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 get started with families who speak different languages.

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.

 – Survey Respondent


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 for tips on how you can 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 – or even enter – the school/program
  • 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 schools are run by the government.

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, including at events all year long
  • 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 informational 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)
  • PSAs and interviews with local media outlets in families’ native languages, especially for communities with low levels of native language literacy.

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 for Schools

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 & 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 how a few phrases in families’ languages
  • welcoming and using students’ home languages in the classroom

Celebrate Students' Countries and Cultures

  • hanging flags of students’ home countries
  • displaying artwork, photos, and mementos from students’ countries
  • making culturally responsive books available in families’ home languages in the library and in classrooms (including books by diverse authors who share students’ heritage)
  • providing 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 (see more on this topic below)

Engaging the School-wide/District-wide Community

  • encouraging students brainstorm ideas on how to make peers feel welcome
  • encourage activities that foster students’ empathy
  • reminding the community 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 undocumented status as a form of difference that merits equitable treatment in your classroom. Any time you engage in conversations with students that it is not okay to discriminate against others due to their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or other form of social difference, include immigration status. If you have signs in your classroom that name how hate is not permitted or conversations regarding different kinds of bullying, include immigration status as well (Gallo, 2018).

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

 

Get to know your students and families

Why This Matters for Schools

One of the most important steps educators can take is to get to know students and families in a personal relationship that establishes trust and rapport. It is much easier to address a difficult situation when you already have a solid relationship.

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 among 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/Immigrant Students

Video: One Principal's Journey to a Refugee Camp

More Recommended Videos

 

 

 

Learn more about special populations of students

Why This Matters for Schools

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 had unique experiences, strengths, and needs.

Here are some examples of those experiences:

  • Refugee students may have experienced trauma, difficult journeys, and lengthy stays in refugee camps or temporary accommodations with little access to schooling.
  • Students with interrupted education may have little or no schooling, or a patchwork of experiences. Some may never have sat at a desk, held a pencil, or followed a schedule.
  • Migrant farmworkers may have moved frequently around the country following different harvest seasons. They may not have school records from prior schools. They may be living in poverty and particularly vulnerable to events such as natural disasters.
  • Unaccompanied children and youth may have endured long, traumatic, and violent journeys and may be reuniting with family they haven’t met or seen for a long time.
  • Students displaced by natural disasters may have gone through traumatic experiences, upheaval, and long separations from immediate family members.

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 the ESOL team or a parent liaison have information about students’ prior experiences.
  • Invite colleagues or community partners 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 below and our article on student stories.

Recommended Resources

Identify student and family strengths

Why This Matters to Schools

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 strengths, 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 student strengths

Video: Getting to know students through parent letters

Video: Our Parents Value Education and Their Children’s Teachers

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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