Why is social-emotional learning critical for immigrant students? A growing body of research has come to show that the success of ALL students —whether or not they are of immigrant origin — is associated with learning environments that nurture social-emotional development (SEL). The social, emotional, cognitive, linguistic, and academic domains of child development are all intertwined, both in the brain and in behavior, and they are essential to the learning process. Social-emotional development includes several sets of skills that serve to facilitate learning (or, conversely, impede learning if ignored).

  • Social and interpersonal skills enable students to navigate social situations, read social cues, demonstrate compassion and empathy for others, work collaboratively with others, and resolve interpersonal conflicts.
  • Emotional competencies enable students to recognize and manage emotions, understand others’ emotions and perspectives, and cope with frustration.
  • Cognitive skills include attitudes and beliefs that guide students’ sense of self and approaches to learning as well as executive functioning (working memory, attention control, and flexibility), and inhibition and planning.

After reviewing the state of the field on SEL, a Consensus Statement was released by the National Commission on Social, Emotional, & Academic Development. It noted the following important points.

  1. Learning cannot happen effectively if SEL issues are not attended to.
  2. SEL develops throughout one’s lifetime and is essential to success not only in school but also in the workplace, home, and community.
  3. SEL can be taught and nurtured throughout childhood, adolescence, and beyond.
  4. Schools can have a significant influence on SEL.
  5. Engaging in informed SEL practices can improve teacher effectiveness as well as their well-being).
  6. SEL development is “an essential part of pre-K-12 education that can transform schools into places that foster academic excellence, collaboration, and communication, creativity, and innovation, empathy and respect, civic engagement, and other skills and dispositions needed for success in the 21st Century.”
  7. Students are most likely to benefit from SEL when training and support is provided to schools, administrators, and teachers and when social emotional learning are embedded in everyday interactions and school culture beyond the classroom.

What are some of the typical social-emotional challenges most relevant to immigrant-origin students?

Migration is a transformative process with profound implications for the family as well as the potential for lasting impact on social-emotional development. By any measure, immigration is one of the most stressful events a family can undergo. Migration removes family members from predictable contexts—community ties, jobs, and customs—and strips them of significant social ties—extended family members, best friends, and neighbors. New arrivals who have experienced trauma (either prior, during or after “the crossing”) may remain preoccupied with the violence and may also feel guilty about having escaped if loved ones remained behind.

Those who are undocumented face the growing realities of raids that can lead to sudden and traumatic and sudden separations. The dissonance in cultural expectations and the cumulative stressors, together with the loss of social supports, lead to elevated affective and somatic symptoms. Due to their own struggles in adapting to a new country, many immigrant parents may be relatively unavailable psychologically, posing a developmental challenge to their children. Immigrant parents often may turn to their children when navigating the new society. These children are frequently asked to take on responsibilities beyond their years, including sibling care, translation, and advocacy, sometimes undermining parental authority. Additionally, immigrant children and youth face the challenges of forging an identity and sense of belonging to a country that may reflect an unfamiliar culture while also honoring the values and traditions of their parents. Nonetheless, many immigrant-origin children demonstrate extraordinary resilience and resourcefulness as they navigate their developmental journeys.

What promising school-based practices have been identified to facilitate social-emotional learning for immigrant-origin students?

Valuing Multilingual Multicultural School Culture

One of the impediments to learning in a new country is students’ entering a context in which they feel unsafe or feel they do not belong. These responses can lead to low motivation, low self-esteem, and debilitating anxiety that can combine to create an ‘affective filter’ that can shut down the language learning process.

Although not sufficient to do so by itself, a positive affect facilitates language acquisition. The idea of the affective filter can extend to a student’s entire schooling experience. A school culture that attends to the social-emotional needs of a school’s students creates an atmosphere within which students feel validated and cared for, a bi or multicultural community culture begins with the expression of a belief system that manifests itself in creating a community that fully embraces the immigrant experience. A school culture that normalizes the immigrant experience for both students and their families is essential to successfully implement academic programs. A common theme across promising sites is explicit attention to creating a school culture that emphasizes belonging and community by normalizing and embracing bilingual and bicultural, or multilingual and multicultural, identity development.

Cultural Belonging

Schools should intentionally nurture strategies to foster a sense of cultural belonging. A basic symbolic approach is to display student work and hang flags and other representations in hallways and classrooms from multiple cultures. Hallways should be allowed to echo the many languages, spoken by both students and adults; while English is clearly to be encouraged, native language use should not be frowned upon.

Multicultural community culture can be especially salient in schools with bilingual or dual-language programs in which many of the faculty come from the same language backgrounds that their students do. Even when faculty and staff do not reflect the identities of their students, there are many things school staff can do to reinforce a sense of belonging.

Respecting and valuing student and familial heritage in a welcoming way can help establish rapport and make students feel a part of the fabric of the school and classroom. This effort starts with our basic perception of our students:

  • Do we view them, their histories, and their cultures as deficits or assets?
  • Do we find ways for our students to share their stories with their peers and school staff?
  • Do we allow students to consider issues in ways that allows them to bring their identities and cultural background into the classroom, or is doing so discouraged?
  • Are we able to linguistically code-switch, when appropriate, to establish rapport and facilitate understanding?
  • Whose holidays are recognized by the learning community?

In our resource section, we have highlighted a culturally responsive teaching checklist to encourage reflection on classroom and schoolwide practices.

More Than Representation, Curriculum Matters

Much of what we have discussed to this point is about classroom practices and school culture. As important as these are, culturally responsive teaching and social and emotional learning practices should be reflected throughout the curriculum as well. What we teach, as well as how we teach, sends strong messages to students about who belongs and who does not. Literature teachers often talk about books as windows and mirrors for our students, windows into new worlds and mirrors which they can use to reflect on their own identities and place in society.

While we might start by finding ways for students to share their own stories, these exercises can be easily dismissed if they are not connected to the broader curriculum. We should make sure that the literature that we choose to include in our classrooms is selected to provide opportunities for students to see themselves in it and to learn about the experiences as others. If your school has a librarian, that situation can provide an opportunity for collaboration. The histories we teach, and our approach to curriculum as a whole, matters as well. While migration is central to the human experience, teaching about immigration is often relegated to one of two lessons a year. It is worth rethinking our approaches to teaching about migration for all students.

While this guide is primarily focused on immigrant-origin students, helping their peers better understand the role that migration has played both in our national narrative, and in human history, is important as a foundation for creating a shared future and building empathy and connections between students whose families have migrated to the United States in the past and in the present.