Feel confident and prepared to help your students by reading about these common barriers a new English Langauge Learner might run into this school year!
It can be overwhelming to stop and think about just how many barriers our ESL students face. From the very fact that it’s challenging for them to communicate with their classmates and their peers, to past traumas they may have experienced, it can feel uncomfortable to wonder how we as teachers can help students overcome even one of these barriers. It can be so tempting to stick our heads in the sand and just keep on teaching the way we always have. However, knowing the common barriers a new English Language Learner might run into will help take away some of the overwhelm, because you’ll have the opportunity to create a plan! Read on for the most common barriers our ESL students face, along with a few tips on how to make each barrier feel just a little less overwhelming.
If you’re anything like me, you have more than just newcomers to worry about! Teaching ESL can be a challenge, but it doesn’t have to take over your life! Click here to download the free guide to helping your ESL classroom run like a dream! You’ll gain back your time and your sanity…and maybe even your love of teaching.
Before we begin, remember these are just a few of the common barriers a new English Language Learner might run into! It’s certainly not an exhaustive list. After you read, take a few minutes to brainstorm barriers that are unique to your students and your context. Do your students tend to have to take care of younger siblings? Do your students have to work after school? Are there tests that your district requires that may be especially challenging? Once you have a list, you’ll be able to think about how to tackle each barrier and make a plan!
1) Mental Health Challenges
Let’s start with the big one, and the main reality our students are facing. No matter how you end up as a new English Language Learner, something difficult happened. Whether it was a move to another country by choice or escaping a war-torn nation, your student’s life is nothing like what it used to be! More than likely, everything is different, confusing, and overwhelming. They probably left behind friends and family, their favorite foods, and the comfort of a familiar environment.
The best-case scenario is that the move to an English-speaking country was a choice that the whole family made together. Hopefully, it came with excitement and joy, and without trauma forcing the family’s hand. The worst-case scenario is that there was no choice involved, and the move came as a result of extreme trauma.
While, obviously, a student who came to your classroom as a refugee will have far more mental health challenges than a student whose family moved by choice, both students may experience challenging emotions, including possible feelings of depression and anxiety.
So…now what? We started out with a doozy, but that doesn’t mean there’s no hope. Start by checking in with your school’s counselor or social worker (if you’re lucky enough to have one!) See what resources are available on-site, including support groups or one-on-one time with a counselor. Many schools have resources to refer a student to therapy or an outside support group for low or no cost. Use these resources!
In your classroom, give your students space to process. Sensory or calm-down corners are great, but a quiet moment with some colored pencils works, too! Being in an all-English speaking environment can be exhausting for new English Language Learners, so be sure to give ample breaks away from language, especially to start. If you sense a student becoming overly frustrated, that’s a great time to take a break, too! Helping your students to feel comfortable and feel safe taking risks in your classroom is going to be far more helpful than pushing them to work through frustration before they are ready!
If you’ve ever tried learning a new language, you know that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. New English Language Learners may be excited to learn English to start, but that excitement often turns to discouragement. Students realize that they can’t communicate with the people around them and that they’re not learning as quickly as they had hoped. Some students might be discouraged by their accent, and others might be discouraged that they aren’t getting the grammar just right. What was once a fun new adventure becomes a real barrier to understanding what’s happening around them and communicating their own needs.
Luckily for you, discouragement isn’t too hard to combat! What it takes is my favorite thing… celebrating! Celebrate every new word, every attempt at speaking, and every time they understand a new question. It is so difficult to see progress as you’re learning a new language, as vocabulary is learned slowly and communication remains a barrier for a long time. Celebrating the little things will help your students see that they are, in fact, making forward progress, and will help keep the discouragement at bay!
3) Lack of Parental Involvement
I want to be careful with this one, because so many low-income and ESL families get a bad rap for lack of parental involvement. First, I have never met a parent who didn’t want what they thought was best for their child. Whether or not we agree on what’s best is a different story, but every parent wants their child to have a great life. Every parent wants their child to succeed, be happy, and thrive.
However, not every parent is in a place where they can do everything schools expect them to do.
When we think about the common barriers a new English Language Learner might run into, we need to remember that their parents are facing those, and so many more! They’re probably also trying to learn English, and may feel frustrated that they’re learning slower than their children. They’re also likely trying to figure out a job, navigate grocery stores and doctors' appointments, get their driver's license or figure out public transportation, and so much more, all on top of trying to figure out your school’s expectations of them.
Start by assuming positive intent. Even the most overwhelmed parent cares about their children! Next, remember that these families might not be used to participating in their children’s schooling! In some cultures, talking to the teacher is inappropriate, in others, it only happens when the child is in trouble! Start by laying out how you like to communicate with families. Then, follow-up! Send a positive note home, call home using an interpreter to celebrate successes, and make sure you’ve made a personal invitation for families to attend school events. Sometimes, the parents just need to know that you really do want them there!
This one is similar to number 1, but I think it's important enough to warrant its own section.
Let’s start this one by remembering that we as teachers are not able to diagnose PTSD. However, if you work with a refugee community, you have probably come to learn that PTSD is unfortunately one of the most common barriers a new English Language Learner might run into.
The trouble with PTSD is that it can be triggered in so many different ways, but once we know the trigger, we can work to find solutions. For instance, I taught four children whose school in the Congo had been attacked during their final exams. Before I knew their story, they struggled every time we had a test, so I would let them take the test on their own during recess, or sit with them while they tested. Once I learned what happened, it all made sense, and we were able to put even more accommodations in place. We stopped calling tests “tests” and let the students choose their seats. These kids felt so much safer during a test if they could have their back to a wall and their face toward the door, but didn’t feel strongly about where they sat during non-testing times. What an easy accommodation! Once I knew something was wrong, I was able to do something about it to help.
I want to be SUPER clear about one thing here, though. I started making accommodations for students when I noticed something was wrong, but I did not ask what was wrong. Students do not need you to pry and ask what’s wrong. Notice the challenge, and offer accommodations kindly and quietly. These students offered up their story one day after we had known each other for a year and a half. You can accommodate students’ needs without knowing the details!
While PTSD triggers can vary greatly, here’s a list of major ones I’ve noticed with my students:
-Anyone in Military Gear or Police Gear (remember, our country wasn’t necessarily the good guys in their eyes!)
Things to think about: Veterans Day/ Memorial Day, Lessons about War, Police Visits/ On-Site Security
Things to think about: big rooms with echos, dropping books, clapping to get students’ attention, slamming doors, assemblies
Things to think about: testing, quiet work time (can you play some soft music?)
-Fire Alarms, Active Shooter Drills
While Active Shooter Drills may be a special hell unique to the U.S.A., fire drills are practiced throughout the world. The districts I’ve taught in required a certain number of “surprise” drills for each, that students and teachers were not meant to know about in advance. However, these drills can be incredibly difficult for our new English Language Learners, especially those who have come from war or traumatic backgrounds. Sit down with your administration and see if you can get an exemption for your students. One of my principals would call my classroom 15 minutes before a drill so I could meet with my newcomer students, review what to expect, and ask what they needed to feel safe. Generally, students would just request to sit near me or a close friend, and occasionally asked for noise-canceling headphones they could put on after the drill began. We were sworn to secrecy, but it made a huge difference in their ability to cope and feel secure at school.
Now that you know what common barriers to expect, it’s time to make your classroom the engaging, peaceful space you know it can be! Click here for 7 Secrets to Help Your ESL Class Run Like a Dream. You deserve to feel confident and calm in your classroom, and these secrets will help you on your way.
Teaching ESL students is challenging, but you are capable of supporting your students and finding success in the classroom! Knowing the common barriers a new English Language Learner might run into will help you make accommodations for your students and move toward success!
Hey there! I'm so glad you're here!
Leutz of Love Blog