Teaching Charlene: How Teachers’ Awareness of SIFE Students Effects their Learning in the Classroom

How Teachers’ Awareness of SIFE Students Effects their Learning in the Classroom

Written by Margaret Grace Infantino,  The University of North Carolina at Charlotte


            There is a range of research on Students with interrupted formal education (SIFE) and what educators and schools need to do to support these students, it is beyond the scope of this essay. This essay synthesizes research of SIFE students coming from Mexico and Central America to the United States. Specifically, what teachers and schools are not aware of when it comes to SIFE students sitting in their classroom. Secondly, this essay addresses ways in which teachers and schools can become aware of SIFE students in their classrooms. Next, this essay identifies the underlying problems and what is not being done for this specific demographic of students. Finally, this essay explores different supports for educators to become aware and implement in their classroom to make a more effective learning environment for SIFE students.


First year teaching, for all educators out there, we spend weeks preparing to educate the students sitting in front of you every day. We spend sleepless nights focusing on curriculum, lesson plans and what can we fit in day to day to prepare these students for our future. My first-year teaching, a year of the unknown. Charlene is a newcomer who begins the school year as one of my English Language Learner students (Els). She is in third grade and is 8 years old. She does not speak any English and being very aware of that knowing she had just arrived from El Salvador. She is 1 of many newcomers in our school. I do my best to prepare myself and research about EL Salvador. I know there will be a language barrier, but I am determined to teach her English. This is why I am here, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, I was not prepared for the next part of her story. I’ll never forget the day Charlene’s mother came in for a parent teacher conference. It was me, the classroom teacher and the interpreter. I knew Charlene by now, she was kind, hard-working and eager to learn English along with her peers. This would be a positive conference. Her mom started to cry, she explained to us that it has been the first time she has seen Charlene in 8 years. She had to leave her in El Salvador because if she didn’t, they would have all been living on the street. She needed to make a change and knew eventually she would come to the United States, make enough money to get Charlene there with her. 8 years later, she explains that Charlene had to stay with her grandfather and uncles. She had 1 year of schooling and after that she was in and out of school but nothing formal. Charlene was not proficient in her first language. I had no idea. Charlene was sexually abused, and her mother told us she has been through and has seen a lot of traumatic things in her short life. The mom was beside herself; she took the blame for everything that had happened. I was in shock. I thought I knew my students and their backgrounds. I thought Charlene was doing great in pull out ESL and in the classroom. I had a student sitting in my room who was SIFE and has had a traumatizing life.

This is not what I was prepared for or what first-year teachers are prepared for. I spent the first couple months of school thinking Charlene was thriving and was learning with no distractions. No, she was not. She was not literate in her first language (L1) and we were expecting her to become literate in her second language (L2) at a quick pace. Not only was she not literate, she has experienced traumatizing events in her life. Our school was not prepared for students with interrupted formal education. This essay synthesizes research on how educators and schools can become aware and prepare for these students.

SIFE Students from Mexico and Central America

About half (48%) leave their home country because of their experience with violence in their community (including gang violence, organized crime or government and sexual violence) and/or interpersonal/domestic violence. These youths’ countries of origin- Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala- have among the highest rates of violence, crime and poverty in the region (Kandel, 2017; University of Washington,2017). Because of these traumatic experiences parents and children make a difficult journey to the U.S for multifaced and complex reasons, escaping the high rates of violent crime in their home countries is often leading influence, along with family separation and reunification and limited economic opportunity (Donato & Perez, 2017; Kandel, William A; Bruno, Andorra; Meyer, Peter J; Seelke, Clare Ribando; Taft-Morales, Maureen; Wasem, 2014). The same reasons why Charlene’s mother came to the United States and had to leave her behind in El Salvador facing some of the most horrible circumstances. Statistics and understanding can educate our teachers and administration on the “why” are these children coming to the United States. SIFE students go beyond the unlimited academics, their experiences create a difficult transition into the U.S schools. 

As stated in the introduction, students who have experienced trauma could have a difficult time adjusting and learning in the classroom. A traumatic experience can impact a child and young person’s educational performance and behavior in school and may increase the risk of dropout. Porche, Fortuna, Lin, & Alegria (2011), Traumatic experiences in childhood can negatively impact concentration, memory and the ability to process information, which are necessary for children to succeed in school.

Arriving in U.S Schools: Challenges

As educators we need to be aware of what our students’ backgrounds are when they step foot into our classrooms. Understanding our students will help create supports that meet their individual needs. “U.S schools do not often recognize the prevalence of students with interrupted formal schooling or have educational supports in place to better serve them (Colon, Ingrid, T., 2019). Schools are teachers are not prepared for SIFE students and it is becoming a problem as we receive more students with trauma and limited formal education. For example, “11.4 percent of tenth grade immigrant students have experienced interrupted formal schooling before arriving in the U.S. 65% of SIFE students are more likely to arrive in the U.S at the secondary-grade age (Colon, Ingrid, T., 2019) Other findings were found as well in the younger ages of SIFE students. “SIFE students with those of other English learner students notes that students with interrupted formal schooling are 20 percent to 50 percent less likely to meet proficiency standards on fourth and eighth-grade and math tests. They also take longer to test out of the English Learner status and are considered long-term Els” (Colon, Ingrid, T., 2019). Therefore, research proves the challenges that these students face when it comes to academics. There needs to be more newcomer resources that focus on differentiating for the SIFE student in the classroom. Some newcomer students come with formal education and are proficient in their L1 and will not have as many challenges. But for those who have experienced trauma, and limited formal education need more than what is currently given to them in school systems.

Arriving in U.S Schools: Strengths

Despite the SIFE students’ major challenges in their life, they arrive to the United States and in the classroom with strengths as well. “These students bring a rich range of linguistic knowledge, life skills, coping strategies and resilience that can serve as a foundation for academic learning (Hickey, Pamela, J., 2015). If the educational system didn’t see only the challenges that these students face when coming into schools, we would see how resilient they are and academically can grow. It starts with understanding our students’ situations and taking the time to meet their needs emotionally and mentally.

SIFE Students in School

“U.S schools to not often recognize the prevalence of students with interrupted formal schooling or have educational supports in place to better serve them (Colon, Ingrid, T., 2019). As educators we often assume and compare students and their specific needs. This could mislead the supports our students really need to succeed. For example, a report on students with interrupted formal schooling conducted in 2010 by Advocates for Children of New York indicated that schools not only fail to identity SIFE students but also tend to classify them to receive special education services due to the lack of academic skills at their age/grade level (Colon, Ingrid, T., 2019). This type of situation could be stopped in schools if all our teachers were educated on the SIFE students in their school and general information we need to know to support these specific students. The lack of language in their L2 will set these students back but does not mean they are not going to grow. We become aware of their backgrounds, traumas, strengths, challenges and we go from there.


            Policymakers need to begin to advocate as we continue to research SIFE students in our classroom. “New Immigrant Survey (NIS)-a national multi-cohort longitudinal study of new documented immigrants and their children to the U.S-to include indicators on children’s pre-migration schooling that can be used to better serve this community of learners in schools” (Colon, Ingrid, T., 2019). Understanding the students that are coming into our schools with limited or no formal education could can be valuable when beginning to plan instruction in the classroom. The resources provided to SIFE students is very unpredictable all over the country and different from state to state. Some states are becoming aware and recognizing the needs to support and set these students up for success. Other states are dismissing the supports and these students are falling through the cracks.  A pre assessment given to families and SIFE students can be a good indicator what they know in their L1 and support schools and teachers to be prepared in their classroom. The U.S Department of Education created a Newcomer Tool Kit. They started to understand the needs of SIFE students, and the resources schools needed. Newcomer programs were created to get SIFE students to get comfortable in U.S schools, providing resources and foundational skills in content areas (Colon, Ingrid, T., 2019).

According to the New York State Educational Department there are valuable resources that are provided for the districts and schools for SIFE students. Many of the resources involve questionnaire, screeners (SIFE & writing), frequent asked questions and SIFE identification chart. Even resources as simple as questionnaires can help determine what SIFE students and families have experienced and what they know and do not know. This would give any teacher valuable information to prepare their classroom for SIFE students.

Supporting SIFE Students

“Caring is not enough.” We as educators devote our time and love into our classrooms and our students daily. Caring is a huge factor to helping our students succeed and understanding our classroom demographics. “Teachers play an essential tole in providing support to help immigrant and refugee students adjust. Caring should be the core of education” (Hos, Rabia, 2014). Therefore, not only do we need to know our general demographics of our students, but it is important that we take the time to understand their backgrounds and what they come into our classrooms with. Their strengths and weaknesses will help build a foundation for their learning from day one and help support all their individual needs. “Schools in most cases, are the primary contexts through which refugee children learn about and are socialized to their relocation community. Knowledge of the school experiences of adolescent refugee SIFE is necessary to provide support for students to achieve success in the U.S education system” (Hos, Rabia, 2014). In summary, schools need to be the place where they provide support for students and understand their specific needs before entering the school and classroom. Schools should be our students safe place. Every day they walk in they should feel welcomed and supported. Providing a safe environment will allow students to feel confident to learn regardless of their limited education and trauma they have experienced in their home countries.

Small forms of affirmation and praise to students will give them the confidence and positivity that won’t hold them back from learning. This study showed Mrs. Smith recognizing her students’ needs and understanding their backgrounds. She had to learn more about her students and where they were coming from. “Mrs. Smith was attentive to students’ anxieties as they adjusted to a new life in the United States.” She would praise her students. “Especially for students who needed a boost of self-confidence, such as Ray and Saleh, Mrs. Smith would express her appreciation for their hard work in school” (Hos, Rabia, 2014).

Support Needed

Schools need leaders who are advocating for their teachers to get the support they need and awareness they need in their classrooms. “While there is awareness of refugee SIFE’s needs for psychological support, sufficient support is often not available in schools” (Hos, Rabia, 2014). So, schools need to become aware and begin to advocate for these families and their students. With the support from the school, families will feel safe and trust their students are in good hands. Teachers care and put their whole heart into their students, but sometimes it is not sufficient enough for student achievement. Educators come into this profession to educate, build or future and love these students, but what we aren’t prepared for this how teachers play a key role in advocating in every single way for their students outside of the classroom too. Mrs. Smith was interviewed during this study and she summed up what it takes to begin understanding and advocating for her students. Mrs. Smith (2014) “It is also the teachers’ responsibility to act as a counselor. A lot of homeroom teachers’ jobs, and it was very undefined at this school, but its been more defined for me at other schools that I’ve worked at is that homeroom teacher is kind of your counselor and. it’s that persons job to steer you straight.” So, with this said, yes, teachers have to take that responsibility but need the professional help to back up their support for the student. More counselors, more resources for families in the community, advocating and education of SIFE students and what they go through.


To begin advocating for students and their families, schools and teachers need to be educated specially in SIFE students and their experiences. Through teachers experiences with these students in their classroom, they are the most important advocate because they know their student, they know what can motivate them and what will hold them back. “ESOL teachers often play a key role in advocating for students (Harklau, 1994). Often teachers in schools reach out to the community for resources in their classroom. Community outreach programs and families should also be educated on the

Supporting Teachers

Who exactly is aware of these issues? The lack of knowledge of our SIFE students leads to the lack of support from the districts. We are setting up these students for failure not providing the correct resources and education behind their possible experiences in their home countries. “Because of the lack of support from administrators, she is limited in her efforts of providing the best education for the SIFE newcomer program” (Hos, Rabia, 2014). Mrs. Smith puts all of her effort finding resources, creating GoFundMe pages for her classroom so she can support all of her students’ individual needs. She cannot do it alone, and alone is not what is best for the students in her classroom. In summary, Mrs. Smith experience was very similar to mine with Charlene. I was not prepared for Charlene and for a few months before meeting her mom, I was setting her up for failure. My whole perspective was changed, and I was able to teach my students to their individual needs. Some students made small growth and others made big, but I was aware of reasons why because of learning their background knowledge. Every bit of growth was praised in our ESL department.


My perspective changed as I read research on SIFE students. I thought there would be a wide range of different resources and ways these students are being supported. But as I read, researchers posed the same questions or provided very similar ways in which these students were being or not being supported in the classroom. More research is necessary as the number of SIFE students arrive in the United States and we are failing to provide the best education for them because of the lack of resources and knowledge in the school systems.


Reflective Essay

It is obvious that the research and resources for SIFE students is very limited. We can conclude that most researchers have the same answers and still the same questions. Similar to Charlene’s situation, students come to our country unable to read or write in their L1 and we expect them to come right in and learn an L2. On top of all that, these students come in with traumatic and stressful experiences we sometimes cannot relate to. “ these students who may also experience a high incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder, struggle with “cultural adjustment” or identity issues (Spaulding, Carolino & Amen, 2004, p.8), and need intensive literacy and content instruction as well as an introduction to the basic of the American school/classroom culture. Teachers are able to come up with strategies and supports in their classroom for SIFE students that will help them, but it goes further than that. We need the professional supports from administration, counselors and districts that will help advocate for families. As noted above, there seems to be a trend with the lack of support there is in the schools. As we continue to have more SIFE students coming to the U.S and coming to school, whether it is Elementary or Secondary, there becomes more of a need to research ways to help set our Els but for success.

I believe my interaction with Charlene’s mom that day is a very common situation in schools every day. It opened my eyes to so much more than being their teacher. I was influenced to be the best I could be for those students and knew understanding their backgrounds and learning to advocate was where I needed to start. This moment also influenced my purpose as an educator. A moment I will never forget. As we continue to see more SIFE and refugee students enter the U.S and enroll in schools, the more common this is. While researching, the same problem was brought up on the lack of support there is in schools and with teachers. There are no resources that set up our SIFE students for success. A very common conclusion was found in the research, “little is known about the educational well-being of this population of vulnerable children. Without more information, this population risks falling between the crack and being denied access to the education they deserve and require to succeeding” (Avrushin, A. & Coleman D., 2017). Therefore, there needs to be more specific research in this area of education. A lot of same situations are written, research done, and the same questions posed. But what can we do differently so SIFE students do not fall through the cracks in academics? Utilizing resources and becoming advocates for these students and their families can help close the gap. But the most important resource to SIFE students are the teachers, staff and administrators in schools that can welcome them and learn about the experiences they have faced to make more warming environments for them. As I look back on this specific situation, Charlene was not my only SIFE student but she was my first SIFE student and my last to allow months to go by without learning more about where she came from and the trauma she had experienced in her home country.



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