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

Addressing Student Trauma, Anxiety, and Depression

Bell at school

Learn strategies to recognize and address student anxiety and trauma, as well as to understand traumatic experiences students might have endured.

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

It really helps to understand post-traumatic stress disorder. Things that we might not notice could be very upsetting to a child, keeping them in that part of their brain where it’s 'fight or flight.'  So it’s a reminder every now and then that we just need to check ourselves and think, "What are some things that we can control that could be helpful to a child in distress?"

–  Susan Stanley, Principal, Salina Elementary School, Dearborn, MI


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Many immigrant students are currently living with high levels of fear, anxiety, stress, and depression. To better understand the reasons why, take a look at our section on how immigration issues impact students.

Building relationships with students and families can provide opportunities to identify students' needs, while providing professional development on a variety of topics in a respectful setting can help increase awareness across the staff. Here is some information to get started.

Immigrant students' social-emotional distress

In a UCLA survey studying the impact of immigration enforcement on schools, almost 90% of administrators surveyed “indicated that they have observed behavioral or emotional problems in immigrant students,” and 25% indicated that it was a significant problem (Gándara & Ee, 2018b, p. 2). One administrator notes,

“Several students have arrived at school crying, withdrawn and refusing to eat lunch because they have witnessed deportation of a family member. Some students show anxiety symptoms…All of this impacts their ability to focus and complete work, which further affects them academically.” (p.9)

Pediatricians serving immigrant families are noticing the same thing, according to a December 2017 Kaiser Family Foundation report, as well as negative effects on health such as problems sleeping, headaches, stomachaches, and mental health issues.

Loss of motivation

In addition, students' loss of motivation is another challenge. In this Education Week article, Principal Nedda de Castro of the International School at Prospect Heights in Brooklyn observed that, "Some of the students are assuming that they're just going to be deported anyway and starting to talk about how there's really no point in coming to school anymore.  It's a lot of lost potential."

According to the UCLA research, administrators and educators across the country also reported that high-achieving students are giving up on their plans for college. After a nearby raid, a teacher in the Midwest observed the following:

“I noticed those students behaving so differently. They don't sit or stand tall. They do not want to participate in presentations. They do not want to be called. They seem disconnected or uninterested now…I serve in an academically advanced setting where students are selected and good performers” (p. 10).

Another teacher from Oregon observed,

“I have students who were college-bound now questioning if it's worth it, because they don't believe that they could get a job in their field after graduating” (p. 12).

And in our own travels to Dearborn, MI, we met teachers and community members who spoke about the toll of lengthy separations on students and families from countries such as Yemen and Syria.

Identify resources for addressing student anxiety and depression

Why this matters

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has publicly stated their expectation that the current climate will likely increase students’ toxic stress level, particularly if students experience trauma. (The AAP also released a statement on the impact of family separations at the border.)

Researchers at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) documented the impact of this anxiety on children as young as three, including an increase in finger biting and toilet accidents (Cervantes, Ullrich, & Matthews, 2018, p. 9), while teachers of older students report an increase in severe depression and a decrease in motivation and engagement. See more on the impacts of this anxiety on young children in our section on supporting young children in immigrant families.

Tips for getting started

  • Learn about the impacto of anxiety on students in your age group, such as impacts on behavior, as well as strategies for strategies for supporting students' social-emotional health.
  • Consider pulling together a team of educators, cultural liaisons, mental health professionals, administrators, parents, students (as appropriate), and community partners to identify (a) the types of challenges students are facing and (b) culturally appropriate approaches to social-emotional health for your families.
  • Determine which supports are currently in place and what else might be needed, such as more professional development, community outreach and family engagement; extra time for discussion in peer groups; or creating new community partnerships that can address specific issues.
  • As a group, determine your priorities and next steps to implement those priorities.
  • Continue to revisit these topics, particularly if new immigration policy changes are announced.
  • Keep in mind that students may be keeping these concerns quiet out of fear for their safety.
  • Remember that any training or discussion should always respect student/staff privacy; nothing personal should be shared without explicit permission.

Recommended resources

Recommended videos 

When immigration status impacts young children: Lori Dodson, ESOL Specialist, MD


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Trauma-informed instruction for immigrant students

Why this matters

More and more educators across the country are learning about the impacts of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on students. Researchers estimate that half of the U.S. student population has experienced or is still experiencing some type of trauma, violence, or chronic stress (Zacarian, Haynes, and Alvarez-Ortiz, 2017). One teacher wrote in our 2017 survey on how schools are supporting immigrant students, “Staff need training in trauma-informed education and supporting students who've experienced many kinds of trauma. We brought in the Center for Victims of Torture to train our staff to support our specific refugee populations.”

For immigrant students, the sources of trauma may be complex and may be related to:

Immigration experiences

  • the reasons the family left their home country (such as war or wide-spread violence)
  • difficult conditions, violence, sexual assault, or casualties during the journey to this country
  • forced separation from a parent or sibling on the journey

Experiences related to immigration enforcement

  • 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

Current stresses

  • stressful situations such as economic stress and homelessness
  • other challenges at home, including domestic abuse.

Note: See the resources on addressing trauma in our resource section about family separations at the border.

Related news headlines

Changes in behavior

Take a look at our section on how trauma and anxiety can impact students' behavior and the importance of getting a complete picture of the source of the issue before taking steps that can have long-term consequences for the student. 


Tips for getting started

  • Learn more about the impacts of trauma and signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for students the age group you work with.
  • If possible, look for clues and try to learn a little bit more about your students' backgrounds, keeping in mind that every individual's situation is unique, even within a family, and protecting student privacy. Start with a trusted colleague, parent liaison or community partner. If appropriate, give students opportunities to share their stories privately, or, if they wish, with classmates.
  • Discuss ideas for addressing students' needs with colleagues and identify next steps to implement those ideas.
  • Learn more about trauma-informed instruction in the following resources.

Recommended resources

Trauma-informed instruction

Strategies and toolkits

In the news

Recommended videos 

Video playlist: What educators need to know about trauma

Video: When loud noises cause post-traumatic stress in schools

Video: A superintendent recalls a distressing journal entry from his teaching days

Video: Why not all changes in behavior require a special education referral




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

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