Struggles and Changes Faced by Migrant Students


Immigrant students, including refugees, face incredible challenges – challenges for which their young minds and bodies are not equipped to navigate as deftly as their parents or other adults.  It is important for schools and teachers to recognize and address these obstacles to learning in order to lift students to their highest potential academically and personally.

Students entering a new country, a new school, and a new way of life are likely to struggle with academic learning to some degree as they become acclimated to their new home and environment.  However, it is important not to let those initial slow steps define the student’s academic outlook forever.  As the OECD points out, voluntary immigrant families, and often involuntary immigrants, are usually eager to take advantage of all resources available to advance their children’s education and career prospects.  The children in these families, too, are highly ambitious.  In Australia, Israel, and the United States more immigrant students from disadvantaged households perform in the top quartile on PISA than their non-immigrant counterparts.  These students are overcoming dual obstacles of poverty and acculturation.  (Helping Immigrant Students, 2015, p. 18) (Schleicher, 2016)

Many immigrant students may be faced with language difficulties in that their native language or previous language of instruction does not match their new situation. While some schools may feel the need to hold immigrant students back a grade level or enroll them in an alternative language program before moving into the mainstream classroom, in order to help immigrant students succeed in their new school, they should be integrated into the mainstream classroom as early as possible.  This should be done in addition to concentrated language training to avoid falling behind academically as they age.  Younger students tend to acclimatize to their new school and country more quickly and more successfully than older students. (Helping Immigrant Students, 2015, p. 10, 12)(Here’s how schools, 2019)  Inclusion in the mainstream class will also help students’ to adjust to their new culture and to make friends.

“These highly motivated students, managing to overcome the double disadvantage of poverty and an immigrant background, have the potential to make exceptional contributions to their host countries.” (Schleicher, 2016)

Maintaining high expectations for student learning should be a blanket policy, but it is of even greater import for the immigrant student. Schools cannot fall into the trap of assuming a child is of a certain ability, attitude, or experience based on misconceptions or stereotypes of that child’s situation or culture.  In a riveting presentation “The danger of the single story,” author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns us, “…the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” (2009) As educators, we would take our students’ best interests into consideration by conducting enrollment interviews with immigrant students and their families, including an interpreter, if necessary.  This will set the basis of trust as well as provide an opportunity to collate data on the student’s health, previous schooling, background, cultural considerations, etc., dispelling myths, misconceptions, or preconceived notions. (Here’s how schools, 2019)

In a way, the academic and language struggles for immigrant students is quite a straightforward endeavor.  There is content to learn, skills to master, and assessments to measure achievement.  With the right environment and pedagogy, any child can succeed in this realm.  A more challenging part of a child’s transition to a new country and new school is in their sense of well-being, belonging, and cultural identity.

According to PISA results, when asked, 15 year old immigrants report a feeling of acceptance at the same rate as non-immigrant students in some countries, including in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel. (Helping Immigrant Students, 2015, p. 6-7) However, this is not always the case and in many countries and situations students struggle mightily to feel a part of their new group.

Philip Harrington writes this “Sense of Belonging” arises from kinship with other children in their situation. Harrington’s studies of international schools describe the unique cultural construct formulated by students there built on their shared experiences (several cultural influences on identity, unidentifiable “home” country) rather than from either of their parents’ cultures or the culture of their host country. (2008, p. 13)  These children are sometimes referred to as Third Culture Kids or TCKs. This term has been around since the 1950s to describe anyone who identifies with two or more cultures, which often includes International school students, as well as the more traditional usage to describe immigrant children or children from parents of two different nationalities.  (2008, p. 12) Recent discussion with my own classmates reveals that many TCKs actually prefer the term Cross Culture Kids or CCK, because it feels a more suitable fit for those who have moved often in their childhoods and beyond.

Of course not all immigrant students or CCKs will find themselves in international schools; they are more likely to attend public school in their host country.  As an Indian-American child growing up in Rhode Island, Jhumpa Lahiri, observed friends whose ancestors had immigrated to the US who felt confident in their “hyphenated labels,” but Lahiri, as the first-generation immigrant herself, struggled to reconcile the two cultures pulling at her identity. (Lahiri, 2006) Yes, it may be an exceptional opportunity for an immigrant student of one culture to integrate into the second culture of their host country, “but it can also mean a child does not adequately acquire either.” (2008, p. 12) If students are feeling lost and adrift without a sense of belonging to a culture, a group, a classroom, this will have negative consequences for their academics and their development as a healthy, whole person.  With sensitivity and awareness, educators can make the transition into a new school and culture easier for immigrant students, setting them up for success.

“[PISA] results suggest that the psychological wellbeing of immigrant students is affected not only by differences between their country of origin and country of destination, but also by how well the schools and local communities in their country of destination help them to overcome the myriad obstacles they face in succeeding at school and building a new life.” (Helping Immigrant Students, 2015, p. 6)

I’ve recorded my own story of being an immigrant adjusting to Japan in this video.


Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. (2009, July). The danger of a single story. TEDGlobal 2009.

Harrington, Philip. (2008, November). The negotiation of identity in an intemational school setting. International Schools Journal. 28(1). 12-16.

Helping Immigrant Students to Succeed at School – and Beyond. (2015). Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. 1-19.

Here’s how schools can help migrant students succeed in school. (2019, March 5). Study International News.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. (2006, March). My Two Lives. Excerpt from Newsweek World News.

Schleicher, Andreas. (2016, February 10). Migrant students ‘more motivated to learn’. BBC News Online.

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