©2000 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

Acculturation and Immigrant Children: Implications for Educators 

Beth Kurtz-Costes and
Elizabeth P. Pungello

Whether the United States is viewed as a melting pot or as a salad bowl, its population includes a rich diversity of individuals from varied cultural origins. The nation is enriched by this diversity. Yet children who emigrate to the United States face many obstacles as they adjust to their new homeland. Teachers who have newly arrived immigrant children in their classes are likely not only to face a language barrier but also to have miscommunications with these children and their parents because of cultural differences in assumptions and beliefs. At the same time, immigrant children provide a rich opportunity for teachers to create a multicultural environment that will enhance the learning of all their pupils.

Research into the adjustment of immigrant children has identified a number of factors that influence their acculturation. Our summary of that research and our suggestions for educators are based on three assumptions:

1. We view acculturation as a bicultural or multicultural adaptive process in which individuals of two or more cultures change as they encounter one another, rather than as a unidirectional assimilation of host country values and attitudes.

2. Acculturation that alienates the child from his or her own cultural heritage is not optimal and may be detrimental, because a healthy cultural identity enhances both educational development and a positive view of the self.1

3. Immigrant children have many resources from their ethnic communities that enable them to adjust and achieve at high levels.2

The discussion that follows focuses first on immigrant children and the factors that hamper or enhance their adjustment. We then provide recommendations to educators.


Child Characteristics that Influence

Age at Migration

Although initial adjustment may prove difficult for young children, on average, they adapt more easily and more completely to a new culture than do teenagers and adults.3 One reason for this age difference may be that younger children have weaker or less-defined cultural identities than do older children and adults. Because a young child has had less experience with his or her native culture than an adult has, culturally related values, beliefs, and customs are not as firmly embedded in the child at the point of migration. Adjustment to the receiving society may thus occur more readily.

Adolescents are more likely than are younger children to hold and maintain cultural beliefs that are different from those of their teachers, which may influence how the adolescents behave in the classroom. For instance, a junior high pupil who finds a teacher’s instructions ambiguous may not question the teacher because of fear of seeming disrespectful. Even a teenager who has spent a number of years in the United States and who is fluent in English may—because of continuing contact with family and friends of the same national heritage—still hold cultural values and beliefs that are very different from those of the teacher. Thus, teachers of adolescents need to be particularly mindful of the possible differences in cultural beliefs that may exist between themselves and their students.


Language Facility

The language skills of immigrants play an important role in acculturation. In the psychiatric literature, low proficiency in the host language has frequently been linked to a greater incidence of depression and other psychiatric disorders, and overall lower levels of adaptation among immigrants.4 For school-aged children, language facility is directly related to school adjustment, the formation of friendships, and emotional well-being, all of which will facilitate the child’s acculturation. Greater language fluency enhances the motivation to communicate with schoolmates, and to watch television and read—activities that further expose the person to the host culture.5 Nonetheless, educators should not rush to endorse “English only” policies in the classroom, as considerable evidence indicates that immigrant children are more likely to show steady academic progress and healthy psychosocial development if they are encouraged to continue using their native language.6 Thus, teachers should encourage increased host language facility, but not discourage a child’s use of his or her native language.



Most contemporary large-scale migrations occur from developing countries to developed, industrialized countries. Although attitudes are gradually changing everywhere, females in many Third World countries are more likely than are First World females to assume major domestic responsibilities at an early age, and are less likely to independently select marriage partners, to be politically active, or to pursue higher education.7

Assumptions related to gender influence teacher-student relationships within our own culture; the picture becomes all the more confusing when the teacher has different gender-based assumptions than does the student. For example, a teacher might find that a particularly gifted pupil is not encouraged at home because the parents do not value academic excellence in their daughters. Alternatively, a child might be prohibited from participating in a class trip because of parents’ concerns about a lack of adult supervision on the trip.

Teachers should not jump to conclusions about gender-related beliefs because great variability across cultural groups has been found in both parents’ attitudes and in sex differences in achievement. Although some ethnic groups may be far more resistant to the assimilation of their female children, other groups may show the reverse pattern. The important message for teachers is that they be sensitive to the gender-related values and beliefs of parents, which may often be in stark contrast to the host cultural beliefs.


Attitudes and Personality Characteristics

Hannigan, in a summary of literature examining personality and attitudinal predictors of acculturation, has classified adaptation factors into three categories: skills, attitudes, and personality traits.8 Skills that facilitate acculturation include communication skills, flexibility, and the ability to establish and maintain relationships.

Attitudes that enhance acculturation include orientation to knowledge (i.e., realizing that others may possess valuable knowledge rather than viewing oneself as an expert); a positive attitude toward the new culture and a willingness to distance oneself from one’s own culture; a nonjudgmental attitude; and cultural empathy (i.e., the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes).

Personality traits that enhance acculturation include patience, tolerance, ability to deal with stress, persistence with flexibility, self-confidence, and healthy self-esteem. Factors that may thwart effective acculturation include perfectionism, rigidity, dogmatism, and ethnocentrism.

Immigrant children are most likely to adjust well in the classroom when both they and their teachers have these skills, attitudes, and traits. Teachers should strive to be particularly patient and empathic when faced with pupils who are having a hard time adjusting to their new culture. Not surprisingly, children adjust more quickly and easily to a new environment if they have healthy self-esteem.9 Teachers will facilitate children’s adjustment if they are able to celebrate and affirm the child’s cultural identity (e.g., celebrate with the child a holiday from his or her cultural tradition).


Contact With the New Society

Children’s contact with the new society—necessary for their adaptation—is strongly influenced by their living arrangements, schooling experiences, and the attitudes and behaviors of parents. Given that teachers provide much of the contact that students (and often parents) have with the new society, they can have a large impact on the acculturation of immigrant children. Children who attend school will of necessity encounter members of the host culture with greater frequency than will adults who stay at home. Teachers and other educators can attest to the fact that for many immigrant families, school-going children become an important bridge for parents (especially stay-at-home mothers) to the host society.


Living Arrangements and
Schooling Experiences

Some immigrant groups remain in ethnically homogeneous areas for generations, such as the Chinese living in San Francisco’s Chinatown. In contrast, others are virtually isolated from their native culture. Immigrant families who do not live in proximity to compatriots will of necessity acquire the host language and befriend members of the new society more quickly.10 Children (and adults), however, are more likely to adjust well to a new culture when they are not isolated from their culture of origin because contact with compatriots affirms the validity of their cultural identity as well as the everyday realities of their adjustment/acculturation process. Therefore, teachers should not discourage social contacts among immigrant pupils who share a language or national heritage. Such social contact provides a secure base for these children from which they can begin to break into a culture that is—at first—alien to them. Their adjustment in the school setting can be buffered by the presence of those who not only share the mother tongue of the child but who also understand the child’s cultural behaviors and assumptions.

In some cases, as has occurred with Hispanics in some regions of the United States, a cultural group is sufficiently large to alter the school system itself, with the frequent result that an immigrant child’s teacher and principal share the child’s ethnic/cultural heritage. Bhatnagar concluded in his 1985 review of bilingual education programs that cognitive outcomes are better for immigrant children who receive instruction in their mother tongue while gradually acquiring the host language.11 For these children, the maintenance of the mother language and culture protect the child’s self-esteem and promote a healthy pride in ethnic identity; this combination of factors can foster academic progress. Children in school systems where bilingual education is not available are likely to have greater emotional and academic difficulties in the short run. Their adjustment in the long run is contingent on the ability of teachers and school administrators to affirm the child’s cultural heritage while dealing with the day-to-day demands of busy and ethnically diverse classrooms.


Parental Attitudes and Behaviors

Because parents occupy a central role and position of power for their children, their attitudes and life-style also influence the child’s acculturation. Especially in communities where a number of immigrant families from one ethnic background reside, parents may vary widely in the extent to which they encourage their children to have contact with members of the new culture. Pawliuk et al. examined the relationship between parents’ acculturation styles and children’s acculturation styles in families (mostly of Asian descent) who had emigrated to Canada.12 Four styles of acculturation were examined: (1) assimilation (high participation in the receiving culture and rejection of the original cultural identity); (2) integration (high participation in the receiving culture while maintaining the original cultural identity); (3) separation (low participation in the receiving culture and maintenance of the original cultural identity); and (4) marginalization (low participation in the receiving culture and rejection of the original cultural identity). These authors found that whereas parents in their sample were more likely to have a separation or marginalization style, their children more often showed assimilation or integration styles.

Teachers will be best able to help immigrant children adjust when they are aware of and respond sensitively to the acculturation styles of both children and their parents. For instance, in a case in which parents have a separation style, teachers would want to be particularly proactive in encouraging active class participation from the child, while respecting the cultural tradition of the family. Parents with an integration style are a valuable resource for teachers; these parents may welcome an opportunity to speak to their child’s class about their own language, country, customs, and foods.


Societal Characteristics

A number of social factors also influence the acculturation of immigrant children.


Pre-Migration Experiences and Reasons for Migration

When studying immigrant groups, a fundamental distinction must be made between involuntary and voluntary migrants. Voluntary migrants who have willingly left their homelands, usually with expectations of furthering their education and/or improving their standard of life, have very different characteristics from refugees, who have left their homelands because of fear, war, starvation, or persecution.13 Many involuntary migrants, such as Southeast Asians in the 1970s, endured severe trauma prior to their departure from their homelands, and many lived months or even years in difficult circumstances before arriving at their final destination. Gil and Vega discuss the interesting example of Cuban emigration to the United States, suggesting that the first wave of Cuban immigrants (consisting mainly of the upper class and professionals who left soon after the 1959 revolution) was “pushed” from Cuba, whereas the second wave was “pulled” to the United States in the early 1980s by greater economic opportunities.14 Ogbu notes that involuntary minorities are more likely than are voluntary minorities to have academic difficulties.15

Individuals who are fleeing war or persecution have often become separated from family members, and thus are deprived of support and nurture from loved ones at a moment in their lives when such support is desperately needed. For children, loss of parents can be overwhelming; stress related to the loss is exacerbated if the child witnessed the parent’s torture or death. Children’s reactions to traumatic stressors are related to the degree of violence experienced, presence or absence of personal injury, age of the child, and access to family support.16

Notwithstanding the above, educators should be aware of the wide variability in the pre-migration experiences of involuntary groups. Although some refugees have experienced war, extreme deprivation, and torture, others have left their homelands for less traumatic reasons, such as religious or political ostracism. Interestingly, the children and adolescents of some of the groups that have suffered the most have shown superior academic success despite the enormous obstacles they have faced.17 The message for educators is to be sensitive to the varied experiences of immigrant children, particularly for those who have recently left their homelands.


Disparity Between Original and
Host Societies

The similarity or disparity between the former and new countries may also influence a child’s acculturation. If religion, customs, and life-style are more rather than less similar across the two societies, acculturation should occur more easily. Thus, migrants who are moving from Iraq to the United States would be expected to have very different acculturation experiences than individuals moving from England to the United States. Similarly, the adjustment of Mexican American children in a new community is easier when their parents have lived for a relatively longer time in the United States.18 Teachers of children who have emigrated from a culture that is very different from the United States need to be aware that these children are adjusting to many differences simultaneously and therefore may have a particularly difficult time adjusting. At the same time, these children provide a wonderful opportunity for teachers to expand the cultural horizons of other children in their classrooms.


Attitudes Toward the Immigrant Group and Cultural Pluralism

Another important factor involves the attitudes toward the immigrant group that are prevalent in their new country. Immigrants have historically been better received when they collectively provided a needed source of labor, or occupied an important political or moral role in their new society (e.g., Eastern Europeans migrating to the United States during the Cold War). The economic or political role of the immigrant group and disparity between their country of origin and their new country influence the reception that immigrants receive. This reception—which can range from a warm welcome at one end of the spectrum to xenophobia, legal discrimination, and interpersonal violence at the other end—will of course shape the acculturation that occurs between an immigrant child and other children in the classroom. Teachers who are aware of hostile attitudes toward an immigrant group in their community can buffer children’s experiences by creating a classroom environment that celebrates cultural diversity and encourages children to think of each other as individuals rather than as members of a cultural group.

The reception that an immigrant child receives and the attitudes that peers develop as a consequence will be enhanced to the degree that (1) cultural pluralism exists in the receiving community, (2) the host government considers the special needs of minority groups to be a priority, and (3) special services are provided to ethnic minority groups.19 Schools and school systems have had highly diverse responses to immigrant students. Although individual teachers can do much to provide a warm welcome within their classrooms, the reception of immigrant children will be optimal only when teachers and school administrators work together to put into place formal mechanisms that foster school environments where multiculturalism is celebrated and the unique needs of each child are addressed.



1. Karen P. Lese and Steven B. Robbins, “Relationship Between Goal Attributes and the Academic Achievement of Southeast Asian Adolescent Refugees,” Journal of Counseling Psychology 41 (1994): 45-52; Maria Eugenia Matute-Bianchi, “Ethnic Identities and Patterns of School Success and Failure Among Mexican-Descent and Japanese-American Students in a California High School: An Ethnographic Analysis,” American Journal of Education 95 (1986): 233-255.

2. Margaret A. Gibson, “Additive Acculturation as a Strategy for School,” in Ruben G. Rumbaut and Wayne A. Cornelius, eds., California’s Immigrant Children (San Diego: Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, 1995); Alejandro Portes and Ruben G. Rumbaut, Immigrant America: A Portrait (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996).

3. John Goldlust and Anthony H. Richmond, “A Multivariate Model of Immigrant Adaptation,” International Migration Review 8 (1974): 193-216; José Szapocznik, Mercedes A. Scopetta, William Kurtines, and J. A. Aranalde, “Theory and Measurement of Acculturation,” Interamerican Journal of Psychology 12 (1978): 113-130.

4. Perry M. Nicassio, “The Psychosocial Adjustment of the Southeast Asian Refugee,” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 16 (1985): 153-173.

5. Young Yun Kim, “Communication Patterns of Foreign Immigrants in the Process of Acculturation,” Human Communication Research 4 (1977): 66-77; Young Yun Kim, “A Communication Approach to the Acculturation Process: A Study of Korean Immigrants in Chicago,” International Journal of Intercultural Relations (1978): 197-224; Beth Kurtz-Costes, Jenifer Goldman, and Paul Ngo, “Achievement Striving and Achievement Behaviors of Americans of Asian and European Heritage.” Paper presented at the Annual Meetings of the American Educational Research Association, Atlanta, Georgia, April 1993.

6. Carl L. Bankston and Min Zhou, “Effects of Minority-Language Literacy on the Academic Achievement of Vietnamese Youths in New Orleans,” Sociology of Education 68 (1995): 1-17; Joti Bhatnagar, “Language Maintenance Programs for Immigrant Children,” International Review of Applied Psychology 34 (1985): 503-526; Amado M. Padilla, Kathryn J. Lindholm, Andrew Chen, Richard Durán, Kenji Hakuta, Wallace Lambert, and G. Richard Tucker, “The English-only Movement,” American Psychologist 46 (1991): 120-130.

7. Lynn Bennett, Dangerous Wives and Sacred Sisters (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983); Daphne M. Keats, “Adolescents: An Australian-Asian Cross-Cultural View,” in Joseph P. Forgas and J. Michael Innes, eds., Recent Advances in Social Psychology: An International Perspective (North Holland: Elsevier, 1989); Nancy J. Smith-Hefner, “Education, Gender, and Generational Conflict Among Khmer Refugees,” Anthropology and Education Quarterly 24 (1993): 135-158.

8. Terence P. Hannigan, “Traits, Attitudes, and Skills that Are Related to Intercultural Effectiveness and Their Implications for Cross-Cultural Training: A Review of the Literature,” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 14 (1990): 89-111.

9. Amado M. Padilla, Yuria Wagatsuma, and Kathryn J. Lindholm, “Acculturation and Personality as Predictors of Stress in Japanese and Japanese-Americans,” The Journal of Social Psychology 125 (1985): 295-305; Nicole Pawliuk, Natalie Grizenko, Alice Chan-Yip, Peter Gantous, Jane Mathew, and Diem Nguyen, “Acculturation Style and Psychological Functioning in Children of Immigrants,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 66 (1996): 111-121; William A. Vega, Andres G. Gil, George J. Warheit, Rick S. Zimmerman, and Eleni Apospori, “Acculturation and Delinquent Behavior Among Cuban American Adolescents: Toward an Empirical Model,” American Journal of Community Psychology 21 (1993): 113-125.

10. S. Shirley Feldman and Doreen A. Rosenthal, “The Acculturation of Autonomy Expectations in Chinese High Schoolers Residing in Two Western Nations,” International Journal of Psychology 25 (1990): 259-281; Durhane Wong-Rieger and Diana Quintana, “Comparative Acculturation of Southeast Asian and Hispanic Immigrants and Sojourners,” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 18 (1987): 345-362.

11. Joti Bhatnagar, “Language Maintenance Programs for Immigrant Children,” International Review of Applied Psychology 34 (1985): 503-526.

12. Nicole Pawliuk, Natalie Grizenko, Alice Chan-Yip, Peter Gantous, Jane Mathew, and Diem Nguyen, “Acculturation Style and Psychological Functioning in Children of Immigrants,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 66 (1996): 111-121.

13. Perry M. Nicassio, “The Psychosocial Adjustment of the Southeast Asian Refugee,” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 16 (1985): 153-173; John U. Ogbu, “Differences in Cultural Frame of Reference,” International Journal of Behavioral Development 16 (1993): 483-506.

14. Andres G. Gil and William A. Vega, “Two Different Worlds: Acculturation Stress and Adaptation Among Cuban and Nicaraguan Families,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 13 (1996): 435-456.

15. John U. Ogbu, “Differences in Cultural Frame of Reference,” International Journal of Behavioral Development 16 (1993): 483-506.

16. Jean L. Athey and Frederick L. Ahearn, “The Mental Health of Refugee Children: An Overview,” in Frederick L. Ahearn and Jean L. Athey, eds., Refugee Children: Theory, Research, and Services (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1991); J. David Kinzie and William Sack, “Severely Traumatized Cambodian Children: Research Findings and Clinical Implications,” in Frederick L. Ahearn and Jean L. Athey, eds., Refugee Children: Theory, Research, and Services (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1991); Robert S. Pynoos and Spencer Eth, “Children Traumatized by Witnessing Acts of Personal Violence: Homicide, Rape, or Suicide Behavior,” in Spencer Eth and Robert S. Pynoos, eds., Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Children (Washington: American Psychiatric Press, 1985).

17. Kenji Ima and Ruben G. Rumbaut, “Southeast Asian Refugees in American Schools: A Comparison of Fluent-English Proficient and Limited-English Proficient Students,” Topics in Language Disorders 9 (1989): 54-77.

18. Guy J. Manaster, Jason C. Chan, and Randa Safady, “Mexican-American Migrant Students’ Academic Success: Sociological and Psychological Acculturation,” Adolescence 27 (1992): 123-136.

19. John Goldlust and Anthony H. Richmond, “A Multivariate Model of Immigrant Adaptation,” International Migration Review 8 (1974): 193-216.


Beth Kurtz-Costes is associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her research and teaching focus on family and cultural influences on children’s achievement.
Elizabeth P. Pungello is an investigator at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center and an assistant research professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on family influences on children’s achievement and parents’ selection of child care.

Recommendations for Educators


We present five recommendations aimed at fostering multiculturalism in our nation’s schools.


1. View the child as an individual, not as a member of a cultural group. Successful educators recognize that each child deserves to be treated as an individual with his or her own unique gifts. Immigrant children are individuals, with unique histories, personalities, abilities, and problems. Their adjustment in the classroom will be enhanced to the extent that educators are successful in recognizing them as individuals rather than stereotyping them as members of cultural groups.


2. Educate yourself regarding the child’s personal and cultural history. Because each child is unique, he or she may have nothing in common with the child of the same cultural heritage who was in your classroom last year. Educators will be most successful in meeting the needs of immigrant children when they know and thus are able to respond sensitively to each child. As outlined in this article, knowing a child means understanding the child’s characteristics and also factors in the child’s background (e.g., reasons for emigration, disparity between sending and receiving societies) that are likely to influence the child’s adjustment.


3. Make communication with parents a high priority. Given the potential for misunderstandings and cultural clashes with parents of immigrant children, it is of utmost importance that educators maintain clear communication with these parents. One goal should be to ensure that school goals are consistent with parents’ goals. A second goal should be to respect parents’ positions in their children’s lives, and thus to respect parents’ wishes when educators’ values and beliefs are inconsistent with those of parents.


4. Draw from the strengths of the child’s cultural heritage in enhancing his or her social/emotional adjustment and academic progress. It is well-recognized that immigrant groups in the United States bring with them cultural values and beliefs that often foster academic achievement. Successful educators will capitalize on these cultural beliefs and attitudes rather than view them as obstacles to the child’s acculturation and adjustment.


5. Take advantage of the presence of children from other cultural groups to develop a multicultural environment that enhances the cultural flexibility of all members of the class. The ability to understand and flexibly move between two or more cultures is a wonderful skill to be fostered. Nonimmigrant children have much to gain from their contacts with children from other cultures. To the extent that educators are successful in creating a school environment in which cultural diversity is celebrated, all of our children will benefit.