Lessons from the Field

Becoming social justice advocates: Working with ELL youth

Two mentors learn firsthand that the challenge faced by students learning a new language can be less daunting than the challenges faced in adapting to a new culture.

By Amy Bremer, MA, and Emma Merry, MA

English language learners (ELLs) face a multitude of challenges putting them at risk for a variety of mental health issues including academic failure, drop out, and limited social and post-secondary mobility (Albers, et al., 2009; Albers, Hoffman, & Lundahl, 2009; Crosnoe & Turley, 2011; Gonzales, 2011; Gudino, Nadeem, & Kataoka, 2011; Varela, 2011). Youth concerned about their immigration status (e.g. documented or undocumented) may be at even greater risk for experiencing these mental health issues due to the impact that immigration status has on future options (e.g., post-secondary education, work). Currently, there is little research available that addresses how best to meet the needs of these students (Albers et al., 2009; Gonzales, 2011). Nonetheless, schools have a responsibility to provide adequate services for all students and, given the rising US population of ELL and immigrant students, there is a vital need to increase knowledge and better understand their specific and unique needs. As future school psychologists we have the potential to increase the quality and quantity of service delivery for ELL students; however, practicing school psychologists may not have the knowledge to help meet the unique needs of these students. In such cases, school psychologists must self-advocate to acquire such knowledge. This is best accomplished via direct and regular engagement with ELL students. This article is a reflection of my having done so during my second year practicum. Also touched upon are some lessons I gleaned from this experience regarding the importance of advocating for social justice for all students. To do so requires knowledge particular to each unique population of students we serve.

Practicum experiences

During second year practicum, the authors completed a mentoring/counseling experience in a middle/high school exclusively serving ELL students. The school offers a range of supports and services available for students from various culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. As practicum students we had the opportunity to work with students at this school for four to nine months.

Amy’s experience: During my practicum experience, I co-facilitated a conflict resolution group for EL Salvadorian and Mexican high school students. The conflict resolution group was formed by the school’s administration due to growing friction between the two groups. The students had little interest in addressing their differences, which may have been, in part, due to perceived pressure from administration to participate in the group. However, conversations about the challenges associated with ELL status fostered more engagement between these students. My co-facilitator was a police officer and community liaison. Being Latino himself, he was able to connect with the students at a cultural level I could not. Despite the fact he was a police officer, and some of the students were undocumented, they were very open with him, indicating some level of trust. Some of these students expressed anger and frustration about the limited availability of opportunities for them. Other students discussed the pressures and challenges of being the first in their family to plan on pursuing a college education. One student with whom I worked individually was a 17-year-old Latino male who immigrated to the US, from his home country, during the previous school year. His teachers reported concerns regarding a defiant attitude, and failure to submit his work. Also, his mother was concerned about his behavior at home. I provided both mentoring and intervention support with a specific focus on organization and work submission. During our time working together, he shared some of his experiences related to his emigration to the US and spoke about the anger and anxiety he was experiencing relative to being undocumented. We also discussed the concerns voiced by his mother and teachers and worked on English vocabulary.

The issues this student was facing were directly related to his ELL status. His feelings of anger about limited opportunities and his fear associated with his undocumented status weighed heavily on him and adversely affected his ability to focus on school work. Additionally, having been in the US for only a short period of time, he had limited experience with traditional US schooling and did not receive an adequate early education in his home country. Furthermore, he lacked organization skills and often failed to submit his schoolwork, even when done correctly. Although he was capable of completing some of the work being assigned him, his lack of general academic skills (e.g., organization and task completion) was interfering with his ability to perform well.

Emma’s experience: I worked individually with a male Latino 8th grade student. Our work together focused on improving his spelling and sight-word vocabulary. This particular student lived with his mother, stepfather, younger brother, and younger sister. This student arrived in the United States from his birth country about two years previous to our time together. Before coming to the US, he lived with his birth father in his home country. It was unclear regarding the amount of formal schooling he had received in his home country. Reportedly, his father had never required him to attend school, thus he attended school “when [he] felt like it.” In addition to his ELL status, he was struggling with his native language, as noted by the school psychologist, and presumably due to his lack of previous schooling. During the previous school year he exhibited an excess of disruptive behavior. During the year in which we worked together his behavior was better but still in need of improvement.

It soon became clear that this student was experiencing both behavior and academic difficulties. His disruptive behavior seemed to stem mostly from a new living situation. More specifically his mother had recently married which required the student adjust to having a stepfather. In addition this student’s mother had recently given birth to his new stepsibling. I don't believe his disruptive behavior was tied to his ELL status given that such behaviors often occur in adolescents who are struggling with family adjustment issues. Although he appeared to enjoy working with me, I experienced difficulty getting him to open up about his home situation, which made it difficult to address his behavioral issues.

The second issue my student was experiencing was academic in nature and involved difficulty with spelling and vocabulary. Unlike his behavior problems, this issue was directly related to his ELL status. The student received bi-weekly support from the reading clinic in addition to his weekly hour-long session with me. We worked mostly on practicing his spelling words for upcoming tests. I implemented the evidence-based incremental rehearsal intervention to address spelling. This student responded well to this one-to-one intervention.


Our practicum experience was unique in that we were situated in a school exclusively serving an ELL population. Obviously such a placement is not available to most practicum students; however, the lessons we learned, and attempted to communicate herein, are applicable in a general sense to the various student populations for which school psychologists often lack a sufficient level of cultural competency, awareness and empathy.

The most beneficial piece of this experience was the opportunity to learn about the unique needs of ELL youth and to further develop our own competencies for future practice. Given the number of challenges and worries (e.g., cultural barriers, immigration status, discrimination, family separation) that often occur in addition to, and simultaneous with, the already extremely difficult challenge of being an English language learner, it is imperative that school psychologists avoid over attributing student difficulties simply to ELL status. In other words, always try to see the bigger picture.

Following is a brief outline of the more salient considerations and lessons learned through our practicum experience as well as a few recommendations.

Take advantage of opportunities. If your program does not offer formalized experience working with culturally and linguistically diverse students, seek them out. Gain experience working with as many different populations of students as possible. As future school psychologists we must be adequately prepared and trained to work with all students relative to our caseload.

Promote awareness of the unique needs of ELL youth. Clearly, the school at which we worked was unique in that teachers and staff were well aware of the challenges faced by ELL youth. Such homogeneity in a particular school population is not typical, thus school psychologists must continually strive to become culturally aware of more and different student populations.

Be aware of cultural barriers that might exist. It is important to consider what cultural barriers might exist. Ask yourself: How will this impact my ability to relate to the students I am working with? How can I gain their trust? What resources are presently or conceivably at my disposal? How and with whom can I advocate for more resources? Remember—The more prepared the better off you will be!

Reflect on your experiences. Becoming a culturally competent school psychologist takes initiative (actively seek out learning, be engaged information, reflect on areas of growth along with areas needing improvement). When working with students from a population you are unfamiliar with, take time to reflect on what you gained from the experiences and how you might do things differently in the future.


Albers, C. A., Hoffman, A. J. & Lundahl, A. A. (2009). Journal coverage of issues related to English language learners across student-service professions. School Psychology Review, 38, 121-131.

Crosnoe, R. & Turley, R. L. (2011). K-12 educational outcomes of immigrant youth. Future of Children, 21, 129-152.

Gonzales, R. G. (2011). Learning to be illegal: Undocumented youth and shifting legal contexts in the transition to adulthood. American Sociological Review, 76, 602-619.

Gudino, O. G., Nadeem, E., Kataoka, S. H., & Lau, A. S. (2011). Relative impact of violence exposure and immigrant stressors on Latino youth psychopathology. Journal of Community Psychology, 39, 316-335. doi:10.1002/jcop.20435

Varela, A. M. (2011). Creating opportunities for undocumented youth: A review of the literature. New Educator, 7(1), 87-102.

About the authors

Amy Bremer, MA, is a third-year doctoral student at The Ohio State University. She currently serves as the president of SASP-OSU and is the upcoming co-chair of the Student Development Workgroup. Her research interests include school-based mental health services, social justice, and advocacy.

Emma Merry, MA, is a third-year doctoral student at The Ohio State University. She is the current NASP student leader for her program and secretary/treasurer for SASP-OSU. Her research interests include school-based mental health services, urban school psychology, and social-emotional development.