What does it mean to be culturally competent?

The following definitions of cultural competency are from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).:

  • "Cultural competence is defined as a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, agency, or among professionals and enables that system, agency, or those professionals to work effectively in cross–cultural situations." Cross T., Bazron, B., Dennis, K., & Isaacs, M. (1989); Isaacs, M. and Benjamin, M. (1991).
  • "Operationally defined, cultural competence is the integration and transformation of knowledge about individuals and groups of people into specific standards, policies, practices, and attitudes used in appropriate cultural settings to increase the quality of services; thereby producing better outcomes." Davis, K., 1997

  • "Cultural competence is the ability to successfully teach students who come from cultures other than our own. It entails developing certain personal and interpersonal awareness and sensitivities, developing certain bodies of cultural knowledge, and mastering a set of skills that, taken together, underlie effective cross-cultural teaching." (Diller, J.V. and Moule, J, 2005)

How do I assess my own cultural competence?

"A culturally competent system of care acknowledges and incorporates--at all levels--the importance of culture, the assessment of cross-cultural relations, vigilance towards the dynamics that result from cultural differences, the expansion of cultural knowledge and the adaptation of services to meet culturally unique needs."
(Cross, 1988)


Assessing cultural competence begins with self-evaluation and identification of personal values and beliefs. Establishing cultural proficiency begins as an "inside-out" approach in which the values and beliefs of individuals are reflected in the policies and practices of the organization. As a result, the organization functions to meet the needs and respect the practices of their diverse members. In order to establish this culture, it is important to begin to evaluate where one falls along the continuum.

There are six points along the cultural proficiency continuum that indicate unique ways of seeing and responding to difference:

Cultural destructiveness: See the difference, stomp it out

The elimination of other people's cultures

Cultural incapacity: See the difference, make it wrong

Belief in the superiority of one's culture and behavior that disempowers another's culture

Cultural blindness: See the difference, act like you don't

Acting as if the cultural differences you see do not matter or not recognizing that there are differences among and between cultures

Cultural pre-competence: See the difference, respond inadequately

Awareness of the limitations of one's skills or an organization's practices when interacting with other cultural groups

Cultural competence: See the difference, understand the difference that difference makes

Interacting with other cultural groups using the five essential elements of cultural proficiency as the standard for individual behavior and organizational practices

Cultural proficiency: See the differences and respond effectively in a variety of environments

Esteeming culture; knowing how to learn about individual and organizational culture; interacting effectively in a variety of cultural environments

For a self-assessment of your own cultural competence and other tools, go here.

Why is it important to be culturally competent?

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As our society becomes more diverse, so do our schools. Consequently, our schools (i.e., the school curricula, climate, and student-teacher interactions) must also reflect this diversity to meet each student's individual learning style (Banks, 1995). As school psychologists, we advocate for the individualization of teaching strategies for students. However, Christine Bennett (2001) notes that school personnel will be unable to individualize his or teaching without taking a student's culture into consideration. As a result, it is important to promote multicultural education in schools to benefit ALL students.

The following points were made in the NEA policy brief about the importance of becoming culturally competent:

  • Students are more diverse today than ever before.

  • Culture plays a critical role in learning.

  • Cultural competence may lead to more effective teaching of ALL students.

  • Educators who are culturally competent are better able to reach out and communicate/collaborate with families.

  • Culturally competent teaching helps student achievement.

How can school psychologists increase cultural competency and collaboration in schools?

The following recommendations are from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) to promote cultural competence in school psychology:

  • School psychologists must take students cultural background and knowledge into account during assessment procedures (e.g., is the student and English Language Learner?).

  • During consultation, school psychologists must be aware of the individuals' culture and take this into consideration during his or her individual or group consultation.

  • Crisis response plans (i.e., preparation, procedures, and after the crisis) need to be culturally sensitive.

  • School psychologists must be aware of disproportionality in special education and suspensions and expulsions.

Culturally Competent Family-School Collaborations

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It is also important to keep cultural competency in mind when interacting with student's families, as family-school collaborations can have positive impacts on students' academic achievements, behaviors, and overall school climate. The following are recommendations for increased family-school partnerships:

  • Parent liaisons can help bridge the communication gap between home and school.

  • Academic workshops to improve parent/guardian abilities to support their children academically.

  • Increased opportunities for school and family interactions, both formal and informal interaction opportunities held at various times of day will help to increase the likelihood that parents/guardians will be able to attend the events.

  • School-to-home notes are a simple and effective strategy to facilitate on-going communication between the home and school regardless of students' cultural background.

  • Diversity celebration programs may be held on or off school campus to teacher students' about the cultural backgrounds of all students.

Culturally Competent Schoolsexternal image 6a01347fee3a9c970c0134819b5813970c-pi
  • What does it mean to be a culturally competent school?

    • "A culturally competent school is one that honors, respects, and values diversity in theory and in practice and where teaching and learning are made relevant and meaningful to students of various cultures." National Association of State Boards of Education (2002)
  • Forming a Culturally Competent School

    When forming a culturally competent school, there are three specific areas that must be addressed in order to ensure that a culturally competent school with a positive climate exists. Those three areas that need to be addressed include the organization of the school, school policies and procedures. Richards, H., Brown, A., & Forde, T., (2004)
    • Organization of the School
      • Organization of the school includes the administrative structure of the school and the way in which it relates to diveristy. For example, the assignment of classrooms is an aspect of the organizational structure of the school. Additionally, whether the building and the staff are accessible to parents and students during non-school hours and whether the building’s physical appearance is respectful of different cultural groups are also part of the organization of the school.

    • School Policies and Procedures
      • School policies and procedures means practices that affect how services are being delivered to students from diverse backgrounds.

    • Community Involvement
      • Community involvement incorporates community outreach efforts made by the school. For instance, this may include hiring parent or staff liaisons or asking for parent or staff volunteers who can communicate with specific student groups and parents to foster a better school-home relationship.
  • Programs and Courses That Contribute to a Culturally Competent School

    When developing a culturally competent school, it is important to include programs and courses for students that help foster cultural competence. The following is a list of possible programs and courses that contribute to a culturally competent school. Klotz, M.B., Canter, A., & Silva, A. (2006)
    • Elective courses designed to help students from diverse backgrounds understand their peers, such as Intolerance Programs
    • Peer mediation that allows students from diverse backgrounds an opportunity to converse and talk about potential issues
    • Student clubs to ensure that students retain cultural identity
    • Parent liaisons who can work with families that may not have a traditional involvement with the school
    • Phone tree and newsletters in multiple languages
    • Minority parent committee that organizes evenings for minority parents to come to school in smaller groups and learn about the college admissions process, SAT prep classes, scholarship and grant opportunities
    • Open communication with student
The provided clip discusses ways to become a culturally responsive teacher.

Resources for School Psychologists


  • Banks, J. A. (1995). Multicultural education and curriculum transformation. The Journal of Negro Education, 64(4), 390-400.
  • Bennett, C. (2001). Genres of research in multicultural education. Review of Educational Research, 71(2), 171-217.
  • Cross T., Bazron, B., Dennis, K., & Isaacs, M. (1989). Towards a cultrurally competent system of care, volume I. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Child Development Center,CASSP Technical Assistance Center.
  • Isaacs, M. and Benjamin, M. (1991). Towards a culturally competent system of care, volume II, programs which utilize culturally competent principles. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Child Development Center, CASSP Technical Assistance Center.
  • Davis, K. (1997). Exploring the intersection between cultural competency and managed behavioral health care policy: Implications for state and county mental health agencies.Alexandria, VA: National Technical Assistance Center for State Mental Health Planning.
  • Diller, J.V. and Moule, J. (2005). Cultural competence: A primer for educators.Belmont, CA: Thomas Wadsworth.
  • Klotz, M.B., Canter, A., & Silva, A. (2006). Culturally competent assessment and consulatation. Principle Leadership, 6, 11-15.
  • National Association of State Boards of Education (2002). A more perfect union: Building an education system that embraces all children. Retrieved from _Issues/Reports/More _Perfect_Union.PDF
  • Richards, H., Brown, A., & Forde, T. (2004). Practitioner brief: Addressing diversity in schools: culturally responsive pedagogy.Retrieved from www.nccrest .org/Briefs/Diversity_Brief.pdf
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