Learning about newcomer students’ cultural background

Knowledge of each student’s past educational experience and student cultural background is essential in supporting their educational success in the United States.


In order to get a better understanding of your newcomer student’s history, consider researching this information from a variety of sources: the internet, a caseworker, a community leader, the family, and the students themselves. Knowing each student’s cultural background brings insight into their behavior and can help you tackle challenges. As you start learning about your newcomer students’ cultural background, it’s important to consider their unique life experiences. 

Students with interrupted formal education (SIFE)

Most refugee and immigrant children will have experienced interruptions in their schooling. These students may be behind in many academic skills, but up-to-date in others. The Refugee Educator Academy and ColorinColorado have a wealth of resources on this topic.    

Teacher-centered models 

Often, classrooms in the developing world will use teacher-centered educational models where there are very few classroom activities and the educational day revolves around teachers’ lectures. Students from these contexts may be uncomfortable contributing to, or sharing in class.

Classroom expectations

In much of the developing world, students are expected to sit, listen, retain and regurgitate the information rather than interact with the teacher or idea. Some children may never have had to do group work or, on the other hand, may never have experienced doing school work individually. Classroom discipline norms vary widely around the world.

 teenage boys watching socce
Photo courtesy of Portland, Oregon, Parks and Recreation Department


Your immigrant and refugee students may have experienced significant trauma in their recent past. These experiences may be emotionally and developmentally disruptive to your student. You may not know if your student is experiencing flashbacks or terror spells as they sit in your classroom. You can find resources on working with trauma in our Educating Refugee and Immigrant Students course.

“Students [often] come from ‘hot,’ war-torn areas, so teachers must be aware of the socio-political issues of these areas if they want to know literally where their students are coming from.”  – USAHello Survey Respondent

Use our students’ cultural background resources

Do you want to learn how to help your students gain confidence and feel supported and understood in your school? USAHello created resources to help you learn abut your students’ cultural background. Our students’ cultural background resources include links to other resources that will tell you more.

a young woman teacher helping little girl
Resources for teachers and supporters

Sign up for our online professional development class or find cultural background information about refugees and asylum seekers – useful for professional educators and anyone who wants to support newcomer families.

Find resources