How to Support ELL Students with Interrupted Formal Education (SIFEs)

Girl in headscarf looking at board

This article provides a profile of students with interrupted formal education, their strengths and needs, recommendations of best practices, and examples of different kinds of support that will accelerate their academic achievement.


Another related term that educators may see is "Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education" (SLIFEs).

When immigrant students enroll in a new school, their prior educational experiences may vary widely. Students who have not had an opportunity to attend school or have had multiple interruptions in their education are commonly referred to as "Students with Interrupted Education" (SIFEs).

While educating students with interrupted education may seem daunting, they bring numerous talents and strengths to their new schools and communities. And they can indeed obtain a high school diploma with the right kind of support and go on to future academic and professional success.

In fact, each spring, we read about SIFEs who are at the top of their class or who have been chosen to give a commencement speech, such as Juliane Lukambo, who spent her early years in a refugee camp before coming to the U.S. and graduating as class valedictorian. And, in this video clip, Canadian ELL expert Paula Markus talks about a special Somali student who had also been in a refugee camp before arriving in her classroom. Today, the world knows him as the artist K'naan.

This article provides a profile of SIFEs and their needs, recommendations of best practices, and examples of the kinds of quality support and resources that will accelerate their academic achievement.

A warm welcome for immigrant families in the front office

Norieah Ahmed, the Child Accounting Secretary at Salina Elementary School in Dearborn, MI, talks about her role in welcoming newcomer immigrant families to the school from the moment they walk in the door.

Who are SIFEs?

While there are some general characteristics that SIFEs share, students' situations will vary widely:

  • Some SIFEs may be refugees fleeing violence or conflicts, while others may have had interrupted schooling due to poverty, migration, or crises such as natural disasters.
  • Some SIFEs may have had no schooling, while others may have had some education or long gaps in their education.
  • Many are English language learners (ELLs), but some may come from countries where English is a primary language.
  • Students who come from the same country and speak the same language may have had vastly different experiences related to schooling.

For this reason, it is crucial to learn about each individual student in order to identify their strengths and needs. You can learn more about specific characteristics in the articles below. And you read more about how different states define SIFEs from this data map.

Related resources

Where do SIFEs come from?

SIFEs may come from countries where poverty, disaster, and civil unrest affect the development of literacy and opportunities for education. According to UNESCO, the number of children missing out on any schooling now numbers 250 million, according to figures released in 2023.

Students may also come from countries where persecution or strict rules about gender, social class, or ethnicity prevented them from attending school. Girls in many nations still don't have equal access to education, which is particularly concerning in nations where girls can only attend classes taught by women. UNICEF estimates that 129 million girls are out of school worldwide.

In addition, SIFEs may have been born or raised in a developed nation but in impoverished circumstances that affect their family's stability. For example, many migrant workers in the U.S. move frequently based on agricultural seasons, and as a result their children move from one to school to another, making it nearly impossible for children to stay caught up with their peers.

What are SIFEs' strengths?

It's critical to identify SIFEs' strengths and talents, as well as the value of their unique perspectives and life experiences. These strengths make include resilience, resourcefulness and responsibility, as well as their multilingual skills, which they may be using to translate for their families. Starting with an asset-based perspective can make an important difference helping students get settled. In addition, it can provide more opportunities to connect content and learning opportunities to students' background knowledge. You can find additional ideas in Using a Strengths-Based Approach with ELs: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress.

Principal Nathaniel Provencio: The gifts that ELLs bring to school

Principal Nathaniel Provencio talks about some of the gifts that ELLs bring to schools, including multilingualism and emotional intelligence.

Enrolling SIFEs

It's important to ensure that all staff working with SIFEs understand the following:

  • K-12 students in the United States have the legal right to enroll in a public school, regardless of their immigration status or that of their caretakers and family members.
  • Families have a legal right to enroll their children in school in the maximum age set by each state even if they have recently arrived in the country and even if they do not have documents like birth certificates.
  • Many families may be living in shelters or in unstable housing; these students may have additional rights under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.


What do SIFEs need?

When students who have grown up with little or no education experience enroll in U.S. schools, they have much more to learn than a new language; in order to be fully functional at school, they need to learn how to:

  • read and write
  • complete assignments and follow instructions
  • use school supplies
  • follow a school schedule
  • take the bus
  • interact with students from different cultures
  • participate in school activities

All of this is happening while they adjust to a new country and new social norms and possibly take on family responsibilities such as working, caring for younger siblings, or doing a significant share of housework. They also may have experienced trauma and need mental health support or additional social and emotional support.

Older siblings' responsibilities during family separation

Teacher Diana Alqadhi discusses the responsibilities her students have when caring for younger siblings during extended family separations.

What makes SIFEs' needs unique?

While needs of the SIFE population may overlap with those of ELLs in some ways, SIFEs are likely to need additional support and instruction. In an article adapted from their book about SIFEs, Brenda Custodio and Judith B. O'Loughlin write, "Students with interrupted education need specialized programming and assistance, above and beyond what is normally provided to ELLs."

They continue, "This belief is supported in a recent statement from WIDA...about SIFE: 'Students with this background often need their emotional, psychological, and physiological needs to be met before they are able to engage fully in the educational setting.'"

Social and emotional factors impacting SIFEs may include:

1. Stress and trauma: SIFEs may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, may be under severe distress, or may be completely overwhelmed by the need to assimilate to a new school environment in a new language. In addition, some SIFEs may have traveled her as unaccompanied minors, alone or carrying for younger relatives, and may be reuniting with family members they have not seen for a long time or have never met.

2. Frustration: A SIFE may be very excited to finally attend school regularly, and may have high hopes for his ability to work and support his family; however, the discovery that he is in fact far behind his peers can be a source of great frustration. Even as he makes great academic progress throughout the year, he is still chasing a moving target because English-speaking, grade-level peers are continuing to learn as well, and the realization that meeting his goals will be harder than expected may be devastating.

3. High risk of dropping out: SIFEs are considered to have a high risk for dropping out of high school given the precarious nature of their relationship with school.

While these reasons present numerous challenges to school educators and administrators, students with limited or interrupted schooling can succeed if their school makes a commitment to help them achieve that goal. The following lists of suggestions offer some ideas that educators can implement to support SIFEs throughout the school and in the classroom.

Principal Susan Stanley describes how creating a calm and safe environment helps students and staff alike, especially in a school where many students have experienced trauma.

10 Ideas for Teaching SIFEs

Here are some things you can do in your classroom to support SIFEs:

1. Activate prior knowledge.

Once you know what prior information your students have, you can link new information to what they already understand. Not only can this stimulate student motivation, but it can also determine where to start instruction as well as lay out the next steps. Some strategies include: word associations, wordsplash relationships, KWL charts, and anticipation guides.

2. Provide a print rich environment.

Cover your walls with lots of visuals that correspond to text (maps, charts, signs, posters with motivational phrases, the alphabet in print and script, etc.). Include appropriate texts that are written at a basic reading level, high interest/low ability books, native language materials, and bilingual glossaries.

3. Engage students in hands-on learning so students are physically involved.

Have students write, illustrate, and record their own books, let them create their own picture dictionaries and flash cards, incorporate drama to act out events and stories, use interactive activities on a SMARTBoard, use manipulatives, reciprocal teaching, and teach to the multiple intelligences. In addition, look for ways to include and support SIFEs in project-based learning.

4. Keep the amount of new vocabulary in control.

When using new vocabulary or explaining new concepts, you may need to rephrase, define in context, and simplify your explanation so as not to confuse students. Limit your sentence length, but don't patronize students by raising your voice as if they were hard of hearing. Instead, use intonation and pauses for emphasis.

5. Give frequent checks for communication.

Try to avoid Yes/No answers. Instead, ask that students summarize what they understood. Increase your wait time, because students will need extra time to process your question, think of the answer, they find the words they need in English.

6. When assessing understanding, be open-minded.

Provide multiple opportunities to demonstrate understanding (instead of writing: explain, act out, discuss, defend, draw, compare, predict, etc.). Emphasize formative assessment versus evaluative assessment and individualize what you ask students to do.

7. Allow students to work in cooperative groups.

There are a number of ways to support peer learning. Remember to teach the necessary social skills they need to interact productively with one another. Forming skills such as getting into groups, taking turns, and encouraging one another provide the foundation for higher-order thinking in collaborative groups.

8. If possible, build the native language content and literacy instruction in order to build on English.

Use of graphic organizers is very helpful to make learning visual and incorporate thinking skills, and can be done without any writing. Use reading logs and journals to incorporate reading and writing.

9. Use teaching strategies that weave together language and content instruction, such as the SIOP model (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol).

Often when SIFE student enroll in a U.S. school, the gaps in their educational record lead to them being placed in remedial courses. While this kind of instruction may be necessary or helpful for some students, native-language instruction and sheltered instruction may provide a viable alternative to remedial instruction (Spaulding, Carolino & Amen, p.13).

Look for ways to relate material to students' prior knowledge and experience, and start with the concrete before building up to the abstract. What they don't have you can try to create for them through visuals or by using technology. In addition, teach students learning strategies that they can use in the future. These strategies may include how to recognize cognates, looking for the heading of a chapter in pre-reading exercises, using a dictionary, or how to take effective notes (p. 28). Remember that SIFEs haven't learned the basic skills that many students have learned at a young age, and may have no background knowledge in the areas that you expect them to have learned.

10. Provide intensive literacy/language instruction.

SIFEs will need explicit instruction in literacy skills in an age-appropriate manner, access to literacy-rich environments and print materials, and unified language and content instruction (Spaulding, Carolino & Amen, p.30). SIFEs may also benefit from increased time in language development or ESL courses, particularly if the class sizes are small.

11. Use culturally and linguistically responsive instruction.

Consider how you might make your instruction more culturally and linguistically responsive to reflect students' home cultures and languages. That might mean tying content to students' background knowledge or prior experiences, posting some signs in students' languages with welcoming or useful phrases, and inviting students’ to share their culture with the class.

12. Keep your expectations realistic at the beginning of the year.

Raise your expectations up as students reach them and keep them high enough that students will stretch to reach for them, but not too high that they give up. If you expect success from your students, supply them with the necessary tools, remain optimistic, and offer to help as they need it, they will gain the self-confidence to be successful.

For additional ideas, see WIDA's Focus Bulletin on SLIFEs.

Why Collaboration Matters

A collaborative instructional model reinforces student learning and accelerates SIFEs' academic progress. For elementary-level teachers this may come more easily since classroom teachers are responsible for more than one subject, and they often work collaboratively in grade-level teams. For secondary-level teachers this may be more challenging and may require a review of the instructional system, curriculum and content, school resources, and teacher planning schedules (Office of English Language Learning & Migrant Education, p.1).

In the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition's Interrupted Formal Schooling Toolkit, DiCerbo and Loop write,

Schools that are prepared to meet the needs of students with interrupted formal education do not require classroom teachers or individual resource teachers to take on these responsibilities alone. Instead, administrators, counselors, classroom teachers and resource teachers need to work together to ensure that the students and their families have the necessary information needed to provide school supplies, documentation for meal programs, and other requisites for assimilation. Working together to create a climate of acceptance and accountability ensures that the student's academic success is secured on many levels. (2003)

Regardless of how the collaboration is done or at what grade level, the important thing for teachers to keep in mind is how to continually reinforce new concepts and language in academic instruction and integrate concepts across content areas and language/literacy classes. For example, if students are learning about aquatic life in science, the math teacher can teach mathematical examples that reinforce the scientific concepts while applying math skills, and the language arts teacher can review the language structures and vocabulary used in the math problems and science lessons being taught. Teachers who collaborate have the opportunity to be intentional about the academic language and skills they want students to learn and practice, and they will begin to make connections across content areas to reinforce learning.

Eight Ideas for Providing School-Wide Support to SIFEs

Schools can support SIFEs in a number of ways. The ability to implement these measures will vary greatly by school and district, as well as by the involvement and investment by administrators, teachers, counselors, and staff. Consider reviewing these ideas with your colleagues to see which suggestions may be viable options in your school.

1. Ensure that all chool-wide staff understand SIFEs' unique experiences and needs.

An educational environment that is supportive of SIFEs will have staff members who are well-educated on the needs and backgrounds of their students, and highly attuned to the emotional strain these students may experience as they adjust to a new country, language, and customs. Students may be facing complex identity issues, culture shock, and a sense of loss of having left their home behind, particularly if they didn't want to move to a new country (Spaulding, Carolino & Amen, 2004, p.12). It's also important for staff to understand students' legal rights access a public K-12 education, detailed in Immigrant Students' Legal Rights: An Overview.

A supportive environment is often created by one or more of the following:

  1. bilingual/bicultural staff from the students' home country
  2. a teaching staff highly trained in cross-cultural communication, the cultural and historical backgrounds of the students, and instructional methods that are designed to accelerate the academic achievement of SIFEs.
  3. student and parent access to support services (ideally in the family's native language) provided by counselors, tutors, mentors, and parent coordinators. (Walsh, 1991, as cited in Office of English Language Learning & Migrant Education, p. 10)
  4. a buddy system with peers or classmates who can show students around and help them adjust to the daily schedule (p.4)

2. Parter with community organizations to provide social and emotional support.

Community resources can be a very powerful tool in meeting the needs of SIFEs. SIFEs will benefit greatly from contacts with community resources such as after-school tutoring, job programs, and ethnically/linguistically based community groups. In addition, schools can connect students and families with basic need and services related to health, wellness, housing, food and clothing security, employment services or other areas that can help with resettlement and acclimation in a new community.

Isolation and discouragement can be two negative and powerful influences on a SIFE student's education. The more SIFEs feel connected and supported, the more likely they will be to rebound from health, economic, or cultural challenges. A Newcomer Center is often well-connected with such community resources and likely offers community organization services on-site to the students.

3. Look for ways to address students’ trauma and stress.

SIFEs may have experienced (and may still be experiencing) trauma, stress, hardship, family separation and other daunting challenges. In order to maximize students' access to mental health support:

  • Make sure that students and families are aware of any counseling and mental health services that are available.
  • If language access is a barrier, work with administrators to find ways to help families access support in their home languages.
  • Work with family liaisons or community members to come up with some culturally responsive practices to support families' well-being.

If counseling itself isn't something that families feel comfortable with, talk about other ideas that might be more effective, including supports that are available in group settings. In addition, talk with administrators about whether more staff need training in trauma-informed practice and how to accomplish that training if so.

4. Keep in mind that students may have significant responsibilities outside of school.

These responsibilities might include caretaking, jobs, or translating for family members. One way to help students manage multiple obligations is through flexible scheduling, which can help support the real needs and obligations of high school immigrants (Spaulding, Carolino & Amen, 2004, p.11). A flexible schedule allows students with interrupted schooling the opportunity to balance home and school responsibilities, a chance to spend extra time in school to accelerate learning, and the opportunity to keep working while attending school. Many SIFEs come to the U.S. with the goal of working and financially supporting their families (p.13). Without an education or fluency in English, students may not have a lot of choice as to what kind of job they find or the hours they work. It is common for SIFEs to have to work very late hours or two jobs, and this becomes a barrier to education due to fatigue and conflict with the school schedule.

If there comes a point in which the students cannot both work and attend school, they may choose to drop out of school in favor of working without realizing that "the educational sacrifices made for short-term financial gain tend to lead to limited long-term financial success." (p.13) Schools that can offer "non-traditional" school hours, such as afternoon, evening, or Saturday schedules, will help more SIFEs have access to education. Also, schools that offer longer school hours and a year-round school calendar ensure that there are many opportunities for students to make up for lost time (p.14).

5. Consider developing a newcomer center or program within your setting.

Newcomer centers and programs are very effective when a district needs to meet the needs of many SIFEs. A newcomer center may provide numerous services included in the newcomer program, such as academic support, language instruction, an introduction to basic school activities and skills, and community resources for immigrant families (Spaulding, Carolino & Amen, p.13). Enrollment in a newcomer program, which is often transitional, allows the student time to adjust to the U.S. educational system in a supportive environment with instructors who understand their needs and have been specially trained to assist in accelerating SIFEs' academic achievement while monitoring cultural and emotional adjustments.

And even as SIFEs learn the basics such as the alphabet or how to hold a pencil, they can also begin developing academic content concepts and language through bilingual or sheltered instruction content courses. When SIFEs leave an effective program at a newcomer center after 1-2 years and transition to a mainstream educational environment, they will be much better prepared to participate successfully.

You can learn more about newcomer centers by reaching out to existing newcomer programs and visiting with a team of colleagues to see what they are doing. While some newcomer programs may be school-wide, others are house within traditional school settings as a focused support for newcomers or students with interrupted schooling. You may be able to identify some small steps your school community can take to move in that direction.

6. Ensure that SIFEs have specialized guidance counseling.

SIFEs need access to ongoing and personalized guidance support, particularly in middle and high school, to help them map out their coursework, the kinds of credits they need to graduate, and their opportunities beyond high school. This will take a very specialized kind of expertise. If there is not a dedicated counselor for newcomers or students with interrupted education in your setting, ensure that the counselors who are working with this population not only have appropriate training but have the persistence and inclination to support SIFEs navigate many kinds of obstacles.

7. Provide information about extra-curricular activities.

It’s important for SIFEs to become familiar with the extra-curricular activities that schools offer, understand how to sign up and participate, and understand that they are eligible to participate. Activities and sports can be an important bridge for students who can tap into their interests and make new friends.

8. Build partnerships that will support students’ future options.

It can be very helpful for schools to make a partnership with local businesses, adult basic education, or higher education programs in order to provide a seamless transition for SIFEs who will need more than four years to graduate or are older and will "age-out" before completing high school graduation requirements (p. 11, Office of English Language Learning & Migrant Education, p. 4). Students are allowed to attend high school until the age determined by their state, and if a connection exists with the adult basic education or local higher education institution, SIFEs are much more likely to continue their education and complete a high school degree. A connection with a local business may also boost students' confidence and provide opportunities that might not have been available.

Related resources

Closing Thoughts

As you work with your students, keep in mind that many came to U.S. ready to get a good education, become successful citizens, and leave a troubled past behind. They may be discouraged and frightened when they find out exactly what is entailed in order to reach their goals.

Don't let frustration and the seemingly insurmountable barriers affect the instruction and support they receive from you or your school. It may take your students longer to achieve what they wanted; they can succeed, however, if they have quality support and continue to believe in themselves.

Resources from Colorín Colorado

Resources from SupportEd

Resources from Dr. Carol Salva

Dr. Carol Salva is an ELL expert based in Texas with extensive experience in serving refugee students and students with interrupted schooling. She has also supported numerous schools in their efforts to partner more effectively with SIFEs and their families.

Guides and Reports




Podcasts from Teaching MLs with Tan Huynh


Organizations and Initiatives


American Federation of Teachers. "Teaching English-Language Learners: What Does the Research Say?" AFT Policy Brief Number 14. 2002.

Calderón, M. "Innovative Policies and Practices for Developing Teachers to Work with English Language Learners", Powerpoint Presentation, Slide 12. As presented at the Educational Testing Services's 2008 English-Language Learners Symposium (ETS-sponsored) .

DiCerbo, P. & Loop, C. "Interrupted Formal Schooling." National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition Toolkit. 2003.

Hansen, D. "A Tough Beginning." The Vancouver Sun. September 25, 2008

Office of English Language Learning & Migrant Education: Indiana Department of Education. Effective Programs for English Language Learners (ELL) with Interrupted Formal Education. 2008.

Spaulding, Carolino, & Kali-Ahset. Immigrant Students and Secondary School Reform: Compendium of Best Practices. Written on behalf of The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). 2004.

UNICEF Global Databases, 2007.

UNESCO Institute for Statistics, Global Education Digest, 2007.

WIDA Consortium, Focus on SLIFE: Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education (Madison, WI: 2015), 2.


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Great ideas. Thanks for all the information.

The article reminds me one of my ELL student who had moved from place to place due to the agricultural seasons her father follows. She expressed the frustration that she had to take care of her younger brother and had a little time to study. When she finally adjusted to my school, she told me that her family was moving again in Central Florida. I am glad that I did everything I can to assist while she was with our school district.

It's incredible important to moderate expectations with students who aren't starting off at the same baseline as native English speakers. This is a very thorough and informative piece that reminds us of a lot that should be considered simple good teaching, but so often falls by the wayside in favor of pushing the higher achieving students toward better results on state testing, which consequently leaves the ELL's, immigrant students, and SIFEs behind. Great piece.

This is a great and informative article. Thank you.

I do think professional development is a must. Teachers can be understanding and kind, but we need trained to help kids move forward from their hardships. I love the ideas offered in this article. It is a team effort.

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