Educators Can Help Migrant Children Who Were Separated from Their Parents

As children are released from detention centers into parental custody or foster care, adults at school can be part of the vital support structure.

As the court-imposed July 26 deadline for the U.S. government to reunite children it separated from their parents came and went, more than 1,400 minors had been returned, but hundreds more remained in detention centers, according to the Trump administration. For those who have been released from the centers or who will leave in the coming weeks, the future is uncertain. The only certainty is that if they stay in the United States, either in foster care or with a parent allowed to stay in the country while pursuing asylum, school-aged children will be sent to public school.

The United States educates kids regardless of their immigration status and getting into a classroom with other children their age can be one of the first steps toward healing. It is something New York City child and adolescent psychiatrist M. Carolina Zerrate saw with the influx of unaccompanied minors in 2014: Going to school was a key part of their process after leaving a detention facility.  

"It’s very important because having kids around other children in a safe environment that is structured can be pretty repairing for what they have gone through," says Zerrate, who is an assistant professor at Columbia University and program medical director of the Washington Heights (NY) Youth Anxiety Center. "To go back to just being kids in an environment where they can recover and thrive is in itself pretty therapeutic."

There's no way to know exactly how many of these children will enter school, where, or when, adding to educators' and administrators' unease. According to a story in the Wall Street Journal, some districts, such as Miami-Dade County (FL) Public Schools, are concerned about an influx of students and are seeking information from the government. There were about 1,000 reportedly housed in shelters in the Miami-Dade district. The district has twice as much reason to want accurate information. It not only must try to plan for new students coming into its schools, but provide education for the children in the shelters as it gets state funding to provide for those children as well as the ones in its schools. In Texas, districts are trying to contract with centers to help educate kids, and the Texas State Teachers Association has said it has members ready to work with the detained children as well, according to the Journal story.

It is not unprecedented for districts to take in a large number of new students at once. Natural disasters such as hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, among others, forced districts to deal with displaced children, but adding to the concerns in this situation is an ongoing nationwide shortage of bilingual teachers. But whatever the obstacles, it's important to get these kids into the education system, says Zerrate, and despite the trauma experienced and challenges ahead, she says that they can recover.

"Kids are resilient and there’s a lot we can do to help literally repair and rewire some of the connections the brain is making because of the unfortunate circumstances these children have to face," she says.

Based on studies of children who have undergone traumatic situations and separations, psychiatrists know that regaining trust and having a happy, productive life is possible. 

"Does that mean that this will not affect the child whatsoever in the rest of their life? No.  But does it mean [that] the more help and effort we put into supporting these children after this difficult situation is going to make a difference in their future? Yes," she says. "The separation itself undeniably will remain with them for the rest of their lives, but it doesn’t need to necessarily unfold to a lifetime of struggling with mental health issues. Having a grown up who provides safety, support, and continuity really makes a difference." 

Zerrate speaks in general terms of kids who have been traumatized, but admits these children caught in the Trump Administration's "Zero Tolerance Policy," are a little different, in that they already arrived at the U.S. border with what Zerrate calls "a heavy load in terms of exposure to trauma" before suffering the added trauma of being forcibly separated from a parent. 

"Their traumatic narrative started probably before they decided to come to the US,” she says reviewing the  typical story of migrants trying cross the border: The decision to migrate was likely based on an unsafe living situation, so they start with a heightened sense of a lack of security. They embark on this journey, which could include walking for days and nights, and limited or insufficient food and water, as well as encountering thieves, human traffickers and sexual predators along the way. 

"The only object that gives them safety and sense of control is this parent who is now being taken away," she says. "They literally completely lose any structure for having a sense of trust or safety.”

For those who have been returned to their parents, not all of the reunions have been purely joyful. Media accounts tell stories of children angry at their parents because they believe they were being punished, of the youngest not even recognizing them and many so shaken and scared they stare blankly and don't even attempt to hug their mother or father when first seeing them again. As they try to rebuild their relationships, adults will attempt to give the children as normal a life as possible. That includes going to school or, for younger children, perhaps going to the library. For the kids who remain in America, educators and librarians will become some of the first adults charged with regaining their trust and helping repair the damage done by the separation and detention.

As the school year begins in the coming weeks, Zerrate offers some advice for anyone who finds these children in their classroom or library-or finds themselves working with children inside the detention centers.

Have an Open Mind

Despite having a common backstory and Latin American heritage, educators must remember that each child and family is different. There is no one-size-fits-all answer for specific items, foods, books, toys, etc., to comfort and support these children. 

“It’s important to understand and know you can’t make assumptions and rid yourself of stereotypes,” she says. “Engage in a process of having the child or next of kin or whoever can provide you better information of what is best.”

Little things can make a big difference, and those can be different for each child. Take the time to learn about each individual and don’t focus on the language issue if there is one. 

“As limited as communication can be, if you’re able to present this child with a safe environment, there will be communication even if it’s not verbal,” Zerrate says. “They will find ways to express what their need is, which is allowing them to lead the way without imposing what we think will be the best because they’re Latino.”

Look for Behavior Outside the Norms, React Calmly

Not all of these children will suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Zerrate says. But if children do present PTSD symptoms, they will need support and mental health services. Getting into the education system can help them get referred into the healthcare system as adults observe issues. A good indicator is if the child is behaving outside of developmental norms.

"Educators or people who work with children frequently have the advantage that they know what the norm is," she says.  If they see kids behaving outside the norms, pay more attention, check in with the caregiver or other teachers.

It's important to respond to disruptive behavior calmly. Yelling will trigger more anxiety and fear and cause the situation to escalate. Communicate in concrete, short sentences and, if possible, try to guide the child through simple deescalation exercises. Of course the ability to do that depends on the adult's training and comfort level.

Do a Regular Mood Check

“One of the valuable things, general speaking for kids who have difficult experiences --and for kids who don’t--is creating a way in the classroom or the in the library where feelings could be expressed,” she says.

Get creative and fun by using pictures that show a range of emotions from sad, worried, angry, or tired to happy or excited. Despite a lack of language proficiency, nothing should be lost in translation that way and the children can share how they are feeling with the adult in the room.

“It’s nice to do a check in in the classroom or when people come into the library for [storytime] about what their mood is,” she says. “To start to make those connections to what they’re feeling internally and how to express it to grown-ups or people around them could be pretty helpful.”

Know Your Limits

People want to help, but these children cannot be set up to be disappointed again or feel lied to by another adult. Be mindful of what you say you will do. 

“This is a case-by-case situation,” she says. “You definitely don’t want to place a child in a situation where you overpromise and under deliver when we’re thinking about those kids who are trying to reconnect and recreate some sense of trust.”

Be realistic and don’t set yourself up to fail- and, in turn, fail the child. Many people might be willing and able to invest a lot of time and effort when the children arrive, but day-to-day life and responsibilities will get in the way of continuing such an effort for the long-term. Whether providing extra help outside of classroom hours or staying late after a library shift to continue supporting acclimation efforts, make sure not to start an unsustainable situation. 

"If you know that maybe you can offer [something] right now, but it’s not going to pan out for your life in two months or six months or a year then just be mindful of that,” she says.

Teachers Need Support, Too

ff a school or district is receiving a lot of children from detention centers and shelters, the administration should consider ways to support the staff.

"It can be helpful for schools where teachers are seeing this a lot to have an hour dedicated a week to bring someone in to talk to staff and teachers about this issue and maybe create a space for educators or staff to process any difficult circumstances or stories they may come across having a kid in their classroom," she says. "You essentially want to think about how to implement or design trauma-informed strategies in school to make those children feel comfortable."

For anyone who wants information on properly supporting students who have been through a traumatic situation, Zerrate recommends The National Child Traumatic Stress Network's school-specific resources.

Remember Your Power

It's important that any adults who interact with these children and families remember their presence and actions matter. They can provide a support structure that helps promote healing. When people come together and work, "there’s tremendous power and capacity,” she says. “There are so many things we feel powerless about, but coming together as a community for these children is something we have control of, and we can definitely do together.”

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