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Mel Gravely

The African American Boys Project: Implementing Culturally Responsive, Strength-Based Practices

This is the fourth and final blog in our series on the OHS publication Supporting School Readiness and Success of Young African American Boys Project. In our first three blogs, we talked about the origins of the project, defined the culturally responsive lens, and talked about why it focuses on African American boys in the first place. Here, we delve into the largest section of the document, the nuts and bolts, you might say — implementing the culturally responsive, strength-based practices.

This section of the project document is large and can seem quite overwhelming, so we won’t go into this section in detail for the purposes of this blog. You can read that for yourself. What we do want to do, however, is highlight the self-assessing exercises they provide throughout the document, which they call “Reflective Activities.” These exercises provide great examples of how agencies can begin to design a training curriculum that incorporates the strength-based, culturally-responsive model when it comes to serving young African American boys.

Reflective Activity: Where do I fit as an early childhood professional?

This activity encourages staff to think about how the orientation of their own life experiences influence their thinking and behavior, whether female or male orientation, or eurocentric or culturally-responsive orientation. They are also encouraged to do that for their colleagues as well.

Reflective Activity: Considering African American boys “Funds of Knowledge

The authors describe Funds of Knowledge as “broad dimensions” that “cover all aspects of family life.” Everything from home language and family occupations to favorite TV shows, foods, and playthings.

“Staff can build on the Funds of Knowledge to provide culturally responsive and meaningful learning opportunities that tap the children’s prior knowledge,” the project document states. “A Funds of Knowledge approach works with ALL families.”

The reflective activity for Funds of Knowledge encourages Head Start staff to ask themselves:

  • What did you wish your teachers knew about you when you were young?
  • How would you go about identifying some Funds of Knowledge of African American boys?
  • How might you incorporate his Funds of Knowledge into the goal of school readiness, or more broadly into your program?

Reflective Activity: Think about your relationship with the African American boys in the classroom.

The project document states that “the central and most critical component of quality in early care and education is the quality of the teacher-child relationship.” In this exercise, the authors encourage you to think about what “strategies can ensure that African American boys are given the opportunity to develop quality relationships with their teachers” by answering the following questions:

  • How do you understand the way your relationship with the boys shapes their learning?
  • How do you see yourself when considering your relationship with the boys?
  • How do your notions of gender, race, and social class shape your ideas of relationships?

Reflective Activity: Think about how your expectations might affect your relationships with African American boys

“In order to implement a strength-based approach, caring support and high expectations are essential.”

In this section, the authors encourage readers to think about how setting low expectations for certain students might affect the behavior of the teachers towards those students. They pose several questions to the reader that will allow them to think deeply and frame a conversation about setting expectations to their African American boy students, such as:

  • Identify an African American boy in your life — at home or in your early childhood setting — who tends to conjure up low expectations from you. How is your behavior affected? What is the basis of your expectations? Gender? Race?
  • Identify another African American boy in your life— at home or in your early childhood setting — who tends to elicit high expectations from you. Ask yourself the same questions as above.

Reflective Activity: Think about how much the social and emotional development in African American boys is a priority in your program.

“When program staff engage in meaningful, caring, and responsive interactions, the boys are more open to learning opportunities, build self-regulation skills, and gain confidence.”

Some of the example questions that programs can ask themselves to uncover if their program climate is responsive and positive for all children, families, and staff, including African Americans include:

  • Assess whether there are sufficient opportunities for child-directed or peer play, knowing that this is an important learning context for African American boys.
  • Think about a conflict or difficult situation with an African American boy. What strategies did you use that showed respect and understanding of his gender and race? Are there other strategies that you might like to try next time?

Reflective Activity: How can your learning environment support the type of active learning preferred for boys’ brain development?

This section encourages programs to evaluate whether they are “providing opportunities for more active engagement and learning through play —that matches boys’ learning styles.” By doing that, they argue, it is “likely to reduce teachers’ perceptions of their misbehavior.”

Some questions the project authors suggest that you could include in your training would be:

  • What messages do you frequently send when you interact with active boys — such as “calm down” “hands to yourself” “use your walking feet?” What is the tone of voice you often use with him?
  • What aspects of the room arrangement and the curriculum support the active learning and play of young African American boys? Are there any aspects you think could be improved?

Reflective Activity: Are you teaching in developmentally appropriate ways?

“To teach in developmentally appropriate ways,” the project authors write, “teachers need to be reflective and intentional.” Teachers can begin by asking themselves:

  • What do the children already know, are able to do, and are interested in knowing and doing?
  • How does new learning tie to their prior knowledge?
  • What meaning and importance does it have in their lives while still meeting the intended learning goals?
  • How am I providing time for them to explore, process, and apply their learning?
  • How do I recognize individual differences in my curriculum and instruction?

Reflective Activity: Are your home-program partnerships in line with a culturally responsive, strength-based approach?

This section is all about one of the core tenets of Head Start: family engagement. This is a very important section and we encourage you to read this one in particular, especially when it comes to uncovering your own perceptions on how parents engage with their children.

  • Examine the beliefs and practices about these partnerships that are currently being implemented.
  • Change the perception of parents as unconcerned about their children’s learning and development, if necessary.
  • Create opportunities for staff and families to create positive relationships.
  • Integrate children’s background knowledge acquired from their home and community into the classroom.

Reflective Activity: Do all your systems and services support optimal development of the children?

This is another large section, with multiple reflective activities that encourage you to take a comprehensive look at all the systems and services your program offers and come up with a plan of action. In any training, this would be the final section that would allow participants to walk out the door with actionable modifications to their teaching behavior and/or environment, as well as a timeline for completion. Without a to-do list, any training on how to best support the success and school readiness of African American boys would be just another meeting of many meetings.

In summary, the program authors encourage Head Start staff and early childhood educators everywhere to become “agents of change” and rethink their relationships with African American boys and the families by focusing on their strengths, and not on any perceived deficits.

“The school readiness and success of young African American boys — the blooming flower in the CRSB Framework — are the ultimate outcomes,” the project summarizes. “When early learning programs are grounded in a respect for culture, build positive and goal-oriented relationships with children and families, implement strong services and systems, these outcomes can be achieved.”

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