Experts find language the biggest obstacle for refugee students


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Public school teachers are not prepared to handle the huge influx of newcomer and refugee students and require more training, says a new book by two Winnipeg educators to be launched today.

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This article was published 22/01/2018 (1715 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Public school teachers are not prepared to handle the huge influx of newcomer and refugee students and require more training, says a new book by two Winnipeg educators to be launched today.

Language is the biggest obstacle in education right now, said co-author Jan Stewart, a University of Winnipeg education professor.

“We heard that right across the country. Language was problem No. 1 for all the stakeholders,” she said.

But another problem is teachers not being able to comprehend the trauma a child has undergone.

“It’s understanding that many have fled persecution and violence and been discriminated against,” and have perhaps lived in refugee camps anywhere from a year to 10 years or more, Stewart said.

Teachers’ reaction to students can re-traumatize them. “What we say is try to normalize that,” she said.

The risk is that countless children don’t reach their potential and find suitable careers, or worse, fall through the cracks.

“We’re seeing an increase in kids joining marginalized gangs and that’s certainly something we’re aware of, that we need to keep the kids in the system they most want to be in, which is schools,” Stewart said in an interview.

The book, Bridging Two Worlds: Supporting Newcomer and Refugee Youth, is being released at the Cannexus National Career Development Conference in Ottawa, which will be attended by more than 1,000 career educators and counsellors. It is co-authored by Lorna Martin, president emerita of the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association, who held a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Winnipeg faculty of education in 2017.

The book grew out of a three-year research program headed by Stewart that researched schools and communities in Cal­gary, Winnipeg and St. John’s, N.L. The authors used observation, interviews and focus groups to arrive at their conclusions.

The book, which can be downloaded for free at, or purchased in paper format from Amazon or Indigo, is timely because Canada and other countries are taking in an unprecedented number of newcomers and refugees.

The number of displaced people due to conflict, violence and disaster is now 65.3 million, the highest figure since the Second World War, including more than 20 million refugees.

In Canada, nearly 2.2 million children under the age of 15 were foreign-born or had at least one foreign-born parent, according to the 2016 census.

In 2018, the federal government plans to admit another 310,000 immigrants, of which 46,500 will be refugees.

This follows Canada’s program of resettlement of Syrian refugees the past two years. Statistics Canada predicts children of immigrant background could make up 39 to 49 per cent of Canadian children by 2036.

Language is becoming more of an issue just because there are now more children whose primary language isn’t English, Stewart said.

“When we had only a few children coming in, it was an easier solve.”

In this new environment, Stewart recommends additional training for those teaching English as an Additional Language (EAL) classes.

“Teachers need education in terms of teaching EAL, for things like reinforcing language and using symbols,” she said.

However, Stewart said the first thing teachers have to do is take care of themselves.

“Start with self-care, sometimes children disclose some pretty disturbing experiences they’ve had and teachers say, ‘I’m not ready for this.’”

Step 2, she said, is “gathering facts and trying to understand a child’s particular situation, and Step 3 is healing and support.”

For example, newcomer and refugee students often need to learn that security guards are there to help them and “not to arrest and detain you, which is the experience many of these kids have had,” Stewart said.

This awareness is key to building the relationships that encourage learning.

The book will be launched locally at the University of Winnipeg on Feb. 15, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., when free copies will be available.


Updated on Monday, January 22, 2018 3:47 PM CST: Corrects date of book launch event.

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