Making Special Education Culturally Responsive

A disproportionate number of students receiving special education services are Black and Latinx. What does it look like to teach special education in a way that is responsive to both students' disabilities and their cultural and linguistic heritages?

Research to Practice: Culturally Sustaining & Responsive Teaching in Special Education

The problem

Over 250,000 Black and Latinx students receive special education services in the United States (OSERS, 2020). In terms of educational outcomes, these students are often doubly marginalized, with less access to general education class, more school discipline problems, and lower graduation rates than either students of their ethnicities without disabilities or White students with disabilities  (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2018; Newman et al., 2011; Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services [OSERS], 2020; Skiba et al., 2014).


I could go a lot more into the problem, but what I am way more interested in is the solution. Like how do we start offering all of our students with disabilities, including Black and Brown students with disabilities, educational experiences that empower them and help them reach their goals?


One approach that I find really promising is culturally sustaining pedagogy for special education. CSP is an asset-focused pedagogy, one that positions the languages, literacies, and cultures of students as educational assets that teachers can draw on and honor through their teaching (Paris & Alim, 2014). There are lots of studies on what this looks like in general education classrooms, but surprisingly few examples of what it looks like done well with students with special needs. So for this post, I am going to draw from my own research to show what it can look like. 

The setting is an inclusive high school social studies and English class, taught by two empowering teachers. They rocked. Here are some of the ways they delivered CSP to their students.

What works: Demonstrate cultural competence

Cultural competence is when teachers learn about and validate students’ cultures– when they are culturally aware, not culture blind. These teachers:

  • Included multiple perspectives and stories in their lessons. In a lesson on Westward Expansion, the teachers highlighted its impact on Indigenous communities through primary source photos of dead buffalo and boarding schools and lyrics  from “Home on the Range.” During that same lesson, the teachers also discussed the exclusion of Black Americans from homesteading opportunities. In a lesson on cowboys, Dr. Sumner shared that over ten percent of cowboys in the West were Black– and then traced the words rodeo and lasso back to their Spanish roots.
  • Connected the content back to students’ lives. For example, when the students were confused about why the Great Migration occurred, Dr. Sumner invited a student to share his immigration story. The student responded by describing the violence and fear his family felt in El Salvador and their desire for safety. Dr. Sumner then connected those reasons for migration to the reasons Black Americans left the South. 
  • Shared power with students. They encouraged student presentations, telling students to listen to each other because, “You can learn from them.” When the students wanted to see more connections to contemporary life, the teachers began bringing in more content that showed parallels in today’s society, including a video about the first women Rangers as part of a unit on suffrage. 

What works: Support students' academic success

In Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy (CSP), this means both holding students to high standards and providing them with high-quality instruction. These teachers:

  • Changed up instructional formats a lot. Students got to work in small groups, on their own, with partners, and as a whole class.
  • Included a lot of different types of media. Rather than forcing everyone to listen to lectures, the teachers wove in videos, songs, paintings, text, interactive questioning, and lectures.
  • Provided individual scaffolding. They walked around and supported students individually as needed, so that one student received support with paragraph structures while another was pushed to add descriptive language to his essay.
  • Included IEP goal and ESOL goal supportive structures from sentence structures to graphic organizers to note taking strategies– and folded them both into classroom instruction so everyone got to benefit from them.
  • Challenged the students to excel. They constantly gave the students growth oriented feedback and talked to them about their high expectations. When a student told one teacher that a C- was okay, he told her her grades needed to be higher and that, “It’s hard to have a college career as a C student.” 
  • Provided students with LOTS of support. They listened to students, staying after class to hear stories about family troubles and help with homework. They individualized academic and behavior approaches as needed to. One student was shy, always choosing to sit alone and hunching up when he was approached. When he was off task, rather than speaking about it directly like they did with his peers, the teachers would use proximity or ask him a friendly question about his work. When it was time to work in groups, one teacher would go to him, walk with him to his group, and sit in the group with him for a while.
  • Made it fun. They praised students, high-fived them, and got silly at times. One of the teachers would sometimes just burst into dance and call out,  “You got to have fun sometime!”

What works: Build students' sociopolitical consciousness

This is the most political part of CSP– it’s teaching students about power, inequality, and how to be change makers. While often this is taken to mean in the world, for these teachers it also meant in students’ own lives. These teachers:

  • Talked about power and resistance. In a classroom discussion on suffrage and gender imbalances in public monuments, one of the teachers said, “We have talked in this class about being excluded, about being marginalized, about telling the untold story… Is it possible that women are being excluded from the story?” 
  • Positioned the students as change makers in their communities. Students did activities from helping create community murals to writing to politicians. One student who had discussed dropping out of high school pointed at his computer where he had his email to the politician open and said,, “It is only this good because I have to send it to a policy-maker… It matters.” 
  • Pushed the students to be changemakers in their own lives. Many of the students were not enrolled in college credit bearing classes, or on track for college. The teachers pushed  them, talking to them about it in class and organizing informational lunches on advanced classes. 

Big thoughts

The teachers described trajectories that had changed; “I feel like there are certainly kids who have gone through the program who are in college now who… may not have been [on that] trajectory… and now they are.” I saw its impact on students who students who came alive in class and on students who struggled with classroom behaviors and, with the compassion and expectations, slowly (ever so slowly) began to turn their behaviors around in the classroom.


You might not have a killer coteaching team like these two teachers or might not be teaching history where perspectives are easy to weave in. Even then, I think there is still so much to learn from what these teachers did. They made a community. They respected their students and pushed each and every one to excel. I think the best way to learn as a teacher is to look at the teachers who are crushing it– and these too were! 


  • National Center for Education Statistics. (2018, May). Status Dropout Rates. U.S. Department of Education.
  • Newman, L., Wagner, M., Huang, T., Shaver, D., Knokey, A.-M., Yu, J., Contrera E., Ferguson, K., Greene, S., 
  • Nagale, K., & Cameto, R. (2011). Secondary school programs and performance of students with disabilities: A special topic report of findings from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2) (NCSER 2012-3000). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Special Education Research.
  • Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (2020). 42nd annual report to Congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2020. U.S. Department of Education. 
  • Paris, D., & Alim, H. S. (2014). What are we seeking to sustain through culturally sustaining pedagogy? A loving critique forward. Harvard educational review, 84(1), 85-100.
  • Skiba, R. J., Arredondo, M. I., & Rausch, M.K., (2014). New and developing research on disparities in discipline. The Equity Project at Indiana University.
  • Sebastian, R. (2023). “If You Want to Go Far”: A Case Study of Culturally Sustaining Co-teaching. The Urban Review, 55(1), 27-49.