Skip to main content

What Do Immigrant Students Need? It Isn't Just ELL

Carola Suárez-Orozco discusses the social-emotional needs of immigrant students
Students happy in school hallway

Educators need to do more to address the basic social-emotional needs of immigrant children if they are to advance in learning, says Professor Carola Suárez-Orozco. She is the director of the Immigration Initiative at Harvard, where she's focused on the practices that can change immigrant children’s lives in the classroom. 

Immigrant children make up 27% of student population in the United States, face many challenges, and also have many strengths and resiliences. However, those qualities often go unnoticed in the quest to learn English. “You have to address the social-emotional needs, and immigrant-origin kids have a number of them that a lot of educators are oblivious to. That's my mission, is for educators to have a better sense of the whole child, to realize that there are a lot of challenges. There are also a lot of strengths and resiliencies,” Suárez-Orozco says. “They just have to have a better understanding of who these kids are. And most educational systems don't address — most education schools don't address this as part of education.” 

In this episode, she talks about the value of understanding the whole immigrant child and how to incorporate their personal stories into the classroom.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is The Harvard EdCast. 

Carola Suárez-Orozco says the American dream begins at the schoolhouse doors. But for the immigrant families arriving here who want a better education for their children, we need to do more. She's the director of the Immigration Initiative at Harvard, where she's focused on the practices that can change immigrant children’s lives in the classroom. Immigrant children make up 27% of US student population. She says learning English often takes prime focus in classrooms, leaving little room for the support immigrant students may need to succeed. I asked Carola whether there is a typical education experience for immigrant children in the U.S. 

Carola Suárez-Orozco

No, there isn't a typical experience for a lot of reasons. First of all, 27% of our kids are immigrant origin. And when I say immigrant origin, I mean that they have an immigrant parent. So within that group, there's huge diversity. So some of those children have parents who are highly educated. Twenty-five percent of our doctors are foreign-born. Forty percent of new companies are formed by folks who are foreign-born. 

Those folks have kids. Many of them are highly educated, and their children will have certain advantages in the educational system. On the other hand, many immigrants come from places where their parents may have less education. And they arrive here without a lot of education behind them. 

Most of our immigrants now of color coming from Asia, from the Caribbean, from Latin America, from Africa. And they're encountering a highly racialized receiving context. And the perceptions about different groups of immigrants are quite different within the schools, within society, and then schools are embedded within society. 

And then schools are variably equipped and oriented towards immigrant students, immigrant-origin students. So some schools I would term "immigrant oblivious." They haven't really given a whole lot of thought to their immigrant origin students. Some are immigrant-hostile. They're really quite resentful of having to "deal" — and I'm putting — wiggling my fingers as quotation marks — around dealing with this population, who they feel is going to bring down their test scores. 

And then there are schools that are really just embracing these students and have lots of policies and practices in place to make sure that these students are as likely to thrive. And then the other big piece for — from the immigrant student point of view is some of them come with tremendous traumas before they have migrated, during the migratory process, and once they arrive, while others don't have those traumas. So there's such huge variability that it would be unfair to say there's a pathway. 

Jill Anderson: I'm wondering if you can tell based on geographic locations, is there one part or one state that maybe does better for immigrant education because of their proximity maybe to a border or something like that versus an area where maybe they don't have as high of an immigrant population? Or does it not matter? 

Carola Suárez-Orozco: Oh, I think it matters. One of the big challenges in this work and in this practice is that the way schools and the way districts think about these students is not in the way I think about them and other researchers in the field. They don't think about them as immigrant students. They're entirely classified as English learners. And English learning is, I would say, at best a proxy for immigration. 

It focuses on the task of learning English, which is a very important piece of how kids are going to do in school. But it doesn't hold in mind the whole child perspective, that children come with social-emotional needs. There's acculturative needs that come in place. There are trauma-informed needs that are necessary to address. And so schools are only thinking about, we've got to teach them English. We've got to teach them English as quickly as possible. So, one, they're not addressing the whole child. And, two, it's just a proxy in the sense that second-generation kids are included in that. 

So our data is really less than optimal, right? And the immigrant-origin student numbers do not template on English-learner numbers. So the best we can do is say which states are doing better in English learning, and I would say none are doing particularly well, sadly. California is doing well in the sense of addressing unauthorized students better than any other state. 

They recognize that a large portion of the first generation may either be unauthorized or have unauthorized parents. And so they stepped up and at least addressed it from the college access point of view. Massachusetts lamentably has been really far behind on this issue, even though it's a liberal state. But bilingual education and English learning education is very school-by-school, district-by-district, not state-by-state in terms of their optimal practices. 

Jill Anderson: Is that the problem, this heavy emphasis on English language learning versus what you were just talking about, which is the whole child? I mean, education has been talking about the whole child and educating the whole child for a really, really long time. 

Carola Suárez-Orozco: Exactly. 

Jill Anderson: But somehow I'm wondering, is this different when it comes to immigrant children? 

Carola Suárez-Orozco: I think it's a big lacuna. I do think addressing English learning or language learning in another context, because it's not just an American issue, right? Canada is dealing with it. Australia is dealing with it. Sweden's dealing. Every country that has large groups of immigrants is dealing with issues of immigrant student adaptation and integration. It's important for societies to make sure that this is happening. I'm a developmental psychologist, and I happen to think that every child matters. 

Jill Anderson: Right. 

Carola Suárez-Orozco: I think we should be trying to do the best we can for every child. But if you want to take a purely economic, sociological point of view, by the sheer number of kids involved, it's important for how societies are going to function in terms of, how will we make sure that these kids flourish? So the focus on English is really important if you worry about things like test scores because it takes five to seven years for kids to learn English to the point where they can be on par with their native-born peers, who have been through a good academic educational system, to be able to answer multiple-choice tests, to have the vocabulary, to play the game of doing well in these tests so that schools look good. 

So from the administrative point of view, if you want your district and school to look good, you want your kids to learn to do well on these tests. And it's certainly important. If we do not address basic social-emotional needs, which we know for all children, children cannot begin to get to the next level of learning. 

You have to address the social-emotional needs, and immigrant-origin kids have a number of them that a lot of educators are oblivious to. That's my mission, is for educators to have a better sense of the whole child, to realize that there are a lot of challenges. There are also a lot of strengths and resiliencies. They just have to have a better understanding of who these kids are. And most educational systems don't address-- most education schools don't address this as part of education. 

Jill Anderson: What is it going to take to change that? What do educators need to do to begin to look at these children as more than just English language learners? 

Carola Suárez-Orozco: I think we need to start with an awareness campaign, to be honest. Schools of education have only addressed these kids as English learners, mostly. I mean, and that's important. Don't get me wrong. I have great respect for my colleagues who do work in this area. Because they do that, when there are-- is curriculum in teacher education, it's addressing English learning. And so it addresses only that one piece of the whole child puzzle. 

We need to expand the perspective of how we understand these kids so that schools of education make sure that that's part of the curriculum. And then we also need to expand the understanding by district administrators so that they make that part of professional development. We have to start by getting that this is an issue. And then we'll be able to begin to address that. There is, as you say, lots of awareness about the whole-child perspective. It's just not attuned to this particular population, and yet it's over a quarter of our kids. 

Jill Anderson: How is the whole child experience different for an immigrant child versus a non-immigrant child? 

Carola Suárez-Orozco: That's a great question. And in many ways, immigrant children are like all other children, right? They have cognitive needs. They have socio-emotional needs. They have physical needs. And they are like all other children. And then in some ways, they are like other racial and ethnic minority kids in that they are facing, in some cases, higher levels of poverty. 

They may be living in places where they have less opportunities. They may be facing racism and racial trauma as part of their growing-up process. So they share in common characteristics of all kids. They share in common characteristics of racial minority kids. But then they are very specific issues related to migration. So one piece is migratory trauma. There's often a trauma prior to family migration. 

There's sometimes a trauma in terms of the actual journey. And then there is sometimes a trauma in terms of arrival. This is particularly accentuated for refugees. It's particularly accentuated for unaccompanied minors. It's particularly accentuated for undocumented kids or kids who come from undocumented families. Not all immigrants are, but some are. So part of the understanding of the whole child is, is this child dealing with some of those issues? 

Another piece is, of course, language acquisition. Non-immigrant kids don't need to deal with language. Another piece is managing at least two different cultures, right? It's like, how do you integrate a sense of being proud of your own culture and also belonging to the new one, especially if you're getting messages that you don't belong? Sadly, those messages have been very strong in recent years. 

And your parents may be sending you messages. Don't become-- I mean, I can remember very strongly, and I am immigrant-origin myself, my parents saying, don't become an American brat. Don't act like an American brat. That was the worst insult that they could ever throw at me. So your parents have different sets of rules than your neighbor, who might not be of immigrant origin. 

So how do you manage that? And how do you have a sense of navigating all that and being proud of your family and proud of yourself, just managing those dissonances? And most people come out of it, come on the other side of it. But there's often a time where it's complicated and, for lack of a better word, feels kind of icky. Kids are not quite feeling like the jacket fits. 
Another big issue for immigrant-origin young people, especially the first generation, are family separations. So many kids who migrate have been apart from their mother or father before they arrived. I did a study here two decades ago of 400 immigrant-origin kids from five different places-- Haiti, Mexico, Central America, China, and the Dominican Republic. And we asked them a little bit about their journey and asked them who arrived first and who arrived next. 

And we learned that over 75% had been separated from their mother or their father from anywhere from six months to five years before they arrived. So managing a family separation is just very complicated. So when they reunify, they're learning a new land and missing their grandparents or their aunt, whoever raised them while the parent was away. So those are examples. Unless those issues are attended to, recognized, academic learning is just going to be a little bit slower. 

Jill Anderson: I mean, that's a lot. 

Carola Suárez-Orozco: It's a lot. But by the way, immigrant kids-- a lot of them do really well in spite of that. And that's in spite of the sink or swim kind of approach that we have in the United States, which we very much have a sink or swim approach. But we can do better. In Canada, there's much more of a tending to these kinds of issues. Canada's not perfect, but there's much more-- we're going to take immigrants and say, OK, let's-- how do we create services that help them through the integrative process? 

Jill Anderson: What does it look like for an educator? What should they be doing for immigrant children? 

Carola Suárez-Orozco: It starts with awareness. It starts with creating spaces where kids can talk about and write about their experiences. It starts with not making these kids invisible, so having an array of books and materials that address the diversity of experiences. And there are so many out there now. It starts with having safe spaces in the sense of-- and I know that's an overused term, but where everyone is respected, and kids can talk about these issues, and there's zero tolerance for bullying and xenophobic comments. 

It starts with trying to identify who's being excluded if there is exclusion going on in schools. And there are schools where that is happening, so schools climate surveys that identify who's in and who's out and who may be neglected or targeted. So those are some of the things. But without awareness, you can't even begin to do any of those things. 

Jill Anderson: The narrative, and especially in the United States, is very negative often toward immigrants. I just wonder how much that impacts and influences educators on the ground when you have such a contentious-- it's almost become a culture war issue in some ways. 

Carola Suárez-Orozco: I think you're bringing up a really important topic. I mean, here we are, a nation of immigrants. No one in this country, unless you're Indigenous, doesn't have a migratory story. A lot of folks have forgotten their migratory story, but everybody has one, including African-American folk, who were brought here through forced migration. Everybody has a migratory story in the United States. And we have this-- the Statue of Liberty, and it's part of our celebrated history looking back. 

But in the moment, we are always negative towards whatever the new group that's coming in. That's historically true, but it's been on steroids since the 45th presidential campaign and then the presidency. And we've been at a deadlock in terms of doing anything about immigration reform. And so kids are caught in that, and educators are caught in that. And I've been doing this work for almost 30 years now. And I now call it the I-word. Immigration has become a word you can't say aloud. 

I am a proud immigrant, and I-- almost everyone I know and I love is an immigrant. My work has been exclusively working with this population. It pains me to see how much we've gone backwards on this. Yet our numbers keep growing and growing. In 1970, 7% of the child population was immigrant origin. Now we're at 27%. 

We can't really ignore this. But educators are afraid, understandably, but we can't afford to ignore this. So one of the reasons why I keep looking to narratives of migration is it's what we all have in common. Moving stories is something we all have in common. So if we can just pause for a second and think about that, then maybe we can begin to look at the commonalities of experience instead of the ways we divide one another. 

Jill Anderson: So the Immigration Initiative launched a podcast called Our Moving Stories — Exploring the Personal Experiences of People Who've Left Their Countries. Is that common narrative the reason why you decided to launch a podcast? 

Carola Suárez-Orozco: So Moving Stories is a play on words-- moving, because of moving from one place to another, and moving because of the emotional resonance. And I've been playing with that notion for many years. And when I was working with re-imagining migration, I started a whole lesson plan for educators to help their students explore moving stories, ask each other questions about their moving stories, and created a set of questions and an educator guide. And so Moving Stories is an idea and a thought around creating empathy. And in fact, the New York School District right now is doing an intervention with 20 different schools using that whole approach. 

So I run the Immigration Initiative at Harvard. And one of the graduate students in the program, Bruno Villegas, came to me and said he'd been thinking about a podcast. I'm not a podcast person. I'm actually a very shy and reticent person by nature. So his idea was that he wanted to interview young people in their 20s who were either immigrants themselves or children of immigrants to talk about their migratory stories with a focus on resilience, recognizing the complexity of migration, but also, hey, a lot of us do pretty well. 

So I really loved the idea because, well, Bruno is amazing. And he wanted to do it with Ariadne Pacheco, another grad student, and Nancy Valencia Ramirez. So I jumped on the idea because I thought this was a great way for people to hear about immigration stories and hear a counter-narrative, if you will, about the immigration experience for young people and to get a sense of, you know, it's a tough journey. But look at how extraordinary so many of them are. 

Jill Anderson: It's very powerful to hear them speaking in their own words. 

Carola Suárez-Orozco: Thank you. It's not highly polished, but it's authentic and from the heart. And I try to put in my two cents by giving a short summary at the end from my point of view of 30 years' experience doing this work, what really stands out as some themes for people to think about. 

Jill Anderson: What are some ways that educators can incorporate personal stories of their students into the classroom? 

Carola Suárez-Orozco: That's a great question. And one of the things we've been flirting with-- and we've just launched this in December-- was we were thinking about doing short educator guides to accompany the podcasts. So we're still mulling that over. 

But first of all, I think educators should hear them just for themselves, because the more you expand your mind, expand your perspective, get out of the deficit thinking that is so pervasive around stories of migration, the more open-minded and open-hearted you can be in your approach to your students. But I think we can imagine ways in which, especially in high school classes, where kids could bring a story into a class and ask kids to say, in what ways-- what hope does this give you? How are some of these experiences similar to other people's that you know experiences? 

You could get kids to explore and talk about-- you could get non-immigrant kids to learn about something that they don't often think about, just like educators could. And then you could get immigrant-origin kids to realize they're not alone and explore some of those themes. And then you can compare and contrast experiences and then get them to think about social structures, for example. 

Some kids grow up in neighborhoods where there are a lot of other people from their own backgrounds. And others grow up in places where they feel quite isolated. So getting them to think about issues like social structures, because it's not all about the individual. The individual is very much part of the equation, but they're embedded in social systems. So it's a great way to explore some of those issues. 

Jill Anderson: As you were talking about the personal stories, I wondered, is there a way for an educator to set up the climate properly that immigrant children can share their stories and not feel isolated or ostracized from their classmates? 

Carola Suárez-Orozco: To begin with, everyone should approach this with cultural humility; with the understanding that this is an ongoing learning process; that no one person represents a whole group, and they shouldn't ever feel like they should; that we always should be listening with respect; that no one should ever reveal anything they don't feel like they want to reveal; that what is talked about in the classroom stays in the classroom. I mean, those are just basic guidelines to making this something and reminding folks that everyone either has an immigration story right now or had one. And how would they want to have had their ancestors treated if it's a past story? 

And would they want themselves to be treated? But I think if you start with other people's stories first, then it's easier to get into. And you create these classroom norms of respect and kindness and compassion and learning and normalizing this experience that is very much at the basis of this nation. 

Jill Anderson: Carola Suárez-Orozco is a professor in residence at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is also the director of the Immigration Initiative at Harvard. I'm Jill Anderson. This is The Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening. 


An education podcast that keeps the focus simple: what makes a difference for learners, educators, parents, and communities

Related Articles