diversity umbrellas


In response to requests by a number of educators from across the globe, who are increasingly concerned about the cultural barriers their school communities are experiencing amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Youth Intercultural Transition Specialist, Jane Barron, shares some of her wisdom and resources for facilitating intercultural empathy learning. 

For generations we’ve been told that “the playground can be a cruel place.” Sadly, in 2020 the reality remains the same, except the playground is no longer that place where the asphalt is so hot in summer you can’t sit down, and the library becomes the playground in winter when it is just too cold outside. School students today can’t walk away from the playground when the bell rings at the end of the school day because the playground is on their screens, 24 hours a day. And, it seems, COVID-19 has shone the light on some ugly geographical and cultural ignorance in the playground …ok, racism.

playground hopscotchTake the 8 year old student with an Asian complexion who was told by a local western school classmate that he wasn’t allowed to hang around with him because he “might be a coronavirus carrier” or the Chinese international students who overheard a classroom conversation amongst western students about “the Chinese causing this virus” and it being a Chinese conspiracy or the university student who posted via Snapchat “Taking Calc 151 with only Asians in the classroom … I hope I don’t catch coronavirus … thinkin about dropping this class now”? These are distressing events that highlight the need and the golden opportunity for schools and universities to facilitate learning, understanding and intercultural empathy. COVID-19 is a teachable moment.

In response to requests by a number of educators from across the globe, who are increasingly concerned about the cultural barriers their school communities are experiencing, I am sharing some resources that I use when facilitating culturally responsive pedagogy workshops. My hope is that these resources will help educators with practical strategies for classrooms and online learning right now. I acknowledge that there are many educators out there thinking, how would I ever add this to my already overloaded curriculum? As an educator with 27 years’ experience in the field of education, I know all too well how jam-packed our curriculums are from Kindergarten to Senior Year. I also know you can find a way to make intercultural learning explicit and link it to your curriculum. Does your school’s mission or vision statement include the words “global citizens”? Does your curriculum include the phrase “international mindedness” or “intercultural understanding” or “student diversity” or “Civics and Citizenship”? All of these (and no doubt more along the same lines) are an open door to incorporating intercultural learning into your teaching program.

cultural bridgeBut first, I need to lay the foundation by briefly telling you about intercultural empathy and why it needs to be our goal as educators. You may be familiar with the term ‘intercultural awareness’ but intercultural empathy is a state of being that can radically change our classroom, school and societal culture. Intercultural awareness is essential for communicating across cultures. It involves awareness of one’s own culture and awareness of another culture. “In other words, it involves the ability of standing back from our own point and becoming aware of not only our own cultural values, beliefs and perceptions but also those of other cultures,” says Honglin Zhu, researcher at the School of Foreign Languages at Changzhou University, China.

Intercultural empathy builds on intercultural awareness. Empathy is not a new concept to our students. This current generation have been brought up on a vocabulary emphasising empathy, resilience and grit as ways of life. Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes. Intercultural empathy is about placing oneself in the cultural background of another and being able to effectively communicate ones understanding of that cultural world. Intercultural empathy “leads us not only to experience the feelings of another but also to reflect on those feelings and compare them to our own. Only when one truly understands what the other is thinking and behaving, can he be able to get access to ideal communication,” highlights Zhu. “It is essential in helping people build a good relationship and achieve smooth intercultural communication.”

Did you know, more than 232 million people are living outside their country of origin? Although COVID-19 has reduced our ability to travel right now, many cultures are represented in local and international school communities across the globe. Intercultural empathy is required for working through intercultural problems effectively. The ability to build good relationships and achieve smooth intercultural communication are fundamental to our society now and in the future.

So, what can you do to foster intercultural empathy in your school community?

In an ideal world, my first recommendation would be to ensure you have support for your school leadership when embarking on a mission to foster intercultural empathy. But this is not an ideal world right now! Our leadership are knee deep in managing school closures or preparing for school closures, ensuring the school’s Learning Management System (LMS) has the capacity to adequately facilitate all their students’ learning, upskilling staff on e-learning pedagogy, actively engaging in processes to support staff, student and family wellbeing, staying abreast of health department advice and keeping communication open and timely. Now is probably not the time to ask for leadership support in schoolwide reform. But there are things you can do with you class or cohort now that will pave the way for such a conversation when all this is over.

Prioritise Wellbeing

Emotions are the solid shelf that supports a human being’s cognitive glassware. They are not an add-on but a dimension of learning. In extraordinary and fluid situations such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, fear, uncertainty, frustration and sadness are just some of the emotions which can hijack the brain and make it even more challenging to learn.

Communication is Key. Checking in with your students, their families and your colleagues is the most important thing you can do at this time. Equipping your students, families and staff with some of these tools may enhance open and honest communication and support mental wellbeing. The following suggestions take into account cultural reluctances to acknowledging mental wellbeing.

SWEET LifeSWEET Life – developed by the Massachusetts General Hospital specifically for conversing with international students, this acronym provides a skilful, culturally sensitive strategy for exploring and evaluating the mental wellbeing of students.

Check-In App – designed by Youth Beyond Blue for anyone who wants to check in with a friend (or student) but is concerned about saying the wrong thing.

5 Ways to Wellbeing – encourage students (and staff, because staff need to be in a place to role model wellbeing too) to engage with, reflect upon and dialogue these 5 Ways to Wellbeing

Learn from International Schools in China – take a leaf out of the Counselling Department at Dulwich College Suzhou. Put this Managing Your Mental Health During COVID-19 infographic on your website and class page, post it on your social media feeds and if you’re still in school, print it off and display it around your school walls. Please acknowledge the source – Dulwich College Suzhou, China.

Seek help – Of course, if you are concerned about the wellbeing of any of your students or school community members, please seek assistance from your certified Youth Mental Health First Aider (and if you don’t have one, sign up for the course to become one as soon as possible), your school counsellor or professional help.

MindfulnessProviding opportunities and resources for students, families and staff to participate in mindfulness activities can improve their lives in a number of ways. Just 10 minutes of “mindfulness can potentially make studying more efficient, can help you retain and utilise important information in your work and even help something as simple as remembering a person’s name or a story they shared with you,” say Adam Lueke, researcher and assistant teaching professor at Ball State University. Who knows, it might even clear away the cobwebs of geographical and cultural ignorance!

Smiling Mind App – developed by Australian psychologists and educators, this App has age appropriate mindfulness activities that can be used individually or as a group/class/family/staff meeting activity.

Breathing Exercises – Conscious, controlled breathing calms the nervous system in a short amount of time. Choose one or two of these quick breathing exercises one-on-one, in a group and share them with your school community. They work a treat with children, teens and adults too.

Get the Facts

E-learning, project-based learning, independent and collaborative learning all lend themselves to engaging learning experiences that foster intercultural empathy.

FactsNumbers – Have you ever seen so many numbers and graphs flashing across screens and dominating conversations, face-to-face and online? Having students research and articulate the COVID-19 statistics is a great way to get rid of the misinformation and incorrect racial comments. Articulating is important. Saying it aloud aids cognitive ability and comprehension…and empowers peer witnesses.

China is not Asia and Asia is not China. As we’ve discussed above, COVID-19 has uncovered some interesting beliefs resulting in individuals making ill-informed assumptions about geography, others’ cultural heritage and health.

Where is China? The COVID-19 pandemic provides the perfect opportunity to dive deep into the geography, politics, people, cultures and languages of mainland China. Use your students who reside or have resided in China to teach your school community. Quality social media and blogs can provide you with up-to-the-minute documentary style accounts of life in Wuhan and China right now, like this post from Rebecca Arendall Franks. Good things are happening amidst this unprecedented event. The same applies for any or all of the countries currently being highlighted in the media.

Intentional Intercultural Empathy

In thinking about what to include in intentional Intercultural Empathy sessions, I suggest thinking about the three key elements – curiosity (exploring what we don’t understand), cognitive complexity (seeing through many perspectives) and empathy as discussed earlier.

Here are some Intercultural Empathy activities I use in my workshops. They work well with adults too.

These interactive games can be adapted to address specific topics and ages. With a little creative thinking, they can be made suitable for the online learning context too.
Thirty Five


Birds of a Feather

Better Connections

Coat of Arms – display these on the school/classroom/boarding house walls and/or LMS pages and a great activity to do within a family.

Do You See What I See?

As with all these resources, please remember to acknowledge to source.

Other Resources

Empathy vs Sympathy Youtube Clip with thanks to Brené Brown

The Giraffe as a Metaphor for Empathy Youtube Clip with thanks to Scott Catamas

Intercultural Empathy Assignments that could be adapted for high school students with thanks to the Soulbus Project Consortium, Finland.

Photo-voice can be a great tool to develop intercultural empathy. Here is a brief overview but it can be adapted to suit your school’s specific needs…apologies for the somewhat random introduction.

Prezi is an effective online tool for presenting information in an engaging way. Take a look at this Prezi on Intercultural Empathy to get some ideas

Online Teaching and Learning Resources during this period of social distancing is full of user-friendly information including tools, platforms and guides, thanks to KQED.


market-spices-food“Food says so much about where you’ve come from, where you’ve decided to go and the lessons you’ve learned. It’s geography, politics, tradition, belief and so much more,” says Kat Kinsman, senior food and drinks editor at CNN’s Eatocracy. Food also has the power to educate and unite. There is a high chance that your students’ favourite food originated in a culture different from their own passport culture. There are so many learning experiences that can by facilitated using food.

Five Favourite Foods – nominate five favourite foods and in 15 words or less, describe why you like each one (encourage use of the five senses). Take it further by researching origins, ingredients and their origins, utentsils, customs and more.

Around The World Challenge with thanks to the South Australian Department of Education – go to page 83/84

Taste Temptations with thanks to the South Australian Department of Education– go to page 86-88. Actually this booklet has a number of food-related activities that could be adapted for a variety of age groups.

Masterchef Cook Off – students video themselves cooking a meal for their family, discussing the origins of the meal and recording family feedback/reviews.

Be A Mirror

drop-of-water-reflectionBe the person you hope to see in your students and school community. Role model intercultural empathy and kindness. Encourage and praise any  random acts of kindness  and intercultural empathy you see and hear about in your community and do not, under any circumstances, tolerate racism. If racist remarks or behaviours come from a place of ignorance, see above. If they come from a place far more sinister, enact your Anti-Bullying Policy and seek professional help immediately from your school counsellor. Use the hashtag #inthistogether when posting images of your school community showing intercultural empathy, kindness and unity towards others. Adapting these service learning projects to include an intercultural theme are an impactful way of developing intercultural empathy.

Communicate with Parents

We all know that education involves a partnership between school and home and communication is the key to developing and maintaining a positive and workable relationship that places each student in a position to succeed. Unfortunately, what COVID-19 has uncovered is some bewildering mindsets and attitudes amongst adults. For example, the (multiple) parents who presented at hospital with their sick children then refused to have them seen by a doctor with Asian cultural heritage because they perceived that the doctor may be a carrier of the virus. Clearly communicating the why as well as the what around wellbeing techniques, the facts and intercultural empathy, in a positive and authentic way, brings the parents on the learning journey with you and your students. Some ways you can achieve this are:

Online Expo – use your LMS to create a gallery of your students work

Zoom Meeting – using the Zoom platform students present their research and parents can join your class in the ‘meeting’ to watch. The Host has the ability to mute attendees so only the student presenting can be heard.

Invite Feedback– use short surveys created on platforms such as Typeform or Survey Monkey to gauge your parent responses to their child’s learning…and perhaps what they have learned too.

By no means is this an exhaustive list, however, I hope these resources provide a springboard for intercultural learning in your school community. If there are specific things that your school is trying to address that require a customised approach, please reach out to me. One of my most fulfilling roles is when I am invited into schools to evaluate their school cultures and collaboratively build solutions-based programs that move them towards a culture of integration. Intercultural empathy is a key pillar.

I am thinking of you at this time of uncertainty. Thank you for your willingness to stand in the gap and stand up for intercultural empathy. Please take care of yourselves.


Chen, J., Liu, L., Zhao, X. and Leung, A.(2015) Chinese International Students: An Emerging Health Crisis, Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry; Vol 54:11

Immordino-Yang MH. (2016). Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience. NY, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc,

Zhu, H. (2011) From Intercultural Awareness to Intercultural Empathy; English Language Teaching [ONLINE] Available: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1080436.pdf

Image Credits – Pixabay


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