A Culturally Responsive Learning Environment for ALL


This post is a part of the conversation around the ASCD Forum “Learning for All = Teaching for All.” To learn more about the forum, go to www.ascd.org/ascdforum.

By Brenda Mendoza

ASCD Forum: Learning for All = Teaching for AllTo understand our future, we must first understand our past. With previous polices like NCLB, education evolved into a standardized learning system, and our past teaching practices focused on basic recall or surface learning. The reality is that one size does not fit all. We need to offer opportunities that create a culture of tolerance, empathy, and equity in order to create a genuine learning environment. With ASCD’s “learning for all” movement, we are focusing on strategies that promote the whole child through culturally responsive learning. Across the nation, the current reality is that we have schools that do not have guidelines in place to promote the whole child. In my state of Illinois, 21 percent of students live in poverty. That is only 2 percent less than the national average of 23 percent. We need to advocate for a whole child approach so that we can truly provide learning for all and guarantee an equitable education regardless of students’ cultures, ethnicities, or socioeconomic statuses.

There is new evidence to suggest that the social relationships that students experience within their families have greater influence on their behavior than previous research suggested. Students first begin to build relationships with their parents and primary caregivers. Through these relationships, they either form a secure attachment or an insecure attachment (Jensen, 2009). By the time students arrive in preschool, they have already formed secure or insecure attachments with their families. How do educators create an inclusive learning environment for all families and students living in poverty?

According to Jensen, a strong primary caregiver needs to provide a child with unconditional love and support. An effective strategy to build this unconditional support and encourage secure relationships with families in poverty is academic socialization involvement. Academic socialization involvement describes parents as learners who internalize the practice of academic strategies through participation. With this approach, parents learn from educators the academic knowledge needed in order to effectively engage their children in learning (Hartlep & Ellis, 2010).

Educators need to craft various strategies to teach students living in poverty. Students in poverty learn more efficiently when they are taught using academic language standards in conjunction with content standards. Academic language instruction is used to create a culturally inclusive learning environment for all students. One effective strategy for academic language instruction is to use various modalities to instruct; if the educator speaks the student’s native language, she may create a bridging of the languages. Another strategy is building background knowledge through peer teaching, dialogue circles, sentence stems, cultural word walls, language anchor charts, and read alouds. Educators need to become advocates and do their part at the school and state level. These strategies not only engage, challenge, and support ELL students, but they also create an inclusive learning environment for all.

We as educators need to be change agents. We cannot afford to go back to standardized ideology. We need to understand that we are the on the frontline; we are the first to truly influence students’ lives. We need to spend a majority of our resources to develop a plan that promotes “learning for all.” We need to focus on strategies that promote the whole child through culturally responsive learning. Only through a whole child approach can we truly provide learning for all.

Want to join the 2016 ASCD Forum discussion? Here’s how:

  • The ASCD Forum group on the ASCD EDge® social networking site is the main discussion platform. Educators can contribute blog posts about culturally responsive learning environments, pose questions to one another, or offer insight on message boards.
  • On Twitter, educators can use #ASCDForum to share perspectives and resources.
  • An in-person session of the ASCD Forum will take place at the 2016 ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit Show on Monday, April 4, from 8:00 to 9:30 a.m.


Brenda Mendoza is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2015 and ILASCD’s coleader of whole child advocacy. She is a K–12 bilingual ELL specialist in West Aurora School District 129 in Aurora, Ill.