Cultural Intelligence for Kids?

Cultural Intelligence (soft skills) have fast forwarded into mainstream teaching at many top colleges and universities including Harvard and Cambridge. Why? Because this generation’s educational needs are rapidly changing, and Cultural Intelligence is no longer  a “nice to have” but a “need to know”.  And, it is something best developed at a young age along with other skills like critical thinking, respect for diversity, and global awareness.
So, how can we incorporate Cultural Intelligence Skills into the classrooms?
Firstly, for those out there who are unfamiliar with the terminology, Cultural Intelligence is the measure of our ability to thrive in multi-cultural environments.   (Ang, Van Dyne, & Koh, 2005; Earley & Ang, 2003; Earley & Mosakowski, 2005) It’s our ability in many ways to feel comfortable in our own skin, and for others to feel comfortable in theirs when interacting with us.  It starts with tolerance and acceptance, and a true desire to get to know one another so that we can work together.
Four million students currently travel to study and this number is set to increase to eight million by 2020 (UNESCO). But studentsa recent study showed that Chinese students traveling to the UK to study saw their English language skills decrease by the second year. How? Because they did not take advantage of the city that that they were in, getting to know their classmates from differing backgrounds and cultures. Rather, they went to school, created their own communities and groups, and rarely ventured outside their comfort zone and 80% returned home ( So part of Cultural Intelligence is our ability to feel comfortable and confident outside of our comfort zone.

International schools are in many ways a small microcosm of the millions of international students that travel to study. During the past 8 years, while lecturing in many of  the international schools in Dubai,  I’ve asked the same questions of students and the results I found were similar to the UK study. How many of your students know an Emirati neighbor? A neighbor from a different country than their own? Whose first language is different than yours? How many of you have met your neighbors? How many of you have been to “Old Dubai”? Inevitably, my anecdotal evidence showed that less than 10% could answer yes to any of the answers and less than 5% had not ventured out of their comfort zone, but rather created closed circles of friends.

As teachers and administrators, we recognize its natural for children to gravitate towards other students like themselves; friendships form and that’s that. Some schools have made an effort to help students venture outside of their comfort zone, even making it a policy to change up classes each year in an attempt to encourage students to get to know one another. But without a true structured program, focusing on building Cultural Intelligence efforts can fall short.
What can you do? Well here are some tips to help students develop their Cultural Intelligence. There are many theories out there, but for kids you need to keep it simple. Colleagues Earley and Mosakowski from Purdue University published an article in the Harvard Business Review that gives practical advice about how to improve cultural intelligence.
They divided Cultural Intelligence into three parts: head, body & heart which I’ve adapted to the educational levels of young students.
Head: Learn about the cultures in your community. That means getting to know about other beliefs, traditions, and do mindbodyheartand don’ts. Knowledge is the first key to Cultural Intelligence.
Body: Understanding common gestures between different cultures in not enough. Sharing those gestures in a sincere way, even though it may not be from your culture helps people to understand one another and feel included. Many classrooms start their day with “Assalamu Alaikum” translated as “Peace be with you”. 95% of the time, students don’t know what this means. Starting each year with a short explanation and understanding this greeting goes a long way to creating a feeling of unity and togetherness. And remember this greeting is not exclusive, in some ways it means the same thing as a handshake, kiss on the cheek or hug. Let’s be friends.
Heart: This has to do with confidence. Feeling confident in your own cultural norms, including knowing what they are, helps  you to make others feel comfortable with theirs. It’s all about sharing and understanding. Instill a sense of curiosity in your students that it’s OK to ask why about cultural behaviors, and be ready to guide them to the answers. And don’t forget to self-evaluate (reflect).