Preparing Teens for Academic and Future Success

How NVFS’ Youth Initiatives Programs work with youth, their families and community partners to create a welcoming and productive school experience for first-time U.S. students

first-time U.S. studentsGoing back to school can be an exciting, yet daunting, experience for any child. It can be especially challenging, however, for students who are not only new to a particular school, but new to this country and getting acclimated to a whole new community.

“While many of these newly-arrived students already possess resiliency factors developed while surviving atrocities in their home country, they lack a sense of security and belonging with their ‘new’ family,” shares JuanCarlos Lagares, NVFS mental health counselor. “Stress and exhaustion becomes the norm as they are constantly stimulated by a new language and new structure at school. Students do not know who to turn to for help, since school resources are very different from their experience in their home country. When students come home from school, they contend with adapting to a new, often tumultuous, family and community environment.”

NVFS’ Violence Prevention and Intervention Program (VPIP) works with youth who have recently come to the United States to help them understand what to expect in the public school system, as well as what is expected of them. Group workshops, conducted in the students’ native language, include basic information on school hours, absences and after-school activities, as well as what activities to steer clear of, how to handle bullying and how to identify resources within their community (e.g., parents, teachers, counselors, etc.) if they need help. NVFS staff who lead these workshops usually have a shared experience of acclimating to life in a new country and understand the students’ perspectives to better help guide them through the experience.

This will help me think things over before I do them.

One thing I’ll do differently is talk to my school counselor.

I know I can be better in the future. Everything comes in time.

– Feedback from workshop attendees

Last year alone, VPIP staff provided one-time workshops to 285 students in Fairfax County on acculturation and other important topics, such as choosing positive peers and establishing healthy relationships. Group cohorts comprising 177 students (55 middle, 10 elementary and 112 high school) in Fairfax County and the city of Alexandria also received six to 12 weeks of more comprehensive services, including goal setting, conflict resolution, stress management and decision making.

Students are not the only ones in their families who are new the community or U.S. schools, however; VPIP also provides trainings for their parents. Workshops help parents understand not only the same norms, such as student attendance expectations and community resources, but more importantly, how VPIP is explaining these expectations to and working with their children to help them be successful.

Another critical component to helping these students succeed is working with school staff to ensure they understand the unique backgrounds and experiences such students may have faced and how these experiences may affect their behavior in the classroom, their attitudes toward school and their relationships with staff members. For example, a 16-year-old who may have been living in fear in his or her home country and doesn’t have a strong relationship with his or her parents may have difficulty trusting staff members, focusing in the classroom, envisioning his or her future, and understanding what is expected of them at school or reaching out for help.

Staff trainings have been provided to a variety of personnel — from parent liaisons and school social workers to English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teachers, principals and school psychologists — in Fairfax and Arlington counties, as well as the city of Alexandria.

Training focuses on topics such as:

  • Trauma: common types of traumatic exposure, including violence and abuse; the effects of trauma on the brain; and how it affects student behavior in school
  • Vulnerabilities: students’ lack of trust as a result of traumatic experiences, lack of relationship with family members, and learning disabilities or low academic achievement because of interrupted school experiences
  • Family reunification: students’ feelings of isolation and/or lack of parental figure, parents’ struggles with managing a teenager who has been predominantly independent, and acclimating to new family structures

Trainers also provide strategies teachers and administrators can take to engage students effectively and provide them with necessary support to cope with their new environment, and to remember that these students are working very hard through all of the new changes and systems with which they are faced.

“School staff are often eager and willing to support their students who are making such a difficult transition to a new country and a new school, but often feel ill-equipped as to how,” observes Kate Reen, NVFS Youth Initiatives program manager. “Our goal is to equip them with knowledge and strategies that will free them to be teachers, not social workers, but the best teachers for these particular students.”

By providing this three-pronged approach — working with students, parents and school staff combined — NVFS is able to help first-time U.S. students receive the mental and emotional support they need, become more engaged members of their community and excel in school for future success.

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The Importance of Hope for Survivors of Torture and Trauma