Arriving After Trauma
A majority, 58 percent, of the children arriving here have left war-like conditions that could qualify them for international protection as refugees, according to a recent report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, commonly known as UNHCR. The international agency recommends a thorough screening of each arriving minor to determine if he or she qualifies for that protection. Buffeted by shouting matches in Washington, D.C. and several state capitals, that process is underway.
In the meantime, schools across the country are enrolling large numbers of newly arrived Central American students and trying to figure out the best way to serve them.
Many new arrivals have had little formal schooling. A majority stopped attending school after sixth grade, according to UNHCR. In addition to learning English and the subject matter of their various classes, they also must learn to raise their hands to answer questions, change classes when a bell rings and never wander the halls without a bathroom pass. And there are still those normal teenage concerns: remembering one’s locker combination and flirting, now in a new language.
A full introduction to all of the requirements of attending school, along with continued support and understanding as students figure things out, will help with this massive shift, said Mary Beth Klotz, director of education practice at the National Association of School Psychologists. So will trauma-informed instruction that takes the new students’ background into account.
Even those who are here more for economic opportunities than out of fear have undertaken a long journey without parents before arriving in a foreign land. And teachers should keep in mind that students who have been here for quite a while still may not be fully settled in, Klotz said.
“There may be a honeymoon period where (students) are absorbing everything new and it may take a while to absorb it before behaviors come out that are concerning,” like tearing up a frustrating assignment or crying at the slightest provocation, Klotz said.
Both reactions are common for people who have survived trauma, Klotz said.
Klotz said she would urge teachers and other school staff to avoid rushing to judgment if a student has emotional problems after only a few weeks in a new country. “It’s really going to take time,” she said.
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