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August 29, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 1

Doing Better by Refugee and Immigrant Families

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Educators can take specific steps to better connect with and support newcomer families.

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EquityEngagement
Doing Better by Refugee and Immigrant Families
Credit: PHOTO COURTESY OF LOUISE El YAAFOURI
Above: Educator Louise El Yaafouri on a field trip to a pumpkin farm with a class of 3rd grade students.
It's the second-to-last day of Ramadan. The 24-unit housing complex on Denver's east side, home to mostly Burmese families, is buzzing with the energy of pending Eid when I drop by.
NuRaAhLa's family lives on the bottom floor. A swarm of women and young children gather at its open entrance. NuRaAhLa's mother sells imported Myanmar clothing and purses from the family's apartment. Today, the demand for her supply is palpable.
NuRaAhLa and his sister JuLarBe are newcomers—students who recently arrived in the United States with less than two years of education in U.S. schools—and former students of mine. I've been here several dozen times in the last 12 years, since I first met NuRaAhLa as his 3rd grade teacher. Their father, who is stuffing banana leaves with coconut rice and placing them into styrofoam containers, spots me. The family is known for their traditional cooking, and neighbors pop in to buy the treats as additions to their iftar tables. He offers me a finished product. I decline, explaining that I am also fasting. NuRaAhLa's mother makes eye contact with me. "Taqabbal Allah," she says in Arabic. May your fasting be accepted.
I've dropped by expecting to catch up with NuRaAhLa and JuLarBe and—like many of my drop-ins to the housing complexes where resettled refugee and asylee students in our district live—this visit is unplanned. Many newcomers' frames of reference center human connection over other obligations, and impromptu exchanges are welcomed. A casual drop-in often prompts invitations to enter, sit, eat, share, and laugh. As an educator working with refugee and immigrant students, I've encountered this with families from more than 70 heritage countries.
September 2022 El Yaafouri Secondary Photo 1

Two high school-age Syrian refugees the author worked with in Saida, Lebanon.

Soon NuRaAhLa and JuLarBe emerge from the rear of the apartment, and we jump into the news of their lives. I learn that after completing 9th grade at a traditional high school, NuRaAhLa transferred to a charter school. Many of his Burmese friends had already moved to the charter, which drew a large number of former newcomers, and he had been excited to join them. He completed two more years of high school before the onset of COVID-19. The following months were transformative in ways that made school attendance, even virtually, difficult. NuRaAhLa, who is now 20 years old, got married, and he and his wife are expecting a daughter. After a devastating immigration pause, his grandmother had finally been admitted to the United States. Months later, she passed away of a suspected complication from COVID. NuRaAhLa started working more hours to support his family. His high school "dropped him" months before his projected graduation date, expelling him over attendance issues.
I turn to NuRaAhLa's mom. She shrugs. "They don't tell me, the school," she explains, occasionally turning to her kids for the right words. "I don't know what's happening. I don't know how to argue for my son. I don't know how to fix it."
Both parents and an older brother are now engaged in the conversation, which has switched to Burmese. JuLarBe paraphrases for me: "It would have been better for my mom if people from the school just found a way to talk to her. Like, instead of sending a bunch of papers in English or bad Google Translate—or just ignoring us because we're one of the hard languages. She wants to know what's happening."

Families on the Fringe

Similar frustrations have been relayed to me before, here and in other newcomer homes around the country. Strained school-to-home relationships have been a part of this family's story since they arrived in America. I knew within days of working with NuRa (a shortened name he picked for himself) that his challenges to integration and learning involved more than learning in a new language. He exhibited signs of culture shock and possible exposure to traumatic events, and I suspected he might have a learning disability. Before the close of his first U.S. school year, I'd recommended him for a response to intervention evaluation. However, years of overclassifying new-to-English learners as special needs students led many states and districts, including ours, to require a pause to rule out language acquisition as the primary barrier to perceived socio-academic success. That year and onward, he acquired a long file of labels and misassumptions. He missed out on essential services at critical times, due in part to our failed ability to engage him in culturally responsive learning experiences and to partner with his family.
Now, NuRaAhLa is nearly an adult, his sister is a high school sophomore, and much has changed. JuLarBe is contemplating leaving school, too, because she feels that although the school she attends has many resources for Spanish-speaking kids, they "don't know what to do with Asian kids." Both adults and youth in this family are resourceful and value learning, yet this family remains on the fringes of U.S. education. Sadly, we've failed to capture the incredible untapped resources in this home.
When I taught NuRaAhLa, it was my second year in a newcomer-centered setting, and I was terribly inexperienced. Pedagogical phrases like "trauma-informed," "social-emotional learning," and "culturally relevant" weren't part of the school's instructional language. I hadn't yet reckoned with my role in reinforcing the systems of inequity that undermined my students' best efforts or realized that my good intentions could come across as "saviorism." I wish I'd had a better grasp of how to approach NuRa's family about my concerns about culture shock and the effects of possible trauma. I wish I could have done more to support his family in learning how to advocate for their children's needs across an unfamiliar educational landscape. Like most families, they would have fought for NuRa's learning rights and needs if they had the tools and socio-linguistic access to do so. After he left my classroom, I pressed his family to advocate for their child—but provided no actionable resources or culturally responsive pathways to do so.

I often wonder how we can do better to engage families as respected stakeholders in kids' learning.

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Looking back, I'm able to recognize that part of the family's hesitation was linked to their cultural values associated with social standing, specifically the idea of "saving face." From this cultural reference point, an individual's actions or performance are reflections not only of them, but also of the family unit, and even the larger community group. If I had been more sensitive to these reference points, I could have entered the conversations with different pacing and language. In the classroom, I would have integrated instructional elements to better "match" NuRa's social standing reference points—like using anonymous responses and team problem-solving. Fortunately, for the students who would follow, like JuLarBe, my toolbox has grown. While continuing to teach newcomer students, I've worked alongside dozens of refugee resettlement organizations, and I've deepened my relationships with students' families. These insights shape my interests as a researcher and inform my use of best practices in educating recent arrivals to the United States. Still, when I think of kids like NuRaAhLa, this feeling of failing a child and his family trails me.
September 2022 El Yaafouri Secondary Photo 2

NuRaAhLa (left) and JuLarBe during the years Louise El Yaafouri was teaching them.

How Can We Do Better?

I often wonder, how exactly can we do better to engage families like NuRaAhLa's as respected stakeholders in kids' learning? I decided to ask newcomer families and those who work with them. Over several weeks in spring 2022, I interviewed and listened to NuRaAhLa's parents, other newcomer families in the Denver area and other regions, and community experts working with immigrants and refugees. The people I spoke to spanned 14 countries of origin, three stakeholder organizations, six school districts, and various preK–12 grade levels. Combining their feedback with my own experiences as a practitioner, I've gathered some solid takeaways to share on boosting a school's connection to newcomer families, discussed below in two general categories.
First, let me note that each of these practices supports culturally responsive and sustaining practices. Culturally responsive teaching upholds and affirms students' cultural identities while also facilitating fluency in one or more new cultures (Gay, 2002; 2018). Longtime culturally responsive practice champion Geneva Gay explains that first and foremost, a school's outgoing messaging (related to instruction, intervention, disciplinary action, or school-to-home communication) must align with students' and families' cultural frames of reference. Culturally responsive and sustaining practice also positions parents, caretakers, and their cultural communities as experts on their youth's strengths, needs, and learning styles. Discovering families' funds of knowledge and preferences for engaging with school and their child's learning is a process requiring a deep level of trust.

First, Connect

Many school-aged newcomers and their families identify with collectivist value systems (Kreuzer, 2016). Relationships are often valued over tasks. "Take the time to personally connect first," suggests Nisar Niksad, a former refugee from Afghanistan. His experiences attending and working in U.S. schools led him to start Translation Excellence, which helps its clients achieve translation equity. "Before you give any assignments or paperwork to adults, get to know a little about them—their language, family, and country," Niksad says. "This validates them and lets them know that you care about them. It's an effort that goes a long way."
Silvia Montenegro—who launched the Aurora Public Schools Welcome Center in Aurora, Colorado, to assist refugee and immigrant students and their families in adjusting to and thriving within Aurora Public Schools—adds: "One thing that works across all populations is treating everyone with respect. Appreciating the human and their dignity and being respectful to everybody."

Boost Protective Factors

Risk factors are adverse experiences or conditions that can have long-lasting harmful effects on children. Risk factors are not direct causes of trauma but can contribute to it. Broadly speaking, the more adverse experiences a person has, the more likely they are to experience negative outcomes associated with transition shock (a broader term that includes trauma, culture shock, and persistent stress). Having many risk factors can also interfere with prosocial integration—the process of upholding one's unique and intact cultural identity while also developing fluency in at least one other culture. Many new refugee and immigrant Americans identify as having a high number of risk factors, including pre-transition experiences (like war, loss of loved ones, malnutrition, or persecution) and post-transition risk factors (such as experiencing racism and discrimination or restricted access to quality healthcare).
Protective factors are circumstances or situations that help counter risk factors. They don't prevent a person from encountering hardship or trauma. However, they do have insulating properties that can help buffer against negative outcomes associated with adverse experiences (Trauma Survivors Network, 2018; Zwi et al., 2018). Schools can support protective factors in three key areas: home, service spaces (including classrooms), and community. (I detail many protective factors in my new ASCD book, Restoring Students' Innate Power.) At the school level, these protective factors include:
  • Ensuring your school culture and curriculum are welcoming, inclusive, and anti-discriminatory.
  • Having highly trained staff who work with newcomer students and families, with knowledge and instructional experiences that include multilingual education, trauma-responsive care, antiracist programming, and an understanding of the differences between multicultural efforts (where many of us excel) and culturally responsive and relevant pedagogy (where many of us have room to grow).
  • Establishing and maintaining equitable socio-academic and behavioral policies.
  • Having opportunities for all families to practice voice, choice, and collaboration.
For newcomers, reliable access to community supports and connections to culturally aligned resources can improve perceptions of the new environment, promote prosocial behaviors, increase school attendance and graduation rates, and even mitigate the effects of trauma (El Yaafouri, 2022; National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2018). Our goal should be to aim for highly integrated systems for school, family, and community partnerships.
Optimally, schools and classroom teachers will help facilitate connections between students' families and resources within the community (including, at times, other families). However, broadly speaking, schools are generally less equipped to build such connections with families of recently arrived students who may not have proficiency in English. Schools may not be as tuned-in to local resources that can serve families from non-U.S. cultures or that have services in their languages—or such resources may be scarce. But any school or educator can take actionable steps to grow their knowledge of what's available to newcomer families. Many states have a newsletter, listserv, or other online network dedicated to refugee and immigrant-serving providers. These networks often include state entities, regional nonprofits, and individual stakeholders. They provide a great way to learn about upcoming events, match families' needs with services, and be aware of relevant policy shifts, including refugee resettlement determinations.

Any school or educator can take actionable steps to grow their knowledge of what's available to newcomer families.

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"Bring Us Your Family"

JuLarBe retrieves my shoes from the pile near the front door. It's time to return home to my own children, who are now entering elementary school in the same district where I taught NuRaAhLa and his sister. NuRa's mother packs spiced roasted mangos in a bag and tosses in a can of bubble tea. "Come tomorrow for Eid," she says, placing the sack in my hands. "Please bring us your family."
It's a reminder of other cultural reference points that have roots in this home, as I recognize lenses of hospitality, reciprocity, and community. What would I do with this knowledge in the classroom now? I'd really listen to my students and families to learn more. I'd be intentional about aligning my instructional strategies to these deep cultural ways of moving through the world, and I'd give families of these students, sensitively, more guidance and information about procedures and cultural factors common in U.S. schools, so both students and their families would have more sense of their choices. And students like NuRaAhLa would be centered as capable architects of their own socio-academic outcomes.

Reflect and Discuss

➛ Does your school or district do enough to actively address the unique circumstances of newcomer students and their families? Where are the gaps in your approach?

➛ In what ways could you or your school build better connections with newcomer families?

➛ What systems or practices could you put in place to boost "protective factors" for newcomer students?

More on Supporting Newcomers

Transition shock contributes to a sense of diminished power among newcomers. Louise El Yaafouri's book describes how educators can restore that power, beginning today.

More on Supporting Newcomers
References

El Yaafouri, L. (2022). Restoring students' innate power: Trauma-responsive strategies for teaching multilingual newcomers. ASCD.

Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Teacher Education53(2), 106–116.

Gay, G. (2018). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. Teachers College Press.

Kreuzer, L. H. (2016). The newcomer student: An educator's guide to aid transition. Rowman & Littlefield.

National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (2018). About child trauma. Retrieved from https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/about-child-trauma

Trauma Survivors Network. (2018). Risk and protective factors. Retrieved from: https://www.traumasurvivorsnetwork.org/traumapedias/777

Zwi, K., Woodland, L., Williams, K., Palasanthiran, P., Rungan, S., Jaffe, A., et al. (2018). Protective factors for social-emotional well-being of refugee children in the first three years of settlement in Australia. Archives of Disease in Childhood103(3), 261–268.

Louise El Yaafouri is a recent arriver and cultural competency consultant at DiversifiED Consulting. She provides action-oriented programming, professional development, and curriculum design in the areas of multilingual education, trauma-informed practice, culturally responsive pedagogy, and equity/inclusion work. Louise has also authored a wide range of materials, including books and magazine articles, and is a regular contributor to multiple education publications.

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