Let’s Help Them Be Well

by Abbey Algiers

We all know that the title “ESL teacher” goes well beyond providing English instruction to non-native speakers. ESL teachers are also coaches to staff members, advocates, counselors, cultural ambassadors, and relentless cheerleaders for our English Learners and their families. (ESL will be used here, knowing that our audience is also comprised of ELL, ELD, ESOL, ENL, EAL and other acronyms!)

At the heart of it all, we’re helping our students learn English, assimilate, and navigate the school system. This means providing staff with information on the language, culture, and background of our students. We’re also supporting our students in their classes by providing accommodations on classwork and assistance with assessments. In the process, we get to know our students and their families, and we help them with many things at school and even in their home lives. With the many hats we wear, a better title might be “Wellness Ambassadors,” for we support the physical, emotional, and mental health of our students while guiding them on their academic journeys.

While many of their needs mimic the basic needs of all students, many of our English Learners come to us with unique cultural, financial, or assimilation issues. This means that we as educators need to keep an eye on the following:

  1. Basic Needs:  Many ELL students come from families without the financial means to provide adequate clothing, shoes, outerwear, and school supplies. This can be especially troubling to ELL students, as fitting in with their peers is extremely important to them. That said, it helps when educators help fill in the gaps by making sure our kids have school supplies (art smocks, gym shoes, notebooks, etc.) and proper clothing for school and recess. Connecting families with affordable or free resources for these items can ensure that ELL students blend in with other students and have their basic needs met. Read more about how to work beyond the school walls to support ELL families here.
  2. Nutrition: Proper nutrition and access to breakfast and lunch are critical to our English Learners’ health and wellness and ability to concentrate and function at school.  First, it’s important to be sure families are aware of the options for free and reduced breakfast and lunch. This means checking that families have been informed of the option (in their language) and assisting them as necessary in enrolling. Second, since sometimes newcomers have a hard time eating American food or may not feel comfortable or understand the school cafeteria, we need to make sure our kids are actually eating the free breakfasts and lunches. Finally, providing snacks and water options for our students throughout the day can help fill in the gaps if our eating schedule doesn’t match what they’re used to.
  3. Medical:  It’s important to keep a close eye on our students regarding their overall health - the cold that doesn’t go away, lethargy, a student with a daily headache.  While some conditions may be caused by stress (needing to be addressed as well), others may be caused by underlying health conditions that families simply don’t know how to address. By providing families with options of available caretakers (medical, vision, dental, and hearing), we can help guide and direct them to care for their children and themselves.  It’s often hard to detect problems when students are quiet and unable to communicate in English - meaning as educators we should be extra vigilant to pick up on cues and not so obvious symptoms, from vision problems to toothaches to chronic stomach pain. Working with the appropriate school staff can help connect families to the services they need.
  4. Social & Emotional well-being - The list of potential stressors to our EL students  can be overwhelming. In addition to the obvious stress caused by culture shock and the challenges of fitting in, students’ home lives may be equally as stressful. Perhaps their parents are unemployed (causing financial strain), or employed, but at hours that require students to be alone or care for younger siblings. Limited finances may make living conditions difficult. Finally, children may be dealing with past trauma caused by incidents in their home countries and/or the process of moving to a new place with a new language and culture.  All of these things take a toll on how students feel and interact in the classroom. 

Since the list of stressors is long and varies by student, incorporating wellness practices for all students is key. Therefore, part of our role as “Wellness Ambassadors” might include the following:

  1. Meditation/Breathing breaks:  Whatever modality you prefer, taking time each day to let our students relax and simply breathe may make all the difference. By playing relaxing yoga music and guiding students through some short meditation or breathing exercises, you can help students reduce stress and disconnect. The language barrier isn’t a problem when it comes to relaxing and breathing.  
  2. Yoga:  Let’s take it to the next level and tune into a simple yoga routine. There are countless videos available that allow students to stretch, move, relax, and (as a bonus) learn some great English vocabulary in the process. Yoga is a great opportunity to do something that takes the “heavy” out of our students’ stressful days. Here’s a fun example. 
  3. Recess: Did you know that the Center for Disease Control actually endorses recess for all students, grades K4 - 12? An article by the CDC states that benefits of recess/activity include improving memory & concentration, helping students stay on task, reducing disruptive behavior, and providing stress relief. Recess doesn’t need to involve a playground, either. Any sort of diversion that gets students moving and takes them away from intense learning situations can be helpful. Take students for a walk around the school, do some simple stretching exercises, have a classroom dance party, or play a game that involves movement. 
  4. Brain breaks or routine shift: Sometimes as educators we need to stop and “read the room,” noting when our students have checked out due to exhaustion.  This is particularly true for students learning a new language. Why not incorporate random timeouts, with various opportunities to play short songs, quick games, stretch, or do necessary “busy work” such as cutting out items, desk clean up, etc.?  Then, when the break is over, take a walk to use the restrooms/get water, and then get back to business. Small breaks  are good for everyone involved - from teachers to students! 
  5. Comfortable rest spots and opportunities to quietly read, do fun activities, or and converse quietly with others:  As teachers, we’re task masters, with many standards and benchmarks we want our kids to meet.  But in the midst of all this, let’s not forget that our EL students need some down time where they’re still learning, but not “under the microscope.” A cozy carpeted area, some bean bag chairs, or a quiet reading nook are great spots to decompress, while other areas can be designated as places to socialize. 

As educators of Newcomers, we have the great opportunity to help them succeed academically and find happiness and health as they begin their lives in the United States.  The extra help we offer does make a difference. Our efforts will no doubt be remembered by our students and their families for years to come, making our jobs as English teachers and Wellness Ambassadors rewarding for all. 

To Further Your Learning:

Introducing Students to Meditation - from ESL Library

Recess - from CDC Schools 

Brain breaks for English learners increase focus, motivation, and engagement - from Multi Briefs

Additional Information: 

Connection with ELL Families- from Colorin’ Colorado 

Addressing ELLS Learning and Special Education Needs Questions and Considerations- from Colorin’ Colorado

12 Ways to Support ELLS in the Mainstream Classroom - from Cult of Pedagogy

5 Things Teachers Can Do To Improve Learning for ELLS - from Reading Rockets

How Teens Can Benefit from Recess - from Concordia University, Portland

See our set of professional learning offering options.

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