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Unfair Expectations: Barriers to Learning for Immigrant Children in the United States

Updated: Nov 27, 2020

Each year, millions of child migrants make long and arduous treks towards better lives. Geographic, climate, and legal obstacles make their journeys physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting, and on top of this keep them from consistent schooling. The consequences of missing out on these critical years of education are severe and long-lasting, and are compounded when their receiving countries are unprepared to help immigrant students succeed. 

According to the 1982 Supreme Court decision in the case Plyler v. Doe, all children in the United States are entitled to a K-12 education, regardless of their immigration status. As of 2016, there were over 4.7 million foreign born individuals enrolled in pre-kindergarten to postsecondary education in the United States. But, though immigrant children in the United States are widely enrolled in school, they face significant disparities in educational success: according to data from 2012, children who have immigrated to the United States perform worse on average in problem solving, mathematics, and reading than their peers. The myriad barriers to learning that they face make this very understandable.

One major barrier to learning for immigrant students in the United States is the language barrier. That many US school districts lack sufficient numbers of interpreters exacerbates this disadvantage. Younger immigrants who are still learning their native languages are faced with the difficult task of learning two languages at once, and this requires a special awareness and flexibility from teachers that is not always provided. As Natasha Kumar Warikoo, an associate professor at Harvard University, points out, “Using multiple forms of communication in the classroom, along with supporting native language development, takes skill and practice.”

Unfortunately, standardized testing is sometimes an obstacle for teachers trying to teach according to individual language-learning needs. Warikoo notes, “The demands of standardized testing often force schools instead to emphasize rote learning in English, neglecting the incredible asset of children’s native languages and much of what researchers have discovered about how children learn second languages.” 

Home circumstances can also impede immigrant students’ learning. Immigrant students often need to care for family members or work to support their families, and this prevents many from attending important academic programs like summer school. Additionally, their parents often lack reading and writing skills in English, and are unfamiliar with the American school system, making it difficult for them to provide the kind of academic support that many of their children’s peers receive at home. It is unfair to expect this of these parents, and school districts need to ensure that students in these situations can receive academic support from their schools.

Immigrant students are also often dealing with severe emotional trauma, making learning difficult. Teachers are frequently unprepared to deal with this trauma. At Munger Mountain Elementary School in Jackson, Wyoming, one student had been separated from his family and was so traumatized that he didn’t speak for weeks. According to the school’s principal, “He constantly cried, worrying that his grandmother was going to be killed back in El Salvador and that he would never see his parents again.” Research overwhelmingly shows that learning is hindered by anxiety and stress: According to Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, “High and persistent levels of stress can disrupt the architecture of the developing brain and other biological systems, with serious negative impacts on learning, behavior, and lifelong physical and mental health.” Well-trained school counselors and trauma training for teachers are necessary for many immigrant children to succeed in school, but unfortunately are not always available.

The fear ingrained in US immigrants by political rhetoric and threats from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) only add to the anxiety of these students.

According to Amanda Escalante, who leads a team of early-learning specialists at an early literacy program for migrants, “The constant state of anxiety creates toxic stress for every member of the family. The kids don’t feel safe and secure.” This anxiety doesn't just make their learning hard--it also keeps students from attending school: When President Trump announced a nationwide series of planned immigration raids in the summer of 2019, some immigrant students began to stay home from summer school out of fear.

A final challenge to learning is the cultural adjustment, and the prejudice found in many school environments. Prejudice can be particularly prevalent in once-homogenous communities whose demographics shift as a result of immigration. Cultural competency training for teachers is critical, and experts also suggest pairing students with mentors who are of the same racial and ethnic background. Natasha Kumar Warikoo recommends following a “cultural straddler model,” in which both of a student’s cultures are celebrated, to help students adjust.

Despite all they must overcome in the process of immigration, immigrant children's new lives in the United States begin with the cards stacked against them. They have not only missed out on education during their immigration, but face many barriers to learning once here. Policymakers and elected officials in the United States have a responsibility to work to support immigrant children’s education so that they can catch up to their peers, and be set up for future success. As a nation of immigrants, it is our job to support immigrants. Reducing educational disparities is one of the best ways to do that.


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