Culture Shock and Pre-K–5 English Learners

Today I am writing this blog with my co-author and friend Debbie Zacarian, author and professional development provider. (See her bio at the end of this blog.)  In our experience, identifying culture shock at the beginning of the year is crucial to an English learner’s adjustment to school in the United States.

Moving to a new school can be difficult for any student, but for those who have to learn a new culture and language, the change can be devastating. If your English learners are coming to a U.S. school for the first time, they will experience culture shock. In fact, culture shock can dramatically affect a student’s first year in a U.S. school.

As ESL teachers, we must help classroom teachers of ELs in our schools to understand culture shock. The more we do to help our students cope with the challenges that they face, including the anxiety that they might feel as they enter a new learning environment, the more positive their experience will be. While anxiety can manifest itself in a myriad of ways, it leads to insecurity and is a barrier to learning. The more positive the school experience during the first year of school, the more open ELs will be to learning.

Case Study: Aditya

Let’s look at Aditya, who is a new 3rd-grade student that recently arrived from India to a small suburban school in New Jersey. Aditya was very frustrated about his inability to communicate and lashed out  when he didn’t understand what was being said. He was aggressive toward his classmates on the school playground. One day, the only other Hindi-speaking student in the school was absent and Aditya couldn’t communicate with his classmates and teacher at all. He became very upset and ran from the classroom. Aditya’s orientation to school in the United States was especially hard. The school principal placed him in a classroom where there were no other speakers of Hindi. Aditya’s parents felt he would learn English much more quickly if he didn’t  speak Hindi in school. As a result, he did not have any native language support. What might have happened if Aditya had been placed in a classroom where there were more Hindi-speaking students? We might surmise that his culture shock would not have been so severe.

Teachers, administrators, and other school personnel must realize that not all beginning ELs will suffer from culture shock in the same way. The spectrum varies from withdrawn and passive to aggressive. The greater the difference between the new culture and the students’ primary culture, the greater the shock. For example, a student moving from Mexico to Arizona, where there are many Spanish speakers, may not experience culture shock in the same way as a student moving from Sudan to Minnesota. In addition, parents of ELs may be unable to help them because they are also suffering from culture shock.

Four Stages of Culture Shock

In educational settings, researchers and practitioners recognize four of stages of culture shock. As ESL educators, we need to make classroom teachers aware of these stages and how they can influence the behavior of newly arrived ELs.

1) Honeymoon or euphoric stage. ELs s at this beginning stage may feel euphoric about their new adventure and this euphoric stage can last from one day to several months.

2) Rejection or culture shock stage.  ELs may reject the new when they begin to see the differences between the American school culture and their home culture. They do not yet have the language to participate in school and may feel overwhelmed by what they need to learn. They are bombarded with “unfamiliar surroundings, unreadable social signals, and an unrelenting barrage of new sounds” (Haynes, 2005). They may also seem sleepy, irritable, disinterested and/or depressed. Some students may become aggressive and act out their frustration.

3) Integration stage. ELs start to deal with differences between the old and new cultures. Students begin to learn to integrate their own beliefs with those of the new culture. Some ELs will start to replace their old values with new ones and may begin to reject their home culture and language. Others will begin to find ways to exist with both cultures.

4) Assimilation or adaption stage. ELs will enter and thrive in the general education classroom. They will either accept and assimilate American culture with their home culture or they will adapt to the new culture and reject their home culture. Ideally, students will be successful negotiating the culture of school and value their home culture.

Once school personnel learn to recognize culture shock and develop methods to support students, ELs will be more able to participate in their classrooms. It is our job as ESL teachers to help this happen. We invite you to share your stories about students suffering from culture shock and tell how your school handled them.


Debbie Zacarian is owner of Debbie Zacarian, EdD & Associates, a woman-owned consulting business specializing in policy and practice, strategic planning, coaching, innovation, and professional development for educators and professionals working with culturally and linguistically diverse populations. Debbie is the author of Teaching English Language Learners Across the Content Areas (with Judie Haynes), Transforming Schools for English Learners, a Comprehensive Framework for School Leaders, The Essential Guide to Educating Beginning English Learners (with Judie Haynes),  and Mastering Academic Language: a Framework for Supporting Student Achievement. Her fifth and forthcoming book,  In It Together: Advancing Equity, Access and Engagement for Students, Families and the Community, cowritten with Michael Silverstone, will be published in 2015.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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2 Responses to Culture Shock and Pre-K–5 English Learners

  1. Carol Williams says:

    Judie, your article about the experiences of culture shock that ELs face in residing not only in America but in any new environment in which there is a distinct difference in culture and traditions is certainly an eye opener. ELs do react differently when facing culture shock. Unlike your encounter, I do recall a 4th grade EL student in my classroom last year. At the start of the school year, she seemed very withdrawn, quiet, and uninterested in learning. Having no knowledge of culture shock at the time, I felt this student had some knowledge about her work but was being somewhat lazy. However, I pulled her in small group and worked with her one-on-one along with a few other students. This seemed to make a difference. Even the student’s confident level seemed to improve. Now that I am becoming more aware of culture shock and how it impacts our EL students, this knowledge will help me to reach them and help them to succeed.

  2. Josie Davis says:

    Judie, I really enjoyed your insight on culture shock. I am thinking back on how to relate on the topic and a pre school student comes to mind. When he first began at the school, he continually cried and seemed nearly inconsolable. The teachers and I were uncertain of whether or not the little boy’s family spoke English at home. The little boy had to be overwhelmed by a new routine, new faces, and quite possibly a new language.

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