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February 15, 2024
ASCD Blog

Multilingual Newcomers Need More Than Academic Instruction

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Making sure students feel safe and have their basic needs met should be educators' first priority.
EquitySocial-emotional learning
Multilingual Newcomers Need More Than Academic Instruction
Credit: Hero Images Inc / Shutterstock
“My principal wants him working on grade-level content ASAP,” the teacher said, looking at me. We both turned in quiet contemplation to the newcomer sitting in the back of her English I classroom. His name was Karam. He was a Syrian refugee new to the school. He’d been in the country only a few weeks, and subject to who knows what kind of trauma and violence prior to that. I couldn’t help but think, catching his skittish gaze, that’s not how learning works.
Multilingual newcomers encompass a wide variety of students from diverse experiential, cultural, linguistic, and educational backgrounds, but many enter U.S. classrooms lacking the English language skills that would allow them to equitably access content and learning. However, my experience over the last two decades has taught me that learning can actually be impeded if students’ physiological, psychological, and emotional needs are not met first. 
Students who are scared, stressed, worried, or frustrated aren't efficient learners because learning can only be optimized after fundamental needs are met. The brain is not designed to prioritize abstract classroom learning over basic biological needs. 
Basic needs are frequently expressed in newcomers’ behaviors, and sometimes perceived misbehaviors. For example, a kindergartener, frustrated with the inability to communicate, might hit other children (a behavior that generally abates once the child has some basic English language competency). Or a 9th grader might withdraw by taking a nap, hoodie up and head down, because he is overwhelmed by the linguistic load of the classroom. To teachers who are attuned to them, these maladaptive behaviors communicate student needs just as loudly as speech. 

Learning can only be optimized after fundamental needs are met.

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Newcomers’ needs, just like the needs of native English speakers, follow Maslow’s hierarchy:  
  1. Physiological needs are the base because they must be met frequently and consistently. A student who is worried about having an accident in their seat is not in a position to learn about division.  
  2. Psychological needs must also be met for learning to occur. Students must feel safe and have a sense of control over their circumstances.  
  3. Social-emotional needs also preempt academic ones. Newcomers need to have a sense of community and belonging. They need human connection and meaningful relationships more than they need math.  
It is only when students’ physiological, psychological, and social-emotional needs are met that they can then focus fully on building English language skills and integrating new content learning.

Meeting Newcomers' Physiological Needs

Educators cannot assume other faculty have taken care of physiological needs or assume newcomers will or can advocate for themselves.
Students may need to be explicitly taught to communicate their needs and how a teacher can meet them. For example, teachers should make sure a student knows how to ask to use the bathroom and also how to use a Western-style toilet. This didn’t occur to the 3rd-grade teacher whose student urinated on a tree on the playground. We have also had students squat on top of the seat or throw used tissue on the floor because they didn’t realize they could flush it. Ensuring this basic knowledge must be a priority. Here are a few ideas for doing so: 
  • Provide newcomers with picture communication cards that depict basic needs so that they can alert the teacher when they have to use the restroom, are thirsty, or need help.  
  • Create a visual schedule that includes times and pictures of rooms the student will be going to. This will help the student understand when lunch, bathroom breaks, and the end of the day occur, and thereby reduce anxiety. 
  • Begin working immediately on survival English vocabulary, such as bathroom, water, hungry, hurt, and help. Don’t worry about sentence structure or grammar initially; focus instead on effectively getting meaning across.  
  • Plan for more frequent breaks and movement. Newcomers may not be used to sitting still and may struggle to pay attention for long periods of time. 
  • Walk students through routines like navigating the lunch line and explain unfamiliar foods. While you’re there, make sure there is food available that meets their dietary restrictions (religious or otherwise) and tastes. 
  • Consider creating a quiet corner or area where the student can withdraw and take a break if needed. If there’s no quiet corner available, allow the student headphones if they need a break. For older students, consider a schedule that breaks up linguistically heavy classes with classes like art and music. 
  • Leverage free apps, like Google Translate’s conversation setting, to seamlessly move between languages, allowing the student to interact with faculty and classmates. 

Meeting Newcomers' Psychological Needs

While meeting newcomers’ physiological needs is the first step, teachers cannot ignore students’ psychological needs. Acculturation, isolation, resettlement challenges, and prior trauma create unique stressors for newcomers. Students need to feel safe and that they have some control over their circumstances. We can address both needs by promoting student agency:
  • Provide students with a map of the school. When touring the building with newcomers, point out important places and repeat the names of those places.
  • Post multilingual signage and labels around the school building for newcomer students and their families. This will reduce the chances of the student getting lost and will help foster their independence.
  • Provide a list of teachers, their photos, titles, and roles. This will help the student know who to go to for help and will increase their comfort level with various adults in the building.
  • Wear ID badges and/or school shirts, which act as visual cues for newcomers to indicate who can assist them, similar to how hospital scrubs are an identifier for patients to know who a safe person is to ask for help.
  • Establish routines early on and stick to them. The more predictable the school day, the more confident newcomers will be in navigating through it. When the schedule does change, as it inevitably will, take time to prepare students for variations and alert them ahead of time to things like fire drills, which could be a trigger for students who have experienced trauma.
  • Tag newcomers’ book bags and/or agendas with the student’s name, home address, and school, so that if they were to get off at the wrong bus stop, they could show it to those around them to locate an adult who can help. 

Students need to feel safe and that they have some control over their circumstances.

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Meeting Newcomers’ Social-Emotional Needs

Newcomers’ social-emotional needs are often the most subtle. Being a newcomer is extremely isolating, and these students may lack sufficient language to build friendships or express loneliness. Moving to a new country is often an emotional roller coaster for students: They may feel excited, scared, lonely, anxious, or angry to varying degrees at different points in the day or all at the same time. Social development may even stagnate as students are acquiring English. Schools can meet students’ social-emotional needs by helping newcomers connect with other students:  
  • Start a student ambassador program with students designated to aid newcomers throughout the day. If you know of the newcomers’ arrival ahead of time, ambassadors can research the newcomers’ country of origin and share this information with the class, create displays or artwork to welcome them, or learn a few phrases in the newcomer’s native language. A few personal connections can go a long way in increasing newcomers’ comfort levels and willingness to participate. A team approach also prevents any one student from bearing full responsibility for another.
  • Represent newcomers’ cultures and languages in classroom literature and schoolwide displays.
  • Structure and scaffold intentional opportunities for newcomers to participate with their peers and begin building English skills. Use cooperative learning and scaffold interactions to teach social language and academic skills.
  • Develop and foster relationships with community members and organizations who can help with translation and support.
  • Invite families into the school building and get to know them. Keep them in the loop with what is happening at school and how they can help in academic and nonacademic ways. 
  • Use apps like Talking Points, which allows teachers to send messages in multiple languages to families all at once and seamlessly translates replies back to English. This nonprofit combines AI and human translations and offers schools a free app and desktop version. 
  • Have a schoolwide plan in place for the roles each faculty member will play in ensuring that students are taken care of.  

A few personal connections can go a long way in increasing newcomers’ comfort levels.

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A Place Welcoming to All

Meeting newcomers’ comprehensive needs takes intentionality, flexibility, and creativity. There is no one-size-fits-all formula, but we can thoughtfully plan ways to ensure that our English learner newcomers have the optimal circumstances to learn and grow to their full potential. For students like Karam, we can make sure that barriers to learning are reduced so that he can learn and thrive in the classroom, just like his peers.

Rebecca Olsen is a National Board Certified educator with two decades of classroom and coaching experience. She serves as a Multilingual Learner Coach and LETRS Local Certified Trainer for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, a large urban district with students representing over 100 home languages. 

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