Tapestry

What it's like to be a refugee student in a Canadian classroom

Once refugees settle in a new country, the children are placed in schools where teachers become "front line workers," according to Dr. Kristiina Montero, who has spent much of her career finding ways to help integrate refugee children into North American classrooms.

VIDEO: Kristiina Montero tells about an eye-opening encounter between a Canadian teacher and their student from a war zone

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4 years agoVideo
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VIDEO: Kristiina Montero tells about an eye-opening encounter between a Canadian teacher and their student from a war zone 0:54

A United Nations report called Global Trends released in June 2016 says that 51% of displaced persons in the world are children under 18 years of age. It is a distressingly high number.

Kristiina Montero
Once refugees settle in a new country, the children are placed in schools where teachers become "front line workers," according to​ Dr. Kristiina Montero.

Montero has spent much of her career finding ways to help integrate refugee children into North American classrooms. While teachers are not trained therapists, they may be the first people to identify and deal with psychological issues that arise among the refugee children in their classes.

"Many, many of these students have been in exile in countries where they weren't welcome. And I recall one dad said ... please, please, please tell your teachers that we are not bad parents and our children are not bad children, but they have been mistreated in the schools where they were in the country of exile and they're not trusting teachers and they're not trusting schools right now."

You never know what will trigger a child, so Montero has some suggestions to help in the classroom:

  • Create predictable routines
  • Ease students through transitions
  • Ensure a quiet space, using soft voices
  • Be conscious of loud noises in the classroom and school (e.g. school bells, fire alarms)
  • Be conscious of who visits the classroom — a visit from a uniformed police officer may be a trigger for a student (they are not always seen positively)
  • Create a welcoming space where students feel that they are wanted
  • Make home-school connections — use interpreters for communication whenever possible
  • Listen to students — hear what they have to say
  • Engage in teacher self-care

Teachers are expected to help students make up for gaps in their education and teach them a new language while the students adapt to a new culture and deal with any post-traumatic stress issues that may arise.

"Some of the kids come from a situation where they don't have anything... We've seen some tendency for kids to take food items and hide them in their desks, saving it for a little bit later, kind of like a hoarding type of situation.... Teachers might smell some rotting food... I think it's a very natural and normal reaction because they're in survival mode. It's hard to go from one context to another context and not do that. This is how they've survived."

Some children, when frightened or triggered to remember a traumatic event, run away from the classroom. Educators call them "runners."

"Teachers need to be attuned to [this behaviour] and have a plan of action in place to be prepared for when it does happen. But always treat the child with respect. They're never doing these things out of malicious intent or anything like that, but some are still in survival mode."

Montero recommends many strategies for teachers to support children who have experienced trauma. But she says the benefits are far-reaching. "These strategies that I'm talking about, it's not just for refugee newcomers that it's beneficial. It's for all kids. It's like a universal design. We're talking about these issues now because of the influx of the Syrian refugees, but this is good for all students."

Dr. Kristiina Montero is an associate professor of education at Wilfrid Laurier University and a graduate of the Global Mental Health Trauma and Recovery Program at Harvard University.

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