Creating a communication connection for students from refugee backgrounds

EducationDaily
EducationDaily
On World Refugee Day, it's a reminder that schools and universities need to consider additional support for students from refugee backgrounds.

There are many success stories about immigrant and refugee students at Australian universities, secondary schools and primary schools. But on World Refugee Day – 20 June – it’s also important to remember that just as many slip through the cracks.

To help tackle the educational inequity too many students from refugee backgrounds face in Australia, many academics believe schools need to apply a more cohesive and intentional approach to the role they play, with schools and families needing to work together more closely to manage the needs of students.

“By making sure schools are communicating in ways that parents understand, we can move from focusing on challenges to focusing on strengths,” says Dr Sharon Wagner.

She’s a researcher at Western Sydney University’s School of Education, where her work focuses on parental engagement, refugee education, and social justice issues. Dr Wagner is also engaged in a teaching role in Tasmania, supporting adult learners with their literacy needs.

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“Increasing educational inequality, as experienced by students from refugee backgrounds, is a challenge that will not disappear unless schools, families, and communities learn to work together more effectively,” she says.

“We must move past focussing only on the challenges faced by families from refugee backgrounds, or on the difficulties posed to educators in teaching culturally and linguistically diverse cohorts of students in Australian classrooms.”

The opportunity Dr Wagner says should not be missed is for parents from refugee backgrounds and educators from Australian schools to learn from each other. By doing so, she believes they can effectively work together to support children’s learning during and after resettlement in Australia.

“A close working relationship requires open channels of communication; therefore, it is imperative that schools communicate in ways that parents can understand. Schools will benefit from reviewing the effectiveness of their oral, written, and online forms of communication with refugee background parents,” Dr Wagner says.

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“For instance, if there is an over-reliance on written forms of communication, schools may be inadvertently excluding parents who are not yet proficient in English, and who might be relying on their children to be translators. That means the students can be tempted to control what information the parents get, or not.”

She says schools also need structural support to “ensure that the provision of interpreters is adequate to meet the needs of school staff and parents”.

“In parent-teacher interactions, there needs to be space for different cultures of learning and perspectives on the child. For educators to share from their perspective about the child’s learning in the school context, as well as for parents to provide insights from the home learning environments.”

Clear communication can unlock possibilities

For Dr Melanie Baak, Senior Lecturer in UniSA Education Futures and the co-convenor of the Migration and Refugee Research Network (MARRNet) at the University of South Australia (UniSA), “clear communication is the key to supportive connections”.

As a 2023-2025 ARC DECRA Fellow, her research interests cover equity and inclusion in schools, with a focus on refugee education and resettlement.

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“Involving the parents or carers of children from refugee backgrounds is vital for supporting students’ academic engagement and well-being. School-family partnerships grounds student learning and well-being, notably improving academic achievement, attendance, and behaviour,” says Dr Baak.

“Research shows that parents of refugee students express a strong desire to support their children’s academic development. However, they often struggled to communicate effectively through their school’s formal channels, leading to multiple failed attempts and sense of resignation after making and failing at multiple attempts.”

“Creating connections between schools and parents is particularly beneficial for students from refugee backgrounds as they foster a greater sense of integration and inclusion; where parents from refugee backgrounds are welcomed as member of the school community, so too are the students themselves.

“Our research has identified schools are working to open informal communication pathways, such as through bilingual support staff. However, some of the strategies, intended to increase accessibility, may have had the opposite effect.

“For instance, moving information online reduced accessibility fo parents from refugee backgrounds who lacked digital devices, internet access, or the IT skills to access these resources.

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To help improve the performance of students, Dr Baak suggests schools take on the following strategies, and that education departments support them to do so:

  • Employ bilingual support workers: Hiring bilingual support workers forged links between the school and families not just through linguistic support, but through acting as cultural and community bridges.
  • Organise special events and cultural festivals: Several schools had organized specific events designed to encourage the families of refugee students to engage more fully with the school community.
  • Encourage community groups to reach out to parents: Another method of encouraging parent involvement was through connecting with community groups. Creating links to community groups was also beneficial to the school itself by providing a deeper understanding of different cultural attitudes and practices.
  • Challenge perceived family and cultural deficits: In the study, it became apparent that some of the challenges schools faced were attributed to perceived differences or deficiencies in refugee students’ cultures and families.

“My colleague, Emeritus Professor Bruce Johnson, and I have been working on an ARC Linkage study since 2018 examining how schools foster refugee student resilience. This study was undertaken across schools in South Australia and Queensland,” Dr Baak says.

“We believe that thinking in terms of ingrained deficits needs to be left behind, so we can find the solutions that are available.”

Enhancing educational outcomes

Dr Puolomee Datta is a Senior Lecturer in Inclusive Education at Macquarie University. Her research and teaching covers disability and inclusion, enhancing educational outcomes for children and adolescents with disabilities, and mental health issues affecting adolescents and young adults. 

“As the global refugee and displacement crisis worsens, more students from refugee backgrounds are expected to enrol in Australian schools. This raises the issue of how to address the educational challenges and barriers that these students face after they resettle,” says Dr Datta.

“Therefore, government and research initiatives have focused more on the importance of involving parents in their children’s education to promote social integration in educational settings.”

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Dr Datta says it is important for new families to learn about the Australian school system, as this affects how they help their children learn.

“Many refugees struggle with English which makes it hard for them to integrate in the community,” she says, adding that most refugees have missed out on formal learning because of war and violence.

“They may feel confused and stressed by the different values and expectations in their new schools and communities. There are many factors that influence how education institutions can better engage the parents of students from refugee backgrounds.”

To enhance the educational outcomes and well-being of refugee students, Dr Datta says schools need to adopt effective strategies to engage with their parents.

  • Promoting a school culture that respects and values diversity and inclusion.
  • Providing opportunities for parents to understand the Australian education system, curriculum, and assessment.
  • Communicating with parents in ways that are culturally and linguistically sensitive and appropriate.
  • Inviting and acknowledging parents’ participation and expertise in school activities, and events,
  • Building trusting and collaborative relationships with parents; and working in partnership with other agencies and organisations that support refugee families, such as Settlement Services, Community Migrant Resource Centre (CMRC), Respect Rights Independence Connect (RRIC) or community groups.

Engaging refugee parents

“These are some of the ways that education institutions can better engage the parents of students from refugee backgrounds. However, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and each school and family context may require different strategies and accommodations,” she says.

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“Therefore, it is important to talk strategy with the parents and the students themselves, and to continuously monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the engagement practices.”

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