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There is a missing piece to your back-to-school plans, and it is cultural identity. When you help develop your student’s cultural identity, not only do they have a greater sense of self, but they also learn how to navigate new situations.
The whole point of social-emotional learning (SEL) programs is to give our students advanced social-emotional skills, but a key part of social skills is being able to navigate diversity and difference. It is important for students to familiarize themselves with their own background and their own cultural identity to develop the skills they need to navigate the modern world. By creating a learning environment in which students explore their own cultures and other cultures, they will gain a stronger sense of self, while also being able to confidently tackle new situations.
What is Cultural Identity?
Cultural identity is your sense of belonging to “a particular group based on various cultural categories,” including nationality, age and generation, ethnicity and race, gender and sexuality, and religion, according to the Center for Intercultural Dialogue.
As you grow up and navigate through life, you construct your cultural identity by learning collective knowledge, like traditions, ancestry, heritage, language, social norms, and manners. Your understanding grows and changes as you age and join new communities. Everyone is a part of more than one cultural group, so cultural identity is intricate. No two people have the same cultural identity, even growing up in the same household.
Guiding students toward understanding their cultural identity helps them answer life’s fundamental question, who am I?
What is Social-Emotional Learning?
Three of these competencies are inseparably linked to cultural identity.
So, what exactly is social-emotional learning or SEL? CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, defines it as “SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.” Social-emotional learning is divided into five competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.
How SEL and Cultural Identity Intersect
Cultural identity and self-awareness are one and the same. Without a thorough understanding of their cultural identity, students cannot understand who they are and how their family history and culture impact their lives.
Developing your cultural identity builds self-awareness, but more importantly, it builds an awareness of yourself in relation to others. Humans are not solitary beings. We interact with people every day. When you teach students self-awareness in tandem with cultural identity, they are better set up for those interactions. They know who they are and how their cultural identity will impact each interaction.
Self-awareness without knowing your cultural identity is like having tunnel vision. You can only see what is right in front of you, and you are missing a much bigger picture.
2. Social Awareness
If we’re not helping students navigate cultural situations, we’re not doing our full job. The world is more connected than ever with people moving within and between countries at the highest rate. It is nearly impossible to work and live without interacting with people from many cultures.
The great thing about teaching cultural identity is students get to understand themselves better while also not feeling threatened when they come across differences and diversity. Social awareness that is taught without a multicultural lens will only teach the social expectations of one culture. The reality is that our communities are made up of many cultures that have different ways of socializing and interacting. What’s polite to one person may not be to another person, and this can lead to miscommunication and contempt.
However, when you incorporate culture into your social-emotional learning programs, students build a social awareness that is much more useful in the world. They are able to interact respectfully with others in professional, academic, and social settings.
3. Relationship Skills
Tolerating diversity and difference is not enough to thrive in the 21st century. Students must be able to build relationships with people who are not exactly like them. Culture can make that difficult if you are unaware of how it is at play in your relationships.
We all come from different cultural backgrounds, which inform how we think and how we behave. Our thoughts and behaviors affect our relationships, whether professional or social.
Students without a strong sense of their cultural identity resist relationships that challenge their worldview. This shrinks their world. It is very difficult to cultivate meaningful professional and social relationships without navigating conflict — and cultural differences certainly contribute to conflict.
Instead, incorporate cultural identity into social-emotional learning so that students build relationship skills that extend beyond their culture and expand their worldview.
How to Include Cultural Identity in your SEL Program
You can introduce cultural identity at any age. Because cultural identity evolves over time, you want to continue to discuss it with students.
Cultural Identity in Early Grades
At the elementary level, you want to introduce students to the components that make up their cultural identity. You want your students to be able to answer the questions 1) What is my cultural identity? and 2) How do I express my cultural identity?
According to the National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies, students in early grades should have opportunities to study culture and to develop their cultural identities in the context of their families, peers, schools, and communities.
- You can learn about belief systems and world religions.
- You can talk about how you communicate and what is and isn’t polite in your culture. Then, you can explore the rules of politeness in other cultures.
- You can explore the traditions and social norms in other countries and cultures, then compare and contrast them back to your culture.
- You can teach about topics like homes, clothing, music, art, food, manners, sports and leisure, and many more visible indicators of culture.
Cultural Identity in Secondary School
At the secondary level, you want to continue developing students’ sense of self and focus on teaching students how to build and maintain healthy relationships with people from diverse backgrounds. Remember that cultural identity evolves over time, and one particularly big evolution happens for students in adolescence. So, you can continue discussing cultural identity at an age-appropriate level.
You also want students to develop the ability to put themselves in another person’s shoes and to see issues from many angles. You can do this by discussing current events and how the events are affecting different populations.
You can explore the characters in a book and how their cultural identity impacts the book.
You can explore a diverse range of books that show many cultures and relate the books back to your student’s life experiences.
It’s never the wrong time for students to learn more about themselves and their communities from local all the way to global.
More Resources for Teaching about Cultural Identity
It’s one thing to have ideas for how to implement cultural identity, and it’s another thing to have a plan. Explore my free Mainstream to Multicultural Checklist to build a plan and write down ideas for how you will incorporate cultural identity into your classroom this year.
If you want to save even more time, explore my Cultural Identity Unit which includes explorations of families, names, clothing, and homes in connection with your students’ cultures. This set of lessons, activities, and projects is perfect for building community and identity in your classroom.
CASEL (2022). Fundamentals of SEL. CASEL. https://casel.org/fundamentals-of-sel/.
Hsueh-Hua Chen, V. (2014) Key Concepts in Intercultural Dialogue: Cultural Identity. Center for Intercultural Dialogue. https://centerforinterculturaldialogue.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/key-concept-cultural-identity.pdf.
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