Skip to main content
students laughing

November 15, 2023

Supporting Immigrant and Refugee Students

Jon Vincent provides guidance to teachers and school staff on how to better understand and serve immigrant and refugee students.


Share On Facebook
Share On Twitter
Share On Pinterest
Share On LinkedIn

Knowing how to navigate the world that immigrant and refugee students face can seem intimidating for teachers who may feel ill-prepared or ill-trained to work with multilingual learners who often need a deeper understanding of their personal experiences and a more tailored trauma-informed education. This gets more challenging each school year, with schools increasingly being understaffed and teachers often given more to do. So, what do our immigrant and refugee youth often experience? Below is a snapshot, along with some helpful tips for teachers and staff that can act as steps to better understand and serve these students.

I work at Kentucky Refugee Ministries with refugee, asylee and parolee youth who are in high school, seeking high school alternatives, or who are seeking higher education of some kind. I work closely with my colleagues who work more directly with the public school system here in Louisville, and here’s my advice and guidance on how to engage with and care for these students who have multifaceted needs. Due to my work with high school-aged youth, this will often be through the lens of what teens and young adults face, but most of this analysis can apply to younger students as well.

Roles of Students

My colleagues and I often see students in many different roles within their family and within their community, from being caretakers, to being young parents themselves, to being translators, and to being workers. They are juggling a lot, some successfully, and others struggling. Regardless of how well they are performing, they all need understanding and guidance. Generally categorized, this can look like this:

These students are caretakers:

Some students are experiencing a lot outside their time in school. Many refugee families are large, with some families having six or more children. The high school-aged kids in a family are often acting as caretakers for younger siblings, and are often working to bring in income for their immediate family and for family members abroad. These kids are working hard, and are often incredibly tired.

These students are interpreters:

Older children in a family who have a higher English proficiency are often acting as informal interpreters for their parents. This can be when they interacting with teachers, at the store, and for medical appointments—both in person and over the phone. While learning to navigate a new country themselves, the children are acting as intermediaries for their parents and their siblings, both linguistically and culturally.

Sometimes this is the reason for absences from school. Many places do not provide interpretation, and if they do, it can be hard or confusing to access for parents who don’t speak English.

These students are adapting and changing:

Culturally, these students are experiencing difficult changes in identity as they navigate being in a new country. Many are experiencing being racialized differently, particularly African students, who have to navigate their identity through American race and class dynamics. Most of the time, these students are also now part of a minority, when they may have come from a place where the people around them were of the same ethnicity, race and/or linguistic background. 

Students need time and safe learning spaces to navigate these challenges, and to explore them with guidance and structure in school, while still being mindful of their autonomy and independence when finding out their identity and self-representation within their race, ethnicity, faith, gender, and sexuality, among other identities. While students need structure, they also need freedom to explore without pressure or expectations to conform to a certain identity from teachers or other adults.

These students are learning:

These students often will be learning to use a computer while learning to speak, read and write English. Not only are computers often in English, students typically have been around cellphones more than computers at home and abroad, and will have learned in classrooms with little digital technology. 

Refugee and immigrant students will need extra guidance learning to use technology.

These students have experienced trauma:

Refugee and asylee students, by the nature of their experiences prior to coming to the U.S., have experienced trauma, either firsthand, or intergenerationally. They are processing experiences and histories that many of their peers will never have experienced, and will have difficulty expressing their experiences due to many layers of barriers. 

How Instructors and School Staff Can Help

Learn about your students' home life.

Learning about your students and their lives at home—in the best way you can without being intrusive—is often a great first step to humanizing a student’s experience. This calls on teachers to lead with interest and concern, rather than frustration, when students are late or absent, or when they are tired in class or misbehave. 

Learn about your students' home countries.

When a new student comes into the classroom, learn about where they are from! Look for some videos, articles and stories about their country. And make sure to learn how to pronounce students’ names. It will take time to learn, but that very basic level of respect is important for immigrant and refugee students.

Provide interpreters for parents.

Teachers and staff should make sure to provide interpreters when needed. Do not rely on your students to interpret for their parents! Students are not trained interpreters, and they always have the potential of modifying or withholding information they tell their parents. 

If using an interpreter is intimidating to you, practice! There is no shame in being anxious or intimidated if you haven’t used an interpreter often. Find a way to practice, and after enough time working with an interpreter, it will become second nature.

Provide opportunities for students to explore their own identities.

Give students space to be autonomous and explore their own identity. Build lessons that are inclusive of their experiences or experiences similar to theirs. Give room for all types of exploration, whether it is discussion, writing, visual arts or music. 

The students at our agency love art as a tool of self-expression, especially while they are developing their English skills.

Identify students with specific needs.

If you notice a student who is struggling, try your best to identify their specific needs, whether it be in a specific subject or navigating technology in the classroom. And don’t let the quiet student who seems to be OK fly under the radar, because these students often will have unmet needs that are passed over. If there are community resources that can offer them extra support (like tutoring and mentoring programs or a resettlement agency), reach out to these groups, and build a relationship with them if that isn’t already established.

Learn about trauma.

Learn about trauma. Learn about trauma. Learn about trauma. Dare I say it again? Learn about trauma. This pertains not only to immigrant and refugee students, but to all students. In Kentucky, 1 in 5 students have experienced at least two adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) prior to the pandemic. This is a common measurement for trauma in childhood; this number is much higher for our refugee and asylum-seeking children.

Here are some great resources to support you in developing trauma-informed practices: 

  • Futures Without Violence provides helpful videos and webinars through their partnership with Share My Lesson.
  • The Immigrant Learning Center provides this resource focused specifically on understanding immigrant trauma.

  • Walk with Amal provides resources for lessons about the refugee experience in the U.S.

The following video provides a great introduction to understanding adverse childhood experiences and their impact on children.

Remote video URL

Switchboard is a fantastic resource for webinars and trainings focused on immigrants and refugees, and many are directly applicable to teachers and staff in our public schools. Here are some webinars I would recommend for a more in-depth look at trauma-informed care:

Comment below if you have any questions or additional ideas on supporting immigrant and refugee students.

Newcomer Immigrant Students: Helpful PreK-12 Tips for What to Do First

Join AFT, Share My Lesson, and Colorin Colorado to hear from expert practitioners about the particular needs of newcomer ELLs and to get tips, resources, and strategies you can use right away that help ELLs adjust to their new surroundings successfully.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Want to see more stories like this one? Subscribe to the SML e-newsletter!

Jon Vincent

Jon Vincent is the Rise Up educational access coordinator at the Kentucky Refugee Ministries (KRM), in Louisville.

Post a comment

Log in or sign up to post a comment.