Three handprints in green, blue, and orange and the words Early ChildhoodIn 2021, the United States suddenly withdrew our troops from Afghanistan after two decades of occupation. The abruptness of America’s departure destabilized the country’s political infrastructure, resulting in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Afghan citizens. Some of these displaced peoples are now newcomers to the US – which means that some of their children are now students in our public schools.

Newcomers enrich our communities, bringing with them incredible assets like multilingualism and resilience. However, fleeing a war-torn country is a traumatic experience, and immigrants to the US – regardless of their circumstances – must quickly adjust to a new context that they perhaps never dreamed of entering. Whether you are a teacher in an early childhood classroom, a parent of a young child in a school that is welcoming newcomers, or a community member interested in supporting your new neighbors, you can make a difference in newcomers’ experiences by approaching them with open, welcoming attitude. The following are some guiding principles for talking to young children about newcomers.

Always use an assets perspective

Traditionally, schools teach us that immigrants are lucky to come to America. In reality, the opposite is equally true: America – and American classrooms – are incredibly lucky to welcome immigrants. Rather than framing newcomers as victims of their circumstances, or beneficiaries of American generosity, frame them as contributors to our communities. For example, rather than referring to newcomers as English Language Learners, refer to them as bilingual. Rather than focusing on the resources families need to survive, focus on the cultural knowledge they bring to your community. Treat newcomers as equals, rather than charity cases, and your children will as well.map of the US made of made people depicting diversity of people

Normalize migration

While newcomers may be the latest immigrants to our country, remember that more than a quarter of American students have at least one parent born outside of the United States. Unless your family is Native American, you also probably have ancestors who came to America from elsewhere – perhaps after several stops! For example, a number of South Asian Americans migrated to Africa, where they lived for generations before settling in the US. Communicate to children that migration happens all over the globe and that the newcomers in their classrooms and communities are not the first, nor will they be the last. (While discussing this, remember that many Black families have enslaved ancestors. Slavery was not voluntary migration, and should not be treated as such.)

Get curious about migration

One way to normalize migration is to learn about it. Attend local museum exhibits featuring artists from different regions of the world. Watch youtube videos or short documentaries about immigration across the world. Read picture books about American immigrants such as Dreamers by Yuyi Morales; Saffron Ice Cream by Rashin Kheirieyh; Mango, Abuela and Me, by Meg Medina; Mama’s Nightingale, by Edwidge Danticat; and The Name Jar, by Yangsook Choi. Make sure that the content you’re consuming was created by people who are migrants themselves and / or are from the countries they represent in their work.

Learn about newcomers’ countries of origin

When a new student is introduced in a child’s class, help the child learn about the country the new student comes from. Find the country on a map, eat lunch at a restaurant that serves the country’s cuisine, or listen to traditional music. Remember that newcomers are the experts in their own countries and experiences. If what you have learned contradicts the lived experiences of newcomers, then the newcomer is probably correct.

Engage in immigration activism

Make holiday cards for immigrants currently held in ICE detention. Prepare a meal for homes that welcome immigrants. Join conversation classes with English language learners and bring your child along. Exposing children to these types of activism and volunteering familiarizes them with the immigrant experience, and gives them a foundation for forming political opinions later in life.  

 

Mathangi Subramanian, Ed.D., believes stories have the power to change the world. Her middle grades book, Dear Mrs. Naidu, won the South Asia Book Award, and her picture book A Butterfly Smile was inducted into the Nobel Museum by Laureate Dr. Esther Duflo. Her novel A People’s History of Heaven was longlisted for the PEN/Faulkner award, a finalist for the LAMBDA literary award, and named a Skipping Stones Honors Book. A former public school teacher, senior policy analyst at the New York City Council, and Fulbright Scholar, she currently consults for Sesame Workshop. She holds a doctorate in education from Columbia Teachers College.