Dealing with Children and Families from Diverse Cultures Research Paper

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Working with culturally different children and families requires psychologists to have an understanding of cultural differences and, in the best of circumstances, to become cross-culturally competent.


  1. Introduction
  2. Racial and Ethnic Identity
  3. Understanding Culture as a Continuum
  4. Cross-Cultural Competence
  5. Cross-Cultural Communication
  6. Diversity in Education
  7. Implications for Practice

1. Introduction

It is fairly well known that there has been a dramatic demographic shift in the United States population during the past decade or so. Based on the 2000 census, people of color make up approximately 29% of the U.S. population. By the year 2050, they are expected to account for 47% of the U.S. population. The demographic changes have major implications for many institutions, including schools and the workforce. The change in the ethnic composition of the population is viewed as both an opportunity and a challenge. There is the opportunity to enrich society with multiple and diverse cultural elements. The challenge is to find effective ways in which to incorporate and respect the multiple diversities that exist while at the same time recognizing that there is an American culture. Historically, White ethnic groups have been ‘‘forced’’ to abandon their cultures and blend into the American culture. Ethnic minorities, on the other hand, have not been so successful. The reason why has not been for lack of trying; rather, they have not fared as well due to the racism and prejudice that exists in the United States. Ethnic minorities are often received and treated as marginalized groups. As marginalized groups, they have not always had full access to the ‘‘American dream.’’ Although the civil rights movement and subsequent civil rights laws in the United States improved opportunities in education and employment for many ethnic minorities and women, people continue to be marginalized and discriminated against.

While many ethnic minorities have been successful in culturally assimilating, they still struggle to experience full structural assimilation in the United States. There has been a growing acceptance and recognition that, as a society, there has not been an appreciation of the rich diversity that exists; instead, there has been an attitude that one must fit in or assimilate to be successful. Exploring how variables such as class, race, ethnicity, and gender interact and intersect to influence behavior has been critical to researchers understanding life in America for marginalized groups. The United States is a pluralistic nation made up of many different ethnic groups whose members desire to retain their cultural identities. Understanding these different cultural identities is beneficial in working effectively with diverse populations. Identity development research has contributed to this knowledge base.

2. Racial And Ethnic Identity

Identity is complex and influenced by a number of factors. Erickson was instrumental in helping people to understand that individual identity is embedded in social, cultural, and historical contexts. Race and ethnic identity adds to this complexity. The development of racial and ethnic identity for people of color often begins to occur during late adolescence. It is generally this period of time when adolescents start to explore the questions of ‘‘Who am I?’’ and ‘‘Who will I become?’’ Searching for racial and ethnic identity can be a lifelong journey. A focus on certain aspects of people’s identities may vary at different times in their lives, depending on the circumstances. For example, high school is a time when most adolescents begin to start to develop their identities separate from their families as they self-reflect on who they are. Individuals are faced with attempting to integrate these different components of identity to form who they are. Many aspects of society influence how people view themselves and, consequently, how they develop their identities.

Cross and Helms have researched Black identity and White identity, respectively. They have demonstrated that racial and ethnic identity develops in stages. Most important, these stages are fluid, with people moving back and forth between stages. It should also be noted that not all people move through these stages. Black adolescents and other adolescents of color tend to begin to develop racial identities earlier than do White adolescents because their self-perceptions can be influenced by how society views them. The aspect of people’s identity that others notice and make them most aware of is one that can potentially loom large in their lives. Thus, adolescents of color are subjected to questions and stereotypes about their race and/or ethnicity more often than are White adolescents. Even though some adolescents begin to explore their racial and ethnic identities, research has shown that the movement through the stages most often occurs during late adolescence and early adulthood. For Whites, identity development involves the abandonment of entitlement or White privilege. The key challenge for people of color is the development of a positive identity. Research continues on the development of racial and ethnic identity.

3. Understanding Culture As A Continuum

When working with culturally diverse children and families, it is important to understand that culture occurs on a continuum and is influenced by the process of dual socialization, which is the process by which individuals learn how to function in two distinct sociocultural environments. Most ethnic minorities in the United States are able to function in their own cultures but also learn how to navigate the waters of the majority culture. Individuals who navigate these two different cultures successfully are said to be bicultural. This concept is important and is related to assimilation. In the United States, the dominant group controls most of the social, economic, and political institutions. Thus, the dominant group determines these institutions’ norms, values, and beliefs, which are often referred to as culture capital. Having knowledge of culture capital allows easier movement through mainstream culture. Members of ethnic minority groups often must acquire the necessary cultural traits of the majority group to move up the social and economic ladders. It is often necessary for working-class people and people of color to learn the cultural norms, or to be told explicitly the rules of the culture of the dominant group, for them to acquire power.

However, when working with culturally different people, it is important to remember that individuals will vary along the cultural continuum. Individuals may choose to remain isolated from the mainstream, on one end of the continuum, or choose to relate to both cultures, never quite integrating them into one. Many ethnic minorities find themselves straddling two cultures. The challenge for these individuals is to develop strong self-concepts and positive self-esteem without compromising who they are. Understanding issues of identity and cultural continuum provides a better understanding of culturally different people. Thus, with the acknowledgment that diversity exists, a body of knowledge that encourages people to learn to respect, value, and understand diverse groups has evolved. This has occurred primarily through educational channels such as ensuring that disciplines require a diversity course for graduation and the development of multicultural competencies.

4. Cross-Cultural Competence

As with so many disciplines, the demographics of education and psychology do not match those of the U.S. population. In psychology and education literature, there is increasing emphasis placed on training individuals to become cross-culturally competent. Cross-cultural competence means that individuals possess attitudes, abilities, and understandings that allow them to function not only in American culture but also within and across various ethnic, cultural, and linguistic groups. Three common elements of cross-cultural competence are personal awareness, knowledge, and skills. Although different disciplines may advocate diverse ways of attaining cross-cultural competence, these three elements appear to be universal aspects of that process. In education and psychology, having cross-culturally competent individuals is seen as critical to being able to deliver services that are sensitive and effective in meeting the needs of culturally different individuals. Developing cross-cultural competence is a process. It is generally recognized that becoming cross-culturally competent will not occur by simply studying groups of people. It is necessary to have personal experiences with culturally different groups as well.

Self-awareness consists of individuals engaging in self-exploration that requires them to examine their own culture and socialization process that influences how they view and interact with majority and minority people. Understanding their own culture and its influence on their socialization is the first step in awareness. To understand another culture, individuals must first explore their own culture and its impact on their development. This often requires them to become aware of their biases and prejudices. Knowledge is the second component of cross-cultural competence. This is usually accomplished by studying the concept of diversity as well as racial and ethnic groups. This can be accomplished in a number of different ways, including reading books, talking with individuals from the cultural groups, and interacting with culturally different people. Skills are the final component. Skills involve the ability to work effectively with culturally diverse populations, understanding the influence that issues of diversity may have on people as well as one’s ability to interact effectively with them.

Cross-cultural competence also means that individuals are aware of their own cultural limitations. Learning about other cultures requires them to take risks and have a willingness to be open, appreciative, and respectful of cultural differences. Intercultural interactions should be viewed as learning opportunities, recognizing that there is integrity and value in every culture one encounters.

5. Cross-Cultural Communication

One of the most difficult tasks that people face is communicating across differences. There is always the fear that what people intend to say will not be interpreted the way in which they meant it to be interpreted. It is generally recognized that there are high-context cultures and low-context cultures, and there are differences in how individuals from these cultures engage in communication. High-context cultures tend to communicate with fewer words and less emphasis placed on verbal interactions. As a result, individuals from these cultures are better at reading nonverbal cues. Situational and nonverbal cues convey primary meaning. For example, it is not unusual to hear an African American say, ‘‘All my mother needed to give us was that ‘‘look.’’ She didn’t have to say anything. We knew we were in trouble.’’ Individuals from high-context cultures also place a great deal of emphasis on establishing trust first. Thus, before revealing personal information, individuals from these cultures will want to first establish a relationship. Examples of high-context cultures include Asians, Native Americans, Arabs, Latinos, and African Americans. Low-context cultures, in contrast, tend to exhibit precise and direct verbal communication. They often do not notice, or are not attuned to, nonverbal communication. Meaning in low-context cultures is conveyed primarily through written and spoken words. Communication is often linear. Individuals from these cultures become particularly frustrated with high-context cultures that communicate in a circular fashion. Content of communication in low-context cultures can be best described as ‘‘cutting to the chase.’’ Examples of low-context cultures include European Americans, Swiss, and Germans.

Cultures also differ in other aspects of communication, including proximity and touching. Groups differ in the amount of social distance they tolerate in social situations. For example, European Americans tend to keep a distance of 3 feet when talking to people with whom they are unfamiliar. Latinos and African Americans tend to feel comfortable with less social distance between themselves and others. Touching also varies greatly between groups. For example, handshaking takes on different meanings across cultures. Americans use handshaking as an introduction, whereas other cultures may be reluctant to engage in handshaking.

It is important to recognize that communication can be culturally loaded. Understanding communication differences across cultures and learning to adjust one’s communication style to minimize misinterpretation is the key. Effective cross-cultural communication consists of individuals being willing to learn and understand cultural differences.

6. Diversity In Education

Schools are reflective of the larger society in its diversity. The changing face of society and schools was predicted as early as the 1980s. Much of the past 20 years has focused on how to best serve an increasingly diverse population in the schools. An increasing achievement gap between White students and students of color continues to be problematic. Overrepresentation of certain ethnic minority groups in special education categories continues despite efforts to remedy the situation with a requirement for nondiscriminatory assessment as part of a multi-factored evaluation for special education placement. Overrepresentation of African American males for suspensions and expulsions has been well documented. Students of color are overwhelmingly tracked in lower level classes, are underrepresented in gifted and talented classes, have lower expectations placed on them by educational personnel, and have access to fewer resources than do their more affluent peers. Finally, the limited English-proficient (LEP) population is increasing. All of these issues, as well as others, make it imperative that clinicians have a solid understanding of issues of diversity and their influence and impact in educational settings.

Having cross-culturally competent personnel in education is a must. Understanding the lives of children and their families enables the provision of services that will make positive changes in their academic and personal lives. It is well known that involved parents are important to children’s education. Unfortunately, parents from lower socioeconomic status and minorities have a lower level of contact with the educational systems. The challenge for professionals is to find opportunities to bridge the cultural gap between themselves and parents. Lack of contact does not equate with lack of interest. Epstein has engaged in considerable research that has been informative regarding best practice in how to work with parents. Like other areas of diversity, issues around the distribution of power, resources, and knowledge may prohibit meaningful engagement of parents in the schools. Understanding the influence of the parents’ experiences with schooling may also help to explain their reluctance to become involved. This is especially important with immigrant children whose parents’ ideas of involvement may mirror what they experienced in their native lands and may be inconsistent with beliefs in the United States. In addition, a large percentage of parents in the inner city are young parents who never finished school, or were unsuccessful in school, and who view schools as negative places. These parents often did not have good role models for participation and may be struggling to understand the need for parent involvement in their children’s schooling.

Finding effective ways in which to connect with parents and help them to become full partners in their children’s education and mental health development can be far-reaching. To do that, psychologists need to understand the social and cultural differences that may exist between the home and the school. This understanding alone could prevent miscommunication between parents and the school. One goal should be to establish two-way communication between the school and families. It could be quite enlightening to know parents’ perceptions of the school and how they believe they are (or are not) welcomed. Clinicians are often trained to ‘‘cut to the chase’’ and attack the ‘‘problem’’ when, in fact, what may be most important is to build rapport and the relationship with parents. Instead of telling parents what they should be doing, clinicians could instead ask them, ‘‘How can we assist you?’’ Parents who feel truly invited into the school, have a sense of self-efficacy, and perceive that they play a critical role in their children’s educations are more likely to be involved in their children’s schooling. It is important to acknowledge parents as important contributors to the lives of their children.

As clinicians seek to close the achievement gap between Whites and ethnic minorities and to improve the overall educational experience, they must also understand and acknowledge conditions that may be barriers to learning. Poverty is one such variable that has far-reaching implications. Children in poverty (of which ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented) experience more problems with physical health, lower cognitive ability, poor school achievement, and the like. Despite the odds against these children being successful, there is evidence that many of these children actually do succeed. Research on resiliency identifies many factors, which are termed ‘‘protective,’’ that enable children to beat the odds. It is important for clinicians to be familiar with this literature so that they are skilled at identifying and promoting those protective factors that are present in children’s lives. Research has identified the following as protective factors: social skills (e.g., empathy, communication), problem-solving skills, a sense of control, a sense of purpose, caring relationships with adults, high expectations for doing well, and opportunities for meaningful participation in clubs, teams, and/or organizations. For many culturally diverse children and families who are also in poverty, having available resources that include human resources can make an incredible difference in their lives.

7. Implications For Practice

Most disciplines acknowledge the importance of having their personnel become cross-culturally competent. Although nearly everyone in the United States shares the American culture at some level, there are many who also have subcultures that are very much a part of their lives. Recognizing the similarities as well as the differences helps to bring clinicians one step closer to providing effective services to a culturally different population. Although it may seem like a daunting task, especially if clinicians are in an area with many different cultural groups, there are some ways in which clinicians can increase their skills in being effective psychologists with culturally different groups. First, they should be open to new ideas and experiences. Too often, clinicians look at the world through their own lenses. They should take time to learn about other groups and attempt to understand the world from their perspective. This does not mean that clinicians need to agree with them so long as they at least understand these other groups’ perspectives. Second, clinicians should find a cultural mediator who can guide their understanding about the beliefs and practices of a particular culture with which they may be unfamiliar. This is often done through open discussions and interpersonal sharing. Clinicians should always remember that even though they do not represent everyone from that culture, members of that culture can provide them with some insight. Third, clinicians should see diversity as something to be celebrated rather than as something that is a deficit. Fourth, clinicians should view their learning experience as a journey. There is so much to know. They will not ‘‘get it’’ in one course. Instead, they will continually explore, learn, and explore some more. Fifth, clinicians should explore their own cultural or ethnic identities and examine their socialization with respect to majority and minority people. Until they can understand the impact of their culture and socialization on their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, clinicians cannot fully appreciate the cultures of others. Finally, clinicians should always remember to strive to engage in culturally responsive practices that will ultimately benefit clients in a positive way.

The United States is a pluralistic country that is rich in diversity. This is not a phenomenon but rather a reality. Understanding the cultural differences in this country, and how they may influence behavior and aspects of society, is critical. Clinicians should embrace diversity and view it as an opportunity rather than as a challenge.


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