George Lucas Educational Foundation
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According to the Pew Hispanic Research Center, there are roughly 1.7 million undocumented students under age 30, who are enrolled in high school, have graduated or obtained a GED, or are currently enrolled in elementary or middle school. Additionally, this past summer our nation witnessed a spike in unaccompanied minors crossing our southern border with more than 50,000 children fleeing persecution from Central America and Mexico. Most of them await immigration court dates while staying with relatives or sponsors, but in the meantime, our laws require that they attend school. In 1982, the Supreme Court determined in Plyer v. Doe that all students, regardless of their immigration status, are entitled to access K-12 education.

As the number of immigrant students increases, and sometimes in areas not historically associated with large immigrant populations, teachers and administrators are often seeking assistance with not only how to enroll these students, but also how best to meet their needs in the classroom. We've compiled a few best practices to create a welcoming classroom for immigrant students as well as some helpful Do's and Don'ts for building relationships with them and their families.

Building Relationships

DO put out the welcome mat.

Send a message that all students, regardless of immigration status, have a right to attend your school and are welcomed.

DON'T demand documentation.

It benefits no one when you use a lack of documentation (birth certificate, immigration status, social security number, etc.) to prevent an undocumented student from enrolling at a public school. A May 2014 letter (PDF, 170KB) issued jointly by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education offers guidance for how schools can enroll students even if they lack certain documents.

DO seek support from mental health professionals and community groups.

Some recently-immigrated students have experienced trauma from violence witnessed in their home country. Having a school counselor check in with all immigrant students is good idea not only to help students adjust to a different culture, but also to process any trauma, if encountered. Some students may need support for how to deal with difficult situations in non-violent ways.

DO reach out to parents, guardians, and/or sponsors.

As teachers, we hear this often: calling home and saying a few positive words about a student can go a long way toward establishing a good relationship with the student and his or her family. If language is an issue, ask a friend, teacher, or student to translate a letter or email home into the native language. Even if it's not entirely correct, the effort will be appreciated.

DON'T think that lack of response means lack of caring.

A parent, guardian, or sponsor may work long hours, or they may be afraid to talk with you because of a language barrier, their own immigration status, etc. Continue reaching out in a friendly, inviting way.

DO tell students about administrative relief.

Deferred action is a temporary relief from deportation. The DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program has been expanded, and a new DAPA (Deferred Action for Parental Accountability) program has been created for parents of a son or daughter who is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident. While neither program is a path to citizenship, it allows families to remain together in the U.S. temporarily and receive employment authorization. Point students and their families to the Administrative Relief Resource Center to see if they qualify, to learn the steps to apply, to contact an immigration lawyer, etc.

DO hold undocumented students to high expectations.

In some cases, you may have to scaffold materials depending on a student's language proficiency, but the level of challenge should be equitable. College is quite possible for them as more and more states have enacted their own versions of the DREAM Act, making higher education accessible for thousands of undocumented students.

DO check in with your recently immigrated students.

Ask them how they feel about their school work, what they miss about their home country, what they like and don't like about America, and what questions they have. Give them daily or weekly opportunities to write and/or talk about their immigration experience with you and fellow students.

How to Welcome Immigrant Students Into the Classroom

1. Images and Games

Decorate your classroom or school walls with photos of diverse role models, including those of immigrants. See our interactive lesson plans on Famous Immigrant Contributions, the Immigrant Experience "Jeopardy-Like" Game, and an Immigrant Timeline Scavenger Hunt for fun, engaging ways to learn about immigration.

2. Friendly Conversation

Create mixed-student small groups. Students may feel more comfortable sharing and building new friendships in smaller groups or with partners, as appropriate to your lesson.

3. Similarities and Differences

Identify shared values and differences in the classroom. Plan for opportunities where students can voice their personal values and beliefs to create a sense of belonging.

4. The Power of Stories

Make room for storytelling, one of the most powerful ways to create empathy. Integrate immigration stories, whether through literature you read as a class or by creating a family history and/or digital storytelling project (PDF, 38KB) where students can see that we are a nation of immigrants.

5. Civic Engagement

Create opportunities for positive civic engagement and discussion. Teach middle and high school students about Plyer v. Doe, and teach students about their role as citizens. Provide examples of civically-engaged youth today with our lesson plans.

This is certainly not an exhaustive list of ideas to integrate immigrant students into the school community. What are other ways to welcome immigrant students into the classroom and school?

Was this useful?

Comments (11) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Sara Burnett's picture
Sara Burnett
Non-profit Education Associate

Thank you Brian! I'm so glad you found this article helpful! I think more and more teachers not only have to meet students where they are, but they also have to meet parents (guardians and/or sponsors) where they are in order to strengthen what they do already in the classroom. Helping recently immigrated parents navigate the education system in the US, and also point out programs like DAPA, does require as you mentioned, "being proactive" and perhaps trying out some new ideas in an effort to build relationships and understanding across cultures.

Sara Burnett's picture
Sara Burnett
Non-profit Education Associate

Also, a friend of mine recently shared a neat idea on a tried and tested way to get ALL students involved in welcoming immigrant students. I've cut and pasted her words below:

"To get kiddos talking about their experiences and get multi-generational American kids interested in being more welcoming, we asked the new arrivals to create a Guide Book on "Things I wish I knew About _____ before coming here" and that could just be about "America" as or about the specific city/place they are in or about the specific school they are in. It made the new kiddos much more comfortable talking about their challenges and what they found surprising and gave the kids who had been in the U.S. longer a totally new perspective, a chance to ask the other kids how things worked in the place they were from, and to feel like they could provide insider tips on how to navigate things here."

_briank_'s picture
8th grade language arts teacher from Kennett Square, PA

I love the Why Did They Come Here project. Really well done. Your blog gives me a lot to think about...I'm wondering about the immigrant stories in our classroom who are not so obvious to us. Maybe the family has assimilated for a period of time and they go a bit unnoticed in our rooms...or the students who are very American but who also travel quite a bit to their native homeland. Where is the room in my classroom for their culture? Where is the signal that it is ok, and encouraged, to share who you are and who/what you embrace?

Sara Burnett's picture
Sara Burnett
Non-profit Education Associate

Great point! If there is room in the classroom to share cultures and immigration stories (no matter how recent or distant they may be in the past) is it a means to create empathy among students?

Jill Pettegrew's picture
Jill Pettegrew
Marriage Family Therapist Intern

Thank you for writing about a very important topic, Sara! In addition to being on staff at Edutopia, I'm also a Marriage Family Therapist Intern working with immigrant families at a community agency in California. Mentioning trauma is especially important, as most often families are seeking humanitarian asylum due to life-threatening situations in their native country. Some children may have witnessed violence, or experienced the death of family members from violence. Not to mention the effects on their nervous system when living in fear on a daily basis. Add to that moving to a new country where you don't speak the language, have no friends, very little personal items (all your toys and favorite objects are left behind), are isolated from community, and may be living with the fear of deportation if undocumented. All the interventions you mention are key to providing compassionate responses to these children and their families.

DeAnna Day's picture
DeAnna Day
ESL and Language Arts Teacher


You had some wonderful suggestions. I especially related to your discussion about having small groups or a partner for your Immigrant students. I am currently an ESL tutor and I find that it has really helped some of my students to have a peer buddy. Teachers can select a native English speaker who is a strong and kind student who wants to be a peer buddy or "ambassador" for the immigrant student or English language learner. Several of my students have really benefitted form having a friendly, knowledgeable peer their own age that will help them navigate the classroom. We have also had international food days where every student brings a food representing their culture. Even American students can participate by researching their ancestry and coming up with a dish that represents where their ancestors are from. This helps students learn and be interested in other cultures.

Sara Burnett's picture
Sara Burnett
Non-profit Education Associate

Thank you so much Deanna for this insight! In my classroom as well, I found that newer arrivals did better as you said when there were opportunities to work with another immigrant student who had acquired more English and knew more about how the school worked, etc. The tricky part I found sometimes in a heterogeneous classroom was that I also did not want to isolate my immigrant students. So the more all students support each other, the better, but you're right that having someone who has "been in their shoes" so to speak is a huge help to recently immigrant students.

I also like your idea of researching one's family heritage and immigration story in the classroom. We have a digital storytelling project here you might find useful:

Eileen Gale Kugler's picture
Eileen Gale Kugler
Global speaker, author, consultant strengthening diverse schools

I appreciate the information in the article, particularly the opportunity for storytelling. However, I think it focuses too heavily on recent immigrants or those with issues of documentation. While it is critical to be open and welcoming to these students and families, it is also important to understand that other immigrant students and families may face different cultural challenges. For example, in classes I lead for immigrant parents, a number of the parents said they stopped reading flyers about programs for immigrant parents in the school because they are always aimed at parents with limited skills, such as basic computer classes. These parents needed more sophisticated programs on how to be their child's advocate in school, something they did not know from their home countries. Great insights on the different levels of immigrant parent involvement (and it reflects on their children, as well) by Young-chan Han
Han discusses this in detail in my book, "Innovative Voices in Education: Engaging Diverse Communities"

Sara Burnett's picture
Sara Burnett
Non-profit Education Associate

Thank you Eileen for contributing your thoughts to this strand. You are absolutely right that the article focuses mostly on recently immigrated students and their families, whose needs as you point out, are very different from immigrant students and their families who have been here longer. It's important to recognize this distinction when building relationships and striving to integrate parents into the school community. Thank you for the link you provided which was very helpful in identifying the stages of immigrant parent involvement in schools and your book looks incredible! I want to read it!

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