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Making Schools a Welcoming Place for Immigrant Students

How educators can help newcomers in the classroom
Grid of students

Children from immigrant homes make up more than a quarter of the child population in the U.S. and are the fastest growing segment of school-age students, but many are invisible and unrecognized — schools don’t typically have a real sense of their presence or their potential according to Carola Suárez-Orozco, the director of the Immigration Initiative at Harvard.

If immigrant-origin children — meaning those who are foreign born or have at least one parent who was born abroad — are considered at all, they are typically thought of as English language learners. While learning English is important, Suárez-Orozco says it is a “very reductive way of thinking about the immigrant child experience.” She believes that much more needs to be understood to help newcomers integrate, and Suárez-Orozco shared her advice for ways that educators can begin the process.

How schools can lend a helping hand to immigrant children:

  • Be sensitive about the extra baggage kids are carrying. When immigrants or refugees begin attending school in the U.S., they may be suffering from trauma they experienced back in their home country or while traveling to get here; they may have experienced painful separations from family members. There will likely be acculturative stress — the emotional and mental stress of adapting to a new culture — and if the children or their parents are undocumented there could be concerns about finances, access to resources, and fears about deportation.
  • Know that a good quality school with a caring community can make a big difference. Suárez-Orozco, a trained clinical psychologist, says she has found through her extensive research that the quality of schools attended by newcomers has “varied immensely, and that ultimately the kinds of schools that kids attended was one of the best predictors of how well they did over the course of time.” She explains that “if they got into a really good, nurturing school it made a big difference in buffering a lot of these difficulties that many brought in with them.”
  • Pay attention to school climate. School climate, which is the collective mood and experiences of students, educators, and families in schools, matters. Healthy climates encourage learning while unhealthy ones create barriers.

"If they got into a really good, nurturing school it made a big difference in buffering a lot of these difficulties that many brought in with them.”

Tips for improving school climate for immigrant students:

•    Take a look in the mirror. “You can’t fix what you don’t recognize,” says Suárez-Orozco who suggests that educators perform a self-diagnosis and use a school-wide survey to learn about the experiences of all their students.

•    Don’t ignore bullying. Some immigrant students are hyper-visible and targeted in schools because of xenophobic political rhetoric or negative stories in the media. Be sure to intervene quickly with restorative justice methods.

•    Build strong personalized relationships with students and all members of the school community. Emotionally supportive school environments, where students have a sense of belonging and feel respected and valued, promote engagement, motivation, and achievement. Don’t forget the unique socioemotional needs and challenges of children from immigrant families.

•    Encourage family engagement. Reach out and listen to all families and use their feedback to shape decisions. Communications need to be culturally relevant and may have to be provided in several languages. Build up trust by working with community liaisons and leaders.

•    Include all your students in the curriculum. Incorporate global perspectives and projects that allow students to explore their own languages, cultures, and histories. Decorate spaces with a variety of cultural backgrounds in mind.

•    Provide professional learning opportunities to train teachers how to use culturally sustaining practices. Training may also be needed to help educators challenge their own preconceived ideas and assumptions about immigrant families.

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