Brock experts talk techniques for supporting Ukrainian refugees in schools

More than three million refugees have fled Ukraine since Russia’s invasion last month. Some will find a new home in Canada, settling into new communities, workplaces and schools.

Brock experts say the support of teachers in K-12 classrooms is paramount for refugee students who find themselves navigating a new education system.

Refugee students face a number of disadvantages, including overcoming interrupted schooling, adjusting to an unfamiliar education system and, sometimes, learning a new language of instruction. They may also face a range of socioemotional and mental health issues as well as challenges at home.

“Forced displacement oftentimes leads to trauma,” says Francine Menashy, Associate Professor in Brock University’s Faculty of Education, whose research explores education in emergency contexts. “Because Ukrainian children have experienced a sudden departure due to armed conflict, their lives have been uprooted in unimaginable ways, and they may be feeling a combination of uncertainty, fear, anger and sadness. Supporting their mental health must be a priority.”

Trauma, such as exposure to war, is associated with conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety.

“Many refugee students, and their families, also face linguistic challenges associated with subsequent language learning,” says Snezana Ratkovic, Research Officer and Instructor in the Faculty of Education, who came to Canada as a refugee from the former Yugoslavia. “These challenges are often intensified by disrupted or non-existent schooling experiences as well as experiences of marginalization, racism and discrimination from peers, educators and community members.”

There are several ways teachers can help students to overcome some of these challenges.

“One easy thing to do is seek out Ukrainian literature, since ‘additive bilingualism’ suggests they will develop their English or French skills, depending on the province they come to, better if their first language is supported,” says Louis Volante, Professor in the Faculty of Education.

Students older than 12, in particular, face a “late arrival penalty” because of how long it takes to learn a new language, he says.

“A new language takes five to six years to learn. If a student arrives in Canada in Grade 9, they likely will still face challenges in Grade 12 when school grades have important consequences for progression to post-secondary or higher education settings,” says Volante, who is the Principal Investigator of a five-year Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council study on immigrant student achievement and education policy across Canada.

Language barriers can also make it more difficult for teachers to identify challenges, such as learning disabilities, in students that warrant more specialized supports, Volante says. Disrupted learning and school closures due to COVID-19 have only exacerbated mental health challenges, he adds.

As refugee students can also feel isolated in their new schools, Menashy suggests teachers helping them to make connections with other students in the school or local community who are from the same country and, ideally, who speak the same language.

Schools can also create safe spaces where refugee students can talk about their shared experiences and express their feelings through verbal and non-verbal, arts-based engagements, Ratkovic adds.

Volante suggests teachers engage students in conversations that promote intercultural awareness so they can effectively interact in a global, diverse and increasingly challenging world.

A lack of cultural awareness and trauma-based pedagogies, policies and resources can be a challenge for teachers when it comes to supporting refugee students.

“Teachers’ intracultural and intercultural competencies, attitudes and beliefs influence refugee student success,” says Ratkovic. “To welcome and integrate refugee students in the school and society, schools must have culturally competent teachers and administrators. Ongoing communication and close trusting relationships between teachers and students empower students to become lifelong learners and responsible and contributing citizens. The development of teachers’ cultural competencies, sensitivities, compassion and active listening skills is critical.”

Volante, Menashy and Ratkovic recommend a number of resources for teachers and teacher candidates looking for ways to help refugee students.

“Remember that students who are refugees have the same capacities as all students, and with the support of the school community — including teachers, administrators, students, families and guidance counsellors — they can enjoy and excel in school,” Menashy says.

Suggested resources for educators include:

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