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Immigrant students and their mental health

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Last week several Asian students were attacked in South Philadelphia High. They have complained that school and District authorities haven’t responded to their concerns sufficiently.

The relevance of caring for these students’ needs is highlighted in the work of Eileen Gale Kugler and Olga Acosta Price in their report "Helping immigrant and refugee students succeed: It’s not just what happens in the classroom," in which they stress the need to provide newly arrived children and their families with the culturally competent assistance they require.

This is the first part of a series of postings in which we will talk about these issues. Check for a follow-up soon.

"The immigrant experience itself brings challenges beyond learning a new language," says the report. "Children often leave close relatives in their home countries, sometimes those they have lived with for years."

The researchers indicate that these issues and their outcome have a direct impact on the children’s behavior, and thus on their academic success. But, often these circumstances go unnoticed because schools lack the cultural awareness that would help them identify what is happening with a disengaged or problematic kid.

"When you raise a kid in an ambiance of insane, ambiance of unclean, ambiance of unhealthy, and the words are negative, then the kid grows like that," said Roger Pin, with the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

These kind of situations make their way into the classrooms, said Pin, who works as a Cambodian Family Advocate.

The problem, he said, is that there is no real connection or understanding between the education officials and families.

"This is what the school forgets to do…raising the kid with the parents as an alliance," he said.

But in order for the school to work in alliance with the parents, it is the parents who have to approach the system first.

"We wouldn’t assume that a child has mental or emotional needs," said Anne Deaner, director of behavioral services for the School District of Philadelphia. "If they present themselves in the classroom or on the social fabric of the school and seem to be having adjustment issues we would work with them through CSAP."

This acronym stands for Comprehensive Student Assistance Process, a School District protocol for removing barriers to learning and to monitor children’s response to those interventions.

Every year some 11,000 children receive school-based behavioral health services, but the District does not keep any figures as to how many immigrant kids are referred into this system.

Deaner explained that through CSAP the children’s needs are assessed and the first step is "having the kid drop in to see a counselor or hooking the kid with some lunch buddies so that he can have a place to fit."

But if the emotional or behavioral issues persist, she said, another mechanism comes in place.

"We refer the kids to an evaluation by a qualified provider agency. There are many outside providers in the city and they’re located in the neighborhoods," Deaner said.

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