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Usable Knowledge

The Strengths of Immigrant Students

An asset-based approach to newcomer students, emphasizing what they have (not what they lack)
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Today’s children are the most ethnically and racially diverse of any age group in the United States, according to a 2011 article in the journal Future of Children. And immigration is fueling that diversity; by 2050, one-third of all U.S. children will be immigrants or the children of immigrants.

This rich and growing population brings a wide array of skills and strengths to classrooms and communities. Immigrant students speak two, three, and sometimes as many as six or seven languages. Many have navigated multiple countries and schools, and their persistence is striking. Some have demonstrated tremendous resilience, surviving wars, refugee camps, and gang fighting.

In my own practice, I’ve seen how these students often act as linguistic and cultural translators for their families, helping parents with government or medical paperwork. In school, they support classmates, bridging the gap between teachers and the most recent arrivals, or helping new families during the enrollment process. Outside of class, they often work long hours to help support their families, or they act as essential caregivers to younger siblings.

Immigrant students have the determination, grit, perseverance, and problem-solving skills we say we value — and that we’re told are critical to 21st-century learning. So why aren’t their strengths better recognized?

In other words, immigrant students have the determination, grit, perseverance, and problem-solving skills we say we value — and that we’re told are critical to 21st-century learning and achievement.

So why aren’t their strengths better recognized? Why do we shine a spotlight on their weaknesses?

The instructional focus for teaching recent immigrants in much of the country has been English as a Second Language. New arrivals are often kept together in sheltered classes, where they are given intensive English instruction. If the immigrant population is large enough, they might spend a number of semesters in separate classes, before their English is strong enough for them to move into “mainstream” classes with native-English speaking peers.

The sheltered model has many benefits, including intensive language instruction, extra directed supports, and additional time for students to master language alongside content.

Yet when we center instruction on their lack of English, we’re engaging in “deficit-based thinking” that can tint our view. In my practice, I’ve heard educators say as much: “It’s so easy to forget how creative immigrant students can be,” one educator confided. 

We need our schools to provide immigrant students with rigorous English training while also tapping into their strengths. Here, four actions that can help, particularly at the high school level.

  1. Create a Global Classroom

    Immigrant students bring a wealth of experiences and knowledge about the world that many American-born students don’t possess (especially since more than half of American citizens don’t own a passport.) Teachers and schools can consciously create cultures that value global knowledge — in both historic and current events.

    Teachers can assign texts with narratives that take place in other countries and reflect students' diverse backgrounds. They can discuss global news articles on a regular basis. Thoughtful curriculum choices help develop all students’ essential knowledge of their world and can signal to immigrant students that their stories and histories are valued here. This focus also provides immigrants a natural opportunity to share their experience and become teachers to their classmates.
  2. Remember to focus on grade-level content

    At all grade levels, it is important to provide grade-level texts and assignments. According to Abigail Williamson, an instructional coach for Salem (MA) Public Schools and an entrepreneur in English language development, although immigrant students may still be mastering English, it is important for teachers to recognize their intellectual capacities, separate from their English proficiency and ability to express ideas in English.
  3. Award a Language Certificate

    An increasing number of schools, districts, and states are awarding graduating high school seniors a certificate acknowledging their literacy skills in more than one language. Even as schools focus on supporting immigrant students’ English development, they can also encourage student to maintain or develop their native language skills. In an increasingly globalized world, multi-literacy is a clear asset in a wide range of professions. The Seal of Biliteracy encourages students (both immigrants and native English speakers) to value becoming polyglots. Read about how the high school in Salem, MA, has implemented this program.
  4. Reshape Your School’s Approach to College Applications

    Two years ago, when Harvard’s Making Caring Common initiative published its Turning the Tide report, it articulated a new vision for how colleges could rethink the admissions process, in part to advance equity and opportunity for economically disadvantaged students and immigrant students. College applications have traditionally measured students by their AP courses, excellent test scores, and exceptional internships, but such measures most often favor students with more advantaged backgrounds.

    College counselors can play an essential role, by explicitly asking students about their skills and strengths as multilingual, multicultural, resilient young people, and encourage and support students in incorporating these accomplishments into their college applications.


Schools serve as a key point of welcome for immigrant and refugee children in America, but politics and changing demographics are complicating how we assist these newcomers. In a special series, we look at the strategies and practices that best support newcomer students and their families. Read more in Welcoming Newcomers.

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