Academic journal article Education & Treatment of Children

Cultural Sensitivity in the Application of Behavior Principles to Education

Academic journal article Education & Treatment of Children

Cultural Sensitivity in the Application of Behavior Principles to Education

Article excerpt

Sensitivity to cultural differences is generally agreed to be a highly desirable characteristic of sound practice in all human services. The terms "cultural competence," "cultural sensitivity," "cultural responsiveness," and "cultural appropriateness" are frequently seen in contemporary literatures (see Gollnick & Chinn, 2002; Lee, 2003; Shealey & Callins, 2007; Sleeter, 1999). Definitions of these terms are often not what behaviorists would consider operational. For example, Shealey and Callins (2007) state that "culturally responsive teaching refers to the extent to which educators use students' cultural contributions in transforming their lives and the lives of their families and communities by making education relevant and meaningful" (p. 195). They go on to say that demonstration of cultural sensitivity requires teachers to "learn about the cultures represented in their classrooms and translate this knowledge into instructional practice" (p. 196) and state that culturally mediated instruction is "characterized by the use of culturally mediated cognition, culturally appropriate social situations for learning, and culturally valued knowledge in curriculum content" (p. 196). As good as these ideas are, educators guided by them may be unable to identify a practice that is multicultural or culturally responsive or a practice that it is not. Teachers may also be unable to discriminate cultural sensitivity from cultural insensitivity.

Our purpose, therefore, was to seek evidence of responsiveness to behavioral interventions related to cultural identity. Thus, we reviewed behavioral literature related to three cultural markers--ethnicity, gender, and religion--to see whether we could find data supporting differences in behavioral interventions depending on cultural distinctiveness.

Some writers have suggested that behavioral interventions in education are inappropriate in or insensitive to some cultures. These writers find that the very characteristics that make behavioral interventions a practical tool for working in the scientific tradition may make them unacceptable for use with those who do not share the viewpoint of behavioral scientists. That is, they promote "culturally sensitive" practices that have little or no empirical support or urge teachers not to be "culturally insensitive" by using practices that do have considerable empirical support. For example, in his website on behavior management, McIntyre (2007) stated:

  Behaviorist interventions are often inappropriate for, and sometimes
  even discriminatory against large numbers of culturally different
  youngsters with learning and behavioral disorders. Readers are asked
  to ponder whether behaviorism's practices, despite the empirical
  research demonstrating their effectiveness, should be implemented with
  youngsters who do not adhere to a Western European life view and

The same essay concluded:

  Behaviorists' research may be able to "prove" that behavioral change
  occurs, but at what cost? Is a method, despite its empirical
  validation, appropriate for everyone? Is it morally right to change
  culturally different behavior in culturally insensitive ways? One need
  only ask former students made to attend Bureau of Indian Affairs
  schools in decades past, or those youngsters who are willing to comply
  and love to learn, but refuse to do so in ways that they perceive to
  be "acting white" (identifying with a group they believe to be
  oppressors). While behaviorist practices may be "effective", we must
  question if the means, or even the ends, are appropriate in all cases.

If data showing that effectiveness (regardless of how it is defined) is achieved with given methods, yet those methods are proscribed as culturally inappropriate, then we have no way to judge the effectiveness of interventions. Data showing better outcomes, even if desired by an individual, could be judged convincing only if the methods used to obtain them are judged culturally appropriate. …

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