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.