We were really happy to receive an article examining the use of CLASS in American Indian and Alaska Native Head Start Programs. And we were equally happy when lead author, Jessica Barnes-Najor, a researcher at Michigan State University, agreed to speak with us. In conjunction with her work at MSU, Jessica is a co-investigator for The Tribal Early Childhood Research Center (TRC). Read below to learn more about this important research.  

We have been thinking a lot about how to ensure that CLASS is used equitably across diverse populations and educational settings. Your study provides some initial insight into the use of CLASS in American Indian/Alaska Native classrooms. Will you briefly describe your study and tell us about the participants?

In our study, we surveyed Region XI Head Start administrators and asked them to  reflect on the cultural fit of the CLASS in their communities.  Participants identified aspects of the CLASS that either aligned or were misaligned with their culture. 

Findings from your study indicate that there are advantages and challenges to using CLASS in AI/AN settings.  In what ways did you find CLASS is helpful for describing and improving practice in AI/AN settings? What are 1 or 2 of the biggest challenges?

Essentially, we found that the domain of Emotional Support and the dimensions and indicators within Emotional Support tended to align with our respondents’ culture. However, at the level of the behavioral markers, there were some areas of misalignment. Because of the high specificity at the behavioral marker level, it was more likely for behaviors to either be inappropriate or easily misconstrued/misinterpreted due to cultural differences. Also, some important behavioral markers might not be present.  The same finding was true for the domain of Classroom Organization. 

In addition to the potential misalignment at the behavioral marker level, we found some caution regarding the fact that Instructional Support might look markedly different in many Native communities. In some communities, a heavy use of non-verbal gestures and high levels of collaboration, combined with a strong sense of community are very important. For these communities, we often see children learning through cycles of observation, quiet reflection, and then engaging in community activities, actively working together to create something or accomplish a common goal. The way adults support learning through these cycles often looks significantly different when compared to a western educational setting.  

Explain the concept of “culturally responsive” interactions and provide a few examples of how culture impacts interactions in tribal classrooms.

Well, we often talk about the difference between “culturally responsive” and “culturally grounded.” Both are good (and needed), but the distinction between the two is important.  Culturally responsive interactions are those that are inclusive of the child’s culture. If a child is from a culture for which direct eye contact is a sign of disrespect (or confrontation), then a teacher who is understanding and respectful of this cultural norm in the classroom would be exhibiting culturally responsive interactions. Culturally grounded practices, however, are those practices that are rooted in the culture. For many Native communities, intentionally incorporating non-verbal communication, high levels of collaboration among students, and an emphasis on “pitching in” together as a classroom community as a learning strategy would be considered culturally grounded. 

To avoid implicit bias, observers should have knowledge of predominant culture in which they are observing. Knowing that this is not always possible, what recommendations do you have for observers who lack deep knowledge of AI/AN communities? How can non-native observers better educate themselves?

If possible, participate in trainings to help you understand the specific community’s unique cultural context.  Work with others who are from the community or have worked in the community to understand the context. Read as much as you can about the community’s history (as written by those from the community). Also, learn more about the broader community (in this case, understand more about Indigenous communities from the North American continent). 

We hear you have some new research underway? What are you hoping to answer as you move forward in your research?

Yes, we do!  We are hoping to gather data to help us begin to answer questions about the psychometric structure of the CLASS in Native classrooms and the predictive validity of the CLASS for Native children’s outcomes.  Essentially, we want to have data to help us understand if the CLASS works as it should in Native classrooms.  We also will be gathering data on culturally grounded interactions in the classroom to see how these data relate to overall classroom quality and children’s outcomes. 

Citation: Barnes-Najor, J. V.,Thompson, N.L., Cameron, A.F., .Smith, T.M., Calac Verdugo, M., Brown, P.L.  & Sarche, M.C.  (2020): Cultural and Practice Perspectives on the Classroom Assessment Scoring System: Voices From American Indian and Alaska Native Head Start Programs, Journal of Research in Childhood Education, DOI: 10.1080/02568543.2020.1723749

Want to hear more on this topic? Jessica is co-presenting, “Examining the Use of CLASS in Unique Cultural Contexts: Example from work in American Indian and Alaska Native Head Start programs” at the upcoming InterAct Now: CLASS Summit March 23-25, 2021.


InterAct Now CLASS Summit - March 23-25