Canada’s refugee resettlement program aims to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees — half of them children — by the end of February. As Jennifer Vadeboncoeur, associate professor in the Faculty of Education points out, many of these children have had little to no formal education.
Vadeboncoeur, who teaches with the Dadaab Secondary Teacher Education Program for the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, shares her insight into how schools and educators can help newly arrived refugee children adjust to schooling in Canada.
What sort of education will refugee children have had?
Children up to eight or nine years old may not have ever attended school or been in an environment where they were able to receive formal education. Not only are they working through the traumatic experiences they might have had, they’re also settling into a new country, learning a new language and culture, as well as adapting to schooling. You can see how easy it would be to become overwhelmed, and how important it is for the settlement workers and teachers to take a team approach in integrating the child into the education system.
What educational needs do they have?
A young person who hasn’t been able to go to school might have different learning needs that haven’t been addressed yet. We might need to discern whether difficulty in understanding or speaking English is also related to a potential learning disability, and if the child is having a response to the school environment that is a function of trauma. These could all potentially occur at the same time, so it’s vitally important to assess the needs of kids as they take their first steps into school.
Are schools equipped to handle these children?
From what I’ve seen, schools are taking the needs of children and families very seriously. We have settlement workers connected to schools. Teachers, principals and learning-support staff are working with their current students to make these experiences as welcoming as possible.
Over the next little while we might find that we don’t have enough people in place. There’s a lot of goodwill and a number of people who can do this kind of work, but there just aren’t enough of them. We might not have enough settlement workers with the appropriate language background, and we might not have enough learning support in classrooms to help.
Should these children be thrown right into the classroom?
That really depends on the age and educational history of the child. School could be an unsettling, scary, overwhelming and over-stimulating experience for young children who are dealing with recent potentially traumatic experiences.
It can also be difficult to separate families who, for the time being, really need to be together. North American culture sees schooling as a way of providing structure, and sometimes we emphasize the benefits of structure over the benefits of attachment to family.
Older students may be ready to join school right after settling into housing. Engaging them in meaningful learning experiences that lead to recognized outcomes will be important for this age group.
How quickly do these children catch up?
That depends on a number of factors. It depends on the child and their response to what they’ve experienced. It depends on their age, if they’ve had any experience with formal schooling, if they have any familiarity with English and what kind of supports they receive.
With the right supports in place, children tend to have the capacity to learn rather quickly. Research shows that children learn oral language within about two years; they communicate effectively and sometimes even translate for parents. However, research conducted in children and young people who have lived through less complicated experiences indicates that it takes about five years for children to achieve academic English proficiency—the ability to study and learn in English. It’s important that educators recognize that spoken ability does not mean students are ready to learn and study in English. Language instruction will be critical to their success in school and beyond.