Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum was in Winnipeg last week to meet with his provincial counterparts. At the meetings, McCallum admitted he was surprised at the size of Syrian refugee families resettled to Canada and the number of Syrian children was more than anticipated.

With this, media coverage turned to the challenges for schools that a large new student population brings and the need for language and support workers.

The educational demands of refugee students challenge teachers and school administrators to foster an environment that allows their academic and social needs to be met. And indeed, for Syrian refugee students, schools offer both tremendous educational opportunities and also provide a significant means of social integration into the communities they and their parents have joined.

Absent from the discussion, however, was the significant role parents play in the education system and the pressing need to bring Syrian and other refugee parents more fully into the parent-school relationship in culturally respectful and responsive ways.

Over the past 40 years, research has demonstrated that finding ways to involve parents in their children's education is an important lever that increases their academic success. When parents are involved, children do better in school and they stay in school longer.

Struggles for time and energy

Co-operative relations between parents and schools take many forms that include ensuring the at-home necessities to support basic learning, communication through newsletters and report cards, volunteering time and talents, setting educational goals and helping with homework, and participating in parent organizations and school councils. 

Many parents struggle to find the time and energy to get involved, but for newly arrived refugees, each dimension presents what appears to be an unscalable obstacle.

Recently arrived refugee children face numerous challenges to adapt to their new country and schools — and so do their parents, who are forced to deal with economic survival, acculturation and adaptation, limited English proficiency and different cultural and social parenting norms. For many refugee parents, the lack of familiarity with the Canadian school system, school or division policies and the implicit Canadian expectations of "good parenting" can be overwhelming to decode.

Without parental involvement, refugee children are at risk of failing socially and academically regardless of in-school supports. Refugee parents play a significant role in assisting their children as they begin to trust teachers and principals and others in positions of authority.

The positive relationships that are formed between school staff and parents are critical to a refugee child's in-school successes. To encourage parental participation, schools need information to develop programs and services that reflect the diverse cultural understandings of what constitutes parental involvement from the parents' perspectives.

Surprisingly, little research has focused on refugee parent involvement in their children's schools from the parents' perspectives. 

Challenging our conceptions of integration

The sheer number of Syrian refugee children who have and will be resettled in Canada challenges our conceptions of academic and social integration. Their arrival demands a deeper awareness of the factors that increase the likelihood of their successful transition into Canadian schools.

At the same time, the large number of Syrian families arriving over the past year offers the opportunity for a comprehensive picture of parental involvement in the distinctly Canadian program of resettlement with both government and private support.

Gaining an understanding of Syrian refugees' conceptions of parental involvement in their children's education is an important first step to bridge the cultural divide between Syrian refugee parents and Canadian educators.

A better grasp of this involvement from the parents' perspectives will help to initiate more collaborative partnerships between home, school and other refugee supports, which in turn will lead to increased long-term success of Syrian refugee parents' involvement in their children's educational pursuits.

In the end, the goal is to increase the likelihood of growing healthy children, families and communities.


Jerome Cranston is an associate professor in the faculty of education at the University of Manitoba and Shauna Labman is an assistant professor in the faculty of law at the University of Manitoba. Together they are initiating an interdisciplinary research collaboration on refugee parent involvement in their children's schools from the parents' perspective.