Research-Based Practice

Treating Toxic Stress in Immigrant Children

By Angela Garcia

Volume 46 Issue 7, pp. 1, 30–32

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By Angela Garcia

With the increase in immigration to the United States, there is a great need for psychological services that are “culturally sensitive and responsive to the needs of immigrant students” by school psychologists (National Association of School Psychologists, 2015). A report by Child Trends (Murphey, 2016) indicated that more than 127,000 immigrant children (i.e., refugees, asylum seekers, or those without legal status) are estimated to have arrived in the United States in 2016. Despite the varying circumstances preceding their arrival in the United States, these children experience trauma caused by one or more factors. These include but are not limited to separation from parents; housing instability; prejudice and discrimination due to color, religion, or language; interrupted schooling; and poor physical and mental health. Murphey (2016) also hypothesized that the trauma can potentially lead to toxic stress, a type of stress caused by “strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity” without adult support, and which disrupts the development of brain architecture and function, while increasing the risk for poor physical health, limited social–emotional skills, and cognitive impairment (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2012).

This article will address the issue of toxic stress, which can be experienced by all immigrant children; however, the focus of this article will be on the way in which Latino students are affected.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2011), the total Latino population in the United States exceeds 50 million; it is estimated that 47% are immigrants or foreign-born individuals (Ramirez Garcia, 2012). While over 4 million Latino children have at least one undocumented parent (Zayas, Aguilar-Gaxiola, Yoon, & Rey, 2015), most of these children are U.S.-born citizens (Murphey, 2016). In recent years, almost 1 million children have had at least one parent deported, with California, Texas, New York, Illinois, and Florida having the most children of undocumented parents (Murphey, 2016). In addition, Patel, Clarke, Eltareb, Macciomeie, and Wickham (2016) reported that in 2011 more than 5,000 children became part of the foster care system as a result of parental deportation or detention due to their immigration status. In view of the alarming nature of these facts and the current state of immigration policy in the United States, it is essential to recognize the school role in fostering the appropriate development of Latino children who must deal with the uncertainty of their parents' immigration status.

Since the effects of trauma can be reduced through supportive relationships with adults, school psychologists and other school personnel are, arguably, in the best position to promote the well-being of Latino immigrant students. It is important to remember that the children, regardless of their legal status, have the right to a free public school education per the Supreme Court ruling in Plyler v. Doe (U.S Department of Education, U.S. Department of Justice, 2014). Some undocumented parents may choose not to enroll their children in school programs or to limit their own involvement in their children's education out of fear of being identified and reported as undocumented immigrants (Leidy, Guerra, & Toro, 2012; Soutullo, Smith-Bonahue, Sanders-Smith, & Navia, 2016), thereby limiting their children's educational opportunities as well as their access to resources and support. Research has shown that the presence of at least one undocumented member in a Latino family increases the likelihood of children experiencing anxiety, depression, attention deficits, withdrawal, and rule breaking behaviors. These may arise because of the ever-present worry or fear of possible detention or deportation of their parents or relatives as well as the likely subsequent family separation (Martinez et al., 2015 ; Zayas et al., 2015). Children whose parent(s) have been deported are at a higher risk for exhibiting emotional and behavioral difficulties than children whose parent(s) have not been deported (Allen, Cisneros, & Tellez, 2015; Patel et al, 2016). Further research has been reported that Latino children often display symptoms of abandonment, trauma, fear, isolation, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, anger, frequent crying, clinginess, and aggression upon separation from their parents. Compounding these issues is that the children are likely to have limited access to mental health services that could facilitate their adjustment (Rojas-Flores, Clements, Koo, & London, 2017; Rubio-Hernandez & Ayón, 2016).

Based on interviews with 54 undocumented parents, Rubio-Hernandez and Ayón (2016) identified five major themes in behavioral and emotional changes that resulted from the impact of antiimmigrant policies on Latino children: (a) concern for their family's safety and sense of responsibility in “helping change their families' circumstances”; (b) fear of the threat of deportation and hypervigilance (e.g., asking parents to not go to work); (c) sadness and crying; (d) depression (particularly in children whose parent had been deported); and (e) fear of authority figures, including police and firefighters. Moreover, the effects of family separation on Latino children's mental health persist even after families are reunited (Gindling and Poggio, 2009), which prolongs the duration of internalizing and externalizing symptoms and their influence on the children's overall functioning and development. More specifically their diminished emotional health is likely to interfere with the students' academic performance, as internalized and externalized distress have been shown to limit learning and academic achievement (Roeser, Eccles, & Strobel, 1998). Additionally, the forcible removal of a parent or caregiver is a sudden and powerful trauma that hinders a child's learning and contributes to housing and economic insecurities that pose additional challenges to the family unit (Brabeck, Lykes, & Hunter, 2014).

The relationship between emotional–behavioral and other issues and the role the school can play in supporting Latino immigrant students can be explained in terms of ecological systems theory, which determines that factors within a student's microsystem (e.g., family, school, peers) impact his or her social, emotional, academic, and behavioral functioning (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998). Thus, if a student faces considerable challenges because of his/her family's immigration status, the school becomes a safe place where support, strategies, and tools can be found to improve daily performance. School psychologists are important resources who can identify areas of need both at the system- and student-level. In addition, school psychologists can assist in the implementation of those strategies that address all students' social–emotional functioning and academic engagement and performance. This includes promoting a healthy school environment that respects and increases the understanding of ethnic and cultural diversity (Han, 2008; Schonfeld et al., 2015). Maintaining a healthy classroom culture and overall school climate is particularly important when some students may use political policies and statements regarding immigration that they hear on TV, especially in today's environment, or that they discuss among themselves to discriminate against immigrant Latino students (Rubio-Hernandez & Ayón, 2016).

The school climate becomes particularly pertinent when Latino students report frequent instances of discrimination through “verbal harassment, derogatory treatment, social exclusion, or name-calling due to their race or ethnicity” (Huynh & Fuligni, 2010; Shea, Shi, Wang, Gonzalez, & Espelage, 2016). Discrimination related to perceptions in ethnicity, ability to speak English, and immigration status, rather than difficulties Latino students actually experience, such as acculturation and true English proficiency, has been reported as the most significant barrier to school involvement (Ríos-Salas & Larson, 2015; Valencia & Johnson, 2006). It comes down to how much English others think immigrants can speak versus what they actually can do. In support of this notion is a qualitative study in California that indicated that adolescents of Mexican origin were often victims of both ethnic/racial microaggressions (i.e., overt and covert statements toward ethnic minorities that are associated with poor overall well-being) by peers and implicit racist behavior from their teachers (Lin et al., 2016). Such a coercive environment further inhibits optimal functioning of Latino immigrant students. Some research suggests that higher family socioeconomic status can mediate the negative effects of perceived discrimination, particularly in adolescents, because of greater access to resources that facilitate stress reduction (Ríos-Salas & Larson, 2015). In addition, a healthy school climate with caring adults and supportive teacher–student relations facilitates a student's sense of belonging within his/her school, which in turn, contributes to improved mental health and academic adaptation and motivation (American Psychological Association, 2012; Ryan & Patrick, 2001).

Addressing the issue of a healthy school climate, Mule, Briggs, and Song (2014) proposed a model that is applicable in working with Latino immigrant students because of the unique and complex nature of their family circumstances. The authors note that the model suggests that school psychologists should practice outwardness and transformation. Outwardness refers to one's focus on “students who do not represent the majority group or culture” and on environmental factors such as school–home collaboration and school climate. Transformation describes the process by which school psychologists, in collaboration with other school personnel, meet students' needs in the short and long term.

A first step in meeting the students' needs is for school psychologists and school personnel to be aware of and knowledgeable about the immigration laws specific to their state and district. There should also be an awareness of the educational resources available for Latinos who speak Spanish and Portuguese, with consideration of the standards put forth by the U.S. Department of Education (2014). Second, students and families who are more likely to need additional support related to mental health and community resources need to be identified. Third, school psychologists should recognize both teachers' and administrators' perspectives and beliefs about immigrant students and related challenges so that appropriate support is provided to facilitate effective relationships with Latino immigrant students and their families. School psychologists, therefore, would be better equipped to offer strategies and solutions to support immigrant students when they have a clear understanding of these aforementioned perspectives. With sensitivity to the needs of immigrant families, school psychologists can also provide staff and parent training that would be recognized as valuable by the community.

Increased awareness of immigrant families' needs was amply demonstrated in a study of a Californian elementary school whose administration organized a workshop on immigration policy for undocumented parents to “empower them by increasing their knowledge of their legal rights.” This resulted in stronger family–school partnerships and a greater sense of normalcy among the student population after increased presence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents around the school's neighborhood was observed (Crawford & Fishman-Weaver, 2015). In recognizing the needs of its students and their families, the school was able to advocate appropriately and effectively for its parents and students, providing a good example of how schools can facilitate connections between families and communities.

School psychologists can also help create safe and welcoming environments for Latino immigrant families by advocating for communication between teachers and parents in the language of origin (i.e., Spanish, Portuguese), through a translator or interpreter if necessary, and reaching out to families who are new to the school and community (Peña, Silva, Claro, Gamarra, & Parra, 2008). Soutullo and colleagues (2016) also suggest that school psychologists can work as “systems-level consultants by reviewing their district's policies and procedures pertaining to campus access, [parent] volunteering, and other related factors that may impact home–school collaborations” in order to foster parental involvement and better learning outcomes for students.

In conclusion, while immigration policy will continue to be a controversial issue in the United States, school psychologists and other school personnel hold key positions that allow them to have a positive impact on the lives of Latino immigrant students and their families despite the difficult circumstances and challenges these families face.


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Angela Garcia is a school psychology doctoral student at Nova Southeastern University