Pakistan: Understanding your students from Pakistan and their cultural backgrounds

Pakistani refugee students: Cultural background profiles

Displaced Pakistani children learn English as their second language. Photo from. U.S. Navy by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Eric S. Powell.
Displaced Pakistani children learn English as their second language. Photo from. U.S. Navy by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Eric S. Powell.

Pakistan Map

Many educators teaching diverse students report that they do not receive enough cultural background information on their students. If you are teaching refugee students, it is important to be aware of newcomers’ backgrounds.  The information below is meant to provide an overview of key highlights, so you develop culturally responsive teaching strategies that are in tune with your students’ unique learning styles.

Urdu, Punjabi, and English

Teaching in the Classroom
Fewer than 65% of children finish primary school, and only half of all adults are literate, the literacy rate being significantly higher for males than for females. Literacy drops in areas of violence and displacement. Further, even a substantial proportion of those who are literate have not had any formal education especially girls. The share of females in education progressively diminishes above the primary school level.

The use of child labor in Pakistan is widespread, but children who do attend school in Pakistan place high value on education. Children in school typically attend class, help with chores, and then study. In Pakistani schools, memorization is heavily emphasized, not critical thinking and classroom participation, so students might need coaching in these areas as they adjust. Citing references and keeping track of sources in academic work are not emphasized in Pakistan. Also, due to the emphasis on memorization, there are few repercussions for copying work from other classmates or from books.

In Pakistan, students usually have homerooms and teachers rotate through the classrooms. Students often have the same teacher for more than one subject area. Pakistani culture requires students to have very formal behavior with teachers. There are no jokes, no slacking off and no non-curricular discussions. Teachers are addressed as Sir or Madam, and students show respect by standing up when the teacher walks in or stopping walking when the teacher passes by.

Most students do not socialize with the opposite gender. It is culturally acceptable for boys and girls to hug, shake hands or jest just with members of the same sex. Girls may cover their hair with a hijab or scarf. Changing in a locker room may be uncomfortable, and Pakistani girls may choose to wear full-cover clothing in gym class.

Pakistan is a diverse country but it is also a hierarchical one. It might take some time and discussion for a student to adjust to the different social norms in the U.S. Many Pakistani children (especially girls) are accustomed to very direct guidance from their parents so when decision-making is required, it can help to offer two or three choices, at least at first, to help develop this skill. Students may need time to adjust to a very time-oriented U.S. culture where it is important to schedule events to be on time.

Students are generally used to more indirect communication styles and are likely to rely on context and nonverbal indicators to convey a message. It is important not to offend, and this can mean telling the listener what the listener wants to hear, especially people in higher positions, so they can save face. Closed statements followed by some silence, rather than questions, may be better at getting students to open up.

It is also polite for your Pakistani student to refuse things that are offered (food, for example) with the expectation that it will be offered several times before they can accept. Likewise, when told “no”, students may argue/ask repeatedly after being told “no,” since this is what they think will bring the expected result.

For the noon prayer, a private space can be provided for the student to pray undisturbed. Many schools allow the students to use a corner of a room designated for study hall or a counselor’s office. From the United States, Mecca is southeast.

The Pakistani family discipline system is very strong—children pay respect to their parents and don’t argue with them. Children are encouraged to attend religious education classes held on weekends and during the summer vacation.

Family/School Engagement
Pakistani parents prefer same-gender social gatherings for their teenagers to socialize. Mixed gatherings may be avoided by parents as well. Pakistani parents will typically have a lot of input on the appropriateness of friendships. Usually friendships are of the same sex, formed over many years, and a student’s friends become part of the family.

Parent-teacher meetings are held in Pakistan, but parents aren’t as directly involved. Pakistani mothers generally attend to their children’s educational needs. Although Pakistani parents often visit schools to see their child participate in sports and co-curricular activities, they may not be very involved overall. It is important to keep in mind that many refugees do not know how to drive or lack access to a car, so transportation to school events will be a challenge.

It is expected that you will use a person’s title and their surname. First names are
used mostly just among close friends. It is best to ask a person how they wish to be addressed. Eye contact is one of the basic principles of communication and it is highly regarded in Pakistani culture. However, it is considered a symbol of respect by the youth to not maintain eye contact while talking to grandparents and respected elders.

Culture, Gender and Family
Most Pakistanis are devout Muslims. About 75% are Sunni and 20% are Shia. The remaining 5% includes Christians, Ahmadis and Hindus. Modern Pakistan’s population can be divided into several ethnic groups, the single largest being the Punjabis.

Family means everything in Pakistani culture, and personal reputation as it reflects on family reputation is always considered in Pakistan. All peer relationships reflect on the entire family. In a Pakistani family, the mother is usually the caregiver and homemaker whereas the father is typically the authority and provider. In general women and men are kept very separate and women may feel uncomfortable outside of these situations. There may be several generations under one roof.

Additional Resources




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Print this Information as a PDF

You can download and print this Pakistani learner profile as a PDF and keep it as a resource in your classroom.

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