Skip Navigation
archived information
REL Pacific

Culturally Responsive Leading and Learning: Addressing Equity Through Student and Family Voice

REL Pacific
Samantha Holquist & Tameka Porter
June 3, 2020

parent and child doing school work

As part of a collaboration between REL Mid-Atlantic and REL Pacific, this is part two of three blogs examining equity and culturally responsive practices in light of COVID-19. The first blog post provided an overview of using culturally responsive practices in online learning.

As racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity within schools and classrooms has expanded, teachers and leaders have begun to recognize the unique backgrounds and experiences of culturally diverse students through culturally responsive leading and learning.1 Culturally responsive practices consist of using cultural knowledge, learning styles, and prior educational and personal experiences to make learning effective, relevant, and equitable for all students.2 With the COVID-19 pandemic upending the conventional school environment, teachers and leaders have an opportunity to explore culturally responsive ways to support students and their families with the transition from the in-person classroom to the online learning experience by providing spaces for families and students to exercise their voice.3 By acknowledging the unique student and family voices within schools and districts, teachers and leaders have an opportunity to help families adapt to the current academic landscape while addressing and closing equity disparities.

Learning About Student Voice and Family Voice

Student voice and family voice can be defined as the ways in which students and/or their families have opportunities to indirectly or directly participate in and influence education decisions that will shape students' learning.4 5 6 In an in-person or virtual classroom setting, student voice and family voice practices can range from teachers soliciting feedback on lessons to co-creating lessons with students and/or families.7 8 When using student and/or family voice strategies, it is important for teachers to foster a safe, open environment where all students and families can:

  • understand the purpose of sharing their voice.
  • authentically share their voice.
  • feel that their voice is being heard and will lead to action.
  • have multiple and different opportunities to share their voice. 9 10
By supporting students and/or families in sharing their voice instead of assuming their needs and then blaming them when challenges arise, teachers can gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of their students' different cultural, economic, and geographic circumstances and, ultimately, better serve their students.11 12

Building and Sustaining Collaborative Relationships with Students and Families

Building and sustaining collaborative relationships with students and families is essential not only for understanding students' and families' experiences, but also for meeting students' learning needs and desires.13 14 How administrators and teachers build these relationships will depend on the specific context and cultures of students and families served by the school. To build and sustain collaborative relationships during COVID-19, administrators and teachers can strive to foster a virtual school culture that is responsive to students' and families' cultures to their current experiences and needs.15 The following strategies can support administrators and teachers in building a culturally responsive virtual school culture.

  • Reach out to local culture-specific community-based organizations to understand how the communities served by the school are affected by COVID-19.16. For example, some communities may have less access to internet or computers in comparison to other communities. Gather information about resources being made available by community-based organizations in response to COVID-19 to share with students and families.
  • Co-plan with students a virtual community gathering where students and families can discuss changes to students' learning.17 Have a family orientation that familiarizes both students and families with new online learning requirements while building joint expectations for virtual learning. Design a communication strategy to regularly update students and families on how their questions, thoughts, opinions, and concerns are being addressed.
  • Meet with students and families via phone, video, or instant messaging to check-in on how they are experiencing COVID-19 and identify students' learning needs.18 19 Ask students and families about how they are doing and discuss how students are adapting to virtual learning. Ask families to share potential strategies that they are using to support their students' learning during COVID-19. Consistently communicate with students (at least once a week) and families (at least once a month) during virtual schooling.
  • Co-design the virtual classroom with students and families.20 After learning more about students' and families' experiences during COVID-19, work with students and families to identify ways for students to explore their experiences by creating culturally relevant lessons. Be considerate of students' access to resources, such as a computer or parent assistance, when designing lessons. Provide opportunities for students to adapt lessons based on their resources, needs, and interests. Identify multiple media, such as social media, instant messaging, or tactile learning, in which students could engage with the content.
  • Create at least one lesson a week in which families can join their students in virtual learning.21 Be conscious of families' availability and strive to offer times that do not conflict with work and childcare schedules. If a common time cannot be found, create a lesson where families can participate at their convenience. Provide space during the lesson for families to share how their lived experiences, cultural practices, or traditions are connected to the lesson's content, which builds a deeper connection between students' learning and experiences.

For more information about these strategies and others to support administrators and teachers in building a culturally responsive virtual school culture through student voice and family voice, check out REL Pacific's recent infographic entitled “Including Voice in Education Addressing Equity Through Student and Family Voice in Classroom Learning.”

Exploring Social Justice and Community Issues

Exacerbated by COVID-19, families and students on the margins of learning are facing obstacles such as food and housing insecurity, limited access to technology, and the stress of becoming comfortable with unfamiliar learning platforms that may make it difficult for meaningful and engaging online learning to occur.22 23 One way to raise awareness about the challenges that students and families are facing is through delving into these issues through culturally responsive social justice projects and activities.

A common misconception is that social justice and culturally responsive learning are synonymous with race-based teaching practices that encourage educators to teach the “black way” or the “Hispanic way.” 24 25 26 Culturally responsive learning that includes social justice and community issues connects history, science, economics, and culture and focuses on how inequality can shape society and education experiences. The following strategies can support teachers and leaders as they explore and respond to social justice and community issues compounded by COVID-19.

  • Create opportunities for students and families to build awareness of their peers' lives.27 Ask students and families to share their experiences with the class. An exercise like an “I Am From” poem enables students and families to learn interesting details about each other, like fond memories and family stories, that push beyond surface observations.
  • Empower students to see themselves in their work.28 Encourage students to develop creative personalized, project-based learning projects that express their ideas and concerns about their communities through paintings, blogs, social media campaigns, and storytelling. These activities create opportunities to recognize different perspectives, understand and acknowledge multiple voices, and imagine how different circumstances can shape our lives.
  • Allow space for self-reflection.29 Set aside time to reflect on what was learned and shared. For leaders and educators, exploring their own cultural identities and understanding the experiences that families and students have shared with them may lead to a shift away from a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning to one that centers on varied and unique cultural perspectives, which could diminish inequities and disparities.

Building relationships with families and students enables teachers and leaders to better understand their circumstances, so that they can provide equitable supports and services to students and their families to support successful remote learning. Recognizing and acknowledging that education access and opportunity may differ depending on personal and cultural circumstances is a crucial component of creating and sustaining culturally responsive and equitable learning practices and policies that ensure that all students have pathways to high-quality education resources and opportunities.

Providing families and students with education choices and ways to communicate their needs is a sustainable culturally responsive teaching and learning practice—during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond—that sets up expectations for success rather than assuming students are incapable of doing the work or learning the material. By building relationships with students and parents as individuals rather than as members of a particular racial or cultural group, teachers and administrators can apply student and family backgrounds and experiences to develop curricula that support academic achievement for all children.

Additional Resources



1 Bazron, B., Osher, D., & Fleischman, S. (2005). Creating culturally responsive schools. Educational Leadership, 63(1), 83–84.

2 Khalifa, M. (2018). Culturally responsive school leadership. Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard Education Press.

3 Gonzalez, T., McCabe, K.M., & Lobo De Castro, C. (2017). An equity toolkit for inclusive schools: Centering youth voice in school change. Bloomington, Indiana: Midwest and Plains Equity Assistance Center. https://greatlakesequity .org/sites/default/files/20171209382_equity_tool.pdf

4 Mitra, D. L. (2006). Youth as a bridge between home and school: Comparing student voice and parent involvement as strategies for change. Education and Urban Society, 38(4), 455–480. 10.1177/0013124506287911

5 McKenna, M. K., & Millen, J. (2013). Look! Listen! Learn! Parent narratives and grounded theory models of parent voice, presence, and engagement in K–12 Education. School Community Journal, 23(1), 9–48.

6 Grant, K. B., & Ray, J. A. (Eds.). (2018). Home, school, and community collaboration: Culturally responsive family engagement. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

7 Goodwin, B., & Holquist, S. (2020). Listen Up! Educational Leadership, 77(7), 82–83.

8 McKenna, M. K., & Millen, J. (2013). Look! Listen! Learn! Parent narratives and grounded theory models of parent voice, presence, and engagement in K–12 Education. School Community Journal, 23(1), 9–48.

9 Goodwin, B., & Holquist, S. (2020). Listen Up! Educational Leadership, 77(7), 82–83.

10 McKenna, M. K., & Millen, J. (2013). Look! Listen! Learn! Parent narratives and grounded theory models of parent voice, presence, and engagement in K-12 Education. School Community Journal, 23(1), 9–48.

11 Jacobson, L. (2020, April 21). Students on remote learning: More creativity, interaction needed. Education Drive.

12 Gay, G. (2018). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York City, New York: Teachers College Press.

13 Aceves, T. C. & Orosco, M. J. (2014). Culturally responsive teaching (Document No. IC-2). Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Collaboration for Effective Educator, Development, Accountability, and Reform. http://ceedar.

14 Garcia, M. E., Frunzi, K., Dean, C. B., Flores, N., & Miller, K. B. (2016). Toolkit of resources for engaging families and the community as partners in education: Part 1: Building an understanding of family and community engagement (REL 2016–148). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Pacific.

15 Mayfield, V. M. & Garrison-Wade, D. (2015). Culturally responsive practices as whole school reform. Journal of Instructional Pedagogies,16.

16 Ibid.

17 Holquist, S. (2019). Student Voice in Education Policy: Understanding student participation in state-level K–12 education policy-making (Doctoral dissertation). Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

18 Grant, K. B., & Ray, J. A. (Eds.). (2018). Home, school, and community collaboration: Culturally responsive family engagement. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

19 Toshalis, E., & Nakkula, M.J. (2012). Motivation, engagement, and student voice: The students at the center series. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future. Student%20Voice_0.pdf

20 Kirkland, D.E. (2020). Guidance on culturally responsive-sustaining remote education. New York City, New York: Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools.

21 McKenna, M. K., & Millen, J. (2013). Look! Listen! Learn! Parent narratives and grounded theory models of parent voice, presence, and engagement in K-12 Education. School Community Journal, 23(1), 9–48.

22 Lieberman, M. (2020). Coronavirus shuts down some schools. Education Week, 39(25), 1, 6–7.

23 Lieberman, M. (2020). Coronavirus shuts down some schools. Education Week, 39(24), 11.

24 Magno, C., & Schiff, M. (2010). Culturally responsive leadership: best practices in integrating immigrant students. Intercultural Education, 21(1), 87–91.

25 Kiewra, K. A. (2009). Teaching how to learn: The teacher's guide to student success. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

26 Perry, T. (2003). Up from the parched earth: Toward a theory of African American achievement. In T. Perry, C. Steele, & A. Hilliard (Eds.), Young, gifted, and black: Promoting high achievement among African American students (pp. 1–108). Boston: Beacon Press.

27 Silvers, P., Shorey, M., & Crafton, L. (2010). Cultural literacy in a primary multiliteracies classroom: The Hurricane Group. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 10(4), 379–409.

28 McArdle, F., Knight, L., & Stratigos, T. (2013). Imagining social justice. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 14(3), 357–369.

29 Rajagopal, K. (2011). Create success: Unlocking the potential of urban students. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.