Jan Stewart on...The School Counsellor’s Role in Promoting Social Justice for Refugee and Immigrant Children

Thursday, February 14, 2019

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The following article was originally published in the Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy, Vol. 28 No. 3, pages 251-269

Forced migration as a result of conflict and war has contributed to the global movement of people and the need for institutions, such as schools, to respond with programs and services to meet the needs of students from culturally diverse backgrounds. Citizenship and Immigration Canada (2012) reports 257,515 newcomers to Canada in 2012, with approximately 10–12% classified as refugees. By 2031, Statistics Canada (2010) projects that roughly 30% of the population will be a visible minority and approximately 36% will be under the age of 15.

Globally, the increase in the numbers of refugees and asylum seekers and the forced movement of people to host countries such as Canada, Australia, and the United States have necessitated a closer examination of educational systems and policies that affect resettlement and adjustment (Taylor & Sidhu, 2012). Much of the literature related to refugee education has focused on problems and challenges that refugee students encounter and the difficulties the school and community have with helping students be successful in a host country (McBrien, 2009). Schools have a critical role in the process of resettlement of refugee students (Christie & Sidhu, 2002), yet numerous reports indicate that schools feel unequipped and teachers feel ill-prepared to meet the unique and diverse needs of these students (Stewart, 2011).

Refugees are individuals forced to fee their country because of persecution, war, or violence (UNHCR, 2013). Many refugee children and adolescents, who have been exposed to war and armed conflict prior to coming to Canada, have certain needs beyond cultural and social adjustment. Some students have suffered from personal trauma, torture, imprisonment, violence, and loss (Machel, 2001), and others have experienced long-term catastrophic stress and psychological distress as a result of conflict and forced displacement (Zanskas, 2010). Changes to demographics result in increasingly complex social dynamics as well as concerns for inequality and injustice (Goodman, 2001). In addition to noting changing demographics and the movement of people, Kirylo, Tirumurthy, and Ceasar (2011) drew attention to the varied modes of technologies and communication systems that have connected the world and resulted in interrelationships between people from diverse countries, also resulting in the need for increased multicultural and social competencies for counsellors.

Although many children from refugee backgrounds exhibit resilience and resourcefulness, there are some who come to school and experience numerous challenges and obstacles that complicate their social, academic, and emotional development (Matthews, 2008). The literature pertaining to the needs of refugee children reveals numerous systemic and complex issues that complicate the adjustment process for refugee children (Yakushko, Watson, & Tompson, 2008). School counsellors can act as stable support persons in the lives of refugee students, and they can play an integral role in making schools into safe and accepting environments for these children. To do this, school counsellors need to learn about the issues related to children from refugee backgrounds so that they are able to critically examine and challenge how to best meet their personal, social, and academic needs. When properly prepared, school counsellors can play an important role in constructing culturally responsive policies, practices, and interventions that influence the entire school community.

More attention needs to be devoted to programming and support for newcomer and refugee children, and educators need more preparation so that they have the skills and knowledge to best support their unique educational and psychosocial needs (Stewart, 2011). Numerous reports suggest that school systems are failing these students (Dahir & Stone, 2009; Hek, Hughes, & Ozman, 2012), and this often leads to exclusion or marginalization and the exacerbation of social difficulties (Stewart, 2011). Without the institutional capacity or individual support for refugee students, there is a risk that they will leave school, either voluntarily or involuntarily (MacKay & Tavares, 2005).

Counsellors are uniquely positioned in the school to provide leadership, guidance, and direction toward social change. Fundamental counselling skills are closely aligned to the tenets of social justice (Constantine, Hage, Kindaichi, & Bryant, 2007). Counsellors reflect and value fairness, equity in resources, and the liberation of those who are marginalized. Counsellors who are committed to social justice think critically, question their current practices, and undertake an advocacy role to support marginalized students (Constantine et al., 2007). D’Andrea and Heckman (2008) noted that while multicultural and social justice issues are rooted in the counselling field, they have been largely ignored.

The argument put forth in this article is that current educational systems and learning communities must be transformed to meet the rapidly changing racial, cultural, and ethnic demographics of Canadian classrooms, and school counsellors can assume an essential role in this transformation. To do this, school counsellors need to develop culturally responsive skills and competencies that will better help them respond to the needs of refugee and immigrant students. It is incumbent on counsellor education programs to develop counsellors who are critical and who question policies and practices affecting underserved and underrepresented students and who have the motivation to advocate for change.

Although social justice issues are far-reaching and complex, the purpose of this article is threefold. First, the article provides an overview of the concept of “social justice” and how the concept can be supported and promoted by school counsellors. Second, an adapted version of Brown’s (2004) theoretical framework is used to guide the discussion and to orient and prepare counsellors toward a social justice paradigm that includes critical social theory, adult learning theory, and transformative learning theory as well as three pedagogical strategies of critical refection, rational discourse, and policy praxis. Third, an overview of the issues refugee students encounter in Canadian schools is discussed along with strategies and recommendations for supporting these children and their families. When school counsellors are prepared for social justice critique and activism, they will be able to examine injustices in the system and focus on desired goals.

Interested in reading more? The full article can be found here

Posted by Meghan Burns at 10:40 AM

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