Examine Cultural Competence

In addition to the inward work of building self-awareness, educators also need to look outward towards the world. Cultural competence is an asset-based approach that allows educators to work collaboratively, teach students effectively, and make responsible and ethical decisions. It encompasses:

  • Building awareness of one’s own cultural identity, including recognizing experiences of both inclusion and exclusion.
  • Building knowledge of the cultures of others and recognizing how one’s actions may reflect cultural norms and lived experiences that differ from one’s own.
  • A commitment to creating more equitable educational environments and opportunities.

(Irish & Scrubb, 2012)

Educators can deepen awareness of aspects of who they are by reflecting on questions like:

  • Who am I? We all have unique characteristics that have meaning for us personally and for the societies in which we exist. This includes factors like interests, age, religion, race, marital status, thinking style, and many more.
  • What factors contributed to who I have become? We are shaped by our life experiences, family and community cultures, social norms and expectations, and acquired beliefs about ourselves and others over time. We all have experiences of inclusion and exclusion based on our identities.
  • What insights and blind spots might I have based on my position within society? Our experiences create a lens through which we see the world. The more we develop self-awareness, the more we can be empathic and curious about the experiences of others whose backgrounds differ from our own.

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Guiding Questions for Educators: Promote Equity Using SEL in Your School

Use these reflective questions to explore the CASEL core competencies through the lens of equity and excellence.


Educators can build their knowledge of other cultures by:

  •  Investing time and resources into learning from families, students, and the community.
  • Leading with curiosity to avoid making assumptions based on stereotypes or centering their own experiences as “the norm.”
  • Reading memoirs, articles, and histories that help us avoid what Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes as “single stories.” By immersing ourselves in a variety of experiences and cultures, we connect to the richness and diversity of the human experience.

Cultural competence includes the knowledge we acquire, but also our commitment to using that knowledge to help co-create educational environments where all students can thrive. In school and classrooms, this might mean that educators:

  • Provide curriculum and resources that honor and explore diverse voices and histories. When choosing materials, consider diversity between and within cultural or socioeconomic groups (Steele & Cohn-Vargas, 2013; Muñiz, 2019).
  • Adapt content and instruction to reflect the cultures of the community and meet the needs of students. Include families, students, and teachers at the earliest stages of SEL program selection to ensure cultural fit and get their perspectives on what adaptations would be beneficial (Gagnier et al., 2022). Portland Public Schools’ approach to selecting an SEL program provides a strong case example.
  • Affirm students’ identities by showing they genuinely care for and respect each student and supporting opportunities for students to showcase aspects of their identities and cultures in spaces that prioritize belonging for every student.


Addressing Bias

Each person is shaped by their experiences, interactions, and observations. Because of these unique experiences, we each bring a set of our own biases to situations we encounter. Even the most well-intentioned individuals can act upon implicit biases (Staats, 2015). If left unchecked or unrecognized, these feelings and expressions can be hurtful or even damaging to the well-being and safety of others.

For example, research has shown that educators who lack awareness of their own implicit biases are more likely to use punitive measures with Black students than white students, despite similar student behavior (Okonofua & Eberhardt, 2015; Skiba et al., 2014). School staff can address this by examining beliefs about students, including expectations for success around race, gender, and socio-economic factors (Johnston et al., 2019; Copur-Gencturk et al., 2020).

The personal transformation required to look closely at our own biases takes ongoing effort and courage and can be painful at times. However, a willingness to engage with this process can lead to greater self-awareness and efficacy and help us to clarify and act in alignment with our values. The following activities and resources can increase awareness of personal biases and provide a path to overcoming them.

Activity: Paseo or Circles of Identity (Center for Leadership & Educational Equity, 2001)

  1. Open the link above for complete instructions and a graphic organizer.
  2. Have each participant draw a diagram and write their name in the center circle. On individual “spokes” coming off the original circle, ask them to add a word or phrase that captures some element of their identity.
  3. Ask participants to find a partner and discuss the following: With which of the descriptors do you identify most often? Why?
  4. Ask participants to change partners and discuss the following: With which of the descriptors do other people identify you most often? How do you feel about that?
  5. Ask participants to change partners and discuss the following: Describe a time when one aspect of your identity worked to your advantage or disadvantage in life.

Note: Steps 3 to 5 can also be done with one partner, going deeply into the conversation in a more personal way. Depending on time constraints and your purpose for selecting this activity, participants can introduce themselves to the group by naming an aspect of their identity that impacts their shared work and speaking briefly about how and why.

Activity: Reflecting on Issues of Equity

  1. Divide the large group into smaller breakout groups of no more than five and assign each group to read a different article. Choose articles that help educators and staff understand the assets and perspectives of various members of society, analyze the impact of bias on students, or learn about work already being done to create equitable educational opportunities.
  2. Within each breakout group, assign each group member a portion of the chosen article.
  3. After silent reading and annotating, each group member discusses the key content, general meaning, and their personal interpretation of their section.
  4. As a whole group, summarize and reflect on any new meanings regarding forms of biases, prejudices, or stereotypes.
  5. Reflect on what SEL competencies are being used within this activity.
  6. Select someone to report out to the larger group key ideas, general meaning, and any significant personal interpretations from the group.

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Additional Resources for Examining Cultural Competence


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