impact on her ability to create an inclusive environment of equity. Critical dispositions that contribute to teachers’ successful interactions across cultures include empathy and open-mindedness. Empathy refers to one’s ability to empathize with the feelings, thoughts, and behaviors of those from a different cultural background. Being open-minded includes demonstrating an open and unprejudiced attitude toward different groups and toward different cultural norms and values.  Gutierrez, Baquedano-Lopez, & Tejada (1999) describe safety in the equitable classroom referred to as the “third space” for those seeking to explore intersections of knowledge that foster growth in students’ voices.

Transformation occurs when students and teachers cultural assets are combined in a community of learners. Instead of top-down teaching, the teacher connects with students to find the best answers to student driven topics. The teacher facilitates success through a variety of activities to explore academic discourse (e.g., socratic seminar or “dinner party” where students role play different characters), and participant structures (e.g. whole class, small group, one-on-one, fishbowl). Teachers also balance activities rooted in individualism (independent tasks) and collectivism (e.g., buddy reading, choral reading, cooperative learning groups, Think-Pair Share, Phone a Friend options).

Classroom Connection

After getting to know Rosa better, I followed up with my colleague by offering to help plan lessons that build on Rosa’s cultural assets.  For example, when teaching about the Oregon Trail (4th grade Oregon social studies curriculum), she can connect Rosa’s knowledge of moving from one place to another, as well as her agricultural background to major concepts of the Oregon Trail. By creating opportunities for a) Rosa’s background knowledge to be valued, and b) Rosa to be a leader in her classroom, her teacher can create equitable classrooms that promote growth in students’ voices.

Cognitive development occurs as people learn from more experienced others. One concept of participation is that students participate in later situations according to how they relate to previous ones (Rogoff, 2003). Seeing the connection between the old and new situations involves support from a more skilled participant, who can help the child see the applicability to classroom activities. For students to generalize appropriately across experiences, apprenticeship helps in deciding which strategies relate to each other, and which approaches fit different circumstances. Rosa’s teachers need to make explicit, (e.g, think-alouds or task analysis) the skills and strategies needed to negotiate different types of problems, and then make explicit connections between them. Assigning an older mentor (e.g., 2-4 years older) can help scaffold opportunities to help students become responsible for their own learning and solving problems both in and out of the classroom.  

Final Thoughts

Regardless of obtaining a label, we still have to teach Rosa. Obtaining the label is not the goal, but discovering the environment (including type of instruction) in which she is most successful is.  If we are to serve Rosa, we must revisit goals the school holds for her, her family holds for her, and she herself holds. Success is most often achieved together, as collaboration is a truly culturally responsive practice.

In order to determine eligibility for special education services, an evaluation team must decide if the CLD’s learning or behavior problems are primarily due to language and cultural factors (See reauthorization of IDEA, 2004). Therefore, we need to become familiar with our cultural factors that affect our teaching, and students’ cultural factors that affect learning. The solution is usually found in teachers’ abilities to integrate students’ home cultures with school cultures, resulting in a hybrid, third-space, inclusive classroom culture.

Dr. Alba Ortiz discusses the role that culture can play on behavior in the classroom.


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