In addition to the challenges of a new language, our learners also have to cope with a new culture.
The technical terms are acculturation and assimilation. People are establishing their "membership" in American culture. They want to be a part of the group.
Acculturation means that they become part of the new culture but they still maintain important aspects of their native culture.
Assimilation requires that they choose one culture over the other; they "mainstream" into the new culture and discard the old.
Back in the 30's and 40's, America had a large influx of European immigrants. Although the children were sent to schools and assimilated into the new culture, many of the parents remained in both cultures. There was an abundance of social clubs that sprung up to help hold on to the old, The German Club, the Slovenian Society etc.
In our multicultural society in the States today, we encourage acculturation. This is very difficult for newcomers. America has a basic culture but also many, many sub-cultures.
Our newcomers often are confused, they simply don't understand what is expected of them.
Top that off with the fact that many of our newcomers come from refugee camps where every day they were told what to do and when they could do it. And every day they lived with memories of atrocities from their home country. It is certainly understandable why they sometimes have difficulties absorbing a new culture.
Studies have shown that newcomers to the States are extremely lonely, frustrated and fearful. They are trying to live daily in a world in which everything is new and nothing is familiar. They can feel mentally and physically exhausted from the stress incurred by a new culture.
Sometimes this manifests itself by silence. Your newcomers may not talk much until they feel safe in the environment, whether classroom or teaching in the home.
What can you do to help? Validate and understand. Encourage and be patient. Explain what the expectations are.
Learn something about their culture. There are great internet sites to do that. Two that come to mind are www.culturalorientation.net and www.culturalcrossing.com
Most of the immigrants and refugees from Africa, Asia and Middle East have strong family ties. Sometimes just asking about their families will encourage a relationship and help to bridge the loneliness gap.
Remember that learning English, while vitally important to them, is just a part of what they need to learn.