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Immigrant Children and the American School System

By: Marsue McKarr, Case Management Intern

A hardship for many immigrant parents with school-age children is helping them integrate into the American school system. This is because they are learning to assimilate into a new learning environment and overall culture. For example, they might struggle with understanding the language if they are from a country that does not speak English. Even children that may come from an English speaking country may also struggle with having a strong accent that makes it difficult for others to understand them.

According to MN Compass website, nearly 1 in 6 children (ages 0-19) in Minnesota is the child of at least one immigrant parent.  Given this new reality, how can schools and parents work together to better understand the needs of children of immigrants and help them have an easier and more successful transition into American life?

As an immigrant myself and a parent to school-age children, here’s what I’ve observed.

Often, my children are misunderstood and sometimes, unfairly punished because of miscommunications. I believe that people who are in positions of authority do not always realize that the children of immigrants are navigating two completely different worlds.  The world they have at home with their parents and the one they have at school. When the child comes to school each day, they are expected (or sometimes even required) to abandon cultural beliefs that have been a part of their lives for years.

Immigrant children also sometimes must become unofficial interpreters for their parents. This level of dependency can sometimes cause issues in the relationship between parents and their children. I remember coming to America the first time with my oldest daughter, who was 12 at the time, and enrolling her in school. There were many times when I received unnecessary calls from her teachers because, in their eyes, my daughter was not behaving correctly. The reality is that most of the time it was just the matter of them misunderstanding what she was trying to tell them.

Unfortunately, this situation is what many immigrant parents must manage on a daily basis. In addition to finding a well-paying job to support their family, they must also cope with being called by or into their child’s school for concerns that could be solved by better communication and understanding of the trauma many of them have experienced.  Children of immigrants may have first-hand experience with plagues, famine, wars, and living in refugee camps.

As Minnesota’s immigrant population continues to grow, we need to do more to help teachers be prepared to work effectively with all of the children in their classrooms.  As a case manager at Daily Work, I am constantly challenged to learn as much as I can about the culture and values of the job seekers I assist. I am encouraged to discover and confront my own bias and triggers to ensure that my professional values are guiding my words and actions with job seekers. As a developing social worker, I am expected to assist each job seeker by helping them chart a path that works for them and honors their unique experiences and gifts. Imagine the progress our kids might make if we adopted a similar approach in schools.

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