The Education of Immigrant Children

As the demography of the U.S. continues to shift, how can schools best serve their changing population?

December 11, 2014
children's hands raised in front of a classroom chaulkboard

When schools opened this fall, Education Week noted a key “demographic milestone” — for the first time, children of color would outnumber non-Hispanic whites in the nation’s public classrooms.

With the Pew Research Center projecting that, by 2050, more than one-third of the nation’s schoolchildren “younger than 17 will either be immigrants themselves or the children of at least one parent who is an immigrant,” Associate Professor Natasha Kumar Warikoo says that schools will need to rethink classroom strategies, family engagement practices, and how to best navigate cultural divides.

“The more work schools can do to improve race relations and attenuate stereotypes and stereotype threat based on immigration status, ethnicity, and race,” says Warikoo, “the more immigrant youth and their U.S.-born peers will thrive.”

What would you identify as some of the greatest challenges immigrant children face in U.S. classrooms?

Even though one out of every four children in the United States is an immigrant or the U.S.-born child of immigrants, many schools are ill-equipped to meet their needs. Immigrant youth frequently are learning two languages, an incredible asset, but one that many schools have yet to learn to support effectively. Using multiple forms of communication in the classroom, along with supporting native language development, takes skill and practice. The demands of standardized testing often force schools instead to emphasize rote learning in English, neglecting the incredible asset of children’s native languages and much of what researchers have discovered about how children learn second languages. 

Related to bilingual language development, immigrant youth are best supported when schools foster bicultural identities, enabling them to navigate multiple cultural worlds effectively. All children in the 21st century need to learn to cross cultural boundaries, whether ethnic, racial, age, geographic, or other boundaries. While immigrant youth inevitably must navigate multiple cultures, many schools and districts have yet to develop strategies for supporting this “cultural straddling,” as sociologist Prudence Carter calls it. Instead, classrooms in the U.S. tend to be incredibly focused on the United States. Simultaneously, immigrant youth enter into a highly racialized society in the United States. The more work schools can do to improve race relations and attenuate stereotypes and stereotype threat based on immigration status, ethnicity, and race, the more immigrant youth and their U.S.-born peers will thrive.

And for undocumented students?

Undocumented status affects more than 1 million children today, which is about one-third of all immigrant youth. Another 4.5 million U.S.-born youth have an undocumented parent. Children face barriers because of their parents’ undocumented status, often related to poverty, fears of deportation, and more, while undocumented youth themselves face increasing barriers to social mobility as they enter adolescence and hope to obtain driver’s licenses, afterschool work, and financial aid for college. Even when children themselves are unaware of their family members’ legal status, being undocumented or the child of an undocumented parent negatively impacts a child’s development. 

Relatedly, what are the challenges faced by today's teachers in educating immigrant children?

Teachers in new immigrant destinations — places that are seeing rapidly increasing numbers of immigrants — often find themselves dealing with a host of unexpected issues: immigrant students’ unique socio-emotional needs, community conflict, a wider range of skills in English, lack of a common language for communication with parents, and more. Even cities like New York face dramatic shifts in the student population, as immigration patterns change. At first, it may seem as if immigrant youth are causing increased problems in the classroom, school, or district.  However, the more that teachers can see their immigrant students as assets, the better off all students will be. Immigrant youth bring rich, diverse cultural backgrounds to the classroom and expose their peers and teachers to different ways of understanding the world. At the same time, immigrant youth force teachers to develop strategies that employ multiple forms of communication, and to think beyond the United States in the curriculum, from social studies lessons to examples used in math word problems. This broader outlook will serve all children well. Still, without the support of colleagues experienced in working with immigrant youth, and time in the day to rethink the curriculum and to reflect on teaching practices, teachers can feel ill-equipped to meet the needs of their changing student bodies. 

When we consider ongoing conversations around enhancing teacher preparation programs, is enough time and attention being spent on the importance of cultural competency?

I believe that cultural competency is essential in any educational setting. How does a teacher understand the inner worlds of her students? Through skill in connecting with diverse cultural backgrounds, interests, and personalities. Cultural competency requires, first and foremost, that teachers see themselves as lifelong learners who will inevitably encounter new cultures in the classroom, whether immigrant, racial, technological, stylistic, and more. At the same time, I do not want to diminish the importance of ethnic and racial cultural competency in particular, given that our teaching force is more than 80 percent white, while over half of children born today are racial minorities. Researchers have shown that educators’ racial biases and stereotypes, whether explicit or unconscious, have significant effects on student learning and feelings of inclusion. There is room for optimism, though, because researchers have also begun to help us understand what kinds of actions — some small, and others big — we can take to reduce the effects of stereotypes and biases in the classroom. 

How might school and district leaders better prepare their staffs to address the changing demographics of today's classrooms?

First and foremost, leaders must be committed to difficult conversations about difference and change, and to finding ways to capture the opportunities that emerge from a changing student population to improve teaching and learning.  With a bicultural or cultural straddler model in mind for students and school staff, leaders can support educators in their work with immigrant youth. This work takes time, and it takes commitment to serving the needs of the most disadvantaged students in our schools. It will not emerge from short professional development sessions; rather, those sessions should exist in conjunction with an ongoing model of school improvement that includes ongoing reflection on how things are going and how to improve. 

Any final thoughts on what might be missing from the conversations on this topic?

Conversations in education today tend to focus on educational testing and accountability. While assessment and accountability are important, it is important to remember that teaching is a relational profession. Without strong socio-emotional supports, students cannot learn. And, without connecting to their students, teachers cannot teach. Children of immigrants in the classroom force educators to determine how best to do this work when students’ backgrounds do not match their own. They are a reminder that teachers usually have something in common with each student, and some important difference, and that identifying those points of connection is of utmost importance.

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