Community Schools Facilitate a “Soft Landing” for New Arrivals

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The Children’s Aid Society’s community schools employ early intervention to prevent and treat mental health problems. While school-based clinical services are available to all students, our mental health staff proactively seek students who are more at risk, such as recent arrivals. Many immigrant students face barriers well beyond language acquisition and academic achievement. Cultural adjustment, grief, separation anxiety, poverty, fear, isolation and acculturation are stressors that many new arrivals must overcome. These challenges can bring serious consequences if unattended.

The Gregorio Luperón High School in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City has a large number of immigrant students, mostly from the Dominican Republic. Since last September, Erica Echavarria, a Children’s Aid Society social worker, has been offering counseling services there to students who have been in this country less than a year, typically one to six months. She says that, aside from the obvious challenges such as language acquisition, these students face self-esteem issues when they are put in lower grades due to lack of skill in English.

“That is very upsetting to many of them,” she said. “Another common problem is that they are living in very cramped conditions. They might live in a rented room with their mother, sister and brother and they don’t have space to do their homework or to relax when they come home from school.”

She adds that many of these young people come to New York to be reunited with a parent or parents after being raised by other family members and they do not really know each other. Still others come to live with relatives that they do not know at all. These situations usually bring a lot of stress to all involved. Children also face enormous pressure from their parents to stay true to their culture while simultaneously feeling pressure at school to fit in.

Generally, then, the counseling process must include students’ families because many are going through traumatic changes in family dynamics that often occur as their children become more “Americanized.” These stresses occur along with the struggles of settling in a new country.

A major challenge to accepting help is the stigma that mental health issues have in the Latin culture. “Sometimes when students see me down the hallway, they say ‘Here comes the girl that picks the crazy ones.’ Most families share this cultural misperception; when you say ‘social worker,’ they hear ‘trouble down the road’ not ‘possible solutions.’"

Ms. Echavarria tries to dispel their fear and the stigma by clearly explaining the process. “I tell them that we provide this support system for kids who are new in the country and that this can really help them adapt to the new system faster − that counseling is just a way of getting things off your chest and finding healthy ways to cope.”

Another way of bridging cultural differences is by assessing other needs the families may have. “Some are trying to fix their immigration status, find housing, or get food,” says Ms. Echavarria. Oftentimes they may have experienced abuse and may need referrals to other agencies … I also remind families that their kids are going through a lot of changes and I explain ways that parents can help their children adjust to living here. That could mean spending more time getting to know the surroundings, taking the train together, talking more about how all of them feel − simple things like that. I also discuss with parents their attitudes regarding child-rearing, especially discipline practices that may be against the law in this country but are totally normal for them back home.”

As part of the healing process, Ms. Echavarria encourages the students to get involved in after-school and other extra-curricular activities and teaches them simple anxiety-coping techniques like deep breathing. “Sometimes that works. I always ask them what they do when they feel bad, how they cope with these challenges. Some of them will tell you they cry, write poetry, draw or listen to music. I encourage them to keep doing whatever has been working for them.” She also recommends that they connect with their community and find service opportunities.

Because Ms. Echavarria has been at Luperón High School only a few months, she cannot cite specific results. “Progress depends on many variables − the student’s personality, the support he gets at home, if she makes friends in the school or connects with a teacher or other positive adult. All these factors can accelerate the process of adaptation. But I know that some kids definitely benefit and appreciate our help.”

Ms. Echavarria recalls one young woman who referred herself for services. “She was always crying and unhappy. During the first few sessions, we talked about how she was feeling and what some of the things were that she could do to feel better. Then she became involved with a project in her hometown in the Dominican Republic, organizing a group against youth violence over the phone and by e-mail, and organizing students here in New York City to participate as well. As a result, her self-confidence improved and I noticed her focusing less on her problems and more on building up this group. I would say that’s a success story.”