Fifteen Tips for Helping ELLs Through Their First Winter

A girl sticking out her tongue in the snow.

For students and families who are new to winter weather, this article offer ideas on how to address both the fun and challenging aspects of winter with lots of examples from schools around the country and Canada.

Winter can be filled with excitement as students from warmer climates experience their first snowfall. However, it can also present challenges and hardships for ELL families new to winter weather. This article offer ideas on how to address both the fun and challenging aspects of winter with lots of examples from schools around the country – and Canada!  While these tips focus on new immigrants and refugees, the ideas here can be helpful for other families as well, whether they are moving from warmer places or need some extra assistance during the winter months.

Note: Some of this information should be shared with families at the beginning of the school year or whenever new students enroll; other ideas here would be great topics for parent nights or meetings before the cold winter weather arrives.

Winter Weather Policies and Safety

1. Make sure all families have information about school inclement weather policies in a language they can understand.

While schools are required to share all handbooks and safety policies in languages that parents understand, providing a translation of the winter weather policy doesn’t ensure that parents will know what it means when bad weather arrives. 

At the beginning of the school year, and whenever a new student enrolls, ensure that parents understand the difference between a delay, closing, and early release, how busing will be affected during those changes, how the school will communicate this information to parents, and where/how parents can sign up for notifications such as text messages or e-mails on school-related updates and closings.


Winter Weather Websites

Take a look at how these districts present their winter weather information to families:

In addition, talk about what kinds of weather are likely to cause a weather delay or closing, including snow, ice, freezing rain, and freezing temperatures (and hurricanes and tornadoes in other parts of the country).  An ideal setting to share this information is a meeting with a group of parents. It is best to have an interpreter available so that parents can ask questions and ensure they understand all of the information as well as have translated handouts with graphics they can take with them.

For a personal example that will highlight the importance of taking extra steps to share this kind of information, take a look at vignette #2 in our article, “Lessons Learned from Immigrant Families” about a newcomer student, Carlos, who arrived alone for his first day of school on January 8 to find the doors to the school locked because it was a snow day.

2. Encourage families to think about their options for back-up child care or transportation in the event of school delays, closings, or early release.

Understanding how school closings work and doing a little planning can help families prepare more effectively for school closings. This may include asking for help from a neighbor, caretaker, classmate, or relative who can take care of, drop off, or pick up the child depending on the time of day of the schedule change. In addition, make sure any information about partner programs with child care options that are open when schools are closed, such as this partnership with the Kansas City YMCA in Platte County Schools (MO), is available for parents in their home languages.

3. Share information on winter safety and wellness with parents.

Parents who are new to winter climates (as well as parents who have lots of experience with winter weather!) will benefit from reminders on cold weather safety and wellness – tips such as removing cold and wet clothing quickly, making sure children avoid playing near big piles of snow on the street, heating a home safely and cost-effectively, waiting a safe distance from the school bus, and the importance of good hygiene during cold season. Let parents know that classroom teachers will send home reminders for students to wear warm clothing to school so they are prepared when they are out on the playground, and students who are not adequately clothed for cold weather (gloves, hat, scarf, winter jacket, heavy socks, and boots) may not be allowed to play outside.

In addition, talk about the signs of frostbite and provide tips for preventing and treating frostbite if exposed to cold temperatures. For more bilingual tips on winter safety, see the links at the end of this article.

4. Help students and families understand what they need to know about the outside temperature.

What does 12 degrees Fahrenheit mean?  What is the difference between 0°F and 0°C?  What do "below zero" and "wind chill" mean?  Students may not understand just how cold it is as they head to school and may get frostbite while walking or waiting for the bus.  Explain where families can check the temperature each morning, keeping in mind that they might not have access to smart phones or the Internet.  If families don’t have access to a television, radio or telephone to call a weather hotline, talk with local community agencies to see if there is a way to provide some low-cost communications equipment for safety purposes.


3 Ways to Stay Safe Around School Buses in the Snow

See these tips on winter school bus safety from St. Paul Public Schools.


5. If families have a car, explain that they should have a plan in case they break down or slide off the road, as well as an emergency kit.

Items to include in an emergency kit are listed on this CDC website (also in Spanish). Encourage families to keep warm clothes (even a blanket) in the car since it gets cold while waiting for help. Minnesota teacher Kristina Robertson notes that she keeps a coffee can with a candle, matches in a ziploc, a flashlight, and a chocolate bar in her car – although the chocolate bar always seems to disappear!

6. Explain some ways families can prepare for a bad storm (and remind families of this information if a storm is forecast).

Families will have to get food, water, milk, and other supplies such as diapers if a big storm impacts their area. Also, if power is down, families should know that the heat may be off. Above all, they need to find a way to follow the local news for updates and make sure they understand the information being conveyed on the news.

Clothing, Food, and Heating Needs

7.  Hold a winter clothing drive and share information on where families can find winter clothes if needed.

New immigrant and refugee families may not have warm winter clothing, even if they are arriving to an area of the country with long, cold winters and a lot of snow (which is true of many refugee resettlement cities such as the Twin Cities, Buffalo, Portland, ME, Fargo, ND, etc.).  Other families in your school may also need assistance getting warm clothes. Consider holding a winter clothing or coat drive.  For local organizations or businesses that would like to do something for your school, this can be an easy and effective way to make a big difference for kids quickly.  Make sure the information about the drive is available in families’ languages, such as this coat drive announcement in Spanish from Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. In addition, find out which local shops or organizations offer free or discounted clothing to families, such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army.

For example, educators at McCollough-Unis Public School in Dearborn, MI have started a winter clothing drive for refugee families and new immigrant families focused on jackets, coats, hats, gloves, socks and boots. Once they reach their target goal on the basics, they provide pants, long-sleeved thermals and sweaters to families. Staff at Danville Community College in Illinois started a glove drive after noticing a student with red, chapped hands who said she couldn’t afford gloves.

Mister Rogers' Sweater Drive

Each year, PBS stations, community groups, and schools hold Mister Rogers' Neighborhood Sweater Drives benefitting families in need, such as these from KCTS (WA) and WJCT (FL).

At the same time, keep in mind that some families needing winter clothes may not wish to participate in a public clothing drive, or they may think that, due to circumstances such as immigration status, they are not eligible. They also may not know about the kinds of support available through the school. Keep in close contact with other teachers, social workers, counselors, and parent liaisons who may be able to approach families discretely or set up a kind of anonymous distribution. Look for the ideas and supports that fit your families best and approach the topic with sensitivity.

8. Teach students and families how to dress warmly in layers.

Demonstrate how to dress for winter and explain how layers keep you warm without overheating. For ideas on how to share this information, take a look at this helpful video and handout about dressing for winter (with degrees in C°) used frequently by educators in Ontario, Canada with newcomers and refugees. For recommendations on winter safety when the electricity goes out, take a look at these tips in multiple language from the Vermont State Goverment.

9.  Hold a food drive and find out where families who depend on free- and-reduced school meals can find food if schools are closed. 

School closings can add extra hardship for children who depend on school meals. Find out if local food banks, soup kitchens or community and religious organizations have emergency meals or pantry supplies and make sure parents have that information if there are options available. This NPR story notes that meals missed during closings or delays may make kids extra impatient to get their next school meal; may impact behavior or attention in the classroom; and may increase nurse visits for stomachaches. In addition, weather closings coming at the end of the month may hit families hard who depend on food benefits. 

There may, however, be some creative ways to help families get the food they need. For example, the Owsley County School District in Kentucky drops off meals on days that schools are closed to other places in the community such as libraries, churches, and housing developments. (Owsley is also experimenting with virtual classes on snow days!)

As noted above, keep in touch with colleagues who may be able to approach families privately regarding their food needs.

10. Consider starting an emergency clothing/food pantry at the school.

Some schools keep a closet or small room stocked with emergency food supplies and clothing for families in need. Learn more about one school taking this approach from Principal Mark Gaither at Wolfe Street Academy in Baltimore, MD, a community school. Wolfe also holds clothing giveaways throughout the year. 

11. Help parents understand how to pay heating bills or get financial assistance if they can't pay them in order to avoid having the heat shut off.

Newcomers and refugees may not know the process for paying bills for their home, which can lead to a loss of services.  For example, Kristina Robertson shares that her team recently helped a refugee family that was about to be evicted because they didn't know they were supposed to pay rent and had to learn how to do so. Every state has policies regarding utility disconnection, which you can learn more about from this federal website. You may also be able to find energy assistance programs to help families who need help paying heating bills, such as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance (LIHEAP) program.  Find out what options are available for families in your community from local agencies and organizations.

12. Think about creating partnerships with local organizations that can provide assistance to families throughout the winter.

You may be able to create a long-term partnership with an organization that can provide ongoing support to families by providing clothing, weekend food giveaways, assistance for heating bills, or help to meet other challenges that are faced during the winter.  Organizations with ties to a particular neighborhood or immigrant community may have useful ideas and resources, as well as community members who want to help.

Ideas for the Classroom

13. Look for classroom connections, related books, and student experiences that can be tied into lessons.

You can tie winter weather to lessons about a variety of topics, including science, Social Studies, and language arts – from the brutal conditions at Valley Forge to the ecosystem of the snowy tundra. Here are some ideas from sites such as National Geographic and everything ESL, as well as our bilingual booklist about snowy stories.

In addition, no matter their country of origin, students may have special holidays or traditions that they celebrate during the winter months. Look for ways that students or families can share those experiences in the classroom or during a family event at the school – and this may be a good change of pace is winter starts to feel a little too long!

14. Talk to families about the importance of attendance.

At the beginning of the school year or when families in enroll their children, talk with families about the importance of school attendance and the benefit to their children from attending school regularly. Explain that schools remain open through the winter and that there will be public notifications if the schools are closed. In addition, express support for trips that allow children to see relatives and use their home language that occur during scheduled breaks, such as winter break, spring break, or summer vacation.  Help parents understand the difference between excused and unexcused absences and that students might not be able to make up work for unexcused absences.

You can find some great ideas for communicating with parents in this bilingual Winter Messaging Toolkit from Attendance Works. This article from the Chicago Tribune also talks about some of the approaches that have made a difference in reducing the number of extended absences among immigrant families in recent years in Chicago schools.

15. Finally, don’t forget the fun – and the magic!

Winter can be challenging – but it can be a lot of fun too! A student’s first snowfall can be a magical experience, and it’s one of the things that many ESL teachers say they enjoy most about teaching ELLs. In this video, teacher Amber Prentice talks about her students’ excitement when they first see snow and admits that whatever she had planned for the day usually has to take a backseat to a trek outside to see the snow up close.

Tell your students about some of the fun things they can do in the snow, like sledding or building a snowman!  Share some safe locations for sledding with families that they can try, like a local park (as opposed to piles of snow on the street).  You can even make it an “official” school activity by providing sleds and some warm clothes suitable for the snow. Families will have fun and get to experience some typical U.S. winter activities!

Closing Thoughts

Helping students and families navigate their first winter will be a memorable experience – and one that your families will surely appreciate.  By having their basic needs met, students will be better able to stay safe and focused on their schoolwork – and have some fun in the snow at the same time!

Winter Safety Tips and Information

Author Tracey Baptiste recalls moving from Trinidad to Brooklyn at the age of 15 and her first long winter.


Farhat, Zahraa.The Arab American News. McCollough-Unis School holding winter clothing drive for refugee and new immigrant students. Retrieved 11/10/2016 from:

Dobo, Nichole. The Hechinger Report. Forget snow days. How one school district uses this time to teach students — and fill their bellies as well. Retrieved 1/27/16 from:

Glazer, Jessica. NPR. For Lower-Income Students, Snow Days Can Be Hungry Days. Retrieved 1/12/14 from:

Ortiz Healy, Vikki. The Chicago Tribune. Long winter absences no longer plague educators at largely Hispanic schools. Retrieved 1/27/2016 from

Roehm, Carol. Commerical-News. DACC Event to Keep Students Warm. Retrieved 12/5/2016 from:



Special thanks to Susan Lafond, Kristina Robertson, Becky Corr, Paula Markus, and Fabiana Casella for their contributions to this article!


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