How Schools Can Support Immigrant Students and Families

Making Students and Families Feel Welcome

Learn how schools can help make all families feel welcome within the school, why these messages matter, and how to build upon immigrant families' experiences and strengths.

This information is an excerpt from our forthcoming guide on how schools can support immigrant families.

I know of one teacher who called all families of her students just to say 'I wanted to thank you for entrusting your child to our school. We're happy you're here. I love working with your student.' I heard about the phone call from an older sibling, and it was the first time I'd seen this girl smile in two weeks. Small gestures make a difference.

 — Educator response to a Colorín Colorado survey on how schools are supporting immigrant families


Overview

Schools can use a variety of strategies to get to know immigrant families and let them know they are welcome in the school community. Sharing these messages of support during times of uncertainty can strengthen relationships, make communication and problem-solving more effective, and impact student attendance and family engagement.

Take a look at our ideas below to get started in your setting.

Let all families know that they are welcome

Why this matters

The best way to let families know that they are welcome is to tell them. This kind of outreach has always been important for ELL and immigrant families; however, it is even more critical for immigrant families who may:

  • feel unwelcome in the school, early childhood program, or community
  • not know if immigration status impacts the right to attend school or early childhood program, or even enter the building
  • be more likely to keep their children home and avoid educational settings themselves
  • keep their children home due to local immigration enforcement activity
  • come from countries where school records are available to all government agencies.

Expressing support signals that you value their place in your community and take those concerns seriously. It is also an important message to communicate to staff who are serving immigrant students and who may be immigrants themselves or have ties to immigrant relatives/communities.

Tips for getting started

Educators and school/program leaders can communicate this message by:

  • regularly expressing that families are welcome
  • posting welcome signs and messages of support on doors in multiple languages
  • making statements of support available online.

Other kinds of outreach

Schools, districts, and early childhood programs can also share welcoming messages through:

  • parent information meetings
  • phone calls
  • public remarks in the community or local press
  • collaboration with community organizations that have a relationship with families (i.e. houses of worship, community centers, and immigrant rights groups)
  • Public Service Announcements and interviews with local media outlets in families' native languages, especially for communities with low levels of native language literacy.

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Create a welcoming school environment

Bullying prevention

Read more about tips for protecting ELLs and immigrant students from bullying in your classroom and school.

Why this matters

The environment of a school or early childhood program has a significant impact on students and families. There are a number of things that educators can do to create a welcoming environment for immigrant students and families.

Tips for getting started

Make families and students feel welcome by:

Removing barriers to engagement

  • ensuring that families are greeted warmly at the front office in their language
  • introducing them to parent liaisons, Family Resource Centers, or other resources
  • helping families understand the U.S. school system
  • providing transportation, meals, and child care for family events
  • identifying specific stressors, such as stimuli that trigger post-traumatic stress

Communicating in families' languages

  • having access to someone who speaks their language
  • making information available in their language and format they prefer
  • teaching staff how to use a language phone line or other services with an interpreter
  • learning how to pronounce student and family names correctly
  • learning a few phrases in families' languages
  • welcoming and using students' home languages in the classroom
  • connecting students with peers, staff, or volunteers who speak their language

Celebrate students' countries and cultures

  • hanging flags of students' home countries
  • displaying artwork, photos, and mementos from students' countries
  • including culturally responsive books in families' home languages in the library and in classrooms (including books by diverse authors who share students' heritage)
  • providing opportunities for students and/or families to share songs and stories from their country or culture if they feel comfortable doing so
  • being mindful that some students may not wish to share information about their home country, immigration story, or place of birth and others may not remember or know much about it (see more on this topic in our related section on immigrant students' silence)

Engaging the school-wide/district-wide community

  • encouraging students to brainstorm ideas on how to make peers feel welcome
  • encouraging activities that foster students' empathy
  • reminding the community, including all students and adults in the building, of existing policies on bullying, bias, and discrimination
  • taking steps to prevent bullying and addressing bullying incidents when they occur
  • sharing these strategies and ideas with colleagues.

In addition, consider adding immigration status as a form of difference that merits equitable treatment in your classroom. Any time you engage in conversations with students about why it is important not to discriminate against others due to their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or other form of social difference, include immigration status (as is developmentally appropriate). If you have signs in your classroom that name different kinds of bullying or hate speech, include immigration status as well (Gallo, 2018).

Addressing bias

For recommendations on how to discuss and address bias, see the comprehensive resource list we put together following the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA.

Recommended resources

Resources from Colorín Colorado

Toolkits

News headlines

Recommended videos

Video playlist: Creating a welcoming environment for ELL and immigrant students

Video playlist: Building relationships with ELL and immigrant students

Video: What happened when the students realized the Yemeni flag wasn't on stage

 

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Get to know your students and families

Why this matters

One of the most important steps educators can take is to get to know students and families, developing a personal relationship that establishes trust and rapport. It is much easier to address a difficult situation, such as changes in a student's behavior, when you already have a solid relationship, such as responding to families' concerns or changes in student behavior.

Tips for getting started

  • Learn more about family backgrounds and strengths by talking with families, cultural liaisons, and ELL/bilingual colleagues.
  • Invite members of the community or local organizations to share their insights.
  • Look for ways to increase the amount of interaction between staff and families.
  • Get into families' neighborhoods by planning events in local venues and home visits.
  • Give students the chance to tell their stories with tips in this Colorín Colorado article.

Recommended resources

Strategies and tips

Student populations

Recommended videos

Video Playlist: Home visits with immigrant students

Video Playlist: Getting to know your ELL and immigrant students

Video: One principal's journey to a refugee camp

More recommended videos

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Learn more about special populations of students

Why this matters

It is critical to learn as much as possible about your students' backgrounds and educational experiences, as well as their talents and gifts, as you look for ways to help them succeed. You may also meet students who have unique experiences, strengths, and needs.

Here are some examples of those experiences:

Tips for getting started

  • Look for clues about your students' experiences without asking direct questions.
  • Build relationships with students and families.
  • Find out if colleagues such as ESOL teachers, parent liaisons, or community partners have information about students' prior experiences. If so, invite these colleagues to share their insights with staff.
  • Learn more about the context for your students' experiences, such as a civil war that caused them to flee or the conditions that migrants face along particular routes.
  • Keep in mind that some students may be reluctant to share their experiences. See ideas for supportive ways to engage students that don't put them on the spot in our related section and our article on student stories.
  • Keep in mind that refugees and asylees have different kinds of rights in the U.S.; not everyone that used to live in a refugee camp has resettled through the State Department and has access to the rights and privileges that such a process entails.

Reviewing students’ schedules

You may also wish to look at students’ schedules and look for ways to reduce the number disruptions and transitions where possible. ELL administrator Kristina Robertson writes,

Think about what kinds of supports are available in the school environment if students have had very little school experience or if they've experienced trauma. These students may benefit from a lot of structure and attention from the same small group of people on a regular basis and a regular schedule.

For elementary students, this may mean reducing the number of transitions and classroom switches throughout the day, which can be overwhelming – this is a particular challenge for ELLs who are struggling and being pulled out for multiple kinds of services and support. For secondary students, consider connecting students with adult mentors that can provide a check-in each day, as well as a place to take a break when needed.

Recommended resources

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Identify student and family strengths

Why this matters

All students and families have strengths and assets.  Recognizing those strengths can create a foundation on which to build an effective partnership. It is an important shift from a "deficit" approach, in which families and students are defined by their needs and challenges.

Tips for getting started

  • Be sure to highlight student and family strengths and celebrate them publicly and regularly within the entire school/program community. 
  • Look for families' strengths and successes in overcoming and managing their challenges and caring for their children.
  • Ask students and families to describe their skills, interests, and talents, and ask for additional input from colleagues and community partners.
  • Look for ways to do this in the classroom. Encourage teachers to look for students' strengths (using this chart of asset-based language as a starting point), as well as contributions that members of the students' communities have made locally and to American society.

Recommended resources

Recommended Videos

Video: Building upon students' strengths

Video: Getting to know students through parent letters

Video: Our parents value education and their children's teachers

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References

See our complete reference list for works cited in this article.

Reprints

You are welcome to print copies or republish materials for non-commercial use as long as credit is given to Colorín Colorado and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact info@colorincolorado.org.

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