Chicago school supports migrant students in coping with trauma

An hour before school ended on a recent Friday afternoon, eight students from Brighton Park Elementary School gathered in a classroom with their teachers, Jennifer Moorhouse and Stephanie Carrillo. Moorhouse and Carrillo run a voluntary support group biweekly for English language learners who are also adjusting to life as new immigrants in a new country, city, and school.

Moorhouse asked the students, who were a mix of sixth to eighth graders, to share the best and worst parts of their week. One boy shared that the best thing was that his family had moved to a new house. Another girl struggled to come up with a worst moment. Moorhouse reassured her that it was okay not to have a low point. The girl then added that there was no high point either, and the whole group burst into laughter after a moment of silence.

These students are part of the more than 20,000 newly arrived migrants in Chicago since last August, according to city officials. The exact number of migrant students enrolled in Chicago Public Schools is unknown, but there has been an increase in English learners this school year compared to previous years.

Amid concerns that many schools lack the resources to provide proper language instruction to new migrant students, Moorhouse and Carrillo have started a support group at Brighton Park Elementary School. The group is based on a model called STRONG (Supporting Transition Resilience of Newcomer Groups), which focuses on helping children understand and cope with their stress before delving into more personal details about their journey to the United States, if they choose to share.

Moorhouse and Carrillo have started the support group by teaching the students about stress, both its physical and emotional effects. They have encouraged the students to reflect on their thoughts, emotions, and actions and how they are interconnected. The students have shared their experiences and feelings, and Moorhouse has challenged them to change their thinking in order to elicit better actions.

As the weeks go on, Moorhouse and Carrillo will meet individually with each student to gauge whether they want to share more about their personal experiences and if they might benefit from additional counseling. It remains to be seen how much the students will participate, but the support group aims to provide social-emotional support for these newly arrived migrant students.

A classroom for English learners at Brighton Park Elementary School has brightly colored phrases translated in English and Spanish on the dry erase board.

Before dismissal, Moorhouse handed out calendar worksheets for the following week. The students will be expected to log how they’ve practiced relaxation strategies when feeling stressed. The support group also provides donated shoes, socks, and clothing to the students in need. The hope is that through these sessions, the students will develop coping mechanisms and find support in their new school environment.

While it’s uncertain how much progress each student will make, the fact that one student stayed behind to speak with Moorhouse one-on-one suggests that the support group is making an impact. As Brighton Park Elementary School continues to address the needs of its newly arrived migrant students, the hope is that other schools will follow suit in providing similar support groups and resources.

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