What is the fastest growing segment of the United States population? When posing this question to a group of collogues at the dinner table, not a single one could answer correctly. By 2050, children from immigrant families will make up nearly one third of the population of children in the United States, making them the fastest growing segment1. Not only do these children come from a variety of diverse cultural backgrounds, but their lived experiences can be wildly different based upon a myriad of contextual factors1. The inability of anyone at my dinner table to point to this population as one of such immense growth indicates a couple of things. First, a need for general population visibility, and second, an increased understanding of their needs, many of which will need to be met in the United States public education system. Education has long been considered as the foundation for later life success, a belief that is not excusive to native born Americans, but is rather shared by parents across the globe2. In order to foster an atmosphere of educational success in both the social and academic spheres of schooling, educational institutions must consider the unique factors and experiences of immigrant children in order to meet their needs.
In considering best practice for immigrant children in education, it is helpful to consider what will best facilitate their engagement within the school system at large. Developmental research suggests that while school engagement is a predictor of positive academic achievement for both immigrant and non-immigrant youths, there may be specific factors that help to facilitate the engagement of immigrant children2. These facilitators include the positive relationships between immigrant children and their parents, their teachers, and their peers within the context of education2. Meaning, if immigrant children are made to feel important and motived within the classroom by their teachers and their peers, and then motivated to succeed academically at home; engagement and thereby achievement will increase2. It is essential for parents and teachers alike to be made aware of the significance of these facilitators, which would not only lend to an increase in student visibility, but also in their educational success. Creating opportunities for this kind of bi-directional communication between school and home community can lead to significant educational strides being made by immigrant youths2.
Despite the presence of these facilitators across the immigrant youth population, a variety of outside contextual factors may get in the way of their execution. One of those being the presence of family separation. Although family separation can happen for several reasons and look different depending on circumstance, in all cases it is the separation of the family unit, most typically a parent/parents from their child3. Family separation due to instances of migration has been happening for decades, but it has garnered significant media attention due to policies imposed by the Trump administration. While it is obvious that this separation is painful for all parties involved, it can actually result in significant short-term depressive symptoms for young immigrant children3. If a child is coming to school anxious and depressed due to a lack of awareness of their parents’ status and location, it is grossly unfair to expect them to be fully engaged in the classroom. In making policy decisions about family separation at the United States boarder as our political leaders are today, a lack of consideration for the needs of the fastest growing United States population is incredibly irresponsible.
In considering these factors, it may be beneficial to examine the successful practices that other countries adopt in their treatment of immigrant children in the public education sector to gain insight into what the United States can do to improve. In countries like Canada, specifically the Province of Toronto, many public schools have put in place a number of immigrant-inclusive programs helping to foster their engagement in the classroom. These include family outreach programs, one-on-one attention, immigrant specific classrooms with integration into general education, and culturally inclusive practices such as including tea sets in the classroom to increase visibility. Policy makers in the United States may argue that Provinces such as Toronto, where every student receives the same amount of funding regardless of their school district, would be unattainable in the United States where funding varies by state and district. However, several of these interventions come free of charge, and are simply based on an understanding and awareness of immigrant culture. If educators and policy makers in the United States were made aware of (1) the scope and growth of the United States immigrant youth population, and (2) the importance of considering these cultural differences with regards to their impact on achievement, then perhaps they would consider the successful adaptation of these young migrants the creation of public and educational policy.
- Leventhal, T., & Shuey, E. A. (2014). Neighborhood context and immigrant young children’s development. Developmental Psychology, 50(6), 1771–1787. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0036424
- Motti-Stefanidi, F., & Masten, A. S. (2013). School success and school engagement of immigrant children and adolescents: A risk and resilience developmental perspective. European Psychologist, 18(2), 126–135.
- Suárez-Orozco, C., Bang, H. J., & Kim, H. Y. (2011). I felt like my heart was staying behind: Psychological implications of family separations & reunifications for immigrant youth. Journal of Adolescent Research, 26(2), 222–257. https://doi.org/10.1177/0743558410376830