How to Help Students Survive Culture Shock

How to Help Students Survive Culture Shock

How to Help Students Survive Culture Shock

By Colleen Miller
Photo credit: vasta

Have you noticed that about halfway into the school year, new ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) students, who once seemed excited and energized, seem to hit a wall? Students who once were bright-eyed and cheerful come to school looking listless and detached. More than just the mid-year doldrums, they may be in the crisis stage of the powerful phenomenon of culture shock.

What is culture shock?

In the 1950s, a diplomat named Karl Oberg first used the term “culture shock” to describe the difficulties both he and his fellow expatriates experienced as they adjusted to their new lives overseas. He suggested that people depend on cues given by their familiar groups to define who they are and to support their self-concept. Without these cues, people are prone to anxiety and frustration, which can lead to physical ailments. 

The stages of culture shock:

Honeymoon                               Adjustment
                 Hostility            Humor


Most people move through a U-curve of culture shock stages. These include:

1. Honeymoon – marked by enthusiasm and euphoria as students are stimulated by the novelty of their new situation.

2. Hostility – characterized by irritability and negativism as the excitement wears off, difficulties become realized, and self-confidence slips.

3. Crisis – typified by a deep sense of homesickness and/or hostility. Students may feel a sense of isolation and loss of control.

4. Humor – enthusiasm begins to return, especially if new language skills are acquired. Students will see the humor in their mistakes and stop being critical of themselves and of their adopted country.

5. Adjustment – characterized by gained biculturalism, and by a willingness to mentor new ESOL students. Culture shock subsides as students gain proficiency in the new language, become more familiar with their environment, and achieve greater success in their intercultural interactions.

By understanding the culture shock experience, and its inherent stages, teachers can better support the experience of the immigrant children in their classrooms. After all, educators don’t just work to help ESOL children build an “interlanguage” between their first and second languages, but also work to build an “interculture,” or a learner’s bridge from a child’s first cultural understanding toward a second cultural knowledge. The more scaffolding and support children have from their hosts or community, the faster they can bridge the misunderstandings.

What are symptoms of culture shock?

Be alert for signs of culture shock in your students. Symptoms can include flashes of anger over minor frustrations, excessive sleepiness, unexplained crying, changes in appetite, withdrawal, aches and pains, and even depression. Helping students manage culture shock can be crucial to maintaining individual and classroom morale. The key to overcoming culture shock is to give students the tools to adapt to their new life and to help them retain their appreciation of their native culture and family traditions.

How to help your ESOL students:

  • Teach students about culture shock. Knowing what to expect can give students a sense of recognition and control.
  • Encourage students to continue learning their native language. Make a dual language book library in the classroom and encourage students to borrow materials to share at home. Because knowledge transfers from one language to another, the more students read in any language, the faster they will connect to new content and skills. Also, as young students often excel at language learning, reading together with parents can help ease the detachment some immigrant children feel at home because their parents may lag behind in acquiring English. This disconnect can add to a student’s level of stress. Making an excuse to cuddle up with a book can re-energize sagging spirits.
  • Establish and carefully explain classroom routines to newcomers. By doing this, you create a classroom culture that students can settle into quickly, thus reinforcing their sense of safety.
  • Plan for projects where students can teach you and their classmates about their culture. This will foster a feeling of mutual respect in the classroom. Each member will feel she has something valuable to contribute to your promotion of global understanding.
  • Help students connect to activities that might interest them outside of school. Art classes, sports teams, and hobby programs can help students feel part of a new community network.
  • Encourage students to find or form support groups with other students who may be at the same point in the U-curve of culture shock.
  • Allow time for reflection. Teach students vocabulary for feelings. Using pictures of children showing different emotions can be helpful in teaching expression. If students are old enough, let them journal. You might encourage them to compare and contrast their old life and their new life. Also, have students explore how to handle frustrating situations and to examine moments of success.
  • Teach and model conflict resolution skills. Have students role play scenarios, so when difficult real-life situations occur, they will have the tools to react in a healthy way.
  • Periodically remind students how to get help at your school if feelings of homesickness become overwhelming.


Colleen Miller is a University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Masters of ESOL Education student, where she is working on a thesis of the impact of Culture Shock on adolescents. She taught high school English in Japan for two years, and has been employed by Howard County, Maryland, as a secondary English teacher for 10 years.

© Language Lizard, LLC.

16 thoughts on “How to Help Students Survive Culture Shock”

  1. Having a dictionary for upper elementary students has helped some of my newcomers greatly. They can write the word in English and then write the definition or the same word in their language. Some even draw pictures to help remember the meaning. Months later students still pull out their dictionaries when we come across words that they know they’ve seen before but can’t remember what it means!

  2. This is very helpful to remember as I start my first teaching practice in my teacher training next wk. I have no idea what backgrounds my students will have so good to have this reference in mind.

  3. It is difficult adjusting to a new country, new culture and a new language. Having a good teacher to help you deal with the shock is crucial to learning and not loosing the motivation. Great article, hope that many will find it useful and informative.

  4. We are starting a parent support group for Newcomer families at one of our local schools; I think this information on culture shock will be very helpful for both the parents and teachers!

  5. Culture shock is real. I taught 5th grade at an international school in India. Even though most of my students and all of the staff spoke English, I needed to adapt to a very different lifestyle. It would have been 10X more difficult if I also did not understand the dominant language. A huge helping of TLC needs to be provided to students who come from other places and/or speak another language.

  6. Simply put, culture shock is the way you react and feel when the cultural cues you know so well from home are lacking.These activities all require cultural knowledge, and when you go to a new country you must learn to recognize normal behavior, interpret cultural signals, navigate the new rules, and react in an adult manner appropriate to that culture. Inexperience in the culture takes its toll on your psyche, and your reaction will be determined by your knowledge of that culture, your ability to observe people and your willingness to accept this new/different way of doing things.

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  8. Also children who grow up in a culture different from their parents, they learn both. Then when they move back to their “home” culture- despite looking like all their peers (for the first time) and knowing the language (code switching) they are still experience culture shock but it is easily not identified or acknowledged because they “look the same” but they are still in a transition- especially in school in a new school culture and learning style and environment. Thank you for the simple yet clear outline of culture shock with simple and effective solution in transition!

  9. Cultural Shock is important that student realized he is in another culture. It is very important to realized he / she is not on his / her country anymore. So, What do I need to do in this country? There is a lot to do. Let them know the student he / she can share the positive of his / her culture and learned the positive of the new culture. In fact, Student needs to be realistic, but have experience and knowledge about his / her culture. He / she can continues working in the new culture and keep working on his / her culture too.

    1. Universities and Professional Development must offer resources and information about culture shock. Teachers and administrators need to understand culture shock and the effects it can have in the classroom. Including students who are re-entering their parents culture (even when they look like all the other kids). My child reentered after growing up in another culture and the teacher, without parent knowledge or permission, placed child in special needs, social worker, speech pathologist and reading levels far below his ability. I only found out through another parent asking me “Why s your child in this group and program, your child doesn’t appear to have any disabilities or problems”. Because the teacher was unaccustomed to anyone outsider own culture (it was a mom culture school we should have never entered) he was different, he knew different sports, content, lifestyle, he was adjusting not only to the school but the social interactions in relating to his peers (playing video games which he had not done) and had a dialect that he has now lost with assimilation. It was devastating and detrimental to child’s education and readjustment. There was another child who had the same situation and the teacher did the same to that student. When I questioned and had to fight it after finding out, the principal told me I was “biased against special needs kids” so my child took the Gifted and Talented test and scored high. The teacher was so offended at her mistake that we had to leave the district. Luckily I instituted a mandatory service learning on multicultural education for each school in that district, even if it is just one hour it is better then nothing. It was sad that a difficult transition was made worse by the ignorance and ethnocentric beliefs of a teacher. I have a M.Ed in Bilingual Multicultural Education and assumed living in the country would have been a good transition, it was the worst. I thought a city with so many students would have been more difficult, but now I realize a city would have realized diversity is a reality.

      1. terrible typos from this “auto correct” above. Monoculture not mom culture is the worst type changing context! No edit button.

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