News & Reports

Canadian Teachers Offer a Refugee-Education Handbook

A new handbook on refugee education offers teachers practical suggestions for working with children who have experienced war, displacement and trauma.

The authors of Bridging Two Worlds: Supporting Newcomer and Refugee Youth, Jan Stewart and Lorna Martin, have published the digital edition of their book as a free download, to make it easily available to professionals working with young refugees. The book is the result of a three-year research project in four provinces of Canada to find the best practices and programs to support children from refugee backgrounds.

“We focus on the psychosocial aspect of refugee education,” said Stewart, a professor of education at the University of Winnipeg in Canada, speaking at a seminar at the American University of Beirut in June. “Because if you’re sitting in my classroom feeling threatened, very little learning is going to take place.”

Stewart saw the need for a practical response to the needs of refugee children after years of experience in Canada working as a classroom teacher and as a school counselor. She has also been the lead investigator of a research program exploring the mental health needs and challenges for refugee youth and on a study on the settlement, education and psychosocial needs of Syrian refugees in Canada. “We saw that students from refugee backgrounds were falling out of the [school] system,” she said. “They were leaving school, they were being asked to leave. Their families were struggling, the children were struggling, and teachers were just relying on teaching literacy and numeracy.”

“We need to do more to support the psychosocial needs of children, and to help them adjust,” she said. “We can’t teach away trauma.”

“Trauma is not an event,” the authors write in the handbook. “Rather, it is a response to a stressful experience in which a person’s ability to cope is dramatically undermined.” In addition, they write, “students with refugee backgrounds tend to have had limited schooling, protracted and negative experiences during the exodus journey, and interrupted social and academic development.”

Among the book’s recommendations:

  • ■ Teachers need to know the basics about conflict-affected students: where they are coming from, the history of conflict in their home country, and how they have been affected by war.
  • ■ Teachers need to know the practices of restorative justice, to help repair relationships in the classroom.
  • ■ Simply demanding that a refugee or newcomer student stop a behavior is inadequate and counterproductive. Instead, teachers can instruct students in adaptive behavior to replace behavior that does not suit the new situation in their host country.
  • ■ Teachers can introduce stress reduction and relaxation techniques in the classroom to reduce tension and frustration and better prepare the students for learning.
  • ■ When schools build connections with refugee communities, personal connections increase, and a sense of belonging is enhanced. If possible, teachers should pay home visits to students who continue to have challenges at school.
  • ■ Introduce “cultural brokers”: people who can independently translate between the cultural customs of refugee students and those of the host country.

At the heart of the book is a collection of 30 lesson plans to prepare teachers for working with refugee children, and 11 lesson plans for teachers to use with refugee children. The lessons for students focus on “knowledge of self, knowledge of others and knowledge of the cultural environment.”

It is based on the Canadian experience of welcoming refugees: in 2018, the government of Canada plans to admit 310,000 immigrants, of whom 46,500 will be refugees.


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