The Four Statuses of Identity and How They Relate to Sociocultural Competence and Dual Language Education

Sociocultural Competence and Identity

In our last post, we discussed why the exploration of identity is an important component of sociocultural competence, the third pillar of Dual Language Education. Today, we will discuss the Four Statuses of Identity Formation and how this framework helps us, as educators, recognize where our students, especially our First and Second generation students, are on the continuum of Identity Formation.

Third Culture Kids

According to late sociologist Ruth Hill Useem, Third Culture Kids are those who are growing up or have grown up in a culture other than that of their caregivers. This may include 1st generation Americans, or those who were born in another country but immigrated to the United States between ages 12 and 18, 1.5 generation Americans or those who were born in another country but immigrated to the United States when they were less than 12, or 2nd generation Americans, or those who were born in the United States but whose parents or caregivers immigrated to the United States. Third Culture Kids have a hard time fitting into the schematic boxes of national and cultural identity that those who grow up in the same culture as their caregivers usually espouse. While Third Culture Kids in the United States are American by virtue of where they are growing up, they also have claims to another cultural identity by virtue of where their parents grew up. Yet they often never feel as though they fit into either culture, or that they are accepted by members of either culture. Therefore, as educators, a focus on the Statuses of Identity Formation and transcultural acculturation, or the process through which Third Culture Kids accept and honor the intersection of cultural identities within them become even more important and will be the focus of this post as we discuss Identity Formation.

Statuses of Identity Formation

The Four Statuses of Identity Formation (Marcia, 1991)

James Marcia (1991) found that there are four “statuses” of identity development. These statuses are based on individuals’ levels of exploration and levels of commitment to their self-ascribed identities. Let us define and relate these statuses to the identities of our Third Culture Kids.

The first Status of Identity Formation is identity diffusion. Identity diffusion is the state where students neither explore their identities nor do they have a commitment to any identity. In your classroom, you may find a Third Culture student who absolutely denies their home background in front of their friends but embraces it at home. They take on the identity most convenient to them at any moment. Embarrassment, the need to assimilate, the acknowledgement (spoken or unspoken) of the English language and/or White culture holding a higher status in the United States may all contribute to the student being in a state of “identity diffusion.”

The next status is identity foreclosure. Identity foreclosure is where a student does not explore their identity but has a high level of commitment to the identity they have chosen. For instance, a student may be highly devoted to their religious identity because of their upbringing but never have explored other belief systems. Among Third Culture Kids, additional examples may include students who refuse to speak their home language both at home and at school because they have committed themselves to an “American” identity or on the opposite side of the spectrum, a student who refuses to accept anything American because it violates their home identities. Both of these examples may be results of others trying to force assimilation upon the student.

According to Marcia, young students usually are in the statuses of identity diffusion or identity foreclosure. However, as society bombards Third Culture Kids with messages of White superiority and ideas of assimilation, it is easy for students to get stuck there. It is important to help students achieve transcultural acculturation by moving them to the status of identity moratorium. Identity moratorium is where students do not have a high commitment to their self-proclaimed identity but are actively exploring their identities. According to Marcia, students usually enter identity moratorium around adolescence.

Finally, identity achievement is when students have figured out their identities after high levels of exploration and then, committed themselves to their self-determined identities. If students reach this status, they usually do so in late adolescence or early adulthood.

Which Status of Identity Formation Leads to Transcultural Acculturation?

I often ask educators and parents in my social justice workshops which identity formation status they believe is ideal for their Third Culture Kids. Many tend to answer that they would like their children at identity achievement. While identity achievement is our end goal, our job is to help students enter and be in the identity moratorium status as without the exploration, there cannot be authentic commitment. Furthermore, as aforementioned, identity achievement is the final status, usually achieved at the earliest, in late adolescence or early adulthood.

How do we help students explore their identities? First, we need to make it clear that we are not there to judge our students or to impose identity. The second we try to impose identity upon our students, we risk that they shut down. Next, we need to engage in authentic conversation about identity. For instance, we should read books that lead to honest discussions. For instance, in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Cassie, the main character, is upset about discrimination, and declares that “White is nothing,” to which her mother responds that both being White and Black are special. Ask your students if ever they have felt that they are nothing due to their identities or been mad at the mainstream culture because of the racial and cultural treatment they have received. How do they deal with these feelings? How do they impact their own identities?

Other books that can lead to such conversations include Funny in Farsi, a book about a Persian Third Culture Kid trying to adjust to American life, or Julie and The Wolves, a book about an Inuit girl trying to hold onto her culture in the face of White supremacy.

Take any and all opportunities to have conversations with your students that affirm their complex identities. Have students bring in momentos representing their families. Have them talk about how they celebrate various holidays and why different communities developed different food and clothing habits. This shows them that their home cultures are important and valued. Share videos about transcultural acculturation like this one and ask your students if they also have difficulty balancing the various identities within them. Make sure that they know it is okay to belong to different identities simultaneously. And most importantly, discuss why each child is special in their entirety and why they do not need to fit in completely with any group to belong to these groups.

Finally, as Dual Language Educators, make sure you work at raising the status of the Language Other Than English (LOTE). Talk to your colleagues in the LOTE, hold meetings in the LOTE, do the pledge and make announcements over the intercom in the LOTE, and make sure that the bulletin boards around the school feature the LOTE. By elevating the status of the LOTE, students are given permission to explore who they are and not feel the need to be someone they are not.


  1. […] Third Culture Kids (TCKs), or kids growing up in a culture other than that of their caregivers, who miss celebrating their holidays miss out on crucial opportunities to learn about their home cultures. Holidays are when students can authentically learn about their family’s traditions, their religions, and how things are done in their heritage countries.  They also get to learn their cultural crafts and skills.  For example, during Deepavali (Diwali), children get to learn how to light oil lamps, make paintings with rice flour (kolam), and cook traditional feasts.  Learning one’s own culture is part and parcel of students’ education.  Families should not have to choose between having their kids learn the three R’s and having them learn about their own background. […]


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