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National Center on Secondary Education and Transition

Cultural and Linguistic Diversity:
Implications for Transition Personnel

PART IV — The Culturally Sensitive Individualization of Services and Supports


Given the great diversity among CLD youth with disabilities and their families, there are no universal rules for transition planning aside from one: the principle of individualization. Culturally competent strategies need to be used to support CLD students with disabilities and their families to express and develop their own transition goals and appropriate ways to achieve them (Wolfe, Boone, & Barrera, 1997). While it is not necessary to have a great deal of culturally specific information, it is important to establish a “cultural reciprocity” in which transition personnel develop cultural self-awareness and take the lead in establishing with youth and families a two-way process of cultural learning (Harry, Kalyanpur, & Day, 1999). The next section defines the process of cultural reciprocity, followed by several tools that can be used for individualized transition planning from a posture of cultural reciprocity.

Cultural Reciprocity

The concept of cultural reciprocity is rooted in the idea that people cannot be sensitive to cultural differences unless they are first aware of the cultural assumptions that guide their own thinking and behavior. Like fish unaware of living in water, people tend to be unaware of being totally enveloped by their culture (Kalyanpur & Harry, 1997; 1999). One cultural assumption common in the American mainstream that is related to transition planning is that it is natural and desirable for adults to live independent of their parents. It becomes possible to be sensitive to cultural differences when you become aware of cultural assumptions. In this example, we become aware that it can also make cultural sense for adults to continue living in the household of an extended family that includes their parents.

Cultural reciprocity is a general approach that transition personnel can use to enhance relationships with all youth and families, regardless of their cultural backgrounds. If youth and families feel they have good relationships with personnel, then they are more likely to share their feelings and become real partners in transition planning and services.

The book Culture in Special Education: Building Reciprocal Family-Professional Relationships, outlines five key features of the posture of cultural reciprocity (Kalyanpur & Harry, 1999). It is a useful resource for transition personnel to use in developing effective collaborations with youth and their families.

Cultural reciprocity:

  1. Goes beyond awareness of differences to self-awareness. Collaboration is enhanced when both sides are aware and respectful of their differences. However, being able and willing to take another’s point of view does not come naturally to everyone. Transition personnel therefore need to take the lead and model this behavior. A posture of cultural reciprocity promotes self-reflection and self-awareness, which is the foundation that allows personnel to establish relationships of mutual respect with people from all groups. Through self-reflection, personnel become more aware of their family, religious, moral, political, and social ideals, social and cultural environments, and values they have adopted as the result of their upbringing and professional training.
  2. Aims for subtle levels of awareness of difference. Too often our awareness of difference is only at a level of stereotypes. Cultural reciprocity helps personnel go beyond stereotypes of how a particular youth and family might differ from the American mainstream (e.g., differences in dress or food customs). The goal is to establish the kind of relationship where personnel can gain more in-depth insight into the values and worldviews of the youth and families with whom they work.
  3. Has universal applicability. An important core concept of cultural reciprocity is that effective communication and collaboration comes from listening to and respecting all perspectives. In fact, the posture of culture reciprocity is appropriate for any situation requiring communication and collaboration among people, not just when transition personnel interact with youth and families. If personnel adopt cultural reciprocity as a way of life, it has the potential to enhance all of their interpersonal relationships and effectiveness in playing their various professional and nonprofessional roles.
  4. Avoids stereotypical solutions. When personnel adopt a posture of cultural reciprocity, they are better able to avoid the trap of stereotypical solutions. Stereotypical solutions are common solutions applied from a one-size-fits-all perspective. While such solutions may fit the situations of many youth and families, they are likely to be inappropriate for many others. For example, parents are often observed to remain silent at IEP meetings. Many reasons are possible, such as discomfort discussing sensitive issues, fear of appearing ignorant, mistrust of professionals, deference to authority, or frustration at being silenced in the past. Silence itself is a form of communication, but it must be decoded and addressed if the high level of communication required for cultural reciprocity is to be achieved. In order to address silence, personnel must explore individualized solutions, rather than relying on stereotypical ones.
  5. Ensures that both families and personnel are empowered. A posture of cultural reciprocity facilitates communication and dialogue that can provide both sides with new insights into each other’s culture. They can then use this understanding to better fill their roles, meet their needs, and achieve their goals. For example, an individualistic approach to discipline is to make children responsible for their own moral choices and to learn from the consequences that result from their own behavior. This approach may be relatively ineffective with children from some CLD groups, where parents may instead emphasize that there are certain ways to do things and make their children accountable to their families or even the entire community. If personnel and families gain a better understanding of the beliefs and values underlying these different approaches, they are more likely to be able to support the appropriate behavior of children in various cross-cultural situations.

Using Cultural Reciprocity

Effectively using the process of cultural reciprocity includes four steps:

Step 1: Identify the cultural values underlying interpretations of the situations involving youth and families. The key to this step is to ask, “Why?” Why, for example, might it seem important and natural to recommend that a youth in transition with developmental disabilities move from the family home to supported living and, eventually, independent living? Through self-reflection, the answer might turn out to be that independence and self-sufficiency are strongly held values that may or may not be shared by the youth and family. Self-reflection is a continuous process and the question “Why?” needs to be asked in each situation with each youth and family in order for individualization to be achieved.

Step 2: Explore the extent to which values and assumptions are recognized and accepted by the youth and family. If the youth and family do not view independent living as a milestone to adulthood, then this may not be an appropriate transition goal.

Step 3: Acknowledge any cultural differences, and explain to the youth and family how and why American mainstream culture promotes different values. For example, how the value of independent living has benefited other youth and families might be described, helping the youth and family to understand the cultural basis for professional recommendations.

Step 4: Collaborate with the youth and family to determine the most effective way of adapting professional interpretations and recommendations to the family value system. If, for example, parents understand the reasoning of personnel—that there will probably come a time when they won’t be there to support their child—then they may be more likely to want to develop a transition plan that enhances skills for independence and self-sufficiency.

Two barriers can make cultural reciprocity difficult to achieve (Kalyanpur & Harry, 1999). One barrier is the extra time that might be needed to get to know youth and families and engage in dialogue:

The posture of cultural reciprocity cannot be seen as a bag of tricks to be pulled out during situations of conflict or in emergencies but almost as a value that is internalized and applied in all contexts. If we seek to understand ourselves and the families whom we serve at every interaction, however small, then the task will seem less onerous. If when we send that quick note or make that phone call we reflect on our action and ask ourselves why we are saying what we are saying, then we will be more likely to understand when the families do not say what we want them to say and more likely to make the effort to learn why (pp. 130-131).

The other barrier is the mistaken belief that only personnel who are themselves of CLD heritage can work effectively with CLD youth and families (Kalyanpur & Harry, 1999). Research has indicated that personnel who have little or no affiliation with the culture of the families with whom they work can indeed establish effective collaborative relationships:

The issue is not that we must have had the same experiences in terms of culture, ethnic background, race, socioeconomic status, or gender as the families we serve—because we cannot—but that we have the willingness to learn about and understand their experiences, that we are willing to understand how our own experiences have shaped us, and that we respect and accept these differences in our various experiences (p. 131).

The following sections describe approaches demonstrated to be effective for customizing planning and services for people with disabilities. Adopting a posture of cultural reciprocity will help maximize the effectiveness of these approaches when working with youth and families from CLD backgrounds.

Person-Centered Planning

Person-centered planning is a proven approach for individualizing planning and services for people with disabilities (Artesani & Mallar, 1998; Flannery et al., 2000; Hagner, Helm, & Butterworth, 1996; Holburn, Jacobson, Vietze, Schwartz, & Sersen, 2000; Mount, O’Brien, & O’Brien, 1997; Whitney-Thomas, Shaw, Honey, & Butterworth, 1998). It is called “person-centered” to emphasize how it differs from the service-centered or program-centered approaches that were commonly used in the past. Service- or program-centered planning focuses on fitting the person into services or programs that are readily available. Program goals guide planning, with little consideration given to the wishes and goals of the person and his or her family.

Person-centered planning is a large step forward because it focuses on the person’s wishes and desires. A person with a disability chooses who he or she would like to be involved and sets the agenda for IEP or other service-planning meetings. Service providers, educators, family members, and other key people in the life of the individual explore his or her wishes, strengths, areas of needed support, and fears, and on this basis develop goals for the future and a plan to reach them. The process is flexible and readily adapted for use in cross-cultural situations (Callicott, 2003).

In person-centered planning, different goals may be appropriate along an individualistic-to-collectivistic continuum. It is therefore possible to identify individualistic and collectivistic models of person-centered planning. The contrasts between program-centered, individualistic person-centered, and collectivistic person-centered approaches are summarized in Table 5. A key characteristic of the collectivistic model of person-centered planning is that it is attuned to empowering individuals through empowering their families and communities.

Table 5. Comparison of Planning Approaches



Program-Centered Planning

Person-Centered Planning




  • To coordinate services across disciplinary lines and agencies.
  • To clarify roles of different people responsible.
  • To meet legal requirements and avoid punishment by regulators.
  • To establish and support a personal vision for an individual.
  • To make voluntary commitment by people who are interested in helping someone they care for.

To build family/community support and action on behalf of the focus person.

Primary Focus

  • To match people with existing programs, identify which agencies are best for the person, and outline the location of these services and how they will be delivered.
  • If more than one agency or program is involved, the plan is a way to coordinate services and the actions of staff and professionals.
  • Independence of the target individual.
  • Focus upon the individual’s whole life, not just a type of service.
  • Focus on a vision for the future, practical ways to get there, and building commitment to help the person attain those dreams.
  • The emphasis is on the person’s strengths, gifts, and talents—building on them and supporting the person in areas of individual needs—not a preoccupation with deficits and assessments of what’s “wrong” with the person.
  • Interdependence of the target individual with people in one’s own community to develop a network of support.
  • Focus is on the person and his or her spokesperson, family, friends, and associates.
  • Focus is on strengths of the family/community and what they can bring to the process.


  • Professionals as specialists.
  • An array of professionals.

The people involved in the planning are there at the person’s invitation—no agency decides who should or must be involved.

There is an emphasis on involving friends and family in the planning—professionals participate to advise and provide support, not control.


Human-service setting, conference room, or centralized site.

School or community settings.

  • Community settings: home, church room, or library meeting room.
  • Places close to where the members live.


Team leader initiates to meet requirements of regulations.

Focus person initiates to reach goals toward independence.

  • Focus person or spokesperson initiates to reach goals they are unable to accomplish working alone.
  • The challenge is how the individual, family, friends, and services (not only services) can work together to achieve the vision.


  • Goals and objectives that fit within existing program options.
  • Completed forms, paperwork, and specific goals and objectives to evaluate program effectiveness.
  • Vision that reflects desire of focus person.
  • Significant quality-of-life changes for the focus person.
  • The person’s plan may serve as a focus for discussions about what services should be provided; a service plan may then result.
  • Vision that reflects desire of focus person and family.
  • Commitments to action by community members.
  • Significant quality-of-life changes for the focus person and the family.

Note. Adapted from Mount, Beeman, and Ducharme (1988) as cited in Knoll and Wheeler (2001, p. 525); and Partners in Policymaking, 2004.

Respectful and trusting relationships are the foundation of success in any collaborative activity. Transition personnel are best able to establish such relationships and prepare for planning meetings if they take the time and make the effort to become familiar with the background of the youth and family. Obtaining answers to the following questions will help determine where the values of a youth and their family may be along the continuum of individualistic and collectivistic values (Greene, 1996, p. 27):

  • What languages are spoken in the home and by which members?
  • What are the family’s norms for personal and social development for the youth with disabilities (e.g., what degree of independence is encouraged)?
  • What residential and work-related goals for the youth are held by the family?
  • What are the family’s views on disabilities, and how does this affect their view on treatment for the youth?
  • How is the family conceptualized—as a nuclear unit or as an extended family structure?
  • What are the family’s decision-making practices? Are they hierarchical, where elders hold the decision-making power, or are they oriented to individual rights with children expected to self-advocate?
  • How much legal knowledge about parental rights and advocacy does the family possess?

Person-centered planning tools use interviewing and family involvement to create a plan of action for transition activities. These tools may be especially useful for CLD youth. Before describing some of these tools, it is important to note that culture influences parental styles of communication in transition planning meetings. For example, parents from Hispanic and Asian groups may have established patterns of interaction characterized by roles based on hierarchy, deference to authority, indirect confrontation, and maintenance of harmony and good relations. Because teachers are often viewed as being in positions of authority, parents from these groups may be reluctant to ask questions, fearing they might be viewed as questioning the teacher’s authority (Boone, 1992; Dennis & Giangreco, 1996). These communication styles seem counter to transition principles emphasizing equal partnerships of parents and teachers in the decision-making process and an assertive, direct communication style by all involved. Alternative communication styles must be honored and respected rather than viewed as lack of involvement or agreement by the parents.

Described below are several tools that provide frameworks for effectively involving youth and families in transition planning and also for giving personnel insight into each unique circumstance.

The concept of a “circle of friends” provides a social scan to identify the important people and activities in a youth’s life (Falvey, Forest, Pearpoint, & Rosenberg, 1997). This step provides a visual representation or foundation of the youth’s network of social support. It can be done informally with the youth and/or family prior to more formal planning meetings, in which case the completed circle would be presented and discussed at a planning meeting, or it can be done as part of a planning meeting.

A “circle of friends” starts with drawing four concentric circles (see Figure 1) and then writing the names of the appropriate people in each circle. The innermost circle is the “circle of intimacy.” These are the people closest to the youth, who are always there for help and support. The second circle moving towards the outer edge is the “circle of friendship.” This circle includes people who are friends, but not as close to the youth as those in the inner circle. Moving outward, the next is the “circle of participation.” These people may be considered acquaintances. The youth may say “hello” to these people or know their names, but they are not close friends. The youth knows these people by sight, but does not know much about their personal lives. Finally, the outermost circle is the “circle of exchange.” This circle includes the professionals who are paid to give help and support.

Figure 1. Circle of Friends

Falvey, M. A., Forest, M., Pearpoint, J., & Rosenberg, R. L. (1997).

These circles reveal the areas where social support is strong and where it needs to be strengthened. The circles also help identify key people who need to be involved in the planning process. A grandmother or uncle may actually be more involved in the youth’s day-to-day life than a parent and should therefore be invited to all school meetings where transition planning for the youth is taking place. Determining people of importance in the youth’s life is very important in planning next steps. While paid support people are necessary for some services (e.g., therapy or medical care), natural supports should be identified for as many situations as possible (e.g., community access, recreation, or employment).

Once the members of the planning team have been identified, it is time to bring them together to examine hopes and dreams. This process is called “making action plans” (MAPS). The MAPS process involves asking questions to gather important background information about the youth and family. This information is then used to create an action plan to achieve the transition goals of the youth and family.
Transition personnel can support the youth and family to prepare for the MAPS meeting. The youth and family should understand the purpose of the meeting and the roles of the various transition team members. The youth and family should also be encouraged to prepare by thinking about important issues related to individual transition goals and desires before the meeting.

Tool 1: Issues for Youth to Think About Before Transition Planning Meetings is an exercise that can help youth think about issues in preparation for a MAPS meeting and help personnel explain to the youth that this can help identify transition settings and outcomes that best match his or her strengths and interests.

Tool 2: MAPS Questions includes standard questions used to help transition personnel plan for MAPS meetings. Below these questions are specific questions that will help personnel gain a more comprehensive “map” of the experiences and background of the youth and family.

Tool 3: MAPS Sample: Putting It All Together—Kaleo's Profile shows a sample of a completed MAPS form by a Native Hawaiian youth named Kaleo.


The information and tools provided in this Essential Tool will prove enlightening and useful for transition personnel and others involved in supporting CLD youth with disabilities and their families. However, this Essential Tool only explores the surface of some very complex issues. For those interested in exploring these issues in greater depth, the following reference list provides a wealth of other relevant literature.

In addition, two books are specifically mentioned in the text: Lynch and Hanson’s (1998) Developing Cross-Cultural Competence: A Guide for Working with Children and Their Families (3rd Edition) and Kalyanpur and Harry’s (1999) Culture in Special Education: Building Reciprocal Family-Professional Relationships. Another book is a good companion to Culture in Special Education: Harry, Kalyanpur, and Day’s (1999) Building Cultural Reciprocity with Families: Case Studies in Special Education. This book also describes the rationale and process of cultural reciprocity and illustrates how it has been successfully used in eight in-depth case studies. Another valuable book is Bridging Cultures between Home and School: A Guide for Teachers, by Trumbull et al. (2001), which provides a clear and comprehensive overview of key issues, common individualistic-collectivistic contrasts encountered in the field of education, and effective approaches to dealing with problems that often arise from these contrasts. Numerous other resources of value are also available on the Internet. Following the reference list, a section describes a number of these resources.

Table of Contents

Part I – Essential Tool Overview
Key Questions
Intended Audience
How This Essential Tool Is Organized
Ensuring Practices Presented Are Evidence-Based

Part II – CLD Youth with Disabilities in Transition
Statistical Comparisons of Ethnic/Racial Groups
Strengths to Build On for Transition Success
Challenges Commonly Faced by CLD Youth with Disabilities in Transition

Part III – Continuum of “Individualistic” and “Collectivistic” Values
Alternative Views of People as Independent or Interdependent
Contrasts Between Individualistic and Collectivistic Values
Implications for Transition Personnel: The Example of Self-Determination
Youth and Family Involvement in the Transition Planning Process

Part IV – The Culturally Sensitive Individualization of Services and Supports
Cultural Reciprocity
Person-Centered Planning


Other Resources Available on the Internet
Assistive Technology
Career Development and Employment
Cultural Competence
Dropout Prevention
Financial Supports
Limited English Proficiency
Person-Centered Planning
Positive Behavioral Supports
Postsecondary Education
Self-Determination and Self-Advocacy
Social Inclusion
Strengths-Based Assessment

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Citation: Leake, D., & Black, R. (2005). Essential tools: Cultural and linguistic diversity: Implications for transition personnel. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration, National Center on Secondary Education and Transition.

Permission is granted to duplicate this publication in its entirety or portions thereof. Upon request, this publication will be made available in alternate formats. To request an alternate format, please contact: Institute on Community Integration Publications Office, 2025 East River Parkway, Minneapolis, MN 55414, (612) 624-4512, icipub@umn.edu.

This document was published by the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (NCSET). NCSET is supported through a cooperative agreement #H326J000005 with the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Department of Education Programs, and no official endorsement should be inferred. The University of Minnesota, the U.S. Department of Education, and the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition are equal opportunity employers and educators.