The Significance of intergenerational relationships in the lives of immigrant students

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Suarez-Orozco, C. Pimmental, A. & Martin, M. (2009). The Significance of Relationships. Academic Engagement and Achievement Among Newcomer Immigrant Youth. Teachers College Record, 111 (3), 712-749.



Immigrant youth and their families come to the United States with a variety of strengths and motivations; however, systemic challenges that emerge hinder positive adjustment, particularly within the school environment. Despite being motivated by the prospect of educational opportunities, immigrant youth often struggle with negotiating barriers that emerge within school systems, and subsequently disengage from them. This study focused on protective factors that can influence immigrant youth’s experiences at school, particularly the role of relationships in impacting youth’s academic outcomes including engagement and performance.


The current study focused on 309 first-generation immigrant youth across 51 schools in seven school districts, ages 9 to 14 years old, from diverse national backgrounds who had arrived in the United States within five years prior to the beginning of the Longitudinal Immigrant Student Adaptation Study (LISA).

Students completed measures about their academic experiences including their language proficiencies, academic self-efficacy (i.e., sense of academic capabilities), engagement (i.e., interest in learning, and behaviors .e.g., finishing school assignments that reflect this interest), and experiences with supportive school-based relationships and school violence (including bullying). Students and their guardians also participated in structured interviews throughout the study.


Individual factors including a student’s English language proficiency, gender (female), and behaviors (e.g., attending school and completing assignments) were associated with academic performance measured by grade point average (GPA).

While individual factors (.e.g., Chinese nationality, self-efficacy) were similarly related to academic engagement, social relationships were also a significant predictor. More specifically, school-based supportive relationships contributed to youth’s engagement, particularly relationships that provided emotional support relative to instrumental support. School climate, specifically school violence, was negatively related to both academic achievement and engagement.

Qualitative interviews highlighted the variety of ways in which social relationships with peers, non-parental adults and familial/parental relationships either facilitated or hindered youth’s academic engagement and achievement. The relationships provided both instrumental (.e.g., information) and emotional support (e.g., validation of difficulties).

Conclusion and Implications:

Based on the findings, it appears that access to supportive social relationships attenuates potential risks associated with systemic barriers and challenges newly immigrated youth encounter at school. In this sense, supportive relationships can provide the safety and reinforcement necessary to encourage a sense of connectedness to the school environment, so that youth can focus on actual academic performance. Thus, it may be important to support immigrant youth with relationships (e.g., mentors) particularly during critical transitional periods when youth are acclimating to not only the school environment but a different overall cultural context. Because mentors can take on various roles including that of advocate and companion, they have the potential to fill roles that teachers and peers might not be able to accommodate within the school context. Mentors who can appreciate the difficulties that immigrant youth encounter have the potential to foster positive trajectories.

Summarized by Stella Kanchewa, UMB doctoral student in Clinical Psych.