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May 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 8

Seeing—and Supporting—Immigrant Teens

By better understanding the complex challenges teen immigrants face, educators can help them thrive.

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Akram is a 14-year-old boy who moved to the United States in 3rd grade. When people ask where he's from, he says Iraq—but it's complicated because he spent his early childhood moving with his family between Iraq, Syria, and Egypt to escape war zones. Although he often gets in trouble for talking to other kids (in English) during class and feels more comfortable speaking English than speaking Arabic (his first language), he is in ESL classes because his academic English language and literacy skills are still developing.
Akram lives with his parents and siblings in a government-subsidized apartment in a poor neighborhood and attends a school in which 85 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. His mother is on disability and his father is between jobs. Akram loves soccer and plays on a team made up largely of white, U.S.-born boys who live in a high-income community. Like many of his peers, he plays video games, listens to rap music, and is conscientious about his choice of athletic shoes. Unlike most of his peers, he has relatives scattered throughout the world, holds childhood memories of war, and goes to the school counselor's office once a day, with a handful of other Muslim boys, to pray. Although he once got in a fight with a boy who claimed, "You're not supposed to be in this country," Akram says that kind of interaction is rare and that most kids at school, "just want to have fun, go to class, and then talk." If his dream of becoming a professional soccer player doesn't pan out, he hopes to become a doctor.

Who Are Immigrant-Origin Teenagers?

Students like Akram represent the fastest growing group of young people in U.S. schools: 25 percent of children under 18 have an immigrant parent (Grantmakers for Education, 2013; Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 2015). Of these, about four percent are first-generation immigrant youth, born outside of the United States (Child Trends, 2018). In many ways, immigrant teens are similar to their non-immigrant peers. They care about their friends and what other kids think. They go through puberty. Full of promise and hope, they're looking to find their place in the world.
However, these teens also face a set of unique circumstances and challenges. At school, they often need to develop academic English proficiency and adapt to the educational system, which makes it harder to progress academically and navigate peer dynamics. In addition, they must grapple with new cultures, the stressors of immigration, and complex family contexts. The resilience and courage many immigrant teens demonstrate is remarkable.
It's also important to remember that immigrant-origin teens are a very diverse lot. Some have been born in the United States and speak English fluently. Those who have only lived in the U.S. for a few months or years may still be learning English and are usually classified as English language learners. They represent a wide range of economic levels and schooling experiences. Some enter U.S. schools with uninterrupted school records and literacy in their first language; others have had little or only disrupted formal education. For example, one of my former students, Ji-hye, a 15-year-old from South Korea, received a rigorous education prior to immigrating and already had strong academic, literacy, and math skills. Another former student, Miguel, a 17-year-old immigrant from Mexico, had only attended school for a few years and spent much of his childhood selling goods on the street. For him, learning English in his American school was just one of many academic and social obstacles.
While a subset of immigrant youth come from highly educated, financially secure families, the majority come from less-educated, humble backgrounds. Immigrant youth are twice as likely to grow up in poverty as their U.S.-born peers (Suárez-Orozco, Suárez-Orozco, & Todorova, 2008). Consequently, many attend under-resourced schools, work to help support their families, and lack access to resources, enrichment activities, and mentors. They are likely to move multiple times as their families search for better housing, employment, or reunion with relatives. They often experience chronic dislocation brought on by frequent relocation.
Besides having to work to boost their family's income, many immigrant youth carry significant family-based responsibilities, such as caring for younger siblings or helping as a translator and navigator of unfamiliar systems. Carlos, a teen from Mexico, is a companion and translator for his 80-year-old grandpa: "Anywhere he goes, I have to go with him. To the store, to the church, yard sales … I'll go with him." While these responsibilities can be a burden or disrupt parent/child roles, they can also build confidence, maturity, and life skills. As Nadif, a teen from Somalia, explains, "My parents—they're illiterate. They don't speak that much good English, so I was basically the guy who, you know, did everything. I've learned how to be very responsible."
Separation from parents or other family members is another reality affecting many immigrant teens. As many as 85 percent of immigrant youth have experienced either short-term or long-term separation from their parents (Patel et al., 2016). Living apart from family can negatively impact immigrant teens' psychological and educational well-being.

Hybrid Identities and Resilience

Immigrant youth often learn English more quickly than their parents and become immersed in American culture at school. Over time, many develop hybrid identities, melding the various linguistic and cultural influences that compose their disparate experiences at home, school, and in the community. Researchers describe this as "a dual frame of reference bringing together 'the here and now' and 'the there and then' " (Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 2013, p. 16).
For instance, 17-year-old Marisol, who immigrated from Cuba when she was nine, described how she felt caught between her Cuban and American identities. She spoke Spanish at home, English at school, and had friends from various backgrounds. At school, she was mocked by more recent immigrants for not being Cuban enough and at the same time, felt disconnected from her American-born peers:
It hurts. They're callin' me like I'm not Cuban—like I'm just American girl, just because I haven't spoke Spanish. And, you know, it's hard, 'cuz when I speak Spanish … I struggle a bit … that's why I speak English. And it hurts, 'cuz I'm not American.
Although hybrid identities can be difficult for teens to manage, the ability to function in multiple languages and cultures can also be a powerful asset. Research shows that retaining a strong ethnic/cultural identity alongside a developing American identity contributes to improved mental health, academic progress, and overall resilience (Cardoso & Thompson, 2010).
Like other adolescents, immigrant youth are acutely aware of the degree to which they're accepted by their peers. Negotiating the social component of schooling is often complicated by a language barrier, cultural differences, and unfamiliarity with school-based norms and popular culture. Seventeen-year-old Julia, who was born in the United States after her Vietnamese mother immigrated, noted that newcomers don't necessarily know what's accepted and what's not. "Let's say skinny jeans are in style now," she said. "It's not necessarily, if you don't have skinny jeans, that you're gonna be excluded from everything, but they'll notice it more. You'll stand out because you don't wear their type of clothing." Marisol from Cuba shared, "It's more difficult for immigrants because they don't know what to expect a lot of times. … I felt lost and nobody ever came up to me and said, 'Hi, how ya' doin'?' "
Experiencing discrimination or prejudice exacerbates the already complex adolescent social scene. Moreover, the larger political climate can influence how immigrants are received. Obviously, feeling welcome in a school and community can help sustain immigrant youths' motivation, while a hesitant reception—or rejection—contributes to feelings of hopelessness and low self-esteem.
Like any group of adolescents, some immigrant-origin teens prosper, some struggle, and many fall somewhere in between. In general, though, they demonstrate resilience and optimism. Immigrant youth as a whole are more optimistic and hold more positive attitudes toward school than their nonimmigrant peers (Suárez-Orozco, Pimentel, & Martin, 2009), and some groups outperform their nonimmigrant peers academically (Crosnoe & Turley, 2011). However, these positive educational outcomes don't apply across the board and don't always persist over time.

Offering What They Need

Teachers and administrators often focus on instructional strategies to help immigrant youth learn English and progress academically. While high-quality instruction is essential, that alone may fail to meet immigrant teens' complex needs. Research suggests that school-based relationships matter a great deal in whether or not immigrant teens thrive. Immigrant youth who experience caring connections with peers and supportive adults at school show an increase in academic engagement and other measures (such as attendance) that contribute to educational attainment. Positive school-based relationships with peers and adults provide immigrant youth with "caring role models, cultural interpreters, and academic guides" (Suárez-Orozco, Pimentel, & Martin, 2009, p. 741).
The following suggestions can help educators provide guidance and emotional support to immigrant teen students.

Don't Let Immigrant Students Become Invisible

Check your school's database to find out who in your classes or activities you lead qualifies for ELL services. Teachers are often surprised to discover the linguistic and cultural richness within their classrooms. Learn to pronounce immigrant students' names and try to learn a phrase or two in the languages they speak. Do some research about their home cultures to help you make conversation with them.
Let all your students know what languages, countries, and cultures are represented among their peers. Speak positively about being multilingual and multicultural. You might invite immigrant youth to speak up in class, both to share about their cultures and perspectives and simply to participate in regular class discussion. If they feel reluctant to speak, provide prior notice and preparation time.
Offer an immigrant learner individual help with school work when appropriate. Write specific, encouraging feedback on assignments.

Support Them in Cultivating Hybrid Identities

Show that you value the cultural and linguistic resources immigrant youth carry with them. Support student organizations that celebrate diverse cultural identities and encourage immigrant students to use all their available resources to learn. Translanguaging can be a powerful tool. When students engage in translanguaging, they use all their available linguistic resources to communicate and learn. For example, in writing an essay, portions of the writing process might be done in a language other than English.
Connecting to families is also essential. Invite immigrant youth to tell you about their families and acknowledge the important ways they contribute to their families. Why not send home a note celebrating the accomplishments and efforts of an immigrant student (getting it translated if necessary).
Keep an eye out for immigrant youth who may be experiencing discrimination. Ask immigrant youth what it's like for them at your school—and really listen. Teachers should contribute to developing schoolwide policies to prevent and respond to discriminatory language and actions.

Facilitate Interactions with Peers

Seat immigrant youth near peers who are likely to provide academic and social support. Connect immigrant youth with peers who share similar interests and encourage them to participate in extracurricular activities (while recognizing potential obstacles to participation). You might also offer your classroom as a safe space for immigrant youth to gather, eat lunch, or do homework.
It will improve interactions if you teach all students strategies and norms for cooperative learning and collaboration. Talk openly about working in a context of cultural and linguistic difference.

Connect Them to Resources

Proactively learn about school-based and community resources that can provide academic, emotional, and social support and help with physical needs (like health care). When needed, connect immigrant youth to these services. Collaborate with colleagues to create a network of caring adults who will connect immigrant students with mentors, assist them in accessing medical and mental health services, or help them find trustworthy legal information. Be sure each immigrant youth knows a school counselor and has support in making plans for future careers and education.
It's nurturing to connect kids to role models, such as immigrants who have achieved their goals or adults working in professions of interest to immigrant youth.

A Critical Timeframe

Although virtually every immigrant comes to the United States with an expectation of improving their lives and seeing their children thrive, how things turn out doesn't always match their dreams. For immigrant teens, what they learn (or don't) at school and the relationships they experience there are particularly high-stakes in terms of their life trajectories. During this developmental period, youth become increasingly aware of how society works, how they are viewed, and what they might contribute. When educators understand the larger context shaping the lives of immigrant youth, both inside and outside of school, they can reach out to—and teach—them more effectively and compassionately.

Guiding Questions

➛ Do you know which students in your classes come from immigrant backgrounds? Have you talked with them or asked them about their home cultures? How might you do so—or in subtle ways affirm this part of their identity?

➛ Do you ever let your English language learner students use "translanguaging" in their academic work? How might you do so?

➛ If you know a few immigrant students fairly well, ask them how, in general, students from immigrant backgrounds are treated in your school. Have they ever experienced or heard about discrimination or teasing?

References

Cardoso, J. B., & Thompson, S. J. (2010). Common themes of resilience among Latino immigrant families: A systematic review of the literature. Families in Society, 91(3), 257–265.

Child Trends. (2018). Key facts about immigrant children. Bethesda, MD: Author.

Crosnoe, R., & Turley, R. (2011). K–12 educational outcomes of immigrant youth. The Future of Children, 21, 129–152.

Grantmakers for Education. (2013). Educating English language learners: Grantmaking strategies for closing America's other education gap. Portland, OR: Author.

Patel, S. G., Clarke, A. V., Eltareb, F., Macciomei, E. E., & Wickham, R. E. (2016). Newcomer immigrant adolescents: A mixed-methods examination of family stressors and school outcomes. School Psychology Quarterly, 31(2), 163–180.

Suárez-Orozco, M., & Suárez-Orozco, C. (2013). Taking perspective: Context, culture, and history. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 141, 9–23.

Suárez-Orozco, M., & Suárez-Orozco, C. (2015). Children of immigration. Phi Delta Kappan, 97(4), 8–14.

Suárez-Orozco, C., Pimentel, A., & Martin, M. (2009). The significance of relationships: Academic engagement and achievement among newcomer immigrant youth. Teachers College Record, 111(3), 712–749.

Suárez-Orozco, C., Suárez-Orozco, M., & Todorova, I. (2008). Learning a new land: Immigrant students in American society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

End Notes

1 Unless otherwise indicated, the teens profiled and quoted here are immigrant students I interviewed as part of two research projects. All student names are pseudonyms.

Anny Fritzen Case is an assistant professor in the department of teacher education at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.

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