Immigrant students’ assets, strengths, and challenges

Note: This is resource is part of a collection of research-based suggestions for supporting English Learners including immigrant and refugee students.

Recognizing immigrant students’ assets, strengths, and challenges will help them to thrive academically and socially in school. Immigrant families and their children arrive in their new lands with distinct social and cultural resources. Their high aspirations, ability to take perspective, optimism, dedicated hard work, positive attitudes toward school, and ethic of family support for advanced learning contribute to the fact that some immigrant youth educationally outperform their native-born peers. On the other hand, many immigrant students encounter a myriad of challenges—economic obstacles, anti-immigrant sentiments, learning a new language, acculturative challenges, family separations, under-resourced neighborhoods and overburdened schools, and the like—and struggle to gain their bearings in an educational system that may put them on a path of downward trajectory.

Context Matters

As is true for all children, the formative experiences of immigrant children will be shaped by reciprocal interactions between the child and her environment. The interrelated contexts of development within which children and youth are embedded shape their opportunities and have important implications for both educational and wellbeing outcomes. How students do will vary according to individual characteristics; their culture; and their environment, which includes neighborhoods, schools, and other school settings, over the course of time. All children grow within cultural contexts that shape their future selves. For immigrant children, some critical individual characteristics shaping development are the child’s age at migration, race and ethnicity, literacy in their home language and in English, exposure to trauma, sexual orientation, and temperament.

Immigrant students are incredibly diverse. It is our job as educators to recognize that diversity as an asset that they bring with them to school.

One way to think about the relationship between a student and the contexts in which s/he develops was described by Urie Bronfenbrenner in his ecological model of human development. This highly influential model of child development argues that children are profoundly affected by various intersecting levels of their physical and social environments. At the most intimate microsystemic level, family, peers, and school play an important role through daily interactions. Exosystemic influences do not have direct contact with the child but, nonetheless, indirectly influence experience; these include things like parents’ work conditions or neighborhoods. At the most distal macrosystemic level, economic, policy, or legal conditions, for example, can have profound indirect repercussions on children’s lives. All of these levels of the ecosystem are not separate but interact and can have implications for one another.

Taking a Culturally Responsive Perspective

Culturally responsive teaching  has been defined as “using the cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of ethnically diverse students as conduits for teaching them more effectively.”7 Teachers who understand their students well through a culturally responsive lens, recognize the social and cultural realities of their lives. They understand how different groups may view interactions between children and adults and how various ethnic groups’ value communal and cooperative efforts in problem solving.

Tara Yosso recommends that rather than viewing students and their families through a deficit lens, recognizing their myriad forms of “cultural wealth” — aspirational (hopes and dreams), linguistic, familial, social, navigational, and, resistance — will enable educators to better empower their students. Ultimately, effective culturally responsive practice helps promote the academic success, cultural competence and critical consciousness of students.

When we as educators understand that culture has a role in education, and actively learn about our students’ cultures and beliefs, we are letting our students know that they are important and valued. Applying a culturally relevant approach allows us to welcome, at times diverging views and perspectives, an action that, in turn, promotes critical thinking skills, creating a student-centered learning environment. Moreover, providing instruction that includes both basic and higher-order thinking skills, direct and explicit instruction, oral language development, and student-based collaborative approaches have been found to improve reading and language development. Understanding that our students have diverse perspectives and teaching through culturally relevant approaches not only foster a safe learning environment, but also promote a positive rapport with the students and their families in our classrooms.

Harnessing Cultural Capital Can Empower Students

The six forms of capital, also known as community cultural wealth, that T.J. Yosso argues can potentially empower all students are:

  1. aspirational — the “hopes and dreams” students have,
  2. linguistic — the various language and communication
    skills students bring into the classroom,
  3. familial — the social and personal human resources students have,
  4. social — students’ “peers and other social contacts” outside of their family resources,
  5. navigational —a students’ skills and abilities to navigate “social institutions”, and
  6. resistance — the ability to advocate to attain equal rights and social justice. 
Notes and Further Reading 

Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(2), 106-116.

Locks, A. Summary of Yosso’s cultural wealth model. 

Yosso, T.J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? Race, Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), pp. 69–91