What is SIFE and who fits into this definition?

SIFE is an acronym for Students with Interrupted Formal Education. Some areas of the country have now adopted the acronym SLIFE, coined by Andrea DeCapua, ED.D., author of MALP Mutually Adaptive Learning Paradym, and several books on the topic of struggling learners, who added the word ‘limited’ to the mix to signify the extremely low educational background of some SIFE children.

Most experts use the definition of SIFE as that of a student who has missed a significant amount of educational time, but what exactly that means is up for interpretation. For students who have experienced a traumatic event that resulted in a disruption of schooling, it could be six months to a year (such as the many children who have been displaced because of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico). For most students however, the more common measurement is two years or more.

In the United States, most of the school age children who fall into this category come from either Latin America or have been resettled as refugees. By far, the greatest number of SIFE students comes from Mexico or Central America (predominately Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras). For many of these children, their schooling in their home countries was disrupted by violence and gang warfare. They may not have been able to afford the uniforms and textbooks required for school attendance, even though the school itself was free. In each of these countries, compulsory education ends at middle school, so students often stop attending sometime around twelve or thirteen. Economics may have pushed these children into employment or driven them north to make money for their families. For other students, they feel old enough to make the journey north to reunite with their mother or father who came years earlier.

Frequently suffering from stress-related issues

The second largest group is refugee children from Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Far too many of
these children spent years in refugee camps and had extremely limited access to schooling. Some are
not literate in their home language and may need to build basic literacy and numeracy skills before being able to access the typical curriculum of other children their age. Many SIFE will benefit from cultural and emotional support that builds on their resilience as they adjust to a new home, particularly those who have endured traumatic journeys.

Consider these four challenges that many SIFE learners face as they begin the adjustment to schooling in their new country:

  1. Have special literacy and academic requirements due to missing years of school
  2. May experience frequent and strong bouts of frustration with their inability to match peer performance
  3. Much higher risk of dropping out[i]

This final bullet is confirmed by a study done by the Pew Research Center in 2005 that found that immigrant students with missing pieces of their education have an 80% higher risk of dropping out.

How can schools and communities support students with interrupted education?

Supports for these students fall into two general categories: academic or classroom-based supports and non-academic supports provided outside the typical school day. Let’s look first at the types of supports that can be provided within the school and the classroom. We recommend that following activities or programs to assist SIFE learners make the adjustment to their new school:

  • Training for all personnel who work with SIFE, including secretaries and cafeteria workers
  • Developing an atmosphere of acceptance, seeing diversity as an asset
  •  Programming options that support literacy development and “fill in” content gaps in content areas
  • Expanded learning opportunities such as after school and Saturday classes, summer school, or one-to-one tutoring
  • Courses that assist students make the transition from what they know to what they are expected to be able to do (especially important in math)
  • Scheduling options that may accommodate students who work

At the classroom level, teachers are critical to this transition. Developing lessons that build upon what students already know and can do, while introducing new information in a way that is not overwhelming, can speed up the integration and academic process.

  • Activate prior knowledge and build background at the start of each lesson
  • Provide visuals when possible
  • Choose support materials that is grade appropriate yet is visually appealing
  • Utilize hands-on and group work
  • Limit the amount of new information
  • Use frequent, informal comprehension checks
  • Adapt assessments and grading as needed

Finally, teachers can assist students as they move from overcoming traumatic experiences to developing internal resilience. We recommend a model based on the work of Edith Grotberg, researcher with the International Resilience Project in the Netherlands, which suggests that children draw their resilience from three sources which she has labeled “I Have, “I Am,” and “I Can.”[ii]

“I Have” leads the student to look outward at the people and community groups that provide support on a regular basis, such as religious organizations, ethnic ties, and friends.

“I Am” focuses the students on what strengths they already have inside them that has helped them to survive and thrive so far.

“I Can” encourages students of any age to think about what they already can do and what they want to be able to do in the future. Students create both short-term and long-term goals and discuss how they can reach these goals in realistic and measurable ways.

For more information on SIFE, you can check out Students with Interrupted Formal Education: Bridging Where They Are and What You Need by Brenda Custodio and Judith O’Loughlin, published in 2017 by Corwin Press. Stay tuned for a supplemental webinar on this topic.

This month’s guest bloggers: Brenda Custodio and Judith B. O’Loughlin. Brenda Custodio is a former ESL teacher and building administrator from Columbus, OH.  She is a frequent presenter with Judy across the country on SIFE and newcomers. Judith O’Loughlin is a former elementary ESL and special education teacher from New Jersey who now lives in California. Judy and Brenda together wrote a book on Students with Interrupted Formal Education.

[i] Robertson, K & Lafond, S. How to Support ELL Students with Interrupted Formal Education (SIFEs)  http://www.colorincolorado.org/article/how-support-ell-students-interrupted-formal-education-sifes
[ii] Grotberg, E.H. (1995) A Guide to Promoting Resilience in Children: Strengthening the Human Spirit. The Hague: Bernard van Leer Foundation. Retrieved on December 18, 2012 fromhttp://resilnet.uiuc.edu/library/grotb95b.html#chapter1