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By Valerie Schutte (she/her), independent researcher

Over 100 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide in the past decade by persecution, human rights violations, and events seriously disturbing the public order. Children represented 42% of forcibly displaced persons in 2020. Canada has welcomed over 130,000 forcibly displaced children since 2015 and will continue to welcome more in the coming years. As such, teachers in Canada will play an essential role in supporting students from refugee backgrounds.

Students from refugee backgrounds include:

  • children who have sought refugee protection from outside Canada and come to Canada after being granted refugee status (i.e., resettled refugees).
  • children who seek refugee protection from within Canada and who may or may not be granted refugee status in Canada (i.e., asylum seekers and refugee claimants).

This article outlines five common needs of students from refugee backgrounds across Canada and summarizes research-informed considerations for teachers supporting students from refugee backgrounds with one or more of these needs.

Access to education

Students from refugee backgrounds often have fragmented educational histories. Globally, only 63% and 24% of students from refugee backgrounds have access to primary and secondary education, respectively, though global education access averages are 91% and 84%. On average, students from refugee backgrounds miss three to four years of education.

Schools that students from refugee backgrounds may have attended before arriving in Canada can include non-formal learning centres managed by organizations, child-friendly spaces supervised by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and schools managed by communities, religious organizations, NGOs, ministries of education, or private organizations. These different types of schools often vary in their languages of instruction, curricula, and certification of studies.

Teachers may provide welcome sessions and intake interviews for students from refugee backgrounds and, where applicable, their guardians to provide information and help the student transition to their new school. Where possible, interpreters may be used to facilitate communication. Interpreters could be professional interpreters, plurilingual teachers, or members of the student’s family.

Bridging and accelerated education

Most students from refugee backgrounds in Canada need supports addressing interruptions in education, inadequate quality of education, and/or differences between curricula used in the schools that they have attended. For all students from refugee backgrounds, their education in Canadian schools should bridge the knowledge and skills that they have acquired from prior learning experiences with those that they are currently learning. For students who are older and may have more to catch up on to meet the curriculum requirements for their age-appropriate class placement, their education should support them to learn the foundational content and skills within an accelerated timeframe.

Teachers can recognize and build on the skills, capabilities, and knowledge the students have developed in both formal and informal ways. Informal learning practices that can foster learning in Canadian schools include practices in nature (learning about the natural environment), survival practices (learning about life skills, such as responsibilities or work experiences inside and outside the home), and social activist practices (learning about the importance of treating others with respect and care).1

Creating a student profile is a possible starting point. Teachers can record in the profile information about a student’s prior formal and informal learning, preferred learning styles, interests, and experiences and reference this profile during planning to ensure that learning experiences activate and build on the student’s strengths. Students from refugee backgrounds with accelerated education needs may also benefit from lessons that incorporate experiential learning, sessions further developing their study skills, and explanations of school routines, expectations, and norms.

Language education

Many students from refugee backgrounds spend a disproportionate amount of time learning languages because, oftentimes, the languages that they use at home, in the community, and at school are different in their country of origin, their country or countries of asylum, and—for those who are resettled—their country of resettlement. The majority of students from refugee backgrounds are plurilingual when they arrive in Canada. However, approximately two in three do not know English or French. Those who do not know the language of instruction should be taught the language, and those who are plurilingual should be supported in the maintenance and development of proficiency in all their languages.  

Teachers can use a variety of strategies to support the language learning of students from refugee backgrounds. All teachers of students from refugee backgrounds can promote the use of their languages at school and at home, respect silent periods and linguistic diversity, and encourage translanguaging. As oral language is the foundation of written language, students from refugee backgrounds who are learning the language of instruction should be provided with many opportunities to practise their listening and speaking skills. Explicit instruction promoting metalinguistic awareness can help them transfer their knowledge and skills from one language to another. Teachers may also wish to consider using content-based language instruction so that students from refugee backgrounds, especially those with accelerated education needs, learn the language through the curriculum.

Mental health and psycho-social support

There is a higher prevalence of mental health difficulties in children from refugee backgrounds than in their peers who have never sought refugee protection. This high prevalence is often associated with increases in the volume, duration, and frequency of exposure to stressful and/or traumatic events and reductions in protective factors that foster resilience before, during, and after forcible displacement. The most common mental health difficulties among children from refugee backgrounds are post-traumatic stress disorder (23%), anxiety (16%), and depression (14%).

Teachers may find it helpful to think about mental health and psycho-social support for students from refugee backgrounds using a multitiered model of school-based mental health care. This model incorporates universal supports for all students, intensive supports for specific groups of students that include some or all students from refugee backgrounds, and specialized supports for individual students from refugee backgrounds with specific needs.

Universal supports benefiting students from refugee back-grounds could include social and emotional learning, sensitization to refugeehood (i.e., the entire school community learning about experiences and issues relating to refugeehood with the aim of fostering psycho-social support toward students from refugee backgrounds), and antiracist and anti-oppressive pedagogies.

Intensive supports for groups of students including some or all students from refugee backgrounds may include acculturation supports (i.e., supports for the well-being of students as they engage in Canadian cultural contexts and negotiate their cultural identities and feelings of belonging) and trauma-informed pedagogical supports.

Specialized supports for individual students might involve identifying individual students from refugee backgrounds experiencing mental health difficulties and connecting them with mental health services.

Inclusive education

Some students from refugee backgrounds have behavioural, communicational, intellectual, and/or physical exceptionalities that require inclusive education supports. Many students from refugee backgrounds are gifted. More than 15% are estimated to have disabilities because the incidence of disability, which is approximately 15% for any given population, is higher among those that have been forcibly displaced. Some students from refugee backgrounds and their families are resettled to Canada specifically because of the severity of medical or special needs in their family. Nevertheless, it is can be difficult for qualified professionals to identify children from refugee backgrounds with exceptionalities, because assessments often use age-based developmental benchmarks, while the dates of birth of many children from refugee backgrounds are incorrectly documented or documentation is lost; assessment tools may be culturally or linguistically inappropriate; and indicators of inclusive education needs are similar to those of language learning and accelerated education needs.

The school team may wish to learn about and reflect upon potential sensitivities around exceptionalities and then engage with the student and their family around understandings of, feelings about, and responses to exceptionalities. Teachers and educational professionals can then use accommodations and modifications for the student at school. They can also collaborate and co-ordinate with appropriate partners (e.g., family, friends, health professionals) to ensure consistent and continuous support to the student at school and beyond. 

Conclusion

As teachers seek to support students from refugee backgrounds, they should foster collaborative partnerships that enable students from refugee backgrounds and, where applicable, their families to participate meaningfully in the planning and delivery of educational services that meet their needs. For the majority of students from refugee backgrounds currently in Canada, these needs include access to education, bridging and accelerated education, language education, mental health and psycho-social support, and/or inclusive education. Given the incredible diversity within contemporary groups of students from refugee backgrounds, and that which can be expected among future groups of students from refugee backgrounds, the supports provided for each child should be tailored to their unique needs, capabilities, and aspirations.

About the author

Certified with the Ontario College of Teachers, Valerie Schutte has a Master of Arts in Education, a Bachelor of Education, a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, and an Honours Bachelor of Arts in French. Her graduate research (2018–2021) analyzed education policy addressing the needs of students from refugee backgrounds across Canada’s 13 educational jurisdictions.

1 Kaukko, M., & Wilkinson, J. (2018). ‘Learning how to go on’: refugee students and informal learning practices. International Journal of Inclusive Education. DOI: 10.1080/13603116.2018.1514080

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