Skip to content

Sensitive Adolescents with an Immigrant Background Benefit More from an Intervention Promoting Cultural Identity Development

12th March 2024 - By Chiara Ceccon & Dr Ughetta Moscardino (Corresponding author)

About the authors

Chiara Ceccon is a research fellow at the University of Padova, Italy. Her research interests concern cultural identity formation in adolescence, mental health and inclusion of migrant populations, and the role of environmental sensitivity in individuals’ responses to interventions.

Ughetta Moscardino is an Associate Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Padova, Italy. Her research investigates cross-cultural mental health in children and families, immigration and acculturation processes, and resilience and protective factors in at-risk populations.


In a randomized controlled trial conducted in Italy, we found that an 8-week school-based intervention targeting cultural identity development (i.e., Identity Project) was efficacious in promoting adolescents’ identity exploration. Highly sensitive adolescents with an immigrant background benefited the most from the intervention, providing support for the vantage sensitivity hypothesis.

The Identity Project in Italy: what, why, and how

Adolescents worldwide are faced with the challenge of gaining awareness and a sense of clarity concerning their cultural identity, referred to as the beliefs, attitudes, and feelings about one’s cultural background(s) (1,2). Supporting this process is essential to promote youth mental health, intercultural competence, and respect for diversity (3).

The Identity Project is a school-based, 8-week intervention developed in the United States that provides adolescents with tools and strategies to explore and better understand their cultural identity (4). In this registered study we investigated whether (a) the Identity Project was efficacious in Italy, a multicultural society which represents a major point of entry for immigrants in the European Union, and (b) whether sensitivity to environmental influences and immigrant background influenced intervention outcomes.

The research involved 747 adolescents (mean age = 15 years) from six upper secondary schools in Northern Italy. Classrooms were randomly assigned to the intervention or a waitlist control group. About 30% of the sample had an immigrant background, with students originating from 55 different countries. Students completed self-report surveys at three time points: one week before the intervention (pretest), 1 week (posttest) and 5 weeks after intervention end (follow-up).

Consistent with the original theoretical model, it was expected that students in the intervention group would report higher levels of exploration (searching, observing, and reflecting on one’s identity and heritage) from pre- to posttest, which, in turn, would be linked to increased resolution (awareness and clarity with respect to the meaning of one’s cultural affiliations and identities to their general identity) at follow-up.

Moreover, we explored whether environmental sensitivity (the ability to register, process, and respond to external factors (6)) and immigrant background moderated intervention efficacy.

Increases in cultural identity exploration…especially among highly sensitive youth!

In line with previous implementations of the Identity Project (7), we found that at posttest, adolescents who participated in the program showed more cultural identity exploration than their peers in the control group.

However, the increase in exploration was not related to a greater sense of clarity concerning one’s cultural identity at follow-up, suggesting that this aspect of identity formation requires more time and might be influenced by characteristics of the larger society. Importantly, the increase in exploration was more pronounced in students who reported higher levels of sensitivity and who had an immigrant background, suggesting that these students benefited more from the intervention.

Although the study needs further replication, it suggests that potential vulnerability factors such as environmental sensitivity and immigrant background, benefit adolescents in positive contexts. This finding is consistent with the  vantage sensitivity model (8) according to which highly sensitive individuals benefit particularly strongly from favorable features of positive environmental experiences.

What comes next? Implications and future directions for research and practice

Evidence supporting the efficacy of the Identity Project in countries other than the United States opens new avenues for the promotion of psychosocial wellbeing in ethnically diverse schools.

In many European countries, adolescents of immigrant descent are at higher risk of school dropout, peer victimization, and lower sense of school belonging compared to youth from the majority group. Hence, our findings offer insights into how to reduce this educational gap.

Providing all students with a protected space for reflection and engagement in activities that help them explore and understand their constantly evolving identity in relation to their heritage culture(s) represents an important step toward building more inclusive multiethnic societies.

Furthermore, this study highlights the importance of youths’ sensitivity to environmental influences and immigrant background as conditions to better understand for whom the Identity Project is most beneficial, although more research is needed to uncover the mechanisms underpinning individuals’ heightened responsivity to interventions.




Moscardino Picture1

Et1 = Exploration at posttest; HSCS = Highly Sensitive Child Scale; MIGR = Immigrant background; group: 0 = control, 1 = intervention


  1. Phinney, J. S. (1989). Stages of ethnic identity development in minority group adolescents. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 9, 34-49.
  2. Umaña‐Taylor, A. J., Quintana, S. M., Lee, R. M., Cross Jr, W. E., Rivas‐Drake, D., Schwartz, S. J., Syed, M., Yip, T., Seaton, E., & Ethnic and Racial Identity in the 21st Century Study Group. (2014). Ethnic and racial identity during adolescence and into young adulthood: An integrated conceptualization. Child Development, 85(1), 21-39. doi:10.1111/cdev.12196
  3. Schwarzenthal, M., Juang, L. P., Schachner, M. K., van de Vijver, F. J., & Handrick, A. (2017). From tolerance to understanding: Exploring the development of intercultural competence in multiethnic contexts from early to late adolescence. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 27, 388-399. doi:10.1002/casp.2317
  4. Umaña-Taylor, A. J., & Douglass, S. (2017). Developing an ethnic-racial identity intervention from a developmental perspective: Process, content, and implementation. In N. J. Cabrera & B. Leyendecker (Eds.), Handbook of positive development of minority children and youth (pp. 437–453). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.
  5. Ceccon, C., Schachner, M. K., Lionetti, F., Pastore, M., Umaña‐Taylor, A. J., & Moscardino, U. (2023). Efficacy of a cultural adaptation of the Identity Project intervention among adolescents attending multiethnic classrooms in Italy: A randomized controlled trial. Child Development, 94(5), 1162-1180.
  6. Umaña‐Taylor, A. J., Douglass, S., Updegraff, K. A., & Marsiglia, F. F. (2018). A small‐scale randomized efficacy trial of the Identity Project: Promoting adolescents’ ethnic–racial identity exploration and resolution. Child Development, 89, 862-870. doi:10.1111/cdev.12755
  7. Pluess, M. (2015). Individual differences in environmental sensitivity. Child Development Perspectives, 9, 138-143. doi:10.1111/cdep.12120
  8. de Villiers, B., Lionetti, F., & Pluess, M. (2018). Vantage sensitivity: A framework for individual differences inresponse to psychological intervention. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 53, 545–554. doi:10.1007/s00127-017-1471-0