Compelling news from the refugee and migrant sector
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Refugee students need more than just English classes

9 February 20153 comments
Primary school students in Brisbane, (Photo: AAP/Dan Peled)

Primary school students in Brisbane, (Photo: AAP/Dan Peled)

Refugee and migrant children entering Australian schools need holistic support to put them at ease and help them adjust to a new environment, according to a group of researchers working in the field.

Researchers Clemence Due, Martha Augoustinos and Damien Riggs from Adelaide and Flinders Universities say that just teaching English to newly arrived children is not enough.

“Spending time on areas that are not directly related to English language acquisition also allows refugee and migrant children to share their experiences before they came to Australia,” the researchers said.

“We found that creating opportunities for students to share information about themselves not only assisted them in making friends, but also helped them feel a sense of belonging in the school environment,” they said.

The researchers studied a group of newly arrived students and found they brought with them a range of complex experiences, often including trauma, violence or displacement.

Some of the students were entering a formal schooling environment for the first time and they often found themselves in a classroom where no one else spoke their language or shared their cultural background.

“Supportive and inclusive school settings are important in helping them settle in to Australia and feel at home. School is often one of the first places where refugee and migrant students and their families begin to form connections with their local communities,” the researchers said.

In South Australia, refugee and migrant students enter an Intensive English Language Program. These are typically stand-alone classes in mainstream primary schools. Students remain in the program for about 12 months before making the transition to a mainstream class, often at a different school. Refugee children are particularly likely to change school due to things such as insecure housing and changing work settings.

“Our research suggests that the South Australian Intensive English Language Program offers a “soft landing” for children,” the researchers said.

“At the same time, the children in our longitudinal study showed anxiety about their English language competency. In particular, they expressed concern that English would be an issue for them as they entered mainstream classes. There was a sense among many children that they would be left behind and thus find it difficult to make friends in their new setting.

“Given this anxiety, we found that class topics that don’t require English language skills – such as art and sport – help this diverse group of children to make friends and adjust to mainstream schooling. Both of these factors are important for increasing the wellbeing of refugee and migrant students.

“Many children in our study expressed a strong desire to discuss aspects of their background. This included celebrating cultural and religious festivals, sharing food and language, and talking about the countries in which they had lived. The ability to share their background provided students with a sense of self-esteem and wellbeing that went beyond that provided by their ability to learn English or immediately “fit in” to their new school environment after transition.

“Developing English language skills obviously remains a priority for the education of migrant and refugee children in Australia. However, our research suggests that ensuring the previous experiences of these students are truly heard (rather than just treated as hurdles to English language acquisition) is critically important to their continuing development and school engagement.

“We would also note that in a context of standardised education – including NAPLAN testing – it is important to ensure that refugee and migrant students have the opportunity to participate in subjects that allow them to showcase their strengths. Feeling a sense of belonging in the early years of school is vitally important to ensure that students stay engaged with their education,” the researchers said.

Helen Matovu-Reed
AMES Staff Writer