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Supporting Immigrant Children and Families

Experts offer 5 key tips for supporting students inside and outside of the classroom

Teachers educating immigrant students need to know how to create safe and supportive learning environments for those children and their families. Knowing how to support them is a crucial skill for educators, not only for creating a healthy classroom environment, but also for ensuring that families are part of their child’s education. Here are five ways teachers and administrators can encourage learning, multilingualism, cultural appreciation and community engagement in and out of school.

1. Help students share their stories.

For almost a decade, Lesley alumna and fourth-grade teacher Maggie Mattson has created a way for her diverse class, even those not fluent in English, to share their histories.

“Students tell their stories in pictures before the words,” explains Mattson, a teacher at Hosmer School in Watertown, Massachusetts. “That’s a very different way of telling stories.”

Over five weeks, she and her students construct books about their countries of origin, why they emigrated, how they came to America, and what their lives are like now. After providing context by reading a number of picture books about the immigration experience, the students use various art forms — from marbling paper to collage — to tell their stories visually. Once it’s time to add words, she and her students review vocabulary, and students ask their families for additional details.

Despite the depth of introspection students undergo in the process of recalling life-changing experiences, Mattson has found it healing rather than traumatic for them.

“We don’t make them tell anything they don’t want to tell,” she says.

The projects culminate in an exhibit that families are invited to attend. This, too, is a unifying event for the Hosmer School community, in which 32 languages are spoken.

The ultimate message, says Mattson, is “how wonderful art is and how that can connect the families to their stories, and how we can all celebrate.”

2. Encourage multilingualism and parental engagement.

Even before their children were born, Assistant Professor Michael Shabaash Kemeh and his wife committed to raising their children in their native Ghanaian culture. They started communicating with them at home and elsewhere in their native language from infancy, and nurtured multilingual development through traditional games, stories, songs, dances and books written in their language. 

When their daughters started school, Kemeh made a consistent effort to ensure their Ghanaian language and culture were not a hindrance to learning English, but were acknowledged and even celebrated. He did “show and tell” visits to his daughters’ classrooms and worked with students on plays based on folk tales from Ghana and Brazil to further enrich the multilingual and cultural growth of his daughters.  

“Educators should embrace, honor and promote multilingualism in schools,” says Kemeh. Ensuring that immigrant children can speak their home language fluently, and teaching them respect for their cultural heritage, “helps them to develop psychologically and also socially,” he says.

Kemeh met with teachers to make sure his daughters integrated with other students and engaged in class. “Partner with the school. Talk with the principal,” Kemeh urges.

He and his wife also made sure their children spent time with native English speakers, including adopted American grandparents, and their church, where English was the lingua franca.

“If you want to have kids become multilingual, you can’t play that role alone,” Kemeh said.

3. Expand beyond the traditional parent-teacher conference.

Educators must be aware of the challenges immigrant children face, from isolation from peers, to deficiencies in lesson comprehension, and the language barriers that make it harder for families to advocate for their children.

Assistant Professor Margaret Burns says that the standard opportunities for family involvement, such as parent-teacher conferences and parent-teacher organizations, often fall short in supporting immigrant families for whom such practices are not cultural norms.

“Those forms of involvement are culturally biased toward white, middle-class families and do not align with the cultural practices of families from other social groups and countries,” says Burns.

Good teaching cannot happen without strong, authentic relationships.
Margaret Burns, Associate Professor

Educators may assume that immigrant families unresponsive to these traditional forms of involvement are less engaged with their children’s education. Not so, says Burns. Families from other countries demonstrate their commitment to education in other ways, and teachers need to reach out to families and together devise creative ways using the arts and resources from the students’ original cultures to foster a more ideal and inclusive learning environment.

4. Reimagine picture books.

Associate Professor Grace Enriquez suggests a new way to look at illustrated children’s books. Instead of zeroing in on words, she suggests first focusing on the illustrations for emergent language learners.

Images give students a clue into the text patterns and themes of a story while helping them learn new words.

“But there’s a difference between a children’s picture book that contains illustrations and a picture book, one in which the illustrations are interwoven with the narrative and require close attention in order to make sense of the text or story as a whole,” explains Enriquez. The former, she says, are enhanced by the illustrations but not dependent on them, while the later rely on images for comprehension. 

“This method allows children to start at their own language level and build on it through dialogue with adults and other children.”

Students guided through this method find that the illustrations create a “pathway” between the image and the text.

“They are trying to express so much and they are realizing that illustrations help them do that,” Enriquez says.

The method helps not only English language learners but other struggling readers, she says. 

According to Enriquez, using quality picture books, even wordless ones, compels readers to use oral language first to make sense of the book, rather than relying on print that they might not yet be able to decode. Focusing on the illustrations first brings everyone closer to the same starting line, and through dialogue with one another, they can ask questions, make predictions, and practice vocabulary that will make it easier to then tackle any words on the page.

Using picture books in which the relationship between the illustrations and the text is more complex can also help students develop stronger critical thinking and literacy skills as they use language to reconcile any discrepancies between illustration and text.

5. Focus on strengths.

As an educator, it can be easy to see what students lack or can’t do, but Dr. Enriquez stresses that it’s much more powerful and effective to engage students by building on the assets they bring to the classroom, even just from their experiences.

For example, one of Dr. Kemeh’s daughters felt valued by a teacher who asked her to share her heritage in class, thereby incorporating her story into the fabric of the class.

With the picture book technique, students are also empowered to build on what they know and can observe.

“The kids were able to put that together and make more meaning of the story than if the teacher had just focused on the words,” says Enriquez.

But there is no rule of thumb for how much educators should or should not correct their students.

“In the literature of culturally responsive instruction, teachers with high standards and strong relationships are sometimes referred to as ‘warm demanders,’” Dr. Burns says. “They demand a lot of students, but not in a denigrating way.”

Ultimately, relationships are the key to pairing cultural sensitivity with a quality education.

“Good teaching cannot happen without strong, authentic relationships,” says Burns.