How Can We Support Our Immigrant Students?

This school year opens at a time of fear and trauma for immigrant children across the United States. Here are eight ways educators can protect students from harm and ease their distress.

Now is a time of fear and trauma for immigrant children across the United States. The 2019-20 school year opens amid ICE raids, the separation of immigrant children from their mothers and fathers, and brutal detention camps at the border.

August 2019 brought a series of new horrors. A white supremacist who wanted to kill immigrants opened fire at a Walmart in El Paso, killing 22 people. A few days later, ICE swooped down on food processing plants in central Mississippi, arresting 680 people and spreading terror far and wide. Then, the Trump administration announced a new policy that will (if actually enacted in October) make documented immigrant families even more reluctant to use government services they are entitled to, out of fear they will be denied permanent residency.

Meanwhile, political leaders and their media supporters continue to spew racist, dehumanizing comments about immigrants, creating danger not only for immigrants (documented and undocumented), but for anyone seen as “other.”

Educators across the country are doing what they can to protect and comfort their students. But even in immigrant-friendly cities like New York, our powers are limited.

Last year, Mariana worked in a school with many immigrant students.  One day, a student’s undocumented father was arrested. The student came to school, but she could not stop crying. Staff tried comforting her out of class, but the tears continued. They suggested she go back to class, but that didn’t help either.

A high school student lived in fear that his family would be deported in the middle of the school year. School staff knew that the boy’s family was in detention and faced deportation. But none of the students knew, because the boy was desperate to keep it a secret. He was afraid of being called “an illegal” – even in a school that actively promotes inclusion and support for immigrants. The school’s guidance counselor and social worker respected the boy’s wishes for privacy and worked to get his family legal representation.  But in the end, the entire family was forced to leave anyway. The teachers worked to manage the impact of the student’s disappearance on his classmates, many of them immigrants themselves. The experience provided a moment of reflection and deepening awareness for the school community as a whole.  

As this school year opens, how can school leaders actively encourage a school climate of caring and respect? How can teachers create a welcoming and supportive classroom community that will protect students from harm and ease their trauma? Here are some suggestions.




  1. Know what is happening.  Be aware of how immigrant communities in your area are affected by current policies and events. Learn the basics about immigrants’ rights. This AFT site is a place to start. For more, visit this site, which is supported by the AFT and NEA.

  2. Get connected. If you can, find and partner with a community organization near you that can provide support and guidance for immigrant families at your school, including access to legal support.

  3. Spread the knowledge. Mariana’s school provided a workshop for school staff, in collaboration with a local community group and activists, about immigrant rights and how we can stand up with and for immigrant families. It helped staff prepare for questions and challenges that arose during the year. (Unfortunately, not all schools are so pro-active. If school leaders are not taking the lead, educators can support each other in addressing the needs of immigrant students.)

  4. Affirm your students and your school. Let students know: Everyone is welcome here. We support each other in this school. We interrupt prejudice and bullying when we see it. We believe in kindness and fairness.

  5. Begin the year by creating a caring classroom community for all students. If there was ever a time when students needed a supportive classroom climate, it is now. In the first days of school, help students get to know each other. Create community agreements for how you will relate to each other. Cultivate empathy in your students. Encourage them to stand up for each other. Help them see the many values we share, and the ways our differences make us stronger. See Morningside Center’s TeachableMoment resource collection for a plethora of activities to help you do all this. Start here.  Also see our Getting to Know You guide. Sign up for our newsletter for more suggestions throughout the year.

  6. Keep it up and make it school-wide. Once you’ve established a community, keep it going all year. Children need to reconnect with each other and with adults at least once a week. Often teachers aren’t given the time they need for weekly circles or check-ins – even though these practices have been shown to improve the classroom climate for learning.  Principals can help ensure that every child gets a chance to connect and feel part of a community by clearing the way: Dedicate one classroom period per week (such as Monday morning) for building community building and developing social and emotional skills. Give teachers the training, coaching, and tools they need to make best use of this time.  Morningside Center partners with the NYC Department of Education to provide this support for hundreds of NYC public schools each year.

  7. Teach the students. If it is appropriate, engage students in learning the facts about immigrants and immigration. Do they know that immigrants strengthen the economy? That immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than other Americans? (See this lesson and this one.)  Do they know why people are fleeing their countries of origin? (See this lesson and this one.) Do they know the specifics of current immigration policy – and how those policies are being challenged? Be sensitive to the needs of your students when it comes to discussing these issues, and ensure that immigrant students in particular are ready for the conversation. For more on teaching about upsetting issues, see these guidelines

  8. Encourage student engagement. Action is a powerful antidote to fear. Encourage students to work together to make their school, community, and world a welcoming place for everyone. 



Mariana Gaston works with Morningside Center as a staff developer, trainer, and advisor. She is a co-founder of the Brooklyn New School. As a BNS teacher, she helped Morningside develop our Resolving Conflict Creatively Program, and later became director of the RCCP at the NYC Board of Education. She later served as AP and educational consultant at PS 24 in Brooklyn, and helped make this dual language school a model for social and emotional learning.

Laura McClure is Morningside Center’s director of fundraising and communications. She co-founded and edits our TeachableMoment resource collection.