How Alberta schools are responding to the needs of refugee students

Over the past several years, thousands of school-aged Syrian refugees have entered Canada’s education system. Ensuring that schools, classrooms, and teachers are prepared to provide them with quality education is vital to their success in their new home. In addition to helping them connect with Canadian culture, these students may also need support with issues of trauma, language barriers, and the effects of interrupted schooling.

How Alberta schools can best support these students was the topic of a research project undertaken by Anja Dressler, a Werklund undergraduate student and a 2017 PURE award winner. She was interested in what measures are in place to support Syrian children and youth in schools, and what the best practices are for working with refugee youth.

Anja’s project involved a literature review and a document analysis of provincial and school board publications about Syrian refugee students. She highlighted key themes of support and presented recommendations for ways to better support the refugee student population to adapt and thrive in their new environment.

Challenges and Successes

Many of these students have been through distressing experiences, and can show signs of trauma, anxiety, PTSD, as well as other emotional and developmental difficulties. Taking on a Trauma-Informed Practice (TIP) approach is essential to helping these students. TIP prioritizes feelings of safety and security, healthy relationships with peers and teachers, as well as self-management and emotional coping skills. Emphasizing that schools are a safe place, and building healthy and productive habits, is essential to the success of these students.

Overcoming cultural and language barriers is essential to connecting these students with their schools and local community. Here, culturally responsive pedagogy such as the Mutually Adaptive Learning Paradigm (MALP) can bridge cultural and educational practices. This approach builds on the prior knowledge of students, and explicitly makes connections between cultures. Culturally responsive approaches promote respect and understanding, and can counter stereotypes and assumptions.

Some schools employ a language or cultural broker to act as translators or to explain important details about Canadian schools and the education system. This can help involve the family in their child’s education. Partnering with the community and local organizations also offers additional supports to teachers and schools – engaging parents and experts in the classroom can better connect home, school, and culture.

To promote English language learning, refugee students are often placed into intensive language classes, which help these students acclimatize and provide a foundation in English communication skills. Unfortunately, these programs can also physically and racially isolate newcomers, making it more difficult for them to connect with their Canadian peers.

Transitioning these students into mainstream classes before they are ready, however, can also create problems. Here, students may receive significantly less support, and may struggle to keep pace with instruction. Ensuring that teachers are prepared to respond to the needs of these students, and that the students are supported in transitioning socially and academically, can limit some of these challenges.

Whole School Approach

The school and classroom environment can have a significant effect on the success of refugee students. A whole school approach – where all staff and students work to build a community of learners that is integrated and supported throughout the building – is needed to meet the needs of refugee students.

These students need to connect and contribute to the school’s culture, to be included in Canadian experiences, and to build trusting and healthy relationships. Encouraging family involvement in the classroom, organizing events and workshops, and discussing successes and challenges with the parents can help extend supports beyond the school building.

Teachers should seek information and look to best practice guides to adapt their practice for refugee students. Early successes can lay an important foundation for later schooling, and being prepared to support these students requires an ongoing, informed effort. Culturally responsive practices, and keeping the goals of safety, connections, and self-management in mind, are key areas for teachers to consider when working with Syrian refugee youth.


Check out Anja’s research blog for more information on her PURE project