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November 17, 2021 | 0 comments

The Language of Trauma: Supporting Newly Arrived Immigrants


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Editor’s note: Thousands of migrants from all corners of the world, grappling with dangerous home country conditions, war, violence and humanitarian disasters, seek protection and asylum at the U.S. border every year. Images of white officers on horses chasing down Black Haitians at the United States border horrified Americans this fall. It was perhaps the worst of what happens when migrants try to enter the United States, but there are many migrant experiences that are traumatic. AFT leaders have put out a statement urging humanitarian action and as some families make it over the border, AFT members continue to do the work of supporting the migrant families who join our communities. Here is one account.


Supporting Immigrant Students

Have you read the recent reports about Haitians fleeing the devastation of a recent earthquake and political turmoil in their country? And what about the families from Afghanistan coming to the United States because their lives are endangered back home?

For some of us, these stories come to life every day at school.

In my classrooms, I’ve had small children who come to school immediately after a harrowing journey, with memories of a war-torn country or natural disaster still fresh in their minds. They’re dropped off at school days after arrival in the U.S. because, their parents tell me, “We have to start making money because we have to eat.”

I see students who cry all day because they’ve been with their parents for three straight weeks, and then suddenly they’re in a foreign environment where people speak a language they do not understand and practice customs they’ve never heard of. They are safe with me, at school, but they don’t know this. They’re unsure and fearful.

They’re suddenly in an environment where people speak a language they do not understand practice customs they’ve never heard of.


Disruption, violence, anger; inability to focus on work, fidgeting, anxiety, sweaty hands. Of course we have these behaviors. These children are traumatized. And we don’t have enough resources to help them.

Here in the Boston Public Schools, and in any city, really, caring for refugee and immigrant children is a constant part of teaching. To do our jobs well, we need translation services, mental health support and more teachers and staff.

Some of our children are living in emergency housing. Others are not getting enough to eat. During the depth of the pandemic when we were teaching online, many had no Wi-Fi and couldn’t join us for remote learning. We are dealing with learning gaps, learning disabilities and learning that has been interrupted for years. And of course, trauma affects the way you learn. Some parents tell me their children used to do really well in school, and now they can’t.

So what do we do? As teachers, we try to develop an environment that’s safe, friendly and fun. We differentiate our reading groups. Tell the students it’s OK to “start back.” I put myself in their shoes and tell them, “If I went to Ethiopia or the Dominican Republic, I’d have to start all over even as an adult!” There’s no shame in this.


Tell the students it’s OK to ‘start back.’ There’s no shame in this.


So many teachers are doing so much to try and make things a little easier for these children. There are cultural days, when the kids write about themselves and their home countries, and their families come visit us at school. Rather than separate our immigrant children from other students, we practice inclusion, so students aren’t isolated. And when we first enroll them in school, we don’t just meet with kids and fill out paperwork — we meet with families as well, make them feel welcome, ask them what they need.

We try to involve social workers, counselors and therapeutic psychiatrists when we see students who need support. Even small interventions can make a world of difference. I remember one student who didn’t want to go to fifth-grade graduation, a popular event most kids were really excited about. When the social worker stepped in and took the girl to the hair salon — for the first time in her life — she decided she’d attend graduation after all.

The trouble is, we don’t have enough social workers to step in. We don’t have enough counselors or school psychologists. That’s where the union comes in: We are fighting for a social worker in every school, reasonable caseloads for school psychologists and counselors, a student-family support coordinator for undocumented families and more. We also want to hire more teachers of color so children can see people who look like them at the front of the classroom. We want to develop an ethnic studies curriculum that teaches students about their culture and history as part of the curriculum, not as an add-on.

At the Boston Teachers Union our Black Lives Matter at School committee has been pushing for more supports like this because we know what our students are going through — not just Black students, but immigrant students, Latinx students, Indigenous students, Asian American students and Pacific Islander students. Every student who is here is part of our community. As educators and as unionists, we need to be their champions.



Joel Richards is a technology teacher at Blackstone Elementary School in Boston, and a co-chair of the Boston Teachers Union Black Lives Matter at School committee.

The AFT offers workshops in trauma-informed education; to learn more, contact AFT trainer Chelsea Prax at [email protected]. Find free trauma-informed resources in our collection.



Republished with permission from AFT Voices.