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Migration, Separation, and Trauma

What educators should know about the often-painful experiences of newly arriving children — and how to help
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Stories of family separations at the U.S. border have unsettled and angered the nation over the past month, and childhood development experts have raised alarms that the trauma of these separations can have lasting consequences.

But well beyond the spotlight of the current crisis, the experiences of immigrant and refugee children are often fraught with trauma, even if that suffering is hidden or unacknowledged. While some children arrive in the United States through a safe and swift process, many arrive after harrowing journeys involving weeks — if not months or years — of violence, upheaval, and marginalization. And that's on top of the difficult circumstances that often prompt decisions to migrate in the first place.

When these children finally enroll in school in the United States, their traumatic pasts may still be affecting them. Educators and caregivers need to understand the collective weight of these journeys in order to help children recover, stabilize, and thrive. Here's what to know and how to help.

Mobility and Trauma

Xenophobic political language and fear of the unknown have made some Americans suspicious of or apathetic toward newcomers, thinking that they are taking advantage of the border system, or — in the case of the current crisis — blaming parents for the separations that are occurring. But the paths immigrants and refugees take to arrive in America are usually the result of honest attempts to find safety for themselves and their families.

The experiences of immigrant and refugee children are often fraught with trauma. Many arrive after harrowing journeys involving weeks — if not months or years — of violence, upheaval, and marginalization.

At the country’s southern border, “most of the current wave of children and their families are not making unauthorized crossings,” notes Roberto Gonzales, an expert on immigrant and undocumented youth in America. “Rather, they’re turning themselves in at the border seeking asylum” — fleeing long-term poverty, deprivation, and gang violence in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.  

  • In essence, asylum seekers are people who meet the criteria for refugee status but are already in the United States or seeking admission at a port of entry, Gonzales explains. They are people who are coming to the U.S. because they’ve faced severe danger and volatility at home.
  • That instability is compounded by threats that minors face on their journey to the border, Gonzales says: “separation from their parents and other family members, exposure to violence, housing and food insecurity, uprooting from familiar environments, interrupted schooling, prejudice and discrimination, and anxiety about the future.”

Refugees arriving in the U. S. from Africa or the Middle East may have fled one country only to spend years in an intermediary country in exile or in limbo, and their experiences often amount to a series of traumas. “Violation of the sanctuary of home, which many of us take so for granted, is an initial dislocation,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, an international education expert who has worked extensively with refugees. “Once uprooted from home, refugees and immigrants often settle in places where they are dislocated by exclusion and lack of opportunities, whether through laws that limit their ability to access services such as schools, or through experiences in which they are made to feel that they do not belong.”

Refugee children, especially, face a number of educational challenges prior to arriving in the United States, which can continue to affect them academically even after they’ve resettled.  

  • Many have only had limited schooling. In 2015, only 50 percent of refugees had access to primary school (compared to 93 percent globally), and only 25 percent had access to secondary school (compared to 62 percent globally).
  • Many have faced language barriers for years while trying to learn. By the time these students arrive in America, they may have been exposed to multiple languages but mastered none.
  • The schooling in refugee settings is often of a very poor quality, with few resources and untrained teachers. It’s not uncommon for students to have no opportunities to ask questions or collaborate.
  • The curriculum refugee children are exposed to can be highly politicized, and at times openly discriminatory. Teachers may hold prejudicial views against them, and non-refugee peers may bully them.  

These factors — uneven and unpredictable learning or language gaps in a widely diverse immigrant community — create a challenge for American educators, especially those in once-homogenous communities. Teachers have to find ways to provide the language and other supports these students need — and the rigorous education they’re entitled to.

The traumas of forced migration add up. By the time they arrive in the United States, children may be fearful of interacting with fellow students and teachers, have less academic knowledge than U.S. peers, and struggle to learn English.

The Lasting Impact of Trauma

For children, the traumas of forced migration add up. By the time they arrive in the United States, they may be fearful of interacting with fellow students and teachers, have less academic knowledge than U.S. peers, and struggle to learn English.

Compounding that, of course, is the ultimate trauma of a forcible or sudden separation from parents or caregivers — either at the border or much earlier in their journey. These kinds of separations can put children at risk of toxic stress”: adversity coupled with a lack of adequate adult support and home stability.

In a recent statement, Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, outlined two critical concepts that form the foundations of almost everything we know about early childhood development: “First, healthy brain development in babies and young children requires the consistent availability of a stable, responsive, and supportive relationship with at least one parent or primary caregiver. Second, high and persistent levels of stress can disrupt the architecture of the developing brain and other biological systems, with serious negative impacts on learning, behavior, and lifelong physical and mental health.”

For migrant children who may have experienced trauma without a stable caregiver, the consequences are not temporary. These children are at risk for cognitive delays and impairments in executive function and self-regulation skills, for chronic health issues such as anxiety, depression, and cardiovascular problems, and for learning difficulties, poorer reading skills, and lower rates of high school graduation.

How Schools and Communities Can Help

  • Move beyond politics. Immigrant and refugee children deserve a quality education, and they’ll be more likely to get it if educators create spaces of belonging to welcome and support these students. “Be champions for migrant children,” says Gonzales. “Schools can provide a much-needed source of stability and routine” for these young people — or they can be sites of challenge, continued discrimination, and additional stress.
  • Make family support a priority. Dryden-Peterson has found that refugee children’s success partially depends on their families being connected to basic necessities such as clothing and food. Streamlining social services can also reduce parents’ stress, helping them become more responsive caregivers.
  • Develop awareness and sensitivity training for staff and community members. Principals should make sure every adult in the building understands where these children are from and the difficulties they are facing in their new environment. They should also review curriculum materials to ensure that they are culturally sensitive and appropriate for migrant students.
  • Educate for diversity. School leaders and counselors can address discrimination in school and dispel myths about different cultures head on. Teachers can use history and civics classes to explore systemic inequality in America and abroad.
  • Listen to immigrant children. Make a conscious effort to build empathy and bridge divides. Many migrant children live in communities surrounded by other newcomers, and have few opportunities to interact with white, native-born, or wealthier peers. These connections can help newcomer children build vital social capital and help native-born children grow comfortable with people from different cultures.
  • At the same time, pair students with mentors who are of the same racial and ethnic background. These adults may be able to connect with students in a different way than white and/or native-born teachers. If they have overcome similar circumstances, they can provide much-needed perspective and inspiration.
  • Provide college and career planning that fits with the realities migrant families face. Most will need significant financial aid in order to attend college. Undocumented students will need special assistance navigating the application process. Many immigrants and refugees will need to work to support their families after high school. So explore pathways that are both aspirational and viable — four-year colleges, community colleges, and career preparation, depending on individual needs.

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