Volume 43 Issue 4
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Engaging Refugee Families as Partners in Their Children’s Education
By Gloria Miller, Cat Thomas & Sabrina Fruechtenicht
Strong family–school–community partnerships involve families in meaningful ways and as active partners in key educational decisions (NASP, 2012). Such collaborative partnering is critically important to students’ academic and social–emotional success (Christenson & Reschly, 2010). Family–School Collaboration Services, Domain 7 of the NASP 2010 Practice Model, focuses on the important role that school psychologists play in providing mental health consultative services to reduce learning barriers; improve coordinated learning across home, school, and community environments; and foster school-to-work transitions.
This article reviews effective strategies and resources designed to help engage refugee families and children in the U.S. education system. It is written in response to requests for more information from participants who attended several invited NASP presentations over the last few years. The ideas to be shared are organized under four domains based on an extensive literature review and a series of in-home interviews. These ideas align with the important work now going on nationally and internationally to foster strong family, school, and community partnerships to help welcome, educate, build strong relationships with, and communicate with refugee families and students. Many strategies discussed here also are applicable with newcomer families of all backgrounds and experiences.
Who Are Refugees?
A refugee is a person outside his or her country who is unable or unwilling to return to receive protection from that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. In contrast, immigrants are people who willingly chose to leave their home country to permanently resettle in a new country (United States Conference on Catholic Bishops, 2013). Since 1970, more than 3 million refugees have been resettled in the United States. In 2013, 69,930 refugees were resettled in the United States who arrived from Bhutan, Myanmar (Burma), Somalia, Iraq, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Congo, Ethiopia, Burundi, and Rwanda, and it is projected that the largest populations resettled in the United States in 2014 will be from Iraq, Somalia, Myanmar (Burma), and Bhutan (Morse, 2013). Information on refugee groups resettled in each state can be found on the websites of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/orr) or the United Nations (http://www.unhcr.org.uk/fileadmin/user_upload/pdf/UNHCR_Global_Trends_2012.pdf).
What Assets Do Refugees Bring?
Refugees bring numerous assets and strengths to our educational system. Their rich multicultural heritages, traditions, and customs can introduce us to new art, music, dance, and ways of communicating. They also bring a wealth of knowledge of geography, science, agriculture, environmental issues, politics, and history. Their unique views of the world that come from living abroad and their exclusive perspective on international events and experiences can promote fresh ways of thinking and solving problems. In general, refugees and other newcomers have the ability to teach us about experiences that we may never have and, in doing so, deepen our understanding of important global issues and communities.
How Might Partnerships Be Fostered With Refugee Families?
It is important to remember that refugees have widely varying experiences and cultural histories (U.S. Committee for Refugees, 2011). Because of this, there is never a one-size-fits-all strategy for partnering with any family. While many refugees share experiences of loss and challenges associated with adapting to a completely new country and educational system, they also bring important strengths and assets for us to understand and build upon. Successful partnerships with refugee families begin with a foundational belief that their input is crucially important to their children’s educational success. As school psychologists, we know the value of family engagement and the positive impact it has on student outcomes (Lines, Miller, & Arthur-Stanley, 2011). Thus, we must ensure that there are effective systems in place that encourage partnership with newcomer families so that they feel welcome, learn how to build strong family–school relationships, and are able to communicate with their child’s teachers and school. They also need educational support to understand their partnership role and the importance of home–school collaboration in the United States.
Foster Welcoming Environments
A welcoming environment is perceived by all as personally relevant, valuing different cultures, safe, comfortable, and physically inviting. Important challenges must be overcome to help all families feel welcomed in our schools. Many refugee families are uncomfortable coming into a school and may not understand that in the United States, student success is fostered when parents are more engaged. This is often due to the different dynamics and expectations between parents and educators in other countries (Miller, Thomas, & Fruechtenicht, 2012). In many cultures, teachers are revered and parents expect to be told what to do or are discouraged from getting involved at their child’s school. Additionally, limited English skills often lower parents’ confidence about coming to the school where they may feel confused and overwhelmed. Welcoming strategies to avoid such feelings and impressions include:
- Brief, repeated informational meetings held in the community with cultural navigators present who can help discuss unfamiliar U.S. school expectations and policies.
- Greetings in the native language of each family by critical people who are the “face of the school” (e.g., bus drivers, front office staff, administrators).
- Peer mentors who can help with basic routines and procedures (e.g., how to use the library or bus system, where to get school supplies, who to call for what).
- Prominently displayed multicultural art and exhibits that honor and celebrate the different family traditions and heritages represented at the school.
- Classroom lessons and school-wide assemblies that incorporate different world cultural identities and values.
- Stories, videos, texts, books, and other classroom and library media sources available in multiple languages and depicting multiple cultures served at a school.
- Opening and closing ceremonies during meetings and at important school-wide events that honor cultural traditions.
- Community dialogues where diverse neighborhood members come together to gain a greater appreciation of their shared humanity and to dispel stereotypes.
- Community agencies that provide services before or after school hours in multiple native languages so that the school becomes a natural community resource center.
Welcoming resources include:
- Education: Understanding the Schools. This resource provides cultural orientation ideas useful for educators (http://www.culturalorientation.net/library/all-lesson-plans/education).
- Friends of Welcoming. A website that has many ideas for supporting individuals who want to make their communities more welcoming to newcomer refugees and immigrants (www.friendsofwelcoming.org and www.settlement.org).
- Parents as Educational Partners Curriculum. This curriculum is designed to enhance multicultural parents’ or caregivers’ involvement in their children’s education (http://www.thecenterweb.org/alrc/pdfs/pepsample.pdf).
- Receiving Communities Toolkit (Downs-Karkos, 2012). This guide reviews successful community and school relevant immigrant policies and practices (http://www.welcomingamerica.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Receiving-Communities-Toolkit_FINAL1.pdf).
Build Strong Relationships
A strong relationship is built when each partner feels respected, appreciated, and trusts that the other wants to help and will go out of his or her way to follow through. There are practical and personal challenges to building relationships with newcomer refugees. The demanding realities of adapting to a new home and culture put many families into a survival mode for the first few years that they are in their new country. Refugee families often lack reliable childcare and transportation to the school and may have trouble scheduling meetings during the day due to evening shift work and juggling multiple work schedules. Many refugee elders worry about losing family unity and influence (i.e., a loss of control) once their child goes to school. Families also may have experienced prior racial and ethnic discrimination and multiple personal losses, which can increase their wariness about building new relationships (Hughes & Beirens, 2007). Ideas to build strong relationships with refugee families include:
- Sociocultural conversations conducted in the home or community where family members and educators share stories, traditions, hopes, and dreams as well as fears and worries for their children entering the U.S. educational system.
- Collaboration with trained community navigators, who themselves were refugees, to build understanding of differences that require new adjustments at home and school.
- Community and home visits to meet families on their own turf during nonschool hours.
- Meetings scheduled at times that demonstrate an understanding and value of family routines, religious practices, work schedules, and other cultural traditions.
- A prominent map of the school with staff pictures that indicate where each person is located and that portrays their role at the school.
- Administrators who personally plan time to get know each newcomer family and who explain the purpose of formal and informal school events such as coffee talks.
- School events where children invite family members to participate in sports competitions, art/dance/music ceremonies, talent shows, clean-up, public murals, or gardening.
- Recognition that providing childcare where a child is taken away to another room may not be comfortable for families who would rather keep their young children close by.
Relationship resources include:
- Building Refugee Youth and Children’s Services (BRYCS, 2013). This resource provides a wealth of information on specific refugee issues and ideas to work with refugee students and families (http://www.brycs.org/schools.cfm).
- Center for Applied Linguistics. This site provides cultural profiles, historic and critical background information on refugee groups from around the world (www.CAL.org).
- Humans Rights Watch. This site provides current reports about situations across the globe and for specific refugee groups (www.hrw.org).
- International Rescue Committee. This site offers information on refugee populations and resources about IRC services (www.rescue.org).
- U.S. Committee for Refugees. This site offers information on public policy and health, family, orientation, finances, and victim services to promote full participation of newcomer refugees and immigrants in community life (www.refugees.org).
- United Nations High Commission for Refugees. This resource provides information and fact sheets on different refugee groups (www.unhcr.org).
Create Systems For Two-Way Communication
Two-way communication ensures that each partner has an equal voice and opportunity to send, receive, and share information, impressions, insights, or concerns. Many communication challenges exist when working with refugee families and students that necessitate an understanding of cross-cultural communication styles (Leung, Wu, Questin, Staresnick, & Le, 2008). Parents whose English is limited often feel that they do not have anything to contribute to the school, especially at important meetings when they do not have a translator with whom they feel comfortable (Chu & Wu, 2012). Children typically learn English faster than the adults in the home, so elders often rely on their children for information and translation of documents. This leads to uncomfortable role shifts within the family system and to potential misunderstandings due to inaccurate translation (Turney & Kao, 2009). Educators who work with refugee families and students have little prior training or knowledge of how trauma can affect a person’s motivation to be engaged in schooling. Negative experiences with authorities or events before arriving in the United States can lead to fear and anxiety and lower one’s comfort and ability to communicate in class or during meetings (Roy & Roxas, 2011). Ideas for actions that facilitate successful two-way communication include:
- Translation of all critical school brochures, forms, and policies into both written and verbal (e.g., video or tape-recordings) formats so as to overcome literacy issues.
- Multiple formats for communication, such as phone calls, videotapes, e-mails, text messages, TV bulletins, personal contacts, a neighborhood buddy system, among others.
- Critical documents or forms that need to be signed and returned to the school are sent home on distinctly colored paper.
- Printed business cards with a contact number and directions to the school that family members can easily show to a bus or cab driver.
- Preparation of families before meetings to explain the purpose of the meeting, what will occur, who will attend, the need for their input, and to get a list the questions they would like to ask.
- Trained cultural navigators who can be contacted by families in their native language when there are questions or concerns about their child or school.
- Collaboration with community service agencies that offer English learning opportunities to see if classes can be offered to family members at the school during school hours.
- Professional development for educators on effective communication strategies that can help overcome reluctance, gain trust, and appropriately respond to strong emotions.
Communication resources include:
- Colorado African Organization. This community agency provides a wide array of refugee services, including the Community Navigator program designed to enhance family–school partnerships (www.caoden.org).
- Culturally Competent Crisis Response. This NASP resource focuses on culturally sensitive crisis plan and responses with resources for schools, students, and families (http://www.nasponline.org/resources/culturalcompetence/cc_crisisresources.aspx).
- Cultural Orientation Resource Center. This center provides current refugee statistics, stories from various cultural groups, welcome videos, and tools for educators (http://www.culturalorientation.net).
- Many Roots, Many Voices: Supporting English Language Learners in Every Classroom. This guide, developed for educators in Canada, provides classroom ideas for ELLs and newcomer students and families (http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/manyroots/manyroots.pdf).
- Respect International and International Rescue Committee. These organizations are working to raise awareness of refugee issues and to provide resources for educators and the general community (www.respectforrefugees.org).
- Telling Tales. This is a collection of immigrant and refugee family and student stories at one public high school in Colorado (order @ Blurb or firstname.lastname@example.org).
Educate Families As Partners
Educated partners feel confident that they have the background information and skills to meaningfully contribute and engage in joint decision-making. In the United States, there is a strong focus on collaborative partnerships and shared decision-making to bolster coordinated learning across home and school (Miller, Lines, & Fleming, 2014). Such partnerships necessitate an understanding of key schooling issues and expectations about the role that families play in their child’s education. In addition to learning many unfamiliar educational and legal concepts, refugee families appreciate efforts to increase their understanding of classroom teaching approaches, assessment, and performance expectations and welcome new ideas for how to help their child at home (Hope, 2011). It also is important to understand and openly dispel cultural attributions about disability that can be deeply rooted in shame or guilt (Leung et al., 2008). Variations in authority structures across cultures, especially in regard to schooling, also need to be clarified (Turney & Kao, 2009). While parents and guardians in the United States have important legal authority and must be consulted in almost all schooling decisions, this type of authoritative advocacy is not familiar to most refugee families. Finally, limited schooling and English language ability are other important factors to consider when helping refugee parents engage in educational decision-making. Ideas for ensuring that refugee parents become educated partners include:
- Access to trained community navigators or liaisons who know how to greet families, put everyone at ease, and explain complex legal concepts and school policies.
- Instruction about the U.S. general and special education system and assurances that a disability is not a “fate” that should lead to shame or guilt.
- Opportunities for family members to experience school lessons through school visits, video clips of their child that are sent home, or group demonstrations.
- Homework assignments that provide a nonthreatening way for students and family members to interact or work together on fun, easily completed projects.
- Clear explanations of all grading scales and procedures so that, for example, parents are not under the impression that an F implies first.
- Use of graphs or charts to visually display a child’s progress over time.
- Family field trips to build knowledge of resources outside of their neighborhood and to strengthen social networking.
- Adult classes held at the school on topics such as applying for citizenship, saving for college, career planning, and use of the public library and personal computers.
- Stipends for family members to attend training, workshops, or courses with the expectation that they would then share their new knowledge with others.
- School and community professionals and refugee leaders collaborating as catalysts for change on critical neighborhood issues (e.g., better lighting, new bus access, more police protection).
|Sample Form: Assessing School Readiness to Engage Refugee Families|
|How are we doing? |
|Strengths to build on:||Opportunities for improvement:||Priorities for action:|
|WELCOMING||1: Not so good||2: Okay|
|3: Good||4: Very good|
|RELATIONSHIPS||1: Not so good||2: Okay|
|3: Good||4: Very good|
|COMMUNICATING||1: Not so good||2: Okay|
|3: Good||4: Very good|
|EDUCATING||1: Not so good||2: Okay|
|3: Good||4: Very good|
Educational resources include:
- BRIDGE: Building a Race and Immigrant Dialogue in the Global Era (Cho, 2004). BRIDGE: Building a Race and Immigration Dialogue in the Global Economy: a Popular Education Resource for Immigrant & Refugee Community Organizers. National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. This is a set of tools to encourage conversations around racism, migration, and global conditions (www.nnirr.org).
- Crossing Borders (CASA of Maryland, 2007). This is a multicultural curriculum designed to help understand demographic shifts among communities of color in the United States (www.casademaryland.org).
- Hand in Hand (McCorrison & Lawton, 2008). This guide provides information to enhance refugee student success in high school (http://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk).
- Involving Immigrant and Refugee Families. A resource with strategies on how to best engage and involve refugee families in their children’s education and schooling (http://www.brycs.org/documents/upload/InvolvingFamilies.pdf).
- New American Leaders Project (Bhojwani, 2010). This resource includes materials and ideas to foster leadership skills in newcomer families and students that can be used at the local or state level (www.newamericanleaders.org).
- Teacher Compendium for Human Rights. (Institute for Gifted Education, 2012). This guide provides classroom lesson ideas on economic, environmental, and social justice (http://www.du.edu/idge/media/documents/Teacher_Compendium.pdf).
Is Your School Ready To Engage Refugee Families?
To assess your school’s readiness to engage refugee families, use the sample form provided above to evaluate what is already working (i.e., strengths to build on), where there are opportunities for improvements, and set priorities for the future across all four domains. Be sure to get input from school professionals, staff, students, families, community members, and professionals from local refugee agencies. Such a review can help identify untapped resources that can lead to new ventures to support effective home, school, and community partnerships with refugee families and students.
S. Bhojwani. (2010). The new American leaders project.Retrieved from http://www.newamericanleaders.org
CASA of Maryland. (2007). Crossing borders: Building relationships across lines of difference.Retrieved from http://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/crossing-bordersimmigration.pdf
E. H. Cho. (2004). BRIDGE: Building a race and immigration dialogue in the global economy: A popular education resource for immigrant & refugee community organizers.National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Retrieved from www.nnirr.org
S. L. Christenson & A. L. Reschly. (2010). Handbook of school–family partnerships. New York, NY: Routledge.
S. Chu & H. Wu. (2012). Development of effective school–family partnerships for students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds: Special education teachers’ and Chinese American parents’ perspectives. Scholarlypartnershipsedu:, 6(1) 24–37. Retrieved from http://opus.ipfw.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1068&context=spe
J. Hope. (2011). New insights into family learning for refugees: Bonding, bridging, and building transcultural capital. Literacy, 45(2) 91–97.
N. Hughes & H. Beirens. (2007). Enhancing educational support: Towards holistic, responsive, and strength-based services for young refugees and asylum-seekers. Children and Society, 21(4) 261–272. doi:10.1111/j.1099-0860.2007.00098.x
B. Leung, T. Wu, M. Questin, J. Staresnick & P. Le. (2008). Communicating with Asian parents and families. Communiqué, 36(8)insert. Retrieved from http://www.nasponline.org/publications/cq/36/8/asianfamilies.aspx
C. Lines, G. E. Miller & A. Arthur-Stanley. (2011). The power of family–school partnering: A practical guide for school mental health professionals and educators. New York, NY: Routledge.
M. Mccorriston & A. Lawton. (2008). Hand in Hand: A resource pack to help meet the needs of refugees and asylum seekers in secondary school. London, UK: Refugee Council. Retrieved from http://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk
G. E. Miller, C. Lines & M. Fleming. (2014). Best practices in school psychology: Systems-level services (pp. 491–504). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
G. E. Miller, C. Thomas & S. Fruechtenicht. (2012). Community navigators’ perspectives of the parent engagement program, Final report. Denver, CO: Colorado African Organization.
J. Morse. (2013). U.S. Welcomes record number of refugees.IIP Digital U.S. Embassy. Retrieved from http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/st/english/article/2013/10/20131023285033.html?CP.rss=true#axzz2ybuYUR5i
National Association of School Psychologists. (2012). School–family partnering to enhance learning: Essential elements and responsibilities[Position Statement]. Retrieved from http://www.nasponline.org/about_nasp/position papers/Home-SchoolCollaboration.pdf
L. A. Roy & K. C. Roxas. (2011). Whose deficit is this anyhow? Exploring counter-stories of Somali Bantu refugees’ experiences in “doing school.” Harvard Educational Review, 81(3) 521–541.
K. Turney & G. Kao. (2009). Barriers to school involvement: Are immigrant parents disadvantaged? Journal of Educational Research, 102(4) 257–271. doi:10.3200/JOER.102.4.257-271
U.S. Committee for Refugees. (2011). Resettling refugees in America. Retrieved from http://www.refugees.org/our-work/refugee-resettlement
United States Conference on Catholic Bishops. (2013). Building refugee youth & children’s services.Retrieved from http://www.brycs.org
Gloria E. Miller, PhD, is a full professor and Cat Thomas and Sabrina Fruechtenicht are students in the child, family, and school psychology program in the Morgridge College of Education at the University of Denver.