Jan Stewart on...Supporting Newcomer and Refugee Youth

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The following excerpt can be found in Dr. Jan Stewart and Lorna Martin's new book, Bridging New Worlds: Supporting Newcomer and Refugee Youth.

Nine key themes and 12 sub-themes emerged when we categorized the data collected during our study. Themes include the social determinants of health, social justice and equity, trauma-informed practices, counselling skills, and educator self-care.

CONFLICT AWARENESS

Participants in the study were consistent in their determination that “teachers need to know where (students) are coming from, what is the history of conflict in their home country, and how students have been affected by war.” This awareness is critical to building the relationships and alliances that encourage learning and growth. While increased awareness of war-affected areas of the world is important, it is even more pertinent to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health and learning concerns in individual children.
Not all children and youth who have emigrated from a war-affected country and have refugee or newcomer status will have been affected to the same degree or in the same way as siblings, other family members, or unrelated students from the same country. The respondents in the study confirmed that, to be highly effective, schools need to be trauma sensitive and as supportive of refugee and newcomer students as they would be of any student with an unknown or commonplace background. Teachers must be alert to potential unconscious biases that may lead them to generalize the experiences of students from abroad without direct evidence, or to link common behavioural and learning difficulties to a refugee or newcomer student without functional assessments and an evidence-based decision-making process. Many refugee and newcomer students are resilient and stable in their learning and transition to a new land and culture.

SOCIAL DETERMINANTS OF HEALTH

The health of Canadians’ is directly affected by factors that include how income and wealth are distributed; employment status; the conditions of work where itis available; health and social services; and the quality and availability of education, food, and housing. In most cases, these social determinants of health, or living conditions, are beyond the control of refugee and newcomer families in Canada; they are most frequently determined by the communities in which individuals live, work, and go to school. Respondents in the study indicated that increased understanding of the inequities in access to community services and supports, adequate housing, food, and employment—and of potential solutions to these inequities—helps schools and school systems to support teachers as they work with refugee and newcomer students. Making referral agents and resources easily available to teachers enables them to help their students overcome obstacles to learning, aids in transitions, and supports positive experiences in their communities in particular, and in Canada in general.

PEACE AND SUSTAINABILITY

The study findings confirmed the importance of peace and sustainability in classrooms and school systems. Respondents indicated that teachers need to know how to infuse concepts from peace education and education for sustainable development into their practice. These concepts include restorative practices and equity training.

Restorative Practices and Justice. Teachers need to know the language and principles of restorative practices and restorative justice and how to introduce these concepts into their classrooms. Conflicts and misbehaviours should be viewed as opportunities for social and emotional learning. Teachers need to know how to help students repair and restore relationships.

Equity. Teachers in the study indicated a need for professional development (PD) focused on equity. As one respondent said, “we had PD in the early days around equity.... And one of the 16 things for best practice in teaching is to differentiate and to integrate and do inquiry.” Keeping the needs of students and their cultures at the forefront is key to successful teaching and learning. As one teacher described, “You’re really trying to make sure [the students] get opportunities within the classroom, because we can’t control what happens out there. We can control what happens here.... What we are doing, is trying to build equity.”

REFUGEE CHARACTERISTICS

The most prevalent characteristics of refugees become apparent when one understands the underlying conditions common to so many of them. Students with refugee backgrounds tend to have had limited schooling, protracted and negative experiences during the exodus journey, and interrupted social and academic development. These factors create challenges to be overcome in all areas: educational, psychosocial, environmental, and academic. One study participant, a teacher, distilled the considerations that are required to support incoming students: “This is what a refugee centre is like ... this child might be old enough to be in a Grade 5 or 6 classroom, but [has] never been in school before, or only experienced school in a refugee camp. So, what does that kind of school experience look like? How can we then support them to be in this kind of school experience?” Students who have had complicated migration experiences often exhibit emotional/behavioural attributes that schools must be attentive to, and resolve.

Anger. The study findings confirmed that teachers need to know how to respond to children who are misbehaving or acting out in class. Skills in effectively de-escalating conflict, both internal and external, are key to supporting students who display symptoms consistent with frustration, anger, and sadness or depression.

Stress. Many refugee students are experiencing stress due to multiple layers of challenges. Respondents indicated that teachers need a greater understanding of how to promote stress reduction and relaxation techniques, and how to make these a part of the daily routine in schools. Relevant learning outcomes in health curricula are often helpful; focused instruction and supports are available through comprehensive and developmental guidance and counselling programs, and referrals to school counsellors, school psychologists, and social workers.

Resiliency. Recognizing the balance between risk and resiliency in a student’s experience and accepting each student’s understanding of his or her situation is the starting point for determining areas of strength in that student. What is resiliency? How do we foster resiliency? How can teachers focus on strengths and not deficits? What is it that allows some individuals to be highly resilient and possess incredible coping skills, while others with the same or a similar experience become highly susceptible to mental health problems and are deemed at “high risk” for additional problems in their lifetimes? According to respondents in the study, these questions should guide teachers to locating and employing effective supports for students, based on their individual contexts and unique personalities, life conditions, and academic functioning.

Who is the E/FAL Student? Teachers often recognize students who have English or French as an additional language by their literacy levels in the dominant language of the classroom. While many refugee and newcomer students may have limited facility in the language of the classroom, they may also have limited facility in their first language (for reasons that include a paucity of educational opportunity, migration conditions that inhibited reading and writing, and limited access to formal education due to gender-based or economic-based constraints). As one study participant indicated, low literacy levels and facility in English or French are not unique to refugee and newcomer students; students with other backgrounds and in other communities experience these also: “[There] are all these things that I didn’t realize fall under EAL. Whether [students] were on a reserve and how many years behind [provincial curriculum outcomes for literacy] and depending on how much they talk at home in their native tongue, all of these things we need to know.” Improving literacy should be a goal for all students.

Interested to learn more? Click here to purchase a copy of Bridging Two Worlds: Supporting Newcomer and Refugee Youth, or copies will be available on March 7th at the Manitoba ASCD workshop.

Posted by Meghan Burns at 12:40 PM

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