Opinion
Student Well-Being Opinion

‘The Timing Is Critical’: How Schools Can Help Refugee Students

Low-cost and effective interventions to help refugee and immigrant families
By Jeffrey P. Winer & Luna A. Mulder — September 30, 2022 5 min read
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This school year, teachers have welcomed thousands of youth who’ve been forcibly displaced from Ukraine, Afghanistan, El Salvador, and many other countries. As teachers introduce these new students to the traditions and quirks of American school life, they also face the enormous challenge of helping these displaced young people adjust academically, socially, and psychologically.

These students are navigating a new culture and language along with the usual ups and downs of making friends and staying on top of homework—in the midst of the emotional and physical turmoil that brought them to the United States in the first place.

As clinical psychologists focused on refugee and immigrant youth mental health, we believe we have a unique opportunity—and responsibility—to help foster their well-being. These kids have witnessed some of the worst corners of the human experience, yet their mental health is often overlooked. However, with the right knowledge and tools, educators, health-care providers, and community members can help them thrive.

Many effective interventions are relatively low-cost and are reproducible in schools and communities across the country. They not only make a real difference in helping kids develop resilience in their new lives; they have the potential to help resettled families build and sustain a sense of belonging and connection to their new communities.

The timing is critical. As the initial feelings of relief and excitement subside, families will contend with the often overwhelming day-to-day difficulties of adjusting to an unfamiliar culture. These youth and their families often experience what mental health providers call “acculturation stress.” Kids may experience alienation and isolation in their schools and neighborhoods. They may have problems fitting in at school, straddling their former and newer identities. Their families may worry they’re becoming “too American.”

At the same time, the support offered by resettlement agencies—and the scores of volunteers who greeted some of them with flowers at airports and collected dishes and furniture—starts to dwindle. We need to remember that the second phase of adjustment after the media attention fades is just as important in helping children and families become embedded into communities and build relationships that will enable them to succeed over the long term.

Schools can help mitigate acculturation stress. First, school staff should know that many students may have not had the opportunity to attend school consistently or at all in their country of origin or during their migration journey (that is, students with limited or interrupted formal education).

We encourage educators to connect children and families with English-language tutors and teachers, give them extra time to learn academic content, and incorporate their native language into their curriculum as much as possible. Taking time to share and celebrate students’ holidays, food, and music in the classroom is a great way to promote cross-cultural connection and acceptance.

We need to remember that the second phase of adjustment after the media attention fades is just as important in helping children and families.

We also need to remember that resettled families deserve the benefit of the doubt for possible cultural misunderstandings. For instance, these caregivers aren’t failing to sign permission slips or check homework because they don’t care; they may not know to look inside their kid’s backpack or know how to read the handout. They may be working multiple jobs during which attendance at a school event is simply impossible.

Second, our team at Boston Children’s Hospital encourages educators and health-care professionals to frame mental health interventions as enhancing kids’ school performance and participation, rather than “treating” mental health issues. This approach that emphasizes students’ strengths and potential can greatly improve engagement and build hope and trust. Our team has partnered with refugee and immigrant communities and service providers across the United States to offer free online resources with strategies to address the specific needs of refugee and immigrant youth.

Such framing is especially important because many displaced families come from cultures in which mental health problems and their treatments are deeply stigmatized. Parents and caregivers from these cultures may not respond positively to outreach efforts that single out their kids or remove them from class. Families that may have fled war zones and risked their lives to give their children a better future might be confused and upset that their child is labeled as “having problems” after all they went through to keep their children safe.

That said, if a child is frequently disruptive at school or experiencing depression and anxiety, it would make sense for school staff to reach out to families to normalize their child’s adjustment to a culture different from their own and provide education on the possible effects of trauma and displacement. Where possible, such outreach should be done in collaboration with a respected “cultural broker” from the student’s community who plays a critical role in helping families adjust to life in the United States. These trusted leaders know the family’s language and cultural nuances. They can explain important information and encourage family participation and healing.

Finally, teachers and school officials can enhance success by meeting with families early and often. Don’t simply inform families about “back to school” nights or parent teacher association meetings by sending home flyers and emails, which may get lost or be difficult for families to read. Work with cultural brokers to personally invite them. Teachers or other school officials can even try visiting homes with welcome baskets of school-themed swag to explain what to expect at this new school.

Continued community support is also vital. Volunteers can give parents rides to school events, and classmates’ parents can make sure resettled youth are included on soccer teams and in birthday parties. By committing consistent acts of kindness and connection, we weave a stronger fabric of community.

These strategies work in large part because they foster a sense of belonging—a primary need at the core of our psychological well-being, whether we’re fortunate to live where we choose or must put down roots in a new but unfamiliar land.

Additional resources

A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2022 edition of Education Week as How Schools Can Help Refugee Students

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