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The Role of Culture in Helping Children Recover from a Disaster

By: the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

As a teacher, you no doubt recognize the importance of understanding and appreciating cultural differences and similarities within racial and ethnic groups. Recognizing these differences and similarities can be especially important when helping children to recover from a disaster. To be effective in the classroom, it is helpful to learn the skills that enable you to interact with persons of other cultures in ways that demonstrate knowledge, respect, and sensitivity.

Generally, by culture we mean the values, traditions, norms, customs, arts, history, folklore, and other institutions shared by a group of people. Culture shapes how people see their world and structure their community and family life. A person's cultural affiliation often determines the person's values and attitudes about disasters and ways to cope and heal.

Culture is important to all of us. As Americans, we all share elements of a "national" culture, such as baseball, hot dogs, high school marching bands, and Fourth of July celebrations.

Many Americans also carry the gifts and strengths of other cultural traditions. We are African Americans, Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders, Hispanics/Latinos, American Indians/Alaska Natives, European Americans, Creoles, Cajuns, and mixtures of many races and ethnicities. We play soccer, eat tacos, listen to reggae, dance at powwows, and march in parades on the Chinese New Year.

Cultural differences are traditionally seen in these general areas:

  • The importance of the individual versus the family or the community.
  • Generally accepted roles for women, men, and children.
  • The structure of the family, whether it is a nuclear or extended family.
  • The role of folk wisdom, life experience, mother wit, and common sense compared to formal education and scientific knowledge.
  • Ways that wealth and status are measured, whether it be in material goods like money and property, or in personal relationships like children, extended family support systems, and friendships.
  • Views on youth or age. For example, a culture may revere its youth as the promise of the future or its elders as the repositories of wisdom.
  • Whether people are bound by tradition or open to experimentation.
  • Role of religion and/or spirituality in everyday life.
  • Body language, personal interaction, and boundaries regarding personal space.
  • Traditional foods and food customs.
  • Style of dress.
  • Musical preferences, such as rap, heavy metal, jazz, and salsa.
  • Holidays and festivals celebrated.
  • Favorite sports and sports figures.
  • Media choices, including newspapers, television, radio, and magazines.
  • Leisure time activities.
  • Dating rituals.

Keep in mind that these are broad cultural differences and that there are also many differences within groups and between individuals. Individual members of any particular culture vary considerably from general norms within that culture. Also, a group's culture is continually evolving, based on interaction with the mainstream society and other groups.

Although race and ethnicity are the most obvious components of culture, there are many factors that shape a person's values, ideas, attitudes, and experiences. These include age, gender, sexual orientation, level of education, occupation, income, geographic location, preferred language, health status, urban vs. rural location, native versus foreign-born status, and customs, beliefs, and practices. As a culturally competent teacher, it is important to take all of these factors into account.

As you interact with students from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds, there are some general thoughts to keep in mind:

  • Acknowledge culture as a predominant force in shaping behaviors, values, and institutions.
  • Acknowledge and accept that cultural differences exist and have an impact on how you reach students.
  • Recognize that diversity within cultures is as important as diversity between cultures.
  • Respect the unique, culturally defined needs of various students.
  • Understand that people from different racial and ethnic groups and other cultural subgroups are generally best served by persons who are part of or in tune with their culture.
  • Recognize that incorporating the strengths of many cultures enhances the capacity of the whole group.

The following tips may be especially helpful as you guide your students through the recovery process following a disaster:

  • Learn a child's "usual" behavior and cultural/ethnic responses to be able to identify "unusual" or problem behavior.
  • Create a comfortable atmosphere for verbal expression in any language. Consider asking for a translator to help a child with limited English-language skills.
  • Recognize that talking openly is not comfortable, appropriate, or even "polite" in some cultures.
  • Be aware that terms that refer to race and ethnicity often have both overt and hidden meanings. Whenever possible, use the descriptive term that is preferred by the majority of persons in a specific group.
  • Know that making eye contact is not accepted in some cultures. It is considered to be "defiant behavior" for some groups. In other cultures, particularly those with roots in Western Europe, lack of eye contact is seen as an indication that the person is being less than truthful.
  • When using drawing activities to help children express themselves, keep in mind that colors and shapes have various meanings to children from different cultures, and to different children within each culture.
  • Be aware that children from other cultures who have experienced loss, relocation, death, and war are at a particularly "high risk" of having serious problems after a disaster.
  • Understand that some ethnic populations are more likely than others to have flashbacks to other catastrophes. For example, Southeast Asians may associate loud noises with memories of bombings.
  • Consult a school counselor or mental health professional if any of your students show serious signs of distress.