Stress and Coping Strategies for Immigrant-Origin Students and Educators who Serve Them

By Adam Strom

The challenges educators face responding to the social and emotional and educational needs of immigrant students and their peers have rarely been more pressing. In the U.S. 26% percent of school-aged children are either immigrants or the children of immigrants and in light of increasing political divides over immigration, rising hate incidents in and out of schools, and increased immigration enforcement, their place in schools can feel precarious. While the much of the impact of the climate is concentrated on immigrant-origin students, a February 2018 study from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA explains:

“There are also indirect effects on non-immigrant students. In Southern schools, 70 percent of educators reported this impact, with 15 percent judging it to be extensive. One in eight educators nationwide reported that students’ learning was being affected a lot due to concerns for classmates whose families are targeted. For many, the ecology of the classroom has been disrupted.”

To help us think about the role that educators might play in this climate, we turned to Maryam Kia-Keating, an Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of California Santa Barbara Department of Counseling, Clinical, and School Psychology. She is also a Licensed Clinical Psychologist. Dr, Kia-Keating focuses her work on coping and resilience in the context of experiences of trauma, stress, and adversity, particularly for ethnic minority and other vulnerable and/or understudied populations including refugees and immigrants.

Adam Strom: Maryam, before turning to a discussion about students and teachers, would you mind sharing some of your migration story, actually, I should say migration stories, as you moved across borders a couple of times as a kid.

Maryam Kia-Keating: My childhood was definitely filled with transitions which gave me an opportunity to live in multiple countries and learn multiple languages. My family was forced to flee a dangerous situation, due to armed conflict and we received pretty terrifying death threats. We left everything behind and just took some clothes. Family members who stayed were detained as prisoners of conscience and faced dire circumstances and torture. There was a lot of immediate suffering and it is difficult to describe in words the loss and grief you experience over time of people, places, and irreplaceable belongings. I attended seven schools in seven years, in four countries and three languages. So, it made for an interesting journey growing up!

AS: I am struck by your use of the word opportunity when others might have emphasized the uncertainty and fear. That’s powerful. I’m wondering, how do you think those experiences impact how you think about your work today?

MKK: I was first drawn to the concept of trauma and resilience, in part probably because I never personally embraced a deficit perspective regarding my own experiences. As soon as I understood the vast proportions of people experiencing forced migration around the world, I wanted to get involved and attempt to have even a small impact. I think we often neglect to fully recognize that there are so many benefits of having a global perspective from a young age. It is a real tragedy when people don’t recognize the huge value of having international connections and experiences. Schools can capitalize on having diverse students, and teach and engender a worldview that deeply understands the interconnectedness between people and our shared planet. I gained that beautiful sense of interconnectedness because I had the chance to travel and live abroad at a young age. But classrooms can help transport students around the world without having to experience any of the challenges of displacement. What an amazing opportunity!

AS: Anti-immigrant rhetoric from politicians, media figures, and spreading across social media is increasingly hostile. And, it isn’t just words, visible deportations of immigrants, record youth detentions, the responses to the migrant caravans, the end of DACA and phasing out of TPS, the family separation policy are directly and indirectly impacting a lot of young people. What advice would you offer for educators who fear that their student’s sense of well-being affected by all that is going on? What can they do?

MKK: It can be very distressing and difficult to hear hate, intolerance, and xenophobia. However, a lot of allies exist out there – many of us have been raised to be inclusive, compassionate, and globally-minded. Reflecting on our own family migration histories helps us to recognize a shared American identity, instead of one that separates “us” from “them.” In response to some of the louder negative voices, many of us as educators are actually being more intentional about our curricula and approach in the classroom. Others are doing the same in their work, for example, in the media or in the private sector. We recognize that our role is crucial in creating a voice for all, especially those who have less power or more vulnerability. I think it’s important for us to help support one another in planning new initiatives and being willing to challenge the “way things have always been done.” It’s certainly a good time for some reflection about our own behaviors and what we can do to support love and kindness. Every little bit counts.

AS: What are some specific suggestions you could provide around that?

MKK: Start with simple observation and make it an everyday practice. Increasing our awareness about our students can come from inviting them to share whatever they feel comfortable to share about their experiences, heritage, and travels, and paying closer attention to what we know and don’t know about their lives. It can also emerge from a simple daily reflection about the classroom dynamics and students’ roles, and how to shift these so that everyone has an opportunity for leadership, representation, and voice. Are all your students represented in empowering ways in the stories they are reading about, whether in fiction or non-fiction? How have all your students been engaged as both teachers and learners in the classroom and beyond? Invite students in to participate in these reflections so that they can help examine who is speaking and who is not in the classroom, and what helps students participate and feel empowered. Write down one reflection (“I noticed…”) and make yourself one suggestion each day (“I can try…”). Better yet, get a small group together that meets over coffee or lunch or even social media, and share your daily reflections and ideas. Best yet, have students do this alongside their educators to generate new perspectives and ideas that can help effectively address an ever-changing landscape. This approach starts with small observation and setting intentions, but can lead to great change, one step at a time.

AS: Teaching Tolerance has been monitoring the number of hate incidents in schools, and a wide range of reports suggest that hate crimes are on the rise. In these fragile times, what role might the peers of vulnerable students play? What advice would you offer students who, maybe for the first time, are recognizing the impact of prejudice and hostility on their immigrant friends?

MKK: Bystander action is so important. Peers have the opportunity to stand up for each other in quite simple ways that can have a powerful impact: for example, stating an objection when they see or hear microaggressions, prejudice, or outright hate towards others. Objecting can range from a non-verbal but physical move away from people engaging in behaviors you are uncomfortable with but can’t confront in the moment, to verbally stating your discomfort, to helping organize an action, such as a protest. Peers don’t need to make grand gestures though; befriending someone new, helping or inviting someone into your circle, can make all the difference. Parents, schools, and organizations that serve youth and families, including religious organizations, have a critical role in teaching and encouraging youth to have the tools and feel empowered to take action when they see injustice. Structured programs, such as mentorship or buddies, can give peers the opportunity to connect with newcomers when they would be interested but are hesitant on their own or don’t know where to begin. Parents, schools, and organizations that serve youth and families, including religious organizations, have a critical role in teaching and encouraging youth to have the tools and feel empowered to take action when they see injustice. Adults need to serve as role models and demonstrate that it is our responsibility to create a community and larger society where we help support one another and realize that, as MLK, Jr. aptly stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

AS: I know so many educators who are deeply impacted by the stress in their students’ lives. I know you’ve done work on secondary stress with first responders. In their own way, educators are first responders to the stresses in their student’s lives. I am wondering what lessons you might be able to pull from your previous work that might be helpful for educators. What self-care suggestions do you have for educators?

MKK: As we increase our awareness and action related to these issues, as educators, it opens up the very real possibility that our own personal distress increases because of the stories that we are privileged to be hearing and experiencing. Educators in primary and secondary schools can be at heightened risk of burnout, or what’s called compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma. These teachers are often called to the profession with a love and compassion for children, and a desire to make a positive difference in their lives. They may experience helplessness, anxiety, and stress in the face of children’s experiences of adversity. Best practices need to start at the organizational and structural level, where schools themselves are attuned to the needs of their staff, and provide accommodations and resources to improve the health and well-being of their faculty. For example, options can include scheduled self-care activities (including offering regular breaks, and promoting healthy eating, sleep, and exercise), continuing education that offers new skills like wellness tips for healthy snacks and stretches to keep you going throughout the day, or mindfulness practice from which both teachers and students can learn and derive benefit, support resources, and structures for peer networks to build and grow.

For educators themselves, a good reminder is always to “put your own oxygen mask on first.” In other words, all of us need to establish routines of self-care, and not just wait for times when stress builds up or runs over. For example, do a quick daily personal check-in to stay in tune with your own state and needs, carve out time for pleasurable activities that you commit to and don’t allow yourself to cancel or neglect when the work piles up, make time to connect to nature, and find and use a preferred method of relaxation such as soaking in a bath or hot tub, following a guided meditation, or using progressive muscle relaxation before falling asleep each night. Creating and nurturing a supportive network of peers, friends and family is also critical. Being self-reflective and taking time to examine the ways in which your experiences are shaping you, sometimes in painful but also in rewarding ways, can be useful in articulating how you are experiencing personal growth and making meaning. Finally, it’s always a good idea to take care of your emotional and spiritual needs, and not hesitate to seek professional support when needed.

AS: Maryam, thank you for taking the time to do this. I am appreciative of all the work you do and hope that we can continue to support each other’s work.

MKK: Thank you so much, Adam! I deeply appreciate your commitment to these issues, and your invitation to start this important conversation. I’m looking forward to continued discussions about how we might best serve immigrant-origin youth and the educators who serve them!

Here is a downloadable flyer: Self Care Strategies for Educators