How to Support Immigrant Students and Families: Strategies for Schools and Early Childhood Programs

How to Support Young Children in Immigrant Families

A family reading a book together.

Learn how early childhood providers can support immigrant children and families and promote healthy social-emotional and physical development for young children facing uncertainty.

These strategies are part of the Colorín Colorado resource guide, How to Support Immigrant Students and Families: Strategies for Schools and Early Childhood Programs.

For kids as young as the ones I teach, keeping the routine going is vital, as well as reassuring them that we love them and want them here in school with us. When the kids go home feeling happy and safe, that seems to reassure parents some too, but I wish I could do more.

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


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Preschools, early childhood centers, and other child care settings can play a critical role in supporting the children in immigrant families. In addition to the strategies recommended throughout this guide, early childhood educators may wish to keep these additional considerations in mind as they review their own program policies and think about the needs of young children. As noted in the introduction to this guide, there are 1.6 million children under the age of 5 nationwide who have at least one parent who is undocumented (Gándara & Ee, 2018a, p. 3).


  • Guidelines and laws that apply to early childhood programs may vary depending on the program's location, affiliation, and sources of funding. They also may vary from K-12 public school policies. If clarification is needed, look for assistance from program administrators, local early childhood agencies, or national early childhood organizations that can provide appropriate information.
  • In addition, it is important for educators and leaders to keep in mind that immigration issues may be impacting staff as well, such as Karen Reyes, a teacher of hearing impaired toddlers in Austin, Texas who is a DACA recipient. See more on this topic in our section on how immigration issues can impact staff.

Opportunities for professional development

When considering what kinds of training may benefit your staff, keep in mind the following:

  • Community partners, as well as colleagues in nearby K-12 settings who serve the same families, may be helpful in providing guidance on what kinds of information will best serve the staff on these issues.
  • Early childhood agencies may also wish to offer centralized training for providers who aren't in a large program setting.
  • As part of the U.S. Department of Education's non-regulatory guidance on implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) with English learners, school districts are strongly encouraged to include local early childhood teachers in professional development. This might give providers an opportunity to learn how their local district is responding to current concerns of immigrant families.

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Look for ways to build relationships with families

Why this matters

Strong family partnerships are a valuable tool not only in supporting young children's future academic success but also in supporting healthy social-emotional development – particularly in the face of stress and uncertainty. Early childhood programs may need to be creative in building and expanding these relationships with immigrant families, but the results will be well worth the extra effort. It is easier to address challenges after trust has been established.

Tips for getting started

There are a number of things that early childhood programs can do to get started, including:

The role of home language: Family outreach

In addition, it is critical to communicate in families' home languages and provide forms and documents in families' home languages to the extent possible, such as registration forms, home language surveys, and emergency contact forms. Keep in mind that the U.S. educational system will be new to families and they may have lots of questions related to the program, on top of their questions about complex issues related to immigration. See more recommendations in our section on communicating with families.

The role of home language: Language and literacy development

At the same time, welcoming and including children's home languages in their learning environment provides numerous benefits to their social-emotional development, sense of identity, early literacy development, and acquisition of English.

Learn more from the following:

Recommended Resources

Resources from Head Start

Research and books

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Review program enrollment guidelines

Why this matters

The benefits of early childhood education for immigrant children are well-documented (Greenberg, Michie, and Adams, 2018, p. 1). In the majority of early childhood programs nationwide, children can enroll in the program if they (or their parents) are undocumented. Staff who enroll children should not ask families about their immigration status. While programs must follow all legal requirements in their state for maintaining information on each family, when possible, programs are also strongly discouraged from asking about country of origin and social security numbers. If children or family members volunteer the information, you should not share it with others.

Maintaining student privacy and confidentiality

There are a number of student privacy policies that can apply to different kinds of early childhood programs. All staff should be familiar with the policies that apply to their program. If clarification is needed, look for assistance from program administrators, local early childhood agencies, or national early childhood organizations that can provide appropriate information.

Tips for getting started

Program administrators and staff assisting with enrollment should be familiar with:

  • program policies related to enrollment
  • all types of documents that can be used to verify a child's age (described in these videos from attorney Roger Rosenthal)
  • requirements for establishing local residency
  • applicable privacy policies.

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Why this matters

Families and staff members may have questions related to immigration issues; making sure that everyone has accurate and updated information will make it easier to address questions and concerns when they arise. Here are some important topics related to early childhood settings:

"Sensitive locations" guidance for early childhood settings

Early childhood settings such as preschools and day care centers are protected under the federal "sensitive locations" guidelines that also apply to schools. (See more on "sensitive locations guidance" in our related section and in this brief from the Center for Law and Social Policy, or CLASP.) There is no indication that this policy will change, although there have been cases of immigration enforcement activity happening near child care and early childhood centers.  Many early childhood settings have also reported drops in attendance and enrollment related to concerns about immigration enforcement. This may be in part due to the fact that many early childhood providers don't know that their settings are considered "sensitive locations" (Ullrich, 2018).

Following in-depth interviews with early childhood providers, researchers from CLASP concluded the following:

Many early childhood providers weren’t aware of the sensitive locations policies or didn’t know their programs were included. Few providers had internal policies for dealing with ICE or CBP agents who try to enter their facilities. They also didn’t know if they were legally obligated to admit immigration agents without a warrant. Consequently, many providers couldn’t assure immigrant families that the center was a safe place. (Ullrich, 2018)

This research speaks to the importance of ensuring that early childhood providers are familiar with the "sensitive locations" guidance. In addition, programs may wish to create a policy that clarifies what should happen if an immigration agent comes to the center.

Note: This guidance is just that – guidance – and not codified into law; it could change at any point. The guidance also has certain limitations, which is why program administrators should become familiar with other related local/state laws and should stay current with updates on this topic.

Making a plan to care for children whose caregivers are unavailable

In June 2018, a large immigration raid left dozens of young children stranded at day care centers and preschools in Ohio as caretakers scrambled to find relatives and emergency contacts. This example underscores the importance of having updated emergency contact information and a plan in place to care for children whose caregivers/parents/guardians are detained during the day.

Putting protocols in place for these situation improves the chance of finding an appropriate caregiver for children. See suggestions and resources in the following sections of this guide:

Answering questions about proposed "public charge" rule changes

The White House announced a proposed rule change in September 2018 that would make it harder for legal immigrants to get green cards if they receive certain kinds of public assistance. Head Start programs, services provided under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and enrollment in free- and reduced-price meal programs are not included in this rule change.

However, other benefits have been added to the list that would likely impact many immigrant families if the rules go into effect, and some families have already started withdrawing from benefits programs. Learn more about the "public charge" issue in our related section.

Answering questions about immigration and legal resources

There are a number of steps early childhood programs can take to address families' questions and concerns about immigration issues, as well as to connect families to legal support. Many of the strategies detailed throughout this guide can be applied in early childhood settings as well:

Other issues that might impact children

Other immigration issues that may be impacting children in your program include changes to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA); Temporary Protected Status (TPS); and travel restrictions that impact family reunification.

Tips for getting started

  • Identify the policies that apply to your setting. If you have questions, look for assistance from program administrators, local early childhood agencies, or national early childhood organizations that can provide appropriate information.
  • Identify the information that staff should have and the best ways to provide the training and professional development they need.
  • Identify the information families should have and the most appropriate ways to share that information, such as one-on-one conversations or parent outreach events.
  • Determine whether any existing policies, procedures, or forms need to be updated.
  • Determine whether any new policies should be created to address these issues; if so, look for sound guidance on how to do so.

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Look for ways to offer social-emotional support to kids throughout the day

Why this matters

Young children in immigrant families may be experiencing a number of situations that are causing stress (see examples in our section on how immigration issues can affect children as well as the following section on anxiety and trauma). This can impact their healthy development, social interactions, and motivation and also result in their asking adults questions about these issues. In addition, the situations children's families are facing may have an impact on whether their basic needs are being met. This is why it is so important for early childhood programs to look at the whole picture when identifying and addressing young children's needs.

Note: See our related information on:

Tips for getting started

Early childhood environments can provide a nurturing, safe environment for children by:

  • maintaining their familiar routines
  • designating a primary caregiver/support person for an anxious child
  • doing age-appropriate activities where kids can share feelings, such as drawing, circle time, or one-on-one time
  • reading stories about related topics
  • providing staff with training on topics related to trauma and anxiety (see related resources in our section on the impact of trauma and anxiety due to immigration issues)
  • providing parents with tips and training on how to address anxiety and answer children's questions.

Recommended resources

Sesame Street

You may find some helpful ideas in the following toolkits from Sesame Street. While there is no "immigration toolkit," these resources include related topics. All are available in Spanish, and the Sesame Street in Communities toolkit is available in other languages.

You may also get some helpful ideas from these bilingual activities and videos on self-expression from Sesame Street.

How to calm down

These articles provide some activities to calm down, such as the following:

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Provide training on the impacts of trauma and anxiety on young children

Why this matters

In 2018, researchers at CLASP published a study on how immigration policy affects young children (Cervantes, Ullrich, & Matthews, 2018). Researchers report that early childhood educators and providers around the country have recently observed more stress, anxiety, and behavioral difficulties in the immigrant children they serve, such as:

  • "aggression, hyperactivity, and separation anxiety" (p. 9)
  • more bathroom accidents from kids who were toilet-trained
  • "symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as frequent crying, trouble sleeping, and increased anxiety" (p. 11).

This correlates with findings by the American Psychological Association (APA) that “young children whose undocumented parents have been detained or even deported…experience in the short term, frequent crying, withdrawal, disrupted eating and sleeping patterns, anger, anxiety and depression.”

(See more age-specific effects of trauma from the National Child Trauma Stress Network.)

According to the report, educators and families have also reported:

  • decreased engagement and participation in the classroom, fear of police, and actions to protect relatives from police
  • children as young as three (both immigrant children and U.S. citizen children) expressing fears about being separated from a parent.

These changes can impact children's healthy development, both physically and emotionally; their confidence and self-esteem; and their identity. These changes can impact children's healthy development, both physically and emotionally; their confidence and self-esteem; and their identity. The APA notes that, “Over time, these can lead to more severe issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, poor identity formation, difficulty forming relationships, feelings of persecution, distrust of institutions and authority figures, acting out behaviors and difficulties at school.” (See the APA’s 2011 Report of the Presidential Task Force on Immigration for more information.)

As a result, CLASP researchers noted that families are looking for support in addressing these issues as well – multiple educators reported that immigrant families had asked for support or training about social-emotional health, such as tips for dealing with anxiety.

What explains these trends?

Children may be feeling anxiety or fear about:

  • losing a parent (such as the case of Sophie Cruz, a five-year-old who slipped past security during Pope Francis' 2015 visit to Washington, D.C. to give him a letter expressing her fear that that her parents would be deported)
  • an unexpected or lengthy separation
  • having to move to a new country if a parent is deported
  • losing a friend
  • family members' stress, anxiety, depression, or intimate partner abuse.

Children may have experienced a traumatic event, such as:

  • witnessing a loved one's arrest
  • being separated from a parent during interrogation
  • a forced separation for an extended period of time
  • detention in an immigration detention center
  • coming into contact with immigration enforcement officers
  • a lengthy separation from families or siblings due to immigration circumstances
  • an arduous journey to this country
  • violence or hardship in a home country.

Families may also be experiencing increased levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and intimate partner abuse.

Tips for getting started

There are a number of things early childhood programs or community organizations can do to better equip providers and parents to address these challenges, such as providing training about topics that are most relevant to the setting. Topics could include:

  • the impact of trauma on young children on healthy development and behavior
  • tools and words that can be used in different situations, such as "That sounds really hard. You can talk to me anytime you need me."

Recommended resources

Recommended videos 

Video Playlist: When immigration status impacts young children

Video Playlist: Educators reflect on Maslow's Hierarchy of Need






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

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