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#4 Blog 2022

March 30, 2022

Why is Social Emotional Learning So Important for English Learners and Immigrant Students?


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By Carola Suárez-Orozco, Rosalinda Larios and Adam Strom

Why is social emotional learning (SEL) crucial for immigrant students? A growing body of research has come to show that the success of all students—whether or not they are of immigrant origin—is associated with learning environments that nurture social and emotional development. The social, emotional, cognitive, linguistic and academic domains of child development are all intertwined, both in the brain and in behavior, and they are essential to the learning process. Social emotional development includes several sets of skills that serve to facilitate learning (or, conversely, impede learning if ignored).

  • Social and interpersonal skills enable students to navigate social situations, read social cues, demonstrate compassion and empathy for others, work collaboratively with others, and resolve interpersonal conflicts.
  • Emotional competencies enable students to recognize and manage emotions, understand others’ emotions and perspectives, and cope with frustration.
  • Cognitive skills include attitudes and beliefs that guide students’ sense of self and approaches to learning as well as executive functioning (working memory, attention control and flexibility), and inhibition and planning.

After reviewing the state of the field on SEL, a Consensus Statement was released by the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. It noted the following important points.

  1. Learning cannot happen effectively if SEL issues are not attended to.
  2. SEL develops throughout one’s lifetime and is essential to success not only in school but also in the workplace, home and community.
  3. SEL can be taught and nurtured throughout childhood, adolescence, and beyond.
  4. Schools can have a significant influence on SEL.
  5. Engaging in informed SEL practices can improve teacher effectiveness as well as their well-being.
  6. SEL development is “an essential part of preK-12 education that can transform schools into places that foster academic excellence, collaboration, and communication, creativity, and innovation, empathy and respect, civic engagement, and other skills and dispositions needed for success in the 21st century.”
  7. Students are most likely to benefit from SEL when training and support are provided to schools, administrators and teachers and when social emotional learning are embedded in everyday interactions and school culture beyond the classroom.


Migration is a transformative process with profound implications for the family as well as the potential for lasting impact on social and emotional development. By any measure, immigration is one of the most stressful events a family can undergo. Migration removes family members from predictable contexts—community ties, jobs and customs—and strips them of significant social ties—extended family members, best friends and neighbors. New arrivals who have experienced trauma (either prior, during or after “the crossing”) may remain preoccupied with the violence and may also feel guilty about having escaped if loved ones remained behind.

Those who are undocumented face the growing realities of raids that can lead to sudden and traumatic and sudden separations.

The dissonance in cultural expectations and the cumulative stressors, together with the loss of social supports, lead to elevated affective and somatic symptoms. Due to their own struggles in adapting to a new country, many immigrant parents may be relatively unavailable psychologically, posing a developmental challenge to their children. Immigrant parents often may turn to their children when navigating the new society. These children are frequently asked to take on responsibilities beyond their years, including sibling care, translation and advocacy, sometimes undermining parental authority. Additionally, immigrant children and youth face the challenges of forging an identity and sense of belonging to a country that may reflect an unfamiliar culture, while also honoring the values and traditions of their parents. Nonetheless, many immigrant-origin children demonstrate extraordinary resilience and resourcefulness as they navigate their developmental journeys.


Valuing Multilingual, Multicultural School Culture

One of the impediments to learning in a new country is students’ entering a context in which they feel unsafe or feel they do not belong. These responses can lead to low motivation, low self-esteem and debilitating anxiety that can combine to create an “affective filter” that can shut down the language learning process.

Although not sufficient to do so by itself, a positive affect facilitates language acquisition. The idea of the affective filter can extend to a student’s entire schooling experience. A school culture that attends to the social and emotional needs of a school’s students creates an atmosphere within which students feel validated and cared for, a bicultural or multicultural community culture begins with the expression of a belief system that manifests itself in creating a community that fully embraces the immigrant experience. A school culture that normalizes the immigrant experience for students and their families is essential to successfully implement academic programs. A common theme across promising sites is explicit attention to creating a school culture that emphasizes belonging and community by normalizing and embracing bilingual and bicultural, or multilingual and multicultural, identity development.

Cultural Belonging

Schools should intentionally nurture strategies to foster a sense of cultural belonging. A basic symbolic approach is to display student work and hang flags and other representations from multiple cultures in hallways and classrooms. Hallways should be allowed to echo the many languages spoken by students and adults alike; while English is clearly to be encouraged, native language use should not be frowned upon.

Multicultural community culture can be especially salient in schools with bilingual or dual-language programs in which many of the faculty come from the same language backgrounds that their students do. Even when faculty and staff do not reflect the identities of their students, there are many things staff can do to reinforce a sense of belonging.

Respecting and valuing student and familial heritage in a welcoming way can help establish rapport and make students feel a part of the fabric of the school and classroom. This effort starts with our basic perception of the students:

  • Do we view them, their histories and their cultures as deficits or assets?
  • Do we find ways for our students to share their stories with their peers and school staff?
  • Do we allow students to consider issues in ways that permit them to bring their identities and cultural background into the classroom, or is doing so discouraged?
  • Are we able to linguistically code-switch, when appropriate, to establish rapport and facilitate understanding?
  • Whose holidays are recognized by the learning community?

In our resource section, we have highlighted a culturally responsive teaching checklist to encourage reflection on classroom and schoolwide practices.

More Than Representation, Curriculum Matters

Much of what we have discussed to this point is about classroom practices and school culture. As important as these are, culturally responsive teaching and social and emotional learning practices should be reflected throughout the curriculum as well. What we teach, as well as how we teach, sends strong messages to students about who belongs and who does not. Literature teachers often talk about books as windows and mirrors for our students, windows into new worlds and mirrors that they can use to reflect on their own identities and place in society.

While we might start by finding ways for students to share their own stories, these exercises can be easily dismissed if they are not connected to the broader curriculum. We should make sure that the literature we choose to include in our classrooms is selected to provide opportunities for students to see themselves in it and to learn about the experiences of others.

If your school has a librarian, this person can provide an opportunity for collaboration. The histories we teach, and our approach to curriculum as a whole, matter as well. While migration is central to the human experience, teaching about immigration is often relegated to one or two lessons a year. It is worth rethinking our approaches to teaching about migration for all students.

This blog is primarily focused on immigrant-origin students, but helping their peers better understand the role that migration has played both in our national narrative and in human history is important as a foundation for creating a shared future and building empathy and connections between students whose families have migrated to the U.S. in the past and in the present.

Free, For-Credit Webinar

Explore this topic further in Re-Imagining Migrations 2022 Virtual Conference webinar, What Every Teacher Should Know About Serving Immigrant-Origin Students.

About the Authors

Carola Suárez-Orozco is a Professor of Human Development and Psychology at UCLA and is the co-founder of Re-Imagining Migration.  Her books include: Children of Immigration , Learning a New Land, as well as the Transitions: The Development of the Children of Immigrants. She has been awarded an American Psychological Association Presidential Citation for her contributions to the understanding of cultural psychology of immigration, has served as Chair of the APA Presidential Task Force on Immigration, and is a member of the National Academy of Education. 

Dr. Rosalinda Larios is an Assistant Professor of Education at California State University, Fullerton.

Adam Strom is the Director of Re-Imagining Migration. Throughout his career, Mr. Strom has connected the academy to classrooms and the community by using the latest scholarship to encourage learning about identity, bias, belonging, history, and the challenges and opportunities of civic engagement in our globalized world. The resources developed under Strom’s direction have been used in tens of thousands of classrooms and experienced by millions of students around the world including Stories of Identity: Religion, Migration, and Belonging in a Changing World and What Do We Do with a Difference? France and The Debate Over Headscarves in SchoolsIdentity, and Belonging in a Changing Great Britain, and the viewer’s guide to I Learn America. Before joining the Re-imagining Migration Project, Strom was the Director of Scholarship and Innovation at Facing History and Ourselves.

Re-Imagining Migration

Re-Imagining Migration'smissionis to advance the education and well-being of immigrant-origin youth, decrease bias and hatred against young people of diverse origins, and help rising generations develop the critical understanding and empathy necessary to build and sustain welcoming and inclusive com

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