Anti-immigrant prejudice is spreading like a virus in our schools, but there is a dearth of research providing insights into the shape it takes or the extent of the problem. In recent decades, our classrooms have become more diverse than ever before as the children of immigrants became the fastest growing sector of the child population—now accounting for 27 percent of all children. These young people are extremely diverse hailing from Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Africa. As our society has undergone a long-overdue racial reckoning, the diversity of these students’ experiences has often been absent from these conversations. And yet, these young people and their families are subject to comparable under-tows of systemic racism affecting access and opportunity as their non-immigrant ethnic/racial minority peers. Further, in the course of the last half decade they have faced the additional burden of virulent xenophobic social rhetoric and exclusionary policies. Our understanding of how these shifts have shaped the learning environments for immigrant-origin children and youth remain limited, however.
Educational settings are a pivotal site of socialization with cascading effects on children’s well-being, wherein social inequities can be either compounded or disrupted. It is well recognized that children who are members of historically marginalized social identity groups (e.g., Black, Latinx, Indigenous, low-income, LGBTQ+), are disproportionately subjected to inequitable learning environments. For example, lower academic expectations, less supportive relationships, or more conflict with teachers create a toxic school climate that adversely influences student well-being. A growing body of work has documented the commonality of such inequitable school experiences for students from marginalized backgrounds, but the experiences of immigrant-origin students’ school climate remain understudied, especially in relation to their social and emotional well-being.
It has become increasingly clear that student success is associated with learning environments that nurture socio-emotional development (SEL). Social, emotional, cognitive, linguistic, and academic domains of child development are all intertwined, both in the brain and in behavior, and are essential to the learning process. As demonstrated throughout the extant research, however, not all learning environments are created equal, particularly for minoritized populations.
There is also emerging evidence that immigrant-origin students may enter classrooms with certain SEL advantages. Navigating two (or more) languages and cultural spaces provides them with perspectives that their monolingual peers may simply not traverse. In its recent PISA assessment of global competence among 15 year-olds in 64 OECD countries, for example, immigrant students reported greater capacity to understand different perspectives (OECD 2020) when compared to their native born peers. At the same time, however, immigrant-origin students of color face intersecting experiences of social exclusion and stigmatization stemming from racism and xenophobia that have been on the rise both nationally and in school settings.
Effectively providing learning environments that allow immigrant-origin students to thrive requires diagnosing the ways in which these students are perceived and treated across an array of educational contexts. Inspired by the ground-breaking work school climate assessment of GLSEN, Re-Imagining Migration seeks to foster safe, supportive, and inclusive learning environments for immigrant-origin students which make up more than a quarter of our students. Our approach is built upon on decades of developmental research on immigrant-origin children and youth as well as on equitable learning environments for diverse learners.
We began by conducting a systematic review of existing climate assessment tools and approaches reflecting best practices for capturing distinct stakeholder perspectives across the educational ecology. We developed a series of items and refined them after a series of expert reviews and focus groups. The items were incorporated into the YouthTruth survey and were piloted in 8 schools with over 3000 students. We are moving now to conducting the psychometric steps necessary to establish validity and reliability of these items.
This process will yield a culturally resonant and psychometrically sound instrument to enable schools and school districts to take the temperature of their learning environments for the fastest growing sector of their student body. This approach would also lay the ground-work for informing the development and implementation of a school-based intervention program that employs an ecological systems approach to promote culturally responsive, equitable, SEL-informed inclusive learning environments for immigrant-origin children and youth.