Cultural Awareness During The Holidays

Examining levels on the Cultural Proficiency ContinuumCultural Proficiency

By Kerri Whipple, SEEC Director of ELL Programs

With holiday celebrations upon us, now is a good time for all schools to reflect on their sensitivity to the needs of their student body. One way to discuss this with staff is to use a cultural proficiency continuum.

In March of 2015, a presenter at the Building Bridges refugee conference in Fargo helped participants understand their personal biases and self-assess where they felt their school district was on a cultural proficiency* continuum. The presenter, John Krownapple*, took districts through exercises that demonstrated examples from each level on the cultural proficiency continuum. Prior to going over the continuum, participants expressed discomfort in knowing that a particular response didn’t feel right, or wasn’t a politically correct response. However, once they had a better understanding of the continuum, participants were able to have more rich discussions about why a particular action or response may not be the most appropriate way for a school to respond.

You may have recently seen the Starbucks Red Cup Controversy in the news about its new holiday cup design. The variety of responses to the design (a plain, ombre-red cup without any snowflakes, reindeer, Christmas trees or ornaments as seen in the past) provides examples of multiple levels of cultural proficiency.

Read through the levels of cultural proficiency below and think about the where these reactions from the public would fall on the continuum:

  1. Evangelical pastor states in a Facebook video that Starbucks hates Jesus. (Cultural Destructiveness)
  2. Ellen opening her show Tuesday by mocking the controversy over Starbucks’ plain red Holiday coffee cups. (Cultural Competence)
  3. Starbucks Vice President’s response. (Cultural Proficiency)

Think you’ve got it? Head to the bottom of this article and take the school holiday challenge and match each level of cultural proficiency with one of the potential approaches/responses to a school holiday music program.

Levels on the Cultural Proficiency Continuum:

  1. Cultural Destructiveness: See the difference, stomp it out. Negating, disparaging, or purging cultures that are different from your own.
  2. Cultural incapacity: See the difference, make it wrong. Elevating the superiority of your own cultural values and beliefs and suppressing those of cultures that are different from your own.
  3. Cultural Blindness: See the difference, act as if you don’t. Acting as if the cultural differences you see do not matter, or not recognizing that there are differences among and between cultures.
  4. Cultural Pre-Competence: See the difference, respond inadequately. Recognizing that lack of knowledge, experience, and understanding of other cultures limits your ability to effectively interact with them.
  5. Cultural Competence: See the difference, understand the difference that difference makes. Interacting with other cultural groups in ways that recognize and value their differences.
  6. Cultural Proficiency: See the difference and respond. Honoring the differences among cultures, viewing diversity as a benefit, and interacting knowledgeably and respectfully among a variety of cultural groups.


Ready for the challenge?

Read the provided situation along with the potential responses that may come up. Then, do your best to match each response to the correct level of cultural proficiency. Answers are provided at the very bottom of the page.


The holiday program at the school typically is called the Christmas Program and includes Christian Christmas songs. A parent, from a non-Christian background, asks if participation in the program is part of their child’s grade as they are concerned their grade will be negatively impacted if their child does not attend.

Potential Responses to Holiday Program:

  1. The music teacher comments that since most of the students are Christians, it is reasonable that they sing Christian songs at the Christmas program.
  2. The school renames the Christmas program and begins referring to it as a Holiday Program. All or most of the cultural and religious groups represented by the student body have musical representation in the Holiday program. Parents are asked about foods/recipes that are used in their cultural/religious celebrations. The school lunch staff is able to make many of the items as treats to be served after the program along with the more typical cookies and cider that are often served.
  3. The principal decides that the student will not lose any participation points if a student decides not to participate in the Christmas program.
  4. A parent overhears the concerns in the hallway and comments that non-Christians are probably terrorists and shouldn’t be allowed to live in the United States, much less attend school here for free.
  5. Someone from the school responds to the parent by telling them that this country was based on Christian beliefs and they shouldn’t send their child to school here if they don’t share in those beliefs.
  6. The music teacher decides to ask the students about the songs that they sing at holiday time. She includes some songs from the students’ religious and cultural backgrounds in the Christmas program.

Cultural Proficiency Continuum Levels:

A. Cultural Destructiveness
B. Cultural Incapacity
C. Cultural Blindness
D. Cultural Pre-Competence
E. Cultural Competence
F. Cultural Proficiency


The holiday season can be tricky for schools. Although the majority of our students may celebrate the winter break in the traditions that most of us are familiar with, we may also have students who practice other traditions at home. As we begin the holiday season in our schools, how would you assess your district on this continuum? This year, let’s be more conscious of the cultural awareness happening within our schools and communities. Happy Holidays!

Answers: 1(c) 2(f) 3(d) 4(a) 5(b) 6(e)


*The Cultural Proficiency Continuum can be found in the following volume: Cultural Proficiency: A Manual for School Leaders, by Randall B. Lindsey, Kikanza Nuri Robins, Raymond D. Terrell, published by Corwin Press.

 **John Krownapple specializes in raising the cross-cultural effectiveness of clients. Since 2007, he has led the development and implementation of one the first and most comprehensive cultural proficiency programs in the United States. John continues to administer this program for the Howard County Public School System (MD) in his role of Coordinator for Cultural Proficiency. He has used the cultural proficiency framework with school system staff groups, system partners, community leaders, government officials, students, and families. Results include improved morale in schools; improved access to academic opportunities for all students; improved student engagement with learning; and greater cultural competency on the part of teachers, administrators, and staffs. As an educator for two decades, John has served as a district office administrator, professional development facilitator, curriculum specialist, and elementary teacher. He is an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University and McDaniel College and a consultant for several not-for-profit organizations.



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