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Cultural Diversity and Social Instruction
Understanding Ethnic and Gender Differences


Gwendolyn Cartledge
with contributions by JoAnne Fellows Milburn




Tables Introduction

CHAPTER 1 :The Relationship of Culture and Social Behavior
Gwendolyn Cartledge and Hua Feng

CHAPTER 2: A Model for Teaching Social Skills
Gwendolyn Cartledge and Joanne Fellows Milburn

CHAPTER 3: Asian Americans
Gwendolyn Cartledge and Hua Feng

CHAPTER 4: African Americans
Gwendolyn Cartledge and Myra B. Middleton

CHAPTER 5: Native Americans
Jeanette W. Lee and Gwendolyn Cartledge

CHAPTER 6: Hispanic Americans
Lessie L. Cochran and Gwendolyn Cartledge

CHAPTER 7: Social Skills and the Culture of Gender
Carolyn Talbert Johnson, Gwendolyn Cartledge, and Joanne Fellows Milburn

Name Index
Subject Index
About the Authors


  1. Problems and Related Social Skills
  2. Family Structure and Dynamics in East Asian and American Cultures
  3. Chinese Perspective versus Western Perspective
  4. Comparison of African Americans and European Americans in Communication Behaviors
  5. Peer Mediation Process Checklist
  6. GAB Sheet
  7. Overview of Skills Enhancement Intervention
  8. Joe's Problem Situation


This book grew out of several years of research and writing about children's social skills, particularly within the context of classroom teachers' and other practitioners' efforts to help children and adolescents develop more adaptive behaviors. As this work evolved, it became apparent not only that young people and adults often value different behaviors but that the differences grow as the gap between the backgrounds of the teacher and the learner widens. Moreover, we increasingly became aware of the special social development conditions that confront youth from racially and ethnically different backgrounds.

This panoply of differences has important implications for the teaching of social skills. To be effective, social skill trainers need to understand learners' motivations and social goals, the ways in which the learners have been socialized in other environments such as the family or the community, and the interference of this alternative socialization with the trainers' goals and the culture of the school and the mainstream society. Equally important, social skill trainers must differentiate between social skill deficits that need to be changed and cultural differences that either need to be respected in their current form or simply need to be switched according to specific social conditions. For example, some students may need to learn the assertive behaviors necessary to become recognized by teachers and peers at school, behaviors that are not acceptable in the home. Likewise, other students may need to learn to make finer discriminations of parental teachings relative to being assertive and protecting themselves.

As our society's diversity increases and our schools become proportionately more minority, it becomes more important to understand and teach social skills from a perspective of cultural diversity. Frequently cited statistics reveal that, within the next 30 or 40 years, at least 40 percent of our public school population will comprise ethnic or racial minorities (i.e., African American, Native American, Hispanic American, and Asian American). Many of these students, especially from the latter two groups, will be first or second-generation Americans, frequently speaking English as a second language and subjected to relatively poor socioeconomic conditions. At the same time, fewer minority students are pursuing higher education and teacher education (King, 1993); as a result, the teaching force in U S. society is increasingly White or European American female, thoroughly entrenched in middle-class American culture. This dichotomy is compounded by the facts that many teacher preparation programs fail to provide coursework or direct experience with special or culturally diverse populations (Kearney & Durand, 1992) and that most graduating students indicate a preference for teaching in suburban settings, where they are least likely to encounter students from ethnic or racial minority backgrounds (Moultry, 1988; Wayson, 1988).

These conditions set the occasion for cultural discontinuities that can undermine students' learning and frustrate teachers. An example is the case of Nicole, a European American female in her first year of teaching. A product of an upper-middle-class family, Nicole was reared in a predominantly white middle-class suburban community in a large metropolitan area. Although Nicole attended public schools, the few classmates from racially or ethnically different backgrounds were of her own socioeconomic status. According to Nicole, her high school graduating class of 700 included no more than 3 African American students. Nicole graduated from a large university with a degree in English education. Again, during her college years she had limited contact with (and coursework on) culturally diverse populations. The suburban school system where she completed her practicum was similar, in racial and cultural terms, to the one where she had grown up. Nicole's teacher preparation program included one 2-hour lecture concerning demographics of the emerging diversity in our society.

Nicole's first teaching assignment contrasted dramatically with her background and preparatory experiences. She found herself in an urban school district, in a school with a majority African American, inner-city population. One day, after beginning her teaching duties, Nicole observed outside her classroom two African American male adolescents engaging in verbal repartee that appeared aggressive and contentious. Being a dutiful and responsible teacher, she immediately marched them to the principal's office to be reprimanded. Much to her surprise and dismay, the principal, an African American woman, criticized Nicole rather than the students, complaining that Nicole had misread the situation and treated the boys prejudicially and unfairly.

What Nicole did not know and-with her limited experience and training-had no way of knowing was that she was observing a unique communication style of African American youth, particularly males. Nicole encountered what Irvine (1990) refers to as "verbal sparring," also called "ribbing," "capping," "woofing," and so forth. Essentially, these interactions are verbal battles characterized by Irvine as black male rituals that are valued and generally conducted in an atmosphere of sport. As in Nicole's case, Irvine points out that "the verbal communication style of black students baffles school personnel, especially white teachers, who fail to understand black students' expressive language" (p. 27). This was a painful and embarrassing lesson for Nicole, but what are the implications for her, the students, and the principal?

Fortunately, Nicole was not discouraged by this sequence of events; she insisted that she really liked working with the students in this setting and looked forward to returning to her teaching assignment. However, she could have been totally derailed by the experience, blaming both the students and the principal for her humiliation and either leaving school if she had other options or remaining and treading water until more lucrative opportunities emerged. In fact, Nicole did have other teaching opportunities in suburban, upper-middle-class settings, but she chose to remain in the city. Following her initial, abrupt confrontation with cultural difference, Nicole greatly valued coursework and discussions on cultural and racial variables that gave her greater insights into her students. Although she is still willing to teach African American students in inner-city settings, she continues to have reservations about the principal.

Cultural misunderstandings can have negative impact on students as well as on teachers. Irvine (1990) notes the occurrence of vicious cycles: Students find that their playful acts are misinterpreted; they become angry and intensify the roughness of their activities; the result is greater fear on the part of whites. Students may feel empowered and rewarded by the effects of their actions on whites, particularly females. This false sense of power may lead them to escalate those behaviors, possibly at the expense of more productive behaviors that relate to school success.

Although well-intended, the principal's reactions are not predictive of the best possible outcomes for students or staff. By validating the students, the principal may have interrupted or slowed the vicious cycle, but she risked undercutting the students' respect for the teacher as well as alienating the teacher. The principal was right to advocate for the students, but she failed to realize that she herself was guilty of the same actions of which she accused the teacher. Just as the male students should not have been punished for engaging in culturally specific, playful behaviors (unless, of course, they were occurring at the wrong time and place), neither should the teacher have been reprimanded for acting in a way consistent with her culture-that is, viewing negative verbal statements as fighting. The situation could have been used as a vehicle for valuable learning and growth for all parties. For instance, rather than confronting Nicole with her shortcomings, the principal might have praised her active interest in the students' overall development and then informed her about this facet of black male interaction. This conference could have been followed with suggestions for readings on this topic, such as the book Ribbin; Jivin', and Playin' the Dozens (Foster, 1974) or Black Students and School Failure (Irvine, 1990). An especially positive response might have been to ask Nicole to review some of these readings with colleagues for discussion during faculty meetings. Even more important (and consistent with the theme of this book) would be for Nicole to capitalize on her students' communication style as part of her classroom English instruction. Selections from African American literature (see chapter 4 of this book) could be analyzed for examples of these verbal battles. Students could be challenged in classroom contests to be verbally creative in describing fellow students, relatives, love objects, or themselves in positive terms. In the context of language learning, these descriptions might be assigned to reinforce grammar objectives and skills being taught (e.g., complete sentences of at least eight words, or three novel adjectives to describe the subject). As long as the results were positive and socially appropriate, students could be encouraged to be as unique and as entertaining as possible. These verbal activities could naturally evolve into creative writing of poetry, essays, and short stories.

Young people are poorly served when their social behaviors are misperceived or excessively punished. Noteworthy in Nicole's scenario, for example, is the fact that her immediate reaction when she thought the boys were being verbally aggressive was to seek out some punishing consequence. Research indicates that female teachers are more likely than male teachers to pursue punishment for adolescent males (Ritter, 1989) and that minority youngsters, particularly African American males, are most vulnerable to punitive actions (Executive Committee, Council for Children with Behavior Disorders, 1989). Punishment for some minority youth seems to be overemphasized.

We do not mean to suggest that youngsters be permitted to misbehave with impunity. However, even if inappropriate social behaviors are accurately perceived, punishment alone rarely is effective in fostering appropriate social development. Youngsters who find themselves caught in a punishment cycle often become more angry, defiant, and intractable. In addition to being confronted with their misdeeds, students sorely need constructive intervention that engages them in productive, socially approved alternatives to previous actions. Let's assume that Nicole's students are actually fighting and that she takes them to the office for justly deserved punishment. What are the lessons learned? Following the punishment, are students helped to learn alternatives to aggression? How might this instruction be conducted so that it is both culturally relevant and effective? In the absence of constructive follow-up, punishment may be not only ineffective but counterproductive. Students may simply learn not to get caught, or they may consider the punishment too mild to warrant a change in behavior. Even if they recognize the importance of acting differently in the fixture, they may not be able to chart an appropriate course of action on their own. They may not have learned how to manage their behavior in ways that serve their own and others' best interests. Thus, the focus needs to be beyond consequences, on ways to help students grow socially and academically.

At the other extreme from Nicole's students are young people who fail to receive attention because of overly quiet and compliant behaviors. When teachers equate "quiet" with "good," students who internalize excessively tend to be overlooked, frequently experiencing school failure and other social problems as a result. Again, these students are likely to be from particular cultural backgrounds (e.g., Asian Americans). Students struggling to live up to behavioral stereotypes of academic and social superiority may be just as disenfranchised as those who bear the burden of prejudicial inferiority and strive daily to establish their competence and worth, often through self-destructive means.

Borrowing from Ladson-Billings' (1995) "culturally relevant pedagogy," we argue for culturally relevant social skill instruction that will help students learn critical social behaviors that lead to school success and adult competence. Social skill instruction for diverse populations is not an attempt to homogenize the population and mold all young people to some white middle-class standard. To the contrary, we endorse the position of Ladson-Billings and others (e.g., Banks, 1991; Nieto, 1995) that young people need to develop and maintain cultural competence and that their culture should serve as a vehicle for learning. Accordingly, we contend that the student's culture should be the basis for understanding social behavior as well as for teaching social skills. We firmly believe that teachers must attend to the social development needs of all children, but-as Nicole's experience suggests-misinterpretation of social behaviors increases when cultural diversity enters the equation.

Further, we recognize that culturally and linguistically different students are disproportionately represented among the impoverished segments of the population and that they more greatly experience the accompanying stressors. Within each major group considered in our book, there is a subgroup of youth for whom conditions of hardship limit positive models and options, reduce coping strategies, and cloud perceptions relative to long-term survival and success. With a keen sensitivity to their differences, these youngsters are likely to carve out for themselves patterns of behavior that not only are oppositional but are incompatible with school success and often are self-destructive. This tendency can be aggravated by intra-group tension and peer pressure-for example, the "acting white" syndrome, where youth disparage the behavior of more successful group members, often effectively pressuring them to capitulate for less noble ventures. For these and other reasons, students from subpopulations of cultural groups need more help with decision-making strategies and social skills.

An important step in becoming socially competent is developing the sense of self-worth and dignity that results from a strong identity (Nieto, 1995). The schools can play a major role in this process. Nieto provides case studies of "subjugated and economically depressed" adolescents who, through the study of their own cultures, not only were inspired and motivated to learn more but also became more adaptive in their behavior, remained in school, and began to think in terms of postsecondary education and professional careers. Nieto speaks of the transformative power of culturally specific curriculum and pedagogy in reactivating academic interest and success. We believe that such learning can have residual effects on students' social behaviors and, moreover, that direct social skill teaching in a culturally relevant context can be more effective for minority populations than traditional approaches.

We also subscribe to the concept of "equity pedagogy" as advanced by McGee Banks and Banks (1995). In equity pedagogy, teachers' aim in helping students achieve academically is not merely to let them fit into the existing society but to enable them to become active in forging a more just society. Similarly, the goal of culturally relevant social skill instruction is to help students become thoughtful and active participants in the larger society, contributing to the well-being of all.

The basic premise of this book is that the behaviors of young people from culturally diverse populations need to be viewed from a cultural perspective and that instruction should affirm students and empower them to achieve maximally as well as to benefit others. Certain themes are present in each chapter. First, we advocate direct instruction, which involves telling and showing the learner how to perform the desired behavior, then providing opportunities for practice and conditions for maintenance. As we will note later, direct instruction is preferred by certain cultural groups, and the direct approach is considered more beneficial than open-ended discussion, particularly for populations with the disadvantage of low socioeconomic status or language difference. This is especially true with initial social skill teaching.

Because all of the populations we are considering have roots in collectivistic societies, cooperative approaches offer special advantages for both academic and social learning. Students who learn to work cooperatively can perfect their interpersonal skills with members of their own groups as well as with people from different backgrounds. Therefore, we specify cooperative learning activities for each group. We also discuss literature-based instruction for each group: Both nonfiction and fiction are primary means for transmitting cultural themes and making learning culturally relevant. Presenting models and concepts through literature is an established and recognized way to facilitate social learning. Students are more likely to be receptive to the teachings if they can identify with the model. This identification is enhanced by literature portraying characters who reflect the students' culture.

The first chapter in our book emphasizes the relationship between culture and social behavior and highlights the importance of ethnic identity relative to psychological adjustment and adaptive behavior. Culture is not something that we inherit; rather, we are socialized to behave according to traditions established over generations. The culture of the school may or may not be in harmony with the culture each student brings to school. The school greatly influences the way young people see themselves and therefore needs to understand and validate their backgrounds. Schools can be instrumental in the formation of healthy ethnic or racial identities. Also discussed in this chapter are the implications for the comparative social skill assessments of racially and culturally different students.

Chapter 2 outlines generic, empirically validated methods for social skill instruction, consisting of skill training (i.e., direct instruction) and cooperative learning procedures. Cognitive and affective dimensions also are addressed. Because we consider these approaches to be the basic building blocks for all social learning, we have incorporated them into strategies recommended for the specific populations discussed in subsequent chapters. For more detailed information on these approaches, readers might consult Teaching Social Skills to Children and Youth (Cartledge & Milburn, 1995) for social skill instruction and Learning Together and Alone: Cooperative, Competitive, and Individualistic Learning ( Johnson & Johnson, 1987) for cooperative learning.

Consideration of specific cultural groups begins with chapter 3, on Asian Americans. Viewed by some as the most rapidly growing minority group, Asian Americans are perhaps the most diverse. For purposes of our book, this category includes people from East Asia (e.g., Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans), Southeast Asians (e.g., Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians), Asian Indians, and Pacific Islanders (e.g., Filipinos and Samoans). Although these populations share some common features, they differ noticeably in terms of both cultural roots and the issues they present in this society. The most obvious differences concern language and time of immigration to the United States. Asian Americans are unique among minorities in this society in that, despite their prevailing image as super-achievers, a sizable minority of their youth do not fit this perception. The discrepancy potentially contributes further to poor academic and social progress. Effective intervention is predicated on accurate behavioral assessments analyzed in the context of cultural knowledge.

African Americans are the subject of chapter 4. With nearly half of its youth growing up in poverty, this group is plagued by the conditions that accompany economic disadvantage and the perceptions typically associated with the poor. This chapter emphasizes the need for professionals to distinguish differences from deficits and to intervene constructively, helping young people to evaluate their options and choose alternatives that will be productive for themselves and others.

Chapter 5 concerns Native Americans, the smallest distinct group discussed in this book. The oldest segment of the U.S. population, Native Americans are distinguished by a culture that emphasizes community and the importance of living in harmony with nature and humankind. Poorly equipped to compete in the larger society, young people from this group are easy prey for social ills such as substance abuse and school failure. Direct instructional approaches that capitalize on their culture appear promising.

Hispanic Americans, the focus of chapter 6, also are diverse in terms of race and country of origin, but they are united by a common language. Although Hispanics in the United States come from many different countries, in this book we consider the three major subgroups: Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Cuban Americans. We recognize and respect the term Latino; however, as noted by Nieto (1992), Hispanic is more widely used and is therefore the term primarily used in this book. Although economics and race enter into the equation, language difference may be the most important issue for Hispanics in the United States, and language is the principal point of intervention for addressing social behaviors. While maintaining pride in their cultural background, young people in this group need guidance to acquire skill and ease within the dominant culture so they may participate maximally in the larger society.

The book concludes with a consideration of gender differences. Chapter 7 highlights some points of the ongoing debate concerning the nature and origin of gender differences, identifies some of the most agreed-on differences in social behavior, and discusses some teaching implications.

This book is an effort to define some of the issues surrounding cultural differences and social learning in the United States. Our intention is not to stress differences too much, for we firmly believe that all young people are more alike than different. But as we attempt, along with the rest of society, to grapple with the complexities of increasing diversity (particularly for what appears to be a permanently marginalized segment of each group), we believe that schools and related professionals are a component of an orchestrated effort toward the goal of "success for all." Within that framework, we subscribe to achievement over survival, prevention over intervention, development over containment, and proactive approaches over reaction.


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