Addressing Xenophobia with Culturally Responsive Approaches

This post is part two in a two-part series that originally ran on Share My Lesson. In part one, learn how xenophobic bullying is cascading into classrooms and why it matters.

Xenophobia: What are fundamental issues that educational settings must address?

Before planning the next lesson, educators can take pause to consider several facets of practice, including a pedagogical stance grounded in a whole child approach that is trauma informed and culturally sustaining, adult “allyship,” as well as an understanding of immigration. Here are suggested practices for cultivating a strengths-based, informed approach to working with immigrant-origin youth and their peers.

Addressing Xenophobia: Begin with a Whole Child Understanding of Immigrant-Origin Students

We all know our students are first and foremost developing beings with a wide range of social and emotional needs. Educators should work at both the classroom level and the school level to cultivate a positive environment and network for immigrant-origin students.

    • ClassroomIn the classroom, teachers can normalize weekly class check-ins to gauge the emotional atmosphere of the classroom. Check-ins can encourage key relationship-building between teacher and students, as well as between peers. Two suggested formats for weekly check-ins include:
      • Roses and Thorns: Create a Monday ritual of Roses and Thorns, where each student shares a highlight and a lowlight from their weekend. This practice can become the first part of every Monday lesson and can show students that you, as the educator, take the time to learn about their lives outside of school.
      • Student-led circle questions: Provide space for a weekly student-led fun/thoughtful check-in question. By circulating through student leaders, you can promote student ownership over the classroom community. You can also allow young people the opportunity to share information about themselves not just as students, but as the multifaceted humans they are.
      • SchoolDevelop your team! Check in regularly with school counselors, psychologists and other teachers who instruct your immigrant-origin students. If possible, initiate a weekly or monthly time when the adults in a student’s life can meet to review systems of support and plan interventions as necessary.

Addressing Xenophobia: Be Grounded in Trauma-Informed Educational Care 

We all have heard about the importance of trauma-informed education. What does this mean for students, and what should we attuned to?

    • Become aware of what stress responses look like in all children. For traumatized students, day-to-day events can easily trigger fight, flight, or freeze survival responses that are not under the student’s control; this can result in students being less able to engage in problem-solving and rational thought. Traumatized students may appear anxious; are prone to being “sensitive” and to perceiving intent of harm when criticized; and often engage in avoidance behaviors (like daydreaming and pencil sharpening), which are misperceived as willful misbehavior.
    • Understand immigrant-origin specific trauma. As an educator, it is also important to become familiar with the specific types of trauma and chronic stressors that immigrant-origin children and families are exposed to, including ongoing threats of family separations, social belonging (like deportation of family members), overt social hostility, living in liminal status, and having limited access to resources (healthcare, legal aid ,etc.).
    • Foster a trauma-informed classroom by:
      • Creating  predictable classroom routines;
      • Actively cultivating relationships between yourself and your students and between students;
      • Practicing de-escalation routines by providing self-soothing strategies and quiet time-out spaces; and
      • Becoming informed about local resources to which you can link your students and their families so that they (and you) are not alone; this a great project to develop with your colleagues.

Addressing Xenophobia: Provide Learning Environments that are Safe, Supportive and Caring

One of the best ways to counteract acts of bullying and xenophobia is to make our classrooms into safe spaces by providing a structure within which all students know that discrimination of any sort is not tolerated.

    • Set classroom normsClassroom norms for discussion should be established through a co-construction process at the beginning of the year. Make the class a democratic space where students feel able to voice their concerns and/or goals for the classroom space and are supported in doing so. Accordingly, ask students to revisit the norms regularly and seek their feedback. Ultimately, students should feel ownership over the norms, and can even keep each other accountable by referencing the norms.

Addressing xenophobia and the problems it causes is aided by building inclusive, culturally responsive classrooms

Addressing Xenophobia: Provide Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy 

Incorporate elements of diverse students’ historical and cultural legacy by including literature or historical references to often overlooked historical individuals or events. Invite family and community members into your classroom. As you construct your next unit, consider:

    • Including multiple perspectives: Ensure that your curriculum and content provide space to consider and discuss multiple perspectives of diverse ethnic/cultural groups.
    • Highlighting commonalities and individuality: Foster discussions where students of different backgrounds can build both self-awareness and positive relationships. Acknowledge what unites students as well as what makes them unique.
    • Addressing social issues through a multicultural lens: As you plan your summative assessments, consider projects and essays that encourage students to develop solutions to existing social problems using multicultural perspectives.
    • Engaging the family and community in sustaining ways: Immigrant-origin students’ (and all students’) families and communities present us with rich sources of knowledge. Moreover, in an era where immigrant-origin students are flooded with messages that their families and communities should be excluded from the country, the act of incorporating familial and community knowledge into education settings sends a message to students that their experiences outside of school are valid and important. Again, engaging family and community can happen both in the classroom and in the wider school ecology.
      • Community panels: Invite family or community members in as experts on a topic you’re teaching. Perhaps create a panel and invite students to ask these experts about their knowledge. This might work if you are teaching about a particular region of the world, sector of the economy, current event, or even the theme of a book.
      • Outside judges: Conversely, invite in judges of students’ mock job interviews, mock trials, etc. Ask parents and community members to provide feedback to students.
      • Schoolwide roles: Consider the role of parents and the community on your school board, in special task forces, etc. If you notice a lack of representation, advocate for the inclusion of these groups.

Addressing Xenophobia: Bridge the Empathy Gap and Nurture a Sense of Shared Fate.

Your classroom is a space where scaffolded curriculum and well-managed dialogues can expose students to new perspectives, experiences and ways of thinking. As politicians and social media enact an ethos of discord, your classroom can serve as a “site of possibility” where civility and respect are modeled daily. In creating such a classroom, you can actively help students develop emotional and cognitive dimensions of empathy (i.e., the ability to emotionally attune oneself to another’s emotional world, and the ability to understand another’s point of view). Concurrently, your classroom can become a space where immigrant-origin students and native-born students collectively develop a sense of shared obligation to each other and kindness when relating to each other. We have assembled a variety of ways you can work to build the types of conversations that bridge empathy gaps and nurture a sense of shared fate.

    • Entrance tickets: Entrance tickets are a great place to review information from prior classes. They also offer terrific opportunities to activate prior/outside knowledge on an issue or to ask philosophical questions to warm students up to a new big concept. In debriefing these types of entrance tickets, you can encourage students to share perspectives and follow the norms you have established for your classroom.
    • Formative assessments: As you work through content knowledge, embed activities into your lessons that require peer conversations and interactions. You can consider jigsaws, agree/disagree spectrums, carousels, and any range of small group readings/research/debriefs.
    • Summative assessments: Encourage students to work together and incorporate diverse perspectives both from class content and from students’ own experiences and opinions. For example, hold a Socratic Seminar, conduct a mock trial, or stage a performance poetry project. These types of assessments ask students to collaborate and consider multiple points of view. They foster both the listening and the speaking skills needed for a classroom of respect and civility.
addressing xenophobia with culturally responsive instruction
Sign up for this webinar on culturally responsive predagogy at
Share My Lesson’s Virtual Conference 2020.

Addressing Xenophobia: Become an Adult Ally

Be an ally to immigrant-origin students. Help to make space for their voices, as well as ensure that the other adults in your school actively contribute to a positive school climate for immigrant-origin students.

  • Advocate: Advocate for immigrant-origin student voice in school boards, hiring processes, and school policies. As those at the frontline of addressing xenophobia, these students’ can offer invaluable insights into improving their school experience.
  • Support: Support students who want to take action on issues they care about. Whether students are staging a walkout or are creating a new after-school club, you can offer your resources as an adult ally. In offering support, ensure that it is the students’ voices that lead the way.
  • Take a stand: Speak up when you hear other adults use microaggressions, stereotype students, or utter discriminatory slurs or phrases. Help make your school a brave space where adults work together to actively confront biases and discriminatory actions.

Addressing Xenophobia: Increase Your Understanding About Immigration

Educators must become well-versed in the issues facing the diverse children and families they serve. Yet, it should not be the burden of immigrant-origin students to teach educators what they need to know about the immigrant experience. Rather, educators can seek outside sources of knowledge (e.g., books or involvement in the larger community). Educators can then be prepared with contextual knowledge for students when they decide to share their own experiences in the classroom. When discussing immigration in the classroom, educators can guide students through understanding both the commonalities of the migratory experience across groups, while also remaining sensitive to the communities and teachers represented in your classroom.


At Re-imagining Migration, we have developed a series of resources to help educators address the normative experience of migration, which now targets more than a quarter of the students who we serve.


  • We particularly suggest America for Americans by historian Erika Lee as a starting point. It places in perspective a historical pattern in which recurrent waves of xenophobia across U.S. history (the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment camps, Operation Wetback, the Muslim ban) have existed alongside the American narrative of being a nation of immigrants. It is an excellent selection for summer reading for faculty.
  • Re-imagining Migration has developed a framework to guide teaching about migration as an opportunity as well as a systematic learning arc with which to teach about migration as a shared human experience
  • We also have developed guidelines for teaching about this engaging topic as well as materials using various mediums as ways in which to delve into the experience of migration:


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.




Elena Maker Castro is a current doctoral student in Human Development and Psychology at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA. Prior to graduate school, Elena served for five years as a high school Social Studies and Emerging Bilingual teacher in Rhode Island.


  • [1] This blog is based on a presentation “Countering Cascading Xenophobia and Cultivating a Shared Fate: Educational Settings at the Frontline at the Education,” made at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences on Feb. 6, 2020, by Carola Suárez-Orozco at The Global Compact Meeting in Vatican City.
  • [2] Xenophobia is defined as the “fear of the unfamiliar” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2019) as well as a “dislike or prejudice against people from other countries” (Oxford English Dictionary, 2019).
  • For more on addressing xenophobia and bullying in schools, explore our collection of curated resources
  • Explore more immigration lesson plans and the experiences people have who come from other countries.