Promoting a Positive Cross-Cultural Identity:

A Caring Teacher’s Guide to Working with Recent Immigrant Students


Virginia M. Tong, Ph.D.

Cindy W. Huang, M.Ed.

Tom McIntyre, Ph.D.




 Contact Dr. Tong at






Historically, America’s schools have been the major agent for helping recently arrived children and youth adapt to the social and civic demands of their new home.  It is through structured lessons in the classroom, and socialization in the school yards and cafeterias, that newcomers learn the American versions of English, commonly accepted social skills and patterns, and the information that will help them to become productive citizens.

Often times though, home culture teachings and expectations contrast with those of our schools (Coutinho, Oswald, & Forness, 2002: McIntyre, 1996).  Given that most educators are unfamiliar with culturally different behavior patterns, culturally and linguistically different children are frequently misclassified as having a disability when none actually exists (Anderson,1992; Argulewicz & Sanchez, 1983; Ford, 1992; Gersten & Woodward, 1994; Harry, 1992; Obiakor,1992: Utley & Obiakor, 2001).

On the other hand, many culturally and linguistically different youth do indeed have psychologically-based behavioral concerns that need to be addressed by informed and caring educational personnel.  “Acculturation stress” and its psychosocial issues often arise as immigrant children and youth attempt to adapt to their new surroundings.

All newcomers to the United States face adjustment challenges with regard to a new language, unfamiliar rules and laws, different customs, and some degree of lifestyle change (Grossman, 2004; Organista, Organista, & Kurasaki, 2003; Tong, 2002).  Upon entering America, immigrant children and youth face immediate and important decisions regarding who they are (culturally and ethnically speaking), and who they will become.  These youngsters must question whether speaking English and displaying mainstream American values and actions, compared to speaking their first language and behaving in their traditional ways, requires giving up too much of their sense of self.

While immigrant youth realize the importance of finding a new identity in North America and incorporating many of its ways, they experience uncertainty as to what degree each culture should comprise the new identity (Tong, 2002; Tong & McIntyre, 1998).  Each must decide, consciously or not, the degree to which s/he will maintain the practices of the old culture that are important to one’s sense of self, and adopt the ways of the new one (Berry & Sam, 2003; Phinney, 2003).

This coordinating of two cultures/languages is a complex process involving different degrees of stress at different times during acculturation (Lupi & Tong, 2001;Tong, 1998; Tong 2002; Williams & Snipper, 1990).  School aged children are particularly susceptible to the often-found contrasting pressures exerted between school and their acculturated peers on one hand, and the home and non-acculturated peers/adults on the other (Banks, 1991; Grossman, 2004; Tiedt & Tiedt, 2002).  This “acculturative stress” can create psychological and behavioral problems (Grossman, 2004; Rueda & Forness, 1994; Yeung & Schwartz, 1986; Zheng & Berry, 1991).

A successful transition to one’s new country is characterized by the development of a secure “cross-cultural identity” (Lupi & Tong, 2001; Tong, 1997; Tong, 1998; Tong, 2002) that optimally balances the values and beliefs of their home and school cultures.  This new sense of self combines the values, beliefs, customs, and behavioral patterns of the two groups in a manner that feels comfortable to the individual.  Each person’s identity will vary, containing different traits and different percentages of each group.  How much of each culture forms the new identity depends on the person’s experiences, needs, skills, intelligence, education, and support systems.  The one common element is that all of these individuals perceive the two cultures to be symbiotic and complimentary rather than competitive (Tong, 1998; Tong, 2002).

In this article, we provide strategies that will help general and special educators to better relate to immigrant students, more effectively address their educational needs, and assist them in their psychosocial transition to a new country and educational system.  The use of these practices are becoming more important given the numbers of new immigrants, and most educators’ lack of knowledge regarding second language acquisition (and its effect on learning) (Tong 1997), and culturally compatible instructional practices (Coutinho, Oswald, & Forness, 2002).

An understanding of immigrant youngsters’ struggles to manage and merge their two (or more) cultures helps teachers develop practices that support the multi-phasic adjustment process.  We offer a number of suggestions for assisting recent immigrant pupils in reaching their full academic and social potential while promoting a self-secure cross-cultural sense of self.

Top 10 Ways to Help Recent Immigrant Students

#1 Learn about the cultures of the students you teach

Students who display behaviors that are appropriate in their cultures, but different than those promoted by the American mainstream are at risk for having these behaviors identified by uninformed educators as being “wrong” (McIntyre, 1996).  To better understand the beliefs and behaviors of a student’s home culture, it is important to familiarize oneself with its values and practices.  An awareness of differences promotes understanding, tolerance, acceptance, and celebration of others and their ways.

Information on different cultures can be found in many textbooks and on various web sites.  Some especially helpful resources include: Classroom Behavior Management for Diverse and Inclusive Schools (Grossman, 2004), Cultural Diversity In Our Schools (Marshall, 2002), Journeys to Cultural Understanding (Chan, Kaplan-Weinger, & Sandstrom, 1995) and “Dr. Mac’s Amazing Behavior Management Advice Site” (

Additionally, the California Department of Education has produced informational pamphlets that provide guidance in educating immigrant youngsters from specific cultural/ethnic groups.  These booklets can be obtained by contacting The California State Department of Education in Sacramento (916-445-1260).  Information on English language learners and their linguistic struggles can also be found in the print literature and on the Internet.  One pertinent and informative web site is “Dave’s ESL Café” (

Another strategy for developing familiarity with a student’s cultural background is to locate “cultural informants”; individuals who are familiar with that group and can explain its ways.  These informants might be teachers or paraprofessionals of that heritage/culture/ethnic group, other successful members of that cultural community, or community activists.  Seek them out for consultation, staff development sessions, and input at IEP team meetings.

What might you want to know about another cultural group?  Everything you can possibly learn!  You’ll need to go beyond awareness of the “surface level” of culture (e.g., foods, clothing, ceremonies) to deeper levels of what is means to be a member of that cultural group.  Become aware of “correct” patterns of interaction between adult authority figures (you) and children.  Develop knowledge of their common behavioral patterns and expectations in social and school situations.  Find out which “right ways” in their cultural group might contrast with the expectations of American institutions.

For example, find out what is considered to be the “correct” distance between people when conversing.  Does this distance change if individuals are of different genders or ages?  Is it OK for a child to interrupt an adult?  If so, what is the proper procedure?  Is the eye contact conformity the same as in the mainstream European-American culture? (i.e., The listener gives strong eye contact while the speaker periodically looks away.  Children are expected to give eye contact while being disciplined.)  Is it OK for non-family adults to touch a child on the head and upper back, or is it forbidden in that student’s home culture?  There is so much to know, but the investigation process brings us greater effectiveness as mentors and teachers.  As the saying goes: “Knowledge is power.”

Many materials are available for teaching students (and ourselves) about each other's cultures.  They are easily adaptable to multicultural school environments.  For example, "culture similators" (Fiedler, Mitchell, & Triandis, 1971; Brislin, Cushner, Cherrie, & Young, 1986) have long been used to provide a series of realistic episodes involving particular cultural behaviors, with each episode describing a cross-cultural misunderstanding.  Students attempt to select the correct reason for the conflict from a listing of possible explanations.  An answer guide discusses the plausibility of each explanation.

Teachers, counselors, and students can also prepare "cultural capsules" that provide a brief description of one particular difference between the American mainstream and another target culture.  The class presentations are typically accompanied by magazine pictures, photographs, drawings, songs, poetry, and other audio-visual enhancements.  Many field-tested instructional units that compare various groups to the American mainstream have been available for some time.  They include South American Hispanic (Miller, Drayton, & Layton, 1979), French (Miller & Loiseau, 1974), and Mexican (Miller & Bishop, 1979).  Using these models, students can then develop their own locally pertinent "cultural capsules."

Teachers and counselors can expand on cultural capsules by creating simulations (Singh, Ellis, Oswald, Wechsler, & Curtis, 1997), often in the form of teacher-written and directed skits that include a few of the cultural capsules on a selected topic (e.g., greetings, body spacing, touch).  With practice, students will be able to provide the background information necessary for writing skits, thereby actively involving themselves in cultural research and intercultural understanding.  An example of this technique can be found in the classic article by Meade and Moran (1973).

#2 Adjust your teaching style to the learning styles of your students

            One mandatory area of professional study is the investigation of learning style differences.  Differences are commonly found between cultures in how one prefers to learn information and display knowledge (McIntyre, 1996a; Tiedt & Tiedt, 2002; Willis, 1993).  Indeed, culture may be the greatest influence on one’s learning (and teaching) style (Garcia & Malkin, 1993; Shade & New, 1993).  A lack of understanding of these different learning styles and the influence of one’s cultural background can result in confusion, conflict, and lack of achievement.  It is not uncommon for a culturally different student’s preferred ways of learning to be in contrast with the ways typically used in our schools and promoted in teacher training programs (Franklin, 1992; McIntyre, 1996a).

Because this contrast in styles can negatively affect learning rate and classroom behavior, it is important to determine the learning preferences of your recently arrived immigrant students and then teach to that style (McIntyre, 1996b).  Pedagogical reevaluation of learning/teaching styles and the process for acquiring a second culture and language may change how (and what) we teach our students (Tong, 1997).  Reid (1987) states that teachers’ understanding of the preferred learning styles of students allows them to adjust their teaching style to maximize teaching and learning opportunities.  At the same time though, we should be helping our pupils to develop competence in the typical style (i.e., sequential, inductive, linear) promoted in America’s schools (Hainer, Fagan, Bratt, Baker, & Arnold, 1990; McIntyre, 1996a).  Henry and Pepper (1990) recommend that 65% of lessons and activities be presented in a student's preferred learning style(s).  A different style might be used for activities about 25-35% of the time.  For example, ESL students who typically prefer more visual ways of learning could benefit from training in auditory learning of material as well.

To determine what has been learned, students should be assessed in their preferred way of demonstrating ability and knowledge.  Evaluating them via other modalities is a practice best used to develop comfortability and adeptness with other assessment methods and devices that might be used in the future.  On the other hand, however, Reid (1987) cautions against the exclusive use of assessment instruments and procedures that focus on one style of knowledge, as over-reliance on such practices may pigeonhole cultural groups and therefore deny students new ways to learn/show knowledge. 

            Be astute to facial expressions that might indicate lack of understanding, or a feeling of being overwhelmed by trying to learn new material that is presented in a non-dominant language.  To assist your students in comprehending your English directions/instruction, you might wish to adopt “the ESL style" of phrasing in which utterances are presented more slowly, with distinct separation of one's words and accentuation of important terms.  Repeat your explanations of the material in consistently simple terms, but several differently worded ways.  Make use of pantomime, body language/gestures, and visual images/objects in order to further enhance student understanding.  Change the speed, intonation, and vocabulary as your students advance in their English language abilities.

            In addition to learning style differences, there are other culturally determined learning related characteristics that often surface.  For example, it may have been inappropriate in the student’s home country schools to interrupt to ask a question during a teacher presentation.  Or perhaps it is “culturally required” that a student say “Yes” when asked if s/he understands the directions for a task, even if s/he does not understand (in order to “save face” and protect the family honor).

            Last, be sure to emphasize effort over accuracy.  When students know that their teachers are willing to accept mistakes as long as they are trying their best, they are more likely to contribute and attempt tasks that are challenging.  With effort, comes the precision we seek.  

#3 Question whether the student’s actions truly constitute “misbehavior”

            Immigrant students often operate under a great deal of anxiety and stress as they attempt to learn English and/or cope with their new and perplexing environment.  This pressure can result in emotionally charged responses to being overwhelmed, frustrated, or confused.  If this scenario is the case, culturally competent support services (e.g., counseling, social work, reading consultation) are needed in order to relieve the impact of this acculturation stress.

            At other times, the student’s present, culturally appropriate way to handle perplexing situations is misinterpreted by educational personnel.  The “right way” of (re)acting in particular situations often varies by ethnicity/culture/country (McIntyre, 1992; Tong & McIntyre, 1998).  In unfamiliar situations, humans tend to use behaviors that have worked well for them before.  Students are most likely to demonstrate the behaviors previously reinforced by the home and home culture.  However, culturally different (but appropriate in that group) behavior is quite likely to be viewed by uninformed teachers as being “bad” or “wrong” (McIntyre, 1992; Tong & McIntyre, 1998).  Many culturally different students who have been labeled as being “behavior disordered” or “emotionally disturbed” have probably been misidentified (McIntyre, 1992; McIntyre, 1996a); placed in special education programs for actions that are promoted in their cultural group, but which conflict with the behavioral code and expectations in typical American schools.

            While these youngsters may need social skills instruction to be able to demonstrate more stereotypic “American” behavior expectations, showing actions that are acceptable and admirable in one’s home culture is NOT a disability.  During the assessment process, it is important to make the distinction between behaviors that are “disordered” and those that are “different”.  Procedures for doing so have been outlined by McIntyre (1995).  To better determine if a youngster’s behavior pattern is “disabled” or just “culturally different”, it is important to become aware of common cultural expectations and traits within the student’s culture.  A great deal of information on this topic can be found at the following web sites: (Click on the link titled “Culture, language, gender, and sexual orientation”)
 #4 Question whether a student’s failure to achieve is indicative of “mild mental retardation” or a “learning disability”, or whether the performance might be due to cognitive style differences or a second language learning difficulties

            Differences in cognitive style between teachers and students may result in learners being perceived as less competent than they truly are (Anderson, 1988; Gollnick & Chinn, 1990; Harry, 1992).  Due to possible learning style differences and limited English proficiency, recent immigrant students (and other culturally different youngsters) may have difficulty acquiring information presented in class, and/or displaying their acquisition of knowledge (Tong & McIntyre, 1998).  By better understanding the commonly found cultural characteristics that might influence the ability to learn, it is again important to undertake study in this area.  Information on culturally different learning styles can be found at:  It is also important to evaluate a youngster in his/her dominant language in order to differentiate between diagnoses.  If mental retardation is suspected, the student’s adaptive behavior skills must be assessed with knowledgeable consideration of home culture expectations for routine daily behaviors.

#5 Keep expectations high

            As stated earlier, due to linguistic and learning style differences, recent immigrant children may experience difficulties in learning.  It is not uncommon for skilled teachers to become disheartened when they perceive themselves as being unable to reach one (or more) of their pupils.  By becoming more fully informed in culturally appropriate teaching practices, we can enhance our teaching repertoire.  The information also helps us realize that these students may experience difficulties under the tutorage of any skilled instructor, helping us to maintain encouraging demeanors that express our belief in the youngsters’ ability to achieve.

In turn, this belief that we express in our students creates persistence and motivation on their part.  It is the experience of the second author of this article and her immigrant friends and colleagues, that a major factor in our academic and linguistic achievements here in the United States was the unswerving encouragement, patience, and tolerance displayed by our American teachers.  That support motivated many of us to become educators.

Our former teachers valued and promoted effort.  They encouraged their pupils to try their best with the skills they possessed at that moment.  Our progress came from persistent effort grounded in the belief that we could learn and excel.  That belief was a result of hearing positive words from our teachers.  Effort is promoted by supportive teachers who create welcoming, valuing, and accepting educational environments.

#6 Obtain and supply support services for your recent immigrant student(s)

Schools can do a great deal to create welcoming and supportive environments that help recent immigrants develop positive cross-cultural identities.  There are many ways for schools to assist their students in learning the curriculum and adapting to American ways.  A recent arrival can be partnered with another student who speaks his/her dialect/language, is from that heritage/region of the world, is a recent immigrant too, or is just an accepting and helpful America-born youngster.  Cross-age tutoring is also an option.  The hiring of paraprofessionals who speak the student’s language, even if they are not of the student’s home region or heritage, also supports learning.

  Tong (1998) suggests other ways of supporting the adjustment of recent immigrants:

Ø      Designate mentor teachers who serve as the advocates and primary support persons for individual students.

Ø      Recruit and hire staff who are themselves immigrants, or speak the language and/or know the culture of the immigrant students in your school.

Ø      Create mini-schools within larger schools in order to promote a greater sense of community and familiarity among staff and students.

Ø      Create smaller classes to allow for greater attention to the needs of the immigrant students.

Ø      Initiate more group work to allow for fellow students to support your teaching.

Ø      Set up student outreach centers that provide support and services for immigrant and LEP youngsters.

Ø      Form school “culture clubs” to promote student awareness, tolerance, and celebration of cultural/linguistic differences.

Ø      Conduct professional development workshops to educate staff in culturally proficient instruction, assessment, and interaction.

#7 Develop personal relationships with the recently arrived students

            Students, especially recent immigrants who are no doubt anxious about school, need to feel welcomed and valued by their teachers.  While direct verbal communication may not be feasible, there are other ways to convey acceptance and personal warmth toward students, thereby relieving anxiety and promoting a desire to learn academics and American behavioral patterns.

For example, a smile translates to all cultural, ethnic, and linguistic groups.  Also, take time to converse with the youngsters, perhaps through an interpreter.  Getting students to talk about their prior schooling and life in their country will not only help you become familiar with their concerns, but will also provide emotional support.  As you would do with any student, inquire as to their interests and experiences.  You might also respond to questions posed about schooling and the experiences and demands of a making a new life in America.   Ask how you can help to make the transition easier.  Creating an open and non-threatening place for students to visit, ask questions, and air their concerns/feelings can be invaluable when students feel confused or overwhelmed.

Another strategy designed to let students realize that you accept their cultures is to have them bring in music and pictures of important aspects of their cultural lives.  Highlight special holidays, birthdays (if culturally acceptable), birth of a baby, and discuss the values, similarities and differences existing between the home and host cultures.  To build self-esteem and pride, have students share their favorite parts of any of the above.

#8 Accept culturally-based tendencies while promoting the ability to be a “cultural chameleon”

            It is important for immigrant youngsters to become culturally adapted or “Americanized” while still maintaining pride and competence in their home culture and language.  That outcome is the essence of a well-formed “cross-cultural identity”.

Our new students will be adopting some aspects of the lifestyles and values of their new culture for use in the mainstream while maintaining their first cultural lifestyle and values for intragroup use (Schumann, 1986: Tong, 2002).  Helping these youngsters to recognize and understand the strengths, similarities, and differences within and between the two cultures promotes better management of the demands of both.  Consequently, they better appreciate their new lives in America without giving up their home culture and language.  Teachers can assist with this personal adjustment process by letting students know that the ways of the home culture are accepted and valued while competence in American ways of behaving and speaking are promoted.

#9 Learn some basic words and ways

One way to develop a warm and supportive bond with your new students and make them feel welcome is to learn a few words and ways of their group.  Being able to say “hello”, “good”, “thank you”, and “good bye” in their home language goes a long way toward making them feel welcomed and valued. Showing that you know some words in students' home languages can help make critical intercultural connections that provide incentives to learn our English language.  In order to foster contact and basic communication, you might decide to purchase one of the many inexpensive electronic translation devices.  These hand-held instruments allow one to type an English word or phrase, and by pushing a button, bring the translation of that terminology to a small screen in one of the 2 to 20 languages offered.  The word/phrase can even be made to appear in the characters of languages that don't use the English (Roman) alphabet (e.g., Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Russian).  Pressing another button results in the small devise orally saying the word/phrase in the student’s home language.  These basic translators can be located and ordered by conducting an internet search for “handheld translation devices”.  There are some inexpensive translators (e.g., “Lingo” available from L. L. Bean) that can translate between English and 10-12 other languages.

This attempt to learn a little of a new language also models the “cultural chameleon” behavior that we hope to promote in our recent immigrant learners.   The same principle applies for social interaction behaviors.  For example, you might make use of the Asian way of pointing to one self (i.e., touching one’s index finger to the nose) rather than the North American method (i.e., touching one’s fingertips to the middle of the chest).  Perhaps you might adjust your usual body spacing to more closely approximate the distance commonly demonstrated between adults and children in the student’s home culture.  This practice can prevent intercultural misunderstandings.  For example, students from close contact cultures might think that their mainstream American teachers (who typically use wider bodily separation and less touch) don’t like them.

By periodically saying non-English words, using them in our teaching, and displaying other-culture behaviors, we demonstrate a willingness to learn and communicate cross-culturally…something we hope that all of our students will emulate.  As educators, we teach not only academics, but motivation and acceptance as well.  That motivation and acceptance promotes achievement.

#10  Enjoy the experience!

            There is an old adage: “Teachers never know where their influence ends.”  This saying is especially true with regard to recent immigrant youth.  In their anxious and uncertain eyes, you are the all-knowing guide to a promising future.  They trust in you to help them understand their new country and provide them with skills to succeed in it.  Even moreso than with other students, you are a cherished icon; a larger-than-life being.  With some study, extra persistence, and an unswervingly supportive approach, you can truly affect the life of a child, leave your indelible mark on a bright future, and be remembered fondly long after you have left this world.



Note: Drs. Tong and McIntyre conduct workshops on reaching and teaching immigrant students.   and




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Note: Drs. Tong and McIntyre conduct workshops on reaching and teaching immigrant students.