How Young Children of Immigrants Face Discrimination At School

Blog Post
Sept. 18, 2015

The first years of any child’s education are an impressionable time. They lay the foundation for how a student conceives of school — and how he or she views his or herself in relation to the larger community. However, many young children of immigrants — who account for around a quarter of all children under age 8 in the U.S. — face discrimination at school during this formative period.

This results in a multitude of negative psychological, academic and social outcomes. And children of immigrants in the early grades may be especially vulnerable as they are only beginning to develop an understanding of how they fit into their family, culture, and community. Research suggests that students who are confident in their cultural and ethnic identity can buffer the impact of discrimination on their well-being.

So, to what extent are these young children of immigrants experiencing discrimination today? And what can be done about it? To answer these questions, a recent report published by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), The Impact of Discrimination on the Early Schooling Experiences of Children from Immigrant Families, examines the multi-pronged nature of discrimination against young children of immigrants at both the personal and structural level.

According to researcher Jennifer Keys Adair, young children of immigrants can face discrimination at the personal level from staff or peers at school. This primarily takes the form of critical comments or name-calling about a student’s accent, appearance, or use of home language. Teachers may also express impatience when these students cannot fully express themselves or take longer to formulate responses. Such interactions are alarming since we know that all learners need a safe, stress-free emotional climate to thrive.

In addition to these direct interactions, individual teachers also discriminate by holding lower academic expectations for children of immigrants and focusing on what Adair calls “narrow learning experiences.” Such instruction does not provide students with opportunities for creativity, inquiry and problem-solving and instead focuses on rote, simplistic tasks.

At the structural level, children of immigrants face discrimination in the form of racial and socioeconomic segregation of their schools, diminished access to high-quality teachers and resources, low levels of parental engagement, and disproportionate placement in special education.

The report highlights several causes that lead to discrimination, especially at the personal level. Factors include inadequate teacher preparation for working with children of immigrants, low recruitment of culturally sensitive or bilingual educators, and weak staff connections with immigrant families. While teacher training programs can — and should — improve how they support all new teacher candidates, districts and schools need to think about ways to support their existing teachers. Specifically, they should provide teachers with culturally and linguistically responsive materials, curricula and professional development to affirm diversity in their classroom, an idea that Adair emphasizes. Moreover, educators need to shift away from the deficit-based framing that often comes with discussion of language learners. Linguistic diversity should be treated not as an obstacle to overcome or “fix” but a strength to be valued.

At the same time, even with better materials and training, teachers are in a tough spot. Ideally, all teachers would create an affirming, patient environment for children of immigrants and find the time to design colorful, culturally responsive lessons that extend the core curriculum. But, as the report notes, teachers feel very real pressure to drive students’ performance on standardized tests and their states’ language-proficiency assessments. This often leads to stricter schedules and expectations to implement more “efficient” lessons for language learners. Cultivating a culture of patience and creativity — let alone core cross-cultural competencies — can be an uphill battle for educators responding to the demands of an impatient and efficiency-focused system.

Nonetheless, discrimination against some of our nation’s youngest learners — no matter how overt or subtle  —  is unsettling. The educational system intended to help all children flourish should not, in fact, be working against them. Schools and districts must actively confront the discrimination children of immigrants face, embracing these learners as assets through changes in policies and mindsets.

This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learner National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team’s work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter, click here, enter your contact information, and select “Education Policy.”"