The Challenge of Emotional Adjustment to U.S. Society

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 02, 2007 2 min read
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A book and a couple of films gave me some insight recently into the challenge that immigrant children face in adjusting emotionally to U.S. culture, which can affect how well they do in school.

The book was A Home on the Field, by Paul Cuadros, who writes about the lives of undocumented youths who were members of the soccer team he formed and coached at Jordan-Matthews High School in Siler City, N.C. When the team took a state soccer title, the boys felt, psychologically, that they had something to contribute to their new community. TIME Magazine ran an excerpt of the book in August 2006.

In my reporting for a story published this week in Education Week, I was pleased to learn that the Jordan-Matthews high school and a middle school in Siler City--both part of the Chatham County school district--are partners in a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for school-based mental health care services tailored to immigrant families. The grant will pay for the salary of a bilingual social worker to work at those two schools and for diversity training for the school district’s staff and teachers to better understand Latinos. It also will enable a connection between the schools and a mental health care organization that serves Latinos.

It makes sense that educators pay attention to whether children from immigrant families are in a good frame of mind to learn, as well as to whether effective methods are used to teach them.

I also recently watched two documentaries about the adjustment of the “lost boys of Sudan” to the United States. About 3,600 Sudanese youths from the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya were nicknamed the “lost boys of Sudan” when they were resettled in this country six years ago by the U.S. Department of State. (Read an Education Week story about the “lost boys” here.) The youths had survived a war in Sudan and long treks across Africa to find safety. Their experiences are documented in “Lost Boys of Sudan” and “God Grew Tired of Us.”

In both films, I was struck by how feelings of loneliness and isolation dogged the Sudanese youths during their adjustment to this country. “Lost Boys of Sudan” chronicles the experience of a boy named Peter in a Kansas high school and shows that a little care by a few individuals in that school went a long way in helping him to find his way. A classmate, for example, tells Peter soon after he arrives at the school that, since he doesn’t know anyone there, he’s welcome to sit with her and her friends at lunch.

I identified with Peter and his journey because I realize that it’s not just immigrants who long for more of a sense of community--and focus on people--in this society. I do, too.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.