The Coronavirus has disrupted so many of our lives, in many ways, some more obvious than others. For educators and our students, safety precautions have led to what NPR calls “The Biggest Distance Learning Experiment in History.” Reporter Anna Kamenetz explains, “Every state has closed at least some public schools to fight the spread of coronavirus, and some are starting to say they expect to be closed through the end of the school year.”
As hard as it is for all of us, we recognize that not everyone is impacted equally or in the same way. In particular, immigrants, refugees, English Learners, and others with histories of interrupted formal education, come to this moment with strengths, experiences, and unique vulnerabilities. To help us understand what we might learn from our students, and how we might best support them, we turned to Dr. Maryam Kia-Keating, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Adam Strom: Maryam, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. We are appreciative of your insights. Forgive me for starting with such a big question, but what would you want educators to know about how their immigrant and refugee students might be experiencing this moment?
Maryam Kia-Keating: Thank you for initiating this conversation, Adam. We’re all overwhelmed with so much change and uncertainty during this time. It’s hard to know what and who to focus on, as everyone across the globe is facing some level of disruption and fear due to COVID-19. A recent BBC report said that a third of the world’s population is currently under lockdown, and that’s a huge, almost incomprehensible circumstance.
In the midst of all this, it’s important for educators to consider immigrant and refugee students, in part because they have often already undergone massive shifts, disruption, and loss in their lives, and as such, they not only might have specific needs but also, they may actually be able to offer guidance on how to cope with sudden and irrevocable life changes. Immigrant and refugee students may have already been experiencing a great deal of stress on a regular and even daily basis, related to factors like economic hardship, acculturative stress, discrimination, and alienation. In the face of adversities, school is oftentimes a beacon of hope and possibility for these young people and their dreams of the future. As schools have rapidly and abruptly change to distance learning for the rest of this academic year, there are enormous adjustments to make in every household, some of which are particularly strenuous or nearly impossible in low income, immigrant households, including (but not limited to) accessing and using technology that requires wireless internet access, quiet spaces to learn, parent supervision and support during working hours, and food access particularly for those who rely on the nutrition safety net of school lunch program.
Finally, I should highlight that Asian-origin immigrant and refugee children may be facing heightened levels of discrimination and hate crimes, and therefore, fear. Representative Judy Chu (D-California) just cited a statistic of over 1000 reported hate crimes against Asian Americans since the COVID-19 pandemic reached the United States, for example, violent attacks of a teen at school and another of a family with a 2-year old and a 6-year old out getting groceries.
A.S. There has been a lot of attention on the need to bring a trauma-informed perspective to our work with students, what does that mean for those of us working with immigrant and refugee students whose lives have been disrupted by school and work closures?
M.K.K. Taking a trauma-informed perspective starts with reframing. It’s a shift to recognizing students’ stress behaviors and approaching your work together with a foundation of connection, safety, and acknowledgment. Instead of judging children’s behaviors as good or bad, or deserving of reward or punishment, educators should begin with inquiry about contextual factors, past experiences, an examination of what barriers might be getting in the way of a students’ success and what resources they have access to which they can build upon.
For immigrant and refugee students, past traumatic experiences might have led them to develop survival mechanisms that influence their current reactions to the sudden changes and new stress COVID-19 has brought on. These experiences may be helpful in some ways, and that should be acknowledged. But past adversity and loss could also create more distress and re-traumatize students who fear the worst possible outcomes, feeding directly into heightened anxiety.
It’s important to consider that immigrant and refugee students may have already struggled with their sense of belonging and place among their peers and within their school and community contexts. The potential to feel alienated during a time of quarantine and isolation has increased for all of us. For those of us who are fortunate to have lived in a place for longer, we have hopefully had the opportunity to develop ties, and a deeper social network to lean on. For those who are newcomers and face the added labor of bridging across language, culture, and acceptance, this period of quarantine can result in feeling more disconnected than ever. So it’s even more critical to find ways to make students feel seen and cared for, with clear messages that they belong and their continued presence, even if virtual, matters.
A.S. If you were teaching immigrant and refugee students right now, how might you consider adapting your curriculum?
M.K.K. We have all faced such a rapid shift to remote learning, educators have not been fully prepared for any of these changes and understandably, haven’t yet had much time to institute ways to engage students and jump back into content. There is so much uncertainty about how long this home-based learning will last, that expectations have been difficult to establish. And of course, every class curriculum has its own needs depending on age and content.
But stepping back, it’s important to consider ways of connecting peers to one another across virtual spaces. The responsibility doesn’t just lie on educators, but educators can take the lead in orchestrating community connection, so that classrooms participate together in connecting to each individual member, and being responsible for one other’s well-being and academic success. It’s possible to have students work in online teams, and to rekindle groups that were already connected at school. It’s also possible to create systematic ways for students to respond and give feedback to each other’s work and reflections online. The Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Usable Knowledge page has a list of wonderful suggestions for how educators can create a welcoming classroom community during distance learning.
It’s nice to share and create a virtual classroom in real-time, but it is notable that not all students have the same access to internet availability or academic assistance from caregivers. Parents may be working during school hours, or may have low levels of education themselves. In fact, there is some data indicating that immigrants are over-represented among those considered essential workers during the Coronavirus, including doctors, other healthcare professionals, farmworkers, and taxi drivers. Some students may face disrupted schedules or endure other family stressors, including parental job loss or family illness. The advantages or disadvantages can lead to significant disparities in engagement and achievement, particularly during this time period when learning is dependent on factors that may be quite disparate in students’ lives. Some educators are trying to fill the gap with asynchronous courses, which are not offered in real time, but are instead accessible to students at the best time for their availability. Creating course content that provides accommodating learning opportunities for students with variations on time and modality is an important step to take allowing as much flexibility and access as possible.
A.S. There has been a lot of discussion about finding ways to balance academics with attention to the social and emotional lives of our students. What considerations would you want to educators to bring to those conversations?
M.K.K. It’s reasonable and, to the best of our knowledge from past research on the psychological impact of quarantine, expected that most people have felt some level of low mood, anxiety, irritability, or fear during this uncertain and stressful period. So it is critical to monitor our own social and emotional well-being. Putting on our own ‘oxygen masks’ first helps us to be ready to assist others. You and I had a previous conversation on stress and coping, and created a resource for educators’ self-care strategies – these are both relevant here. Role-modeling to students the care they need to take of their own social and emotional lives is helpful for both educators and the students they teach. Students who are distressed and distracted are not going to be ready to learn. Mindfulness and other breathing, calming, and grounding strategies can be helpful to start the day, and can be done virtually together. One of the strongest protective factors, demonstrated time and time again in research, is social support, so helping students feel supported and connected is vital.
A.S. Is there such a thing spending too much on the impact of the crisis with students? In other words, can academics provide a temporary reprieve from the disruptions of the moment? What would a good balance look like?
M.K.K. That’s a great observation. It’s of course important to be aware of and follow safety guidelines related to the Coronavirus, and helpful to understand the current context. Educators can play a role in making sure students have information drawn from reliable sources such as the Centers from Disease Control (CDC), and the World Health Organization (WHO). Encountering a global pandemic invites an opportunity for a teachable moment about the dangers of misinformation, the importance of checking one’s sources and data, and critically examining evidence. Allowing students of all ages to ask questions can help to assuage some of their fears, and provide them with a space to be empowered to learn rather than feeling helpless. Creating a space for student voices to not just be included but to be encouraged, empowered, and to thrive means approaching students with respectful openness and exploring their experiences and perspectives collaboratively through curiosity, and genuineness.
All that said, it is also important to create a reprieve by providing normalcy, continuity, and routine in children’s days. Going back to school, even in a virtual way, can provide a lot of that reconnection and relief for children. A few guidelines are to:
- Remain calm and reassure students of their safety and that things will get better over time, even if you are not sure.
- Take care of your own needs so that you can be calm, rather than overwhelmed, when you are with students.
- Acknowledge and normalize students’ feelings. But don’t lead with negative questions such as “What have you been worrying about?”
- Don’t force students to talk about what’s happening. Allow students to ask questions but don’t belabor discussions of Coronavirus.
- Answer students’ questions but make sure you understand the extent of what they are asking, which is often based on their age, and can appropriately filter your responses.
- Highlight ways to cope positively and problem-solve, as well as students’ capacity for these skills and resilience.
- Provide students with structure and routine, and as much scheduling information as you can upfront so that they know what to expect.
- Create new rituals (e.g., virtual morning meetings, check-ins) to provide connection, stability, and predictability.
- Limit media exposure about the Coronavirus both for yourself (on a day-to-day basis) and for your students in your virtual classroom.
- Encourage and support students’ physical health and well being by providing time for breaks from the screen during the virtual school day, and advising they spend time in nature.
- Find the positives and help students to take action to give back to your community (do something for others) and to plan for the future. Altruistic activities, knowledge and preparation helps reduce worry and increase security.
- Seek help and support when you see the signs of distress in students, especially if they are long-lasting. Many professionals are offering telehealth options so that students can still access psychological and other support services.
A.S. One thing that is often under-appreciated about immigrant-origin students is the role that many play as civic and linguistic connectors and translators for their families. While that can feel like a burden, it is also something that is incredibly important in times like these. How might we as educators help them help their families and communities during this crisis? And, how can we celebrate the importance of that work?
M.K.K. A growing list of freely available online resources for helping immigrant students succeed are emerging. It’s critical to assess whether and how these can best reach and serve the populations for whom they are intended. Immigrant-origin students can help play a leadership role in educational innovation, if they are invited to the table. I truly believe in the power of school-community partnerships to include and empower youth, families, and community organizations to build on their own strengths and protective factors, and for us to honor and learn from the students that we serve.
Three critical areas to begin with are (1) to support online curricula that includes global perspectives, stories, and lessons, (2) to forge support systems that fosters a sense of belonging, and (3) to develop family and community-based partnerships including opportunities for youth participation and leadership. The possibilities and potentials for immigrant-origin students to play a central role in improving the lives of their communities are boundless, if they are given the platform, encouragement, and resources.
It’s possible that we could learn some valuable lessons from this transformative time, and going forward, do better. Thank you for starting this important conversation, Adam.