Voices from the Field

Voices from the Field is a place for administrators, teachers, school support staff, community, and family members to learn what experts -- researchers, practitioners, family -- from across the country think by reading a short post that includes the latest promising practices on a range of school climate topics, along with references and related resources.

What strategy do you think has the GREATEST impact in assisting students who are recent immigrants best transition into their new school environments?

Have you ever experienced feeling like an outsider, maybe as a tourist or as a new resident in an unfamiliar area?  If so, you may recall feelings of frustration and uneasiness that you experienced when adjusting to different customs, routines, and possibly different forms of communication that were foreign to you. These experiences are a daily challenge for students who are recent immigrants to the United States. Despite the difficulties, these students can demonstrate their greatest potential when provided with adequate support and acceptance from their communities and families. In fact, did you know that this year, two of the students who were accepted into all 8 Ivy League schools immigrated to the United States while in elementary school (Jacobs, 2015)?

Although these extraordinary students achieved such remarkable goals as a result of their merit, hard work, dedication, and family support, their school environment also played a role in getting them to where they are today.

Schools present an environment filled with challenges for students who have recently immigrated, particularly for those entering high school (Garrett, 2006).  While in school, these students can face difficulties in adjusting to different teaching methods, ways of learning, languages and developing an understanding of their self-identity (Garrett, 2006; Cone et al., 2013). Some students can experience conflicting pressure from school and home as they assimilate into their new surroundings (Cone et al., 2013; Njue and Retish, 2010).  Therefore, it is vital for schools to develop the capacities for creating an environment that can facilitate healthy adjustments and enable students to thrive in their new surroundings.

How can schools meet the needs of students who have recently immigrated?

Although many students who are recent immigrants have strong familial support, many have experienced stress and disconnection caused by long-term separations from their parents or other relatives prior to immigrating (Center for Health and Health Care in Schools, 2011). In addition, some newly immigrated students come from families dealing with past traumas due to social, political and economic persecution, violence or natural disasters, which may have caused them to leave their country of origin (Bershad, 2011). Thus, there are many mental and physical health challenges that emerge during their settlement period. Many of these families lack health insurance as well as information on how to access resources for their children (Bershad, 2011; Center for Health and Health Care in Schools, 2011; Mermin, 2006).

When these students are in school, educators and other school personnel can make a significant impact in helping these families adjust. Research conducted by the Education Development Center, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools has identified some ideas to apply with students in your classroom and school, which may run parallel to existing ESOL and academic supports.

  • Demonstrate sensitivity among school staff for different cultures and traditions.
  • Create a welcoming and warm environment that respects diversity and inclusion. 
  • Identify/implement strategies that can facilitate engagement and inclusion of students, and families from diverse cultural backgrounds.
  • Identify the strengths, differences and needs of individual students.
  • Consider leading classroom discussions or lessons on topics about American culture and customs, including guest speakers from outreach programs in the community.
  • Create opportunities for students to share information about their cultural backgrounds.
  • Develop a network or “bank” of resources, including language/translation help, cultural resources, outreach opportunities, and other staff in the school such as ESOL teachers and school counselors.
  • Provide ample opportunities for parents to become more involved with the school whether it is as volunteers, participants on school advisory boards, or guest speakers.

Why is addressing the needs of students who are recent immigrants important?

As educators and as Americans, we have the legal responsibility to ensure that all students are provided equal access to quality education regardless of their immigration status (IDRA, 2015).  Today, approximately 20% of students enrolled in U.S. public schools are recent immigrants and refugees (Bershad, 2011).  Meanwhile, approximately 5 million, 9% of students, in U.S. public schools are English learners (US Department of Education, 2015). Although many students who have recently immigrated are able to excel academically, this population, as a whole, is still underperforming and attaining lower graduation rates than their peers (Hooker, 2013; Hooker, Fix & McHugh, 2014).  To ensure that these students are given the appropriate support to excel, it is important to develop strategies and plans on how to best assist students who have recently immigrated during their adjustment period.

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