Cultural Adjustment

Portrait of a refugee family standing in their home. IRC/AOberstadt

Refugees arrive in the U.S. with a wealth of cultural experiences, beliefs, and norms that may differ from those in their local community. Being patient, keeping an open mind, and learning healthy ways to cope with cultural shock can help ease the adjustment process. It’s important for refugees to remember that cultural adjustment takes time and varies for each person. On this page, explore a variety of activities and additional resources that address key messages in the Cultural Adjustment Objectives & Indicators.

Tips for Teaching this Topic

The following tips are meant to help CO providers more effectively navigate the topic of Cultural Adjustment, drawing on concepts shared in CORE’s online course Creating a Positive Learning Environment and the Training for the Non-Trainer Digest.

IMAGE CAROUSEL

Set Clear Expectations

Slide Content

Activity Bank

What’s in a Name?

This activity provides an opportunity for participants to learn more about one another while also exploring the concept of identities and cultural diversity. Use in-person or virtually.

  1. Ask participants to reflect on the story of their name. If necessary, provide the following questions:
    • Who gave you your name? Why that name?
    • Do you know the ethnic origin of your name? Meaning?
    • Do you have any nicknames? If so, how did you get them?
    • What is your preferred name?
  2. Have participants share the story of their name either in pairs or small groups.
  3. After participants have shared, ask the following questions:
    • What similarities or differences did you hear in the stories of people’s names?
    • What or who might influence our names?
    • What do we learn about a person when we hear their names? What assumptions may we make? How might these assumptions be true or false?
  4. During or after the above discussion, highlight how names can reflect family history, immigration, values, and cultures. Explain that while one’s name is often the first piece of information shared with another person, and it might provide some insights, it is not all that makes up a person. It’s important to reflect how names can influence how we see ourselves and others.

  • Paper and writing materials (optional)

  • Time permitting, and depending on participants, encourage participants to be more creative when sharing the story of their name, either by writing a poem, drawing, or even creating a video.

Who is an American?

This activity is designed to increase awareness about the diversity of people in the U.S. and allow reflection on topics of bias, diversity, and discrimination. Use either in-person or virtually. Recommended for overseas CO, but may be adapted for domestic CO.

  1. Ask participants to close their eyes and imagine the following: They have arrived to the U.S. They are in the airport and they are met by a staff member from the local Resettlement Agency. The person has an interpreter with them and they help guide you to get your bags and make your way to a car to go to your housing. You pass other Americans as you move through the airport.
  2. Ask participants to open their eyes and ask them the following questions:
    • What did your caseworker look like? What did the interpreter look like?
    • What did the other people in the U.S. look like? Did they have a particular hair, eye, or skin color?
  3. Next share with participants Who is an American? Photo Set. Ask participants to identify the photos that show people you might see in the U.S. Note: All the photos are people you might find in the U.S.
  4. Review participants’ responses. Ask if they are surprised by the results.
  5. Discuss with participants the concept of bias. Provide the definition of bias: An inclination or preference either for or against an individual or group that interferes with impartial judgment. Ask participants:
    • How did their answers or what they imagined about the U.S. show bias?
    • How will understanding your own possible bias help you when you arrive to the U.S.?
    • What bias might others have when they look at you?
    • How would that make you feel?
    • Have you ever experienced discrimination?
    • How did it feel to be judged or treated differently because of their skin color, ethnicity, religion, sex, gender , etc.?
  6. Explain to participants that they may encounter many types of people in the U.S., people who have different skin color, come from different cultures, practice different religions, and speak other languages. Also highlight that the local Resettlement Agency staff may also be similar to individuals in the photos.
  7. Ask participants: What does the term “diversity” mean to them? Record answers. Provide the definition of diversity: Refers to the variety of group experiences that result from the social structure of society. Diversity is a broad concept that includes differences in society’s opportunities, the shaping of social institutions by different social factors, the formation of group and individual identity, and the processes of social change. This includes race, class, gender, age, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability, language, and regional residence, among others.
  8. Next ask participants: How do you feel about the diversity of people you may encounter in the U.S.? Respond to answers noting that all people coming to and living in the U.S. are looking for acceptance.
  9. As appropriate, ask participants:
    • Have you ever experienced discrimination?
    • How did it feel to be judged or treated differently because of their skin color, ethnicity, religion, sex, gender , etc.?

      The answers to these questions can be discussed or simply reflected on quietly.

 

  • It is important to create a positive learning environment that promotes trust and safety, so participants can engage meaningfully with this discussion. For more guidance, complete CORE’s online course, Creating a Positive Learning Environment.
  • When discussing the concept of diversity, your role is to stay neutral and calm. Do not be afraid of discussion, but be flexible and prepared to enforce rules and have participants practice active listening techniques.
  • Time permitting, consider discussing more information about bias and types of biases, using this Anti-Bias Education Glossary of Terms.
  • While recommended for overseas CO, instructions, questions, and images may be adapted for iterative learning in a domestic context.

Adapted from RSC Asia Cultural Orientation Curriculum

Map of Yum!

This activity combines learning about participants’ communities while discussing cultural diversity that exists in the U.S. Use in-person or virtually. Recommended for domestic Cultural Orientation.

  1. Ask participants: What kind of food can you find in the U.S.? Do you think you can find food from your culture? What about other cultures?
  2. Share with participants one of the following items, specific to their local community:
    • Pictures or a list of area restaurants or grocery stores
    • Pictures or a list of foods from different cultures that can be found at a local grocery store
  3. Ask participants to review the materials and share observations. Ask:
    • Are they surprised by the photos or information shared?
    • What does this tell them about the U.S.?
  4. Provide participants with a map of the community and work with them to identify the locations of the area restaurants or grocery stores and label the map either through using internet or a map-based app or by conducting a field trip in the community.
  5. Ask participants to reflect and share about their experience of creating the map or going into the community.

  • Pictures or a list of area restaurants or grocery stores
  • Pictures or a list of foods from different cultures that can be found at the local grocery store
  • Maps of the community
  • Writing utensils or stickers for marking the map

  • Time permitting, incorporate a small discussion around the meaning of the word “yum” and allow participants to share what words are used in their cultures to express a meal or food tastes delicious.
  • This activity may be more useful in places that have a range of food options from different cultures.

Created by David Royster

Personal and Social Identity Wheels

This activity is designed to explore and reflect on personal and social identities, and how they may shift during the resettlement process and influence the cultural adjustment process. Use in-person or virtually.

  1. Share with participants the Personal Identity Wheel Worksheet. Depending on the group, ask participants to use, pens, markers, stickers, or post-it notes to mark their worksheet. Go through the different sections of the Personal Identity Wheel Worksheet and ask participants to mark the wheel as follows:
    • Most important aspects, place in the inner circle
    • Least important aspects, place in the outer circle
  2. Ask participants to share their personal identity wheels in pairs or small groups. Explain to participants that they can choose what they want to share and do not have to share all aspects of the wheel if they are not comfortable doing so.
  3. Ask participants about their experiences filling out the personal identity wheel. Ask participants: Are there any similarities or differences they noticed in sharing with others?
  4. Ask participants: What does the term “personal identity” mean to you?
  5. Provide participants with the definition for personal identity: identity characteristics you would give yourself. These can include traits, behaviors, beliefs, values, and other characteristics that make you who you are.
  6. Explain to participants that along with personal identity, social identity also shapes their identities and experiences.
  7. Ask participants: What does the term “social identity” mean to you? Provide the definition: identity characteristics that affect how others interact with you and how you interact with others. These can include race, gender, age, and other characteristics. 
  8. Next, share with participants a second worksheet, the Social Identity Wheel Worksheet, and again provide participants with instructions or materials to mark the wheel (stickers, pens, etc.). Go through the different sections of the Social Identity Wheel Worksheet and ask participants to place stickers in the wheel as follows:
    • Most important aspects, place in the inner circle
    • Least important aspects, place in the outer circle
  9. Ask participants to share in pairs or small groups their social identity wheels.
  10. Bring participants together in a full group and ask the following questions:
    • Which aspects of your social identity feel especially meaningful to you and why? Which aspects don’t feel as meaningful to you and why?
    • What experiences have you had that make the identities in your inner circle more salient to you?
    • Why do you think more about some of your identities than others?
    • Why is it important to be aware of our social identities?
    • How might understanding different identities help with navigating different spaces as new resident Americans?

  • Depending on literacy abilities, you may have participants complete both the personal and social identity wheel worksheets independently.
  • It is important to create a positive learning environment that promotes trust and safety, so participants can participate fully in the activity. For more guidance, complete CORE’s online course, Creating a Positive Learning Environment.

Communicating Through Difference

This activity explores the complexity of communication and examines how communication can vary across cultures, including in the U.S. Use in-person or virtually.

  1. Ask participants: What does the word “communication” mean to you? Ask: How do we communicate with one another? If necessary, prompt for responses beyond speech (facial expressions, body language, music, art, etc.). Record responses.
  2. Explain how much of our communication is not through words, but through nonverbal communication. To help participants better understand, ask the following questions.
    1. How do you greet another person in your country in a formal setting? Informal setting?
    2. How do Americans typically greet each other in a formal setting? Informal setting?
    3. What does direct eye contact mean in your country? How might this differ from eye contact in the U.S.
    4. What happens if we do not understand nonverbal communication from another culture?
  3. Use the answers to discuss and define the differences between non-verbal and verbal communication.
    • non-verbal communication: “silent” communication, including the use of gestures, postures, position, eye contact, facial expressions and conversational distance.
    • verbal communication: spoken communication, including the use of words and intonation to convey meaning
  4. Share the Non-verbal Communication Scenarios with participants. Take turns or have participants work in pairs to practice communicating only using nonverbal communication.
  5. Ask participants:
    • What did you observe through the scenarios?
    • What worked well? What did not work well?
    • What is the value of this activity when you think about being in a new environment, whether a new country? Or new work place?
    • What advice would you give to others about miscommunication, particularly when you are in a new environment?
    • If in the U.S., what non-verbal communication have you noticed since you arrived that you did not understand or which made you uncomfortable?

 

  • For the discussion on verbal and non-verbal communication, adapt as necessary based on your participants and their country/ies of origin.
  • Adapt the Non-verbal Communication Scenarios as needed based on your participants and time available.
  • You may also use discussions from this activity to make connections to key messages under the role of resettlement agency and also rights and responsibilities.

Opposite Hand Exercise

This activity allows participants to reflect on the adjustment process of resettling to the U.S. Use in-person or virtually.

  1. Provide participants with piece of paper and, depending on their level of literacy, either a pen/pencil or pair of scissors.
  2. Ask participants to do one of the following with the piece of paper:
    • Draw a symbol like a heart or line
    • Write their name
    • Cut a shape out of the piece of paper with the scissors
  3. Ask participants to repeat the same process with their opposite hand.
  4. Ask participants to show or explain the differences in the two drawings or pieces of paper they cut out.
  5. Ask participants: How did it feel to use the different hands?
  6. Ask participants: How does this relate to what life in the U.S. might be like?
  7. Explain to participants that although life in the U.S. may be difficult at first and is different from life as they are used to it, with time, practice, and determination, they will eventually adapt to it.

  • Paper
  • Pencil or pen
  • Scissors

  • If you do not have enough supplies, you may ask one participant to volunteer and demonstrate the exercise.

Adapted from multiple Resettlement Support Centers Cultural Orientation Curricula

Discussion on Cultural Adjustment

This activity provides participants with information about the phases of cultural adjustment they may experience as they resettle to the U.S. Use in-person or virtually.

  1. Describe the four phases of cultural adjustment using the information provided in the U-Curve of Cultural Adjustment. Explain to participants that while they may all pass through the four stages of adjustment, the length and intensity of each phase will vary by individual. It is also possible that participants may experience phases more than once. Emphasize the process is not linear, but rather ongoing, and not limited to the first few months of arrival.
  2. Share the Cultural Adjustment Scenarios with participants. Ask participants to review the scenarios and identify what part of the U-Curve of Cultural Adjustment is being described.
  3. Ask participants: What is it that makes you believe the person is in this phase of cultural adjustment? Do you agree? If not, why not?
  4. As a follow-up, ask the participants: Is there something this person might do to cope with their feelings and/or prepare for the next phase?
  5. After reviewing scenarios, ask participants the following questions as a review:
    • What are the four phases of cultural adjustment and how do you anticipate feeling in each of these phases?
    • Is there anything that you can do to prepare for a phase of cultural adjustment?
    • How can you cope with a phase of cultural adjustment when you’re in it?
    • What might you do if you see a friend or family member struggling with a phase of cultural adjustment?
  6. Remind participants that by identifying where we are on the U-Curve of Cultural Adjustment, we can know better how to respond to and prepare for the next phase.

  • Consider printing the U-Curve of Cultural Adjustment for participants to take home.
  • Adapt Cultural Adjustment Scenarios as appropriate for your participants. For example, use additional scenarios or reduce the number of scenarios, as relevant, for your given context.
  • Depending on participants’ abilities and size, you may also review scenarios as a group.
  • Time permitting and based on available resources, consider pairing this activity with a guest speaker(s) or field trip to relevant organizations that are available to provide additional support to participants.

Family Dynamics Scenarios

This activity is ideal for discussing and identifying how family dynamics may change during resettlement to the U.S. Use in-person or virtually.

  1. Share with participants the New Families in the U.S. Scenarios. Ask participants in pairs or small groups to discuss one scenario and answer the following questions:
    • What is your initial response to the scenario?
    • If you were a person in the scenario, how would you feel? What would you do?
    • What advice might you give the people in the scenarios?
  2. Conduct a large group discussion, ask each group to share the situation and a summary of their discussions.
  3. Ask participants the following question: What did you learn from this exercise that may help you as you resettle in the U.S.?

  • If conducting virtually, provide one scenario at a time and discuss as a whole group, rather than using pairs or small groups.
  • Adapt New Families in the U.S. Scenarios as appropriate for your participants. For example, use additional scenarios or reduce the number of scenarios, as relevant, for your given context.
  • Depending on participants’ abilities and size, you may also review scenarios as a group.
  • Time permitting and based on available resources, consider pairing this activity with a guest speaker(s) or field trip to relevant organizations that are available to provide additional support to participants.

Adapted from Family Situations Activity from IOM

Blind Walk

This activity is meant to identify emotions that may arise as family roles change during the resettlement process. For in-person use and best for CO with families.

  1. Ask participants: What are the roles and responsibilities within your family? If helpful, go through the different figures of a family, father/husband, mother/wife, children, grandparents, etc. Record responses.
  2. Ask participants: Do you anticipate these roles and responsibilities changing in the United States? Ask participants to explain their answers.
  3. Explain that often during the resettlement process family dynamics can change. For example, children or younger family members often learn English more quickly than adult family members. Or certain family members may find a job quicker than other family members.
  4. Ask participants: How might such changes affect your family? Acknowledge that these changes can cause tensions and stress for the family. Explain that the following exercise is meant to give an idea on how it may feel.
  5. Have participants form pairs or small groups. If there are family members, put them work together. Set out a few chairs around the room as small obstacles.
  6. Identify a leader in each pair or group. This person will close their eyes or use a blindfold. The other members of the group will guide the leader around the obstacles.
  7. After, ask the participants:
    • What was the experience like for those of you who could not see?
    • What was the experience like for those of you who were guiding?
    • How might this relate to experiences in the U.S.? What are some situations where who is leading may change?
    • What are some techniques or advice you have for your family members in facing changing dynamics in the U.S.?

  • Scarves or pieces of cloth for participants to use as a blindfold (optional)

Adapted from RSC Africa Cultural Orientation Curriculum

Snowball Fight of Fear and Hope

This activity offers participants an opportunity to reflect on the excitement and apprehension of resettling to the U.S. Designed for in-person use, but may be modified for virtual sessions.

  1. Provide each participant with a copy of Hopes and Fears Handout. Ask participants to circle or place a sticker on their hopes and fears about starting life in the U.S. Ask them to select top one of two for each.
  2. Ask participants to crumble their handout into a ball.
  3. Ask participants: Have you seen or experienced a snowball fight? If not, explain the concept to the participants: when there is a lot of snow, people form balls using the snow and then throw these are one another as a game. Explain how for this activity each of their balls of paper represents a “snowball” and they will have a pretend snowball fight.
  4. Set timer for two minutes and allow participants to safely toss/throw their “snowballs” around the room.
  5. After two minutes, ask participants to pick up the “snowball” closest to them, unravel it, and proceed to take turns reading aloud fears and hopes listed. If a participant picks up their own snowball, they should exchange with someone else from the group.
  6. Ask participants:
    • What similarities or differences did you see in responses?
    • Are there any hopes and fears that are not on the handout that you also have?
  7. As appropriate, work with participants to set realistic expectations around their hopes. For example, if a hope is to buy a house, discussing the time this will take, and what else may happen first. In discussing fears, discuss with participants, possible solutions and draw on a strengths-based approach to highlight personal characteristics, they may have that can help them, such as resiliency.

  • For groups with higher literacy, participants may record their own hopes and fears on a blank piece of paper, rather than using the Hopes and Fears Handout.
  • If there are participants with mobility issues, adapt the snowball fight aspect accordingly.
  • If conducting virtually, share the hopes and fears handout and ask participants to identify their hopes and fears, either verbally, by voting, or annotating the screen.

Adapted from Play Snowball Fight to Break the Ice or Review Lessons, Deb Peterson and RSC Asia Cultural Orientation Curriculum

Network of Support

This activity helps participants identify ways of coping with the stressors of cultural adjustment. Use in-person.

  1. Share with participants that there are stressors in life and that when adjusting to life in a new community, these stressors will be exacerbated. Fortunately, there are positive ways to cope.
  2. Hand one participant the ball of yarn. Ask the participant: What is one way that you cope with stress? Answers might include going for a walk, talking with a friend, praying or meditating, baking, speaking with a therapist, etc.
  3. Once they have suggested a type of support, ask the participant to hold onto one end of the yarn and toss the ball of yarn to someone else in the circle.
  4. When the next person catches the ball of yarn, they too should share a way that they cope with stress. Like the first participant, they should hold onto one end of the yarn and throw the ball to someone else in the circle.
  5. Continue this until each participant has had an opportunity to share their ideas. Then ask:
    • What do you see when you look at this?
    • What does it look like?
  6. Explain to participants that the yarn represents a net of support. Ask participants:
    • Is there anything that we could do to strengthen this net?
    • What other sources of support could we add?

As appropriate, add sources of support in your receiving community about which participants might not be aware.

 

  • Ball of yarn

  • It is important to create a positive learning environment that promotes trust and safety, so participants can participate fully in the activity. For more guidance, complete CORE’s online course, Creating a Positive Learning Environment.
  • If there are participants with mobility issues, use a smaller subset of participants to carry out the activity while the others observe or simply solicit the responses through group brainstorming.
  • When the activity is complete, consider cutting the web into pieces, giving each participant a piece to take home. When participants are feeling sad or overwhelmed, the piece of yarn can remind them of some of the supports shared during the session.

Additional Resources

Acknowledgments

This page was developed by CORE in collaboration with David Royster. David Royster has worked for more than 12 years in higher international education with a focus in the intersections of education, inclusion, student development and social justice. David has constructed and led multiple trainings on diversity, identity and inclusion.