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.