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

How to Provide Social-Emotional Support for Immigrant Students

A woman talking to three girls at a lunch table.

Learn more about strategies that individual educators and schools can use to support immigrant students, help address stress and anxiety, and create a respectful classroom environment discussions related to immigration.

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

I have seen the teachers and leaders I support be extra compassionate, extra supportive and extra available.

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


For many immigrant students, issues around immigration that may be affecting their social-emotional health. Other students may be aware that the issues are affecting classmates or may wish to discuss their opinions around these issues. Here are a number of age-appropriate strategies schools and individual teachers can use to help address those challenges in the classroom and beyond.

We also recommend the strategies found in How Do We Support Newcomers' Social-Emotional Needs? from the U.S. Department of Education Newcomer Toolkit, as well as our section on addressing immigrant students' anxiety, trauma, and depression.

Help students maintain their routine

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Why this matters

Having a safe and familiar place to go can make a huge difference for students who are experiencing uncertainty, trauma, or stress; a normal routine can offer stability and distraction from worries at home.

One respondent to our 2017 survey on how schools are supporting immigrant students writes, "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."

Tips for getting started

  • Remind staff members of the importance of helping kids maintain their routines.
  • Try to avoid extra disruptions to the extent possible.
  • Encourage teachers to look at their daily routines and adjust as needed if students need additional or different kinds of outlets.

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.

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Encourage teachers and staff to listen to students

Why this matters

Sometimes what students need most is for someone to listen. ELL administrator Kristina Robertson notes that this is a particularly important role educators can play since many immigrant students are aware of their parents’ already high levels of stress and don’t wish to worry them further. She writes, “Many immigrant students I’ve worked with have said, ‘I don’t want to say anything to my mom because she is already so worried.’”  Anyone can play this role for kids – bus drivers, cafeteria staff, or the school nurse can have an impact by taking a few minutes to check in with a child.

In our webinar with UCLA researchers about the impact of immigration policy on schools (2018), Dr. Patricia Gándara also encourages teachers to continue to "share with students a deep sense of caring and a real relationship; more than ever, it is important for teachers to know what is going on with their kids."

Tips for getting started

Without singling students out, look for ways to check in and find one-on-one time at lunch, during group work, before or after school, or during another activity or class. Consider whether having some small group break-out conversations might also be helpful. 

In these conversations:

  • Be mindful of protecting student privacy.
  • Avoid drawing attention to your immigrant students in front of peers.
  • Let students know they can talk to you at any time.
  • Be as honest as possible and acknowledge the uncertainty of the moment as well as the difficulty of the challenges students are facing.
  • Avoid platitudes such as, “I’m sure it will be fine,” or “Everything will work out.” Instead, try, “That sounds really hard. You can always talk to me when you need to.”
  • Determine whether students have someone they can talk to in their own language and help make those connections if needed.

Ideas from educators

Many educators who participated in our survey shared their ideas for giving students a chance to talk. Teachers wrote that they are:

  • Allowing students to talk and share their feelings about what they are experiencing.
  • Offering class time as a space for expressing concerns and sharing thoughts and attempt to have questions answered. They responded well to that opportunity. 

A number of respondents also shared specific steps they had taken to reach out students by:

  • letting students know that teachers could be trusted and would listen to their concerns
  • trying to be as honest as possible with students and families, and acknowledge the uncertainty of the moment
  • making an effort to check in with students.

See more information on challenges that immigrant students may be experiencing for important background on this topic, as well as ideas for supporting young children.

Bullying prevention

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

Recommended resources

Recommended videos

When students share immigration concerns from home: Anne Marie Foerster Luu, ESOL Specialist, MD


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Provide ideas for age-appropriate ways to express emotions and manage stress

Why this matters

There are lots of other ways that kids can express their emotions beyond conversation. The UCLA team shares the experience of an art teacher from Texas: “As an art teacher, I saw many students drew and colored images of their parents and themselves being separated, or about people stalking/hunting their family” (Gándara & Ee, 2018a, p. 9).

Tips for getting started

Giving students strategies to express emotions and manage stress

You may wish to introduce this topic by asking students how they manage difficult topics – they  may never have thought about it! Consider sharing the following activities that educators have recommended and giving students opportunities to practice these activities. You may also wish to invite a school counselor to lead a class discussion and share strategies such as:

One teacher who responded to our survey wrote,

Having students keep journals can be effective.  The journals are used for processing their learning, but at times, utilizing the journal to share their concerns and feelings. The journal can be kept between the student and the teacher or students may elect to share their journals with classmates. Teacher comments and feedback are a very important aspect of the journals. This is a safe way for students to express their thoughts and for teachers to identify student needs.

Another teacher wrote of a student activity in which students could write their thoughts about current events on sticky notes for all to see in the cafeteria.

Note: Activities such as sitting with eyes closed may be triggers for students who have experienced trauma. For ideas on how to use mindfulness in trauma-based teaching, as well as what to avoid, take a look at Why Mindfulness And Trauma-Informed Teaching Don't Always Go Together from KQED.

Giving students the words they need to express themselves

Another important tool that can help students, particularly English language learners (ELLs), is to teach them words and phrases that will help express emotions, much in the way a teacher teaches academic language. Some strategies for this include:

  • giving students sentence frames and sentence starters that illustrate how to express different feelings, manage interactions in the classroom, and resolve conflict
  • providing these on a sheet that students can keep handy and posting them on the wall
  • printing the sheet in English and ELLs’ native languages.

ELL administrator Kristina Robertson writes,

One of our after-school workers said she has many bilingual students (mostly boys) who get into fights across cultures because they just don't have the words to express their frustration or needs, so their anger builds. How can we think about ways to intentionally teach language about feelings and appropriate ways to express emotion? We are so focused on teaching academic language and basic needs of following rules in a classroom that we overlook the need to learn how to express our emotions. This is a terrible feeling for a student who is sad or angry.

Developing social-emotional skills

Help students develop their social-emotional skills with the following strategies:

  • Introduce activities early in the year that give students practice in expressing themselves, both individually and in a group setting.
  • Provide students a regular opportunity to share their thoughts, concerns, and questions.
  • Look for opportunities to include social-emotional learning activities or themes in the classroom throughout the year.

Recommended resources

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Take a closer look when you notice changes in a student’s behavior

Why this matters

The impact of immigration issues on students can lead to changes in students’ behavior. The American Psychological Association notes, “These stressful experiences can lead to a number of negative emotional and behavioral outcomes including anxiety, fear, depression, anger, social isolation and lack of a sense of belonging.” The impacts can be especially severe on young children.

When such changes present themselves, it is critical to dig deeper to find the root cause, especially before taking action that will have serious, long-term consequences for the student. This is where having a relationship with the student can make a big difference. Viridiana Carrizales, co-founder and CEO of ImmSchools, says “An educator who does not have a relationship with their students is only going to see a kid who is misbehaving or disengaged” (Dillard, 2018, p. 45).

Often the first response to a change in behavior is a special education referral or disciplinary referral, which is not necessarily appropriate for the situation (see more on these issues below). It is also essential to use a team approach that includes a variety of perspectives, including that of the family and an interpreter or cultural liaison, in order to:

  • address concerns or changes in student behavior
  • ensure that families have access to all information in their home language.

Student stories

For some concrete examples of this issue, see the following student stories:

Special education referrals

In their chapter on cultural dilemmas in Teachers as Allies: Transformative Practices for Teaching DREAMers and Undocumented Students, Dr. Eva K. Thorp, Dr. Sylvia Y. Sánchez, and Dr. Elaisa Sánchez Gosnell share the following experience. A teacher approached the group out of concern about an immigrant student’s sudden change in behavior; the teacher was weighing whether or not to refer the student to special education. The team suggested that the teacher make a home visit; upon doing so, the teacher learned that "(t)he child’s father had recently been detained, no one in the family knew where he had been taken, and out of fear, the student’s mother had left the country. The student was living under the care of her 18-year-old sibling" (p. 20).

Based on this information, the teacher was able to find a more appropriate avenue of support rather than a special education referral. Lori Dodson talks more about this issue in her video below, “Why not all changes in behavior require a special education.”

Tips for getting started

If you are concerned about an immigrant student’s behavior, consider looking at the following questions as you think about how to respond, always taking care to respect students’ privacy.

  • What do you know about the student and the student’s home life?
  • Is there a colleague who can provide some additional insight on the student’s situation?
  • Are there particular stressors impacting the student?
  • Are any of the following issues playing a role?

Challenges in meeting basic needs
Immigration issues that impact students
Causes of stress and anxiety

  • What is your school’s typical protocol for behavior/discipline issues? Is that appropriate in this case?
  • Who should be part of the team to address this issue?
  • What should next steps be?

Recommended resources

Recommended videos

Why not all changes in behavior require a special education referral

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Make connections to the curriculm

Why this matters

Connecting current events to the classroom can broaden student understanding of timely topics, increase empathy and engagement, draw upon students’ unique experiences and perspectives, and empower students during a moment of uncertainty.

Teacher Anna Centi, who teaches newcomer students and refugees from Yemen in Dearborn, Michigan, also has found that students are more likely to tackle challenging material if they can relate to it. One book that has resonated with her students is A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park.

Tips for getting started

Brainstorm ideas

  • Look for connections to your students’ lives across the curriculum.
  • Ask students to brainstorm ideas on what they would like to study.
  • Consider using an inquiry-based or project-based learning approach that allows students to take the lead in identifying a question or problem to solve/research.

Look for local connections

  • Assign students projects that focus on issues that apply to their own community.
  • Identify community assets and resources that you can utilize. Look for opportunities to make connections with guest speakers, community members, or local organizations in the community that reflect students’ lives and can be used as resources.
  • Offer students opportunities to present their work in public, whether to classmates, parents, or community members through presentations, local media, and outreach.
  • Encourage students to look for contributions members of their local community have made. (See more on this on idea from Dr. Sandra Duval.)

Use care with challenging topics

These topics can be difficult to navigate, particularly if they impact members of the class personally. One teacher notes that in her government class, “some students have been quite strident in supporting separation of families.” When discussing controversial topics:

  • Do careful research and look for materials from well-established, trustworthy sources.
  • Think about your own point of view and possible biases.
  • Be well-prepared and anticipate the need to manage discussions on controversial topics.
  • Consider the best way to approach the topic so as not to put students on the spot.
  • Assure students that you will respect their privacy when introducing a topic like immigration, and that they do not have to share any personal information to participate. (See more on this topic in our section on immigrant students' silence below.)
  • Create a list of guidelines for respectful classroom discussion with the class.
  • Look for strategies designed to increase student understanding and dialogue, such as dialogue circles and the activities compiled by from Facing History and Ourselves.
  • Look for ways to foster students’ empathy. (See ideas under the section on "Teaching empathy" below.)

Recommended resources

Recommended videos 

Video playlist: Talking about big topics with high school ELL and immigrant students

Video playlist: Making connections to students' lives in the classroom

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Teach empathy and appreciation

Why this matters

Empathy can help build community and a culture of respect in a classroom or school. A first step in developing empathy is to understand how issues affect an individual personally – this can be a powerful exercise for staff and students alike. Given that empathy is considered one of the most critical 21st-century skills for students to learn, these exercises can have long-lasting impacts for students. See more about that topic from KQED.

Tips for getting started

  • Find out what resources your school or district has available for social-emotional learning.
  • Identify your goals for developing empathy, including relevant topics for your classroom, school community, or colleagues.
  • Review the following resources to find the activities that best fit your setting.
  • Consider collaborating with colleagues, even informally, to find ways to extend your efforts to more students and staff.

Activity idea

If only you knew me: In a series of Education Week blog posts edited by Larry Ferlazzo on how to teach controversial topics, teacher Paul Barnwell describes an activity in which students write three things about themselves that classmates do not know. As the teacher then reads them anonymously to the class, the students begin to get an idea of the “range of intense experiences and perspectives (the) classroom community contains.” 

Expressing appreciation

Giving students the chance to express their appreciation for others is another way to create community and developing empathy. It allows students to identify positive traits and behaviors in each other; build self-esteem; and highlights student qualities that the teacher might have overlooked. Students can express appreciation for each other, teachers, and staff with activities such as:

  • Appreciation mailbox: Each student creates an envelope, folder, or “mailbox” in which classmates can leave an anonymous note of appreciation, such as, “He is a good soccer player,” or “She picked up something I dropped.”  The point is to find something positive for each person in the class. This can be an ongoing exercise or a special activity.
  • Appreciate station: This is a more public version of the above activity where students post thank you notes publicly for classmates, teachers, or staff in the building. This blog post shares ideas for getting started.
  • This helped my learning: Teacher David Olio regularly gives his students note cards and asks them to write down a way in which a classmate helped their learning. This highlights students’ contributions for him and the class – and offers some opportunities for informal assessment as well.

Recommended resources


Teaching Tolerance

More classroom resources

Related strategies from this guide

Recommended videos

Pay attention to what students do – and do not – say about immigration

Why this matters

Immigrant students, including young children, regularly navigate decisions about what to say in conversations about immigration or related topics throughout the school day. There is now more research focusing on this topic, including on the significance of students’ silence with respect to immigration issues and status.

Case study: Celebrating diversity

In her research based on extensive classroom observations of peer discussions at an elementary school in Brooklyn, Dr. Ariana Mangual Figueroa (2017) notes a range of circumstances that can impact what students will or will not share about themselves, including:

  • the nature of the activity and how it is framed
  • whether personal questions are asked, and if so, which ones
  • the experiences and immigration status of students and their family members.

Dr. Mangual Figueroa observed a variety of classroom activities at the school; one situation she highlights took place in a social-emotional learning class about bullying. In an effort to increase understanding about students’ diversity, the teacher had planned an activity in which students would stand when their country of origin was called.

However, she had not taken into account that some of the students were not born in the U.S.; after some initial confusion, she asked everyone “not born here” to stand. Dr. Mangual Figueroa noted that an undocumented student in the class, Lupe, remained seated through the exercise and mumbled that she wouldn’t stand up. Dr. Mangual Figueroa writes,

The way this exercise — intended to foster inclusion — in fact alienated certain students is revealing. Educators may assume that students will feel comfortable talking about their identity during activities meant to elicit multicultural perspectives designed to honor their culture and experiences in school. By creating a situation in which students would have to publically identify with a home country that might then raise questions about nationality and citizenship, (the teacher) inadvertently turned the activity from one of celebrating diversity into one that generated student fear of revealing their differences in legal status.

This does not suggest that activities celebrating diversity and students’ cultures are out of place. Instead, it may be worth it to examine the activities, determine whether they might put students on the spot, and try reframing them. Dr. Mangual Figueroa encourages teachers to:

  • give students an opportunity to engage with “relevant social issues” (p. 515) with which they could identify
  • allow students to choose topics of interest without putting them in a position where they have to describe their own experiences or disclose immigration/citizenship status
  • pay attention to students’ silence by tuning in to both “‘audible’ silences that stop classroom conversation as well as those ‘inaudible silences that indicate a strategic refusal to participate’” (p. 516).

Note: You may find some helpful ideas in our resource section on adapting assignments about family history and genealogy to include diverse families and students who are adopted.

Case study: Talking about campaign rhetoric

In a separate study (2018), Dr. Sandra L. Osorio shares the approach that she and a teacher in a dual-language second-grade classroom used to respond to a classroom discussions about immigration rhetoric during the 2016 election. Dr. Osorio and her co-teacher decided to create a lesson centered on culturally sustaining pedagogy and used the picture book From North to South/Del norte al sur by René Colato Laínez.  They found that their students had deep funds of knowledge about immigration, citizenship, and family separation; by talking about immigration explicitly, the teachers created a supportive environment in which students could discuss their concerns and experiences in the midst of much uncertainty.

In addition to integrating art and civic action into the classroom, Dr. Osorio also recommends the following:

What every teacher can do is position him- or herself as a learner and welcome students’ funds of knowledge (González, Moll, & Amanti, 2005) into the classroom. Teachers must be willing to create opportunities for students to share their lived experiences. Some additional ways that Natalia and I did this in our classroom were by including multicultural children’s literature, inviting families into the classroom, having a Latinx author visit the classroom, and taking up topics students brought into the classroom (e.g., La Llorona, or the Weeping Woman, Mayan legends, and immigration).

A decision to “shatter the silence”

For a personal take on living in the shadows as undocumented students, read this interview with twin sisters Brizzia and Maria Muñoz Robles, who are both students at Notre Dame. They were the first twin valedictorians of their high school and are DACA recipients who talk about what it was like to hide their undocumented status throughout all of their schooling, until a conversation with the former president of Notre Dame gave them the courage to share their story.

Related research and resources

If you’d like to explore more on this topic, take a look at the following. Some of the research reports may require a subscription to download.

Books and guides

Research reports

Tips for getting started

In addition to the recommendations from these researchers, Dr. Emily Crawford-Rossi, a researcher at the University of Missouri studying this issue, recommends looking for opportunities to:

Recommended videos 

Helping DREAMers tell their stories

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Use books in the classroom and beyond

Why this matters

Books can be a powerful doorway into a topic that is complex and highly personal. They can serve as mirrors for students who see their experiences reflected and validated; they can also serve as windows for other students (and adults) who gain a new perspective, some background knowledge, and perhaps a new level of empathy as well.

As Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, who created the “windows and mirrors” metaphor, says, “When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection, we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience.”

Tips for getting started

  • Look for books related to your students’ experiences and cultures. Ask colleagues for their input on cultural authenticity.
  • Look for books that focus on immigration stories.
  • Include the books you find in classroom libraries, in school libraries, and in reading rooms, parent resource rooms, or other places where families will be able to share them together.
  • Look for ways to include these books as a part of a class unit or classroom read-aloud.
  • Keep in mind that picture books can be great resources for older students and adults as well, particularly when addressing a complex topic.

Recommended resources

Colorín Colorado has compiled the following resources:


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Learn how your families approach social-emotional health

The notion of “mental health” and how to address different challenges or topics can vary widely across cultures. Collaboration among cultural liaisons, ESL/bilingual staff, school psychologists, and families is critical for meeting students’ needs in this area. In addition, families have numerous strengths and coping strategies that can be harnessed in supportive settings.

Tips for getting started

Social worker Laura Gardner encourages schools to engage with families and talk about:

  • what has helped the family overcome difficult situations in the past
  • what the family sees as its strengths, and as their children’s strengths
  • their own coping strategies
  • how difficult situations are addressed in their culture
  • how the school/program might make members of a particular community feel welcome or supported
  • how to rebuild their extended family systems/informal community networks
  • what kinds of information or support the family may want.

Recommended resources

Recommended videos 

Video: One principal's journey to a refugee camp






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

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