How Canadian high schools can help engage newcomers and Canadian students in meaningful peer relationships

For newcomers in a country, successful social integration depends on building meaningful relationships with local residents. Yet making friends with local peers, as shown by research across the world, is the most difficult task in the adaptation process. Unfortunately, studies report that adolescent newcomers often feel alienated from local peers, developing relationships that do not progress past superficial niceties. Integrating, building meaningful friendships, and developing a sense of belonging in their new host country and its schools requires individuals’ deliberate nurturing and action, but also a social environment that is consciously designed to support such efforts. As increasing numbers of international students and immigrant children enroll into Canadian schools, teachers face the challenge of how to motivate local students to make connections and develop friendships with newcomers from different cultural backgrounds.

Challenges in Forming Intercultural Relationships

Working with high school students, both newcomers and their Canadian peers, Drs. Xu Zhao and Nancy Arthur seek to understand how students interact with peers from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, how they negotiate cultural norms and practices, and what are the factors that prevent or support the development of meaningful friendships between newcomers and Canadian students.  Informed by theory and research in developmental psychology, counselling psychology, and prevention science, they aim to develop a research-based intervention program to support newcomers and Canadian students in engaging in meaningful cross-cultural friendships and support teachers in providing structural opportunities that deliberately support cross-cultural peer interaction and relationships.

Through a pilot study, the researchers have identified key psychological (e.g., social anxiety in newcomers), social (friendship groups), and cultural barriers (e.g., lack of cultural knowledge) that prevent newcomers and Canadian students from engaging in meaningful friendships. They have also identified important attitudes and strategies that support newcomers and Canadian students to overcome these barriers and build friendships that benefit the social and academic development of both. The research also points to strategies that teachers can use to help students overcome the barriers and to foster intercultural friendships between newcomers and Canadian students.

For Teachers

Teachers can play a key role in helping newcomers and local students connect and build these important relationships. To provide all students with the skills and capacities to promote intercultural friendships, teachers can:

  • Have discussions and lessons which highlight intercultural relationships, promote cultural understanding, and build skills related to cross-cultural communication
  • Organize group activities that not only involve students from diverse cultural backgrounds, but also provide the opportunity for newcomers to demonstrate their skills and strengths
  • Intentionally assign local students and newcomers into the same group and encourage them to have deeper conversations to get to know each other and socialize
  • Involve parents and community resources to address issues of stigmatization and prejudice related to cultural and religion

See more from Dr. Xu Zhao on her profile

See more from Dr. Nancy Arthur on her profile

Connected Citations (Select)

Arthur, N., & Zhao, X. (2016, August). Do you want to be my friend?  Perspectives on friendships with international students. Paper presented at the 23rd Congress of the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology, Nagoya, Japan.

*This research was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC)*