14 – Supporting Refugee English Language Learners in Canadian Classrooms

Misty Schroeder

Canada is becoming very diverse as more people choose to start a new life in the country. While some immigrants arrive by choice, many refugees come to Canada because their country of origin is no longer safe. As the school systems in Canada continue to welcome many refugee learners each year, educators and support staff must be aware of how to best meet the needs of these vulnerable new students. Although the practices educators use may be appropriate for students in mainstream classrooms, or for those with English as an Additional Language (EAL) needs, the selection of practices is especially important for learners who may have limited or no experience with schooling, or those who have experienced trauma in their lifetime. By analyzing applicable and relevant Canadian research, I will describe the characteristics of refugee learners and outline various effective practices that teachers can use when working with refugee English language learners in schools and classrooms.

As described by the Government of Canada, refugees are people who have fled their countries because of a well-founded fear of persecution. They are not able to return home and may have seen or experienced many horrors. A refugee is different from an immigrant. An immigrant is a person who chooses to settle permanently in another country while refugees are forced to flee (Government of Canada, 2017). The Calgary Board of Education (CBE) states that “since 2002, Canada has been among the top three re-settlement countries in the world for refugees, and the Government is increasing the number of refugees and other persons in vulnerable circumstances that this country resettles each year by 20%” (CBE “Canada’s Refugees,” n.d., para.1). As more families enter the country and the Canadian school system, educators and support staff must have the knowledge and skills necessary to provide refugee students with the most supportive and beneficial educational experiences possible.

When refugee students enter the school system, teachers must first get to know who their learners are as individuals and what their life experiences have been. Educators have to be aware that “many refugee learners come from war-affected countries and they have often experienced trauma, tragedy, persecution and prolonged stays in transitional refugee camps. Some have been forced to serve as soldiers and many have witnessed acts of violence, torture and crime” (CBE “Characteristics of a Refugee,” n.d., par. 1). Refugee learners may also arrive in Canada without their parents. In some circumstances, parents may have died, gone missing or may have been detained in the country of origin (CBE, 2017). The physical and emotional trauma that students may have experienced in their lifetime can seem unimaginable to an educator who is unaware of what many refugee learners have been through. Education, knowledge, understanding, and empathy are all necessary for teachers and support staff who work with refugee learners and their families. We cannot begin the process of teaching until we genuinely know students and families, what their experiences have been, and what they need from us at school in order to feel safe and comfortable in their new environment.

A teacher shared a story with me about a young refugee learner that struggled to focus and often seemed tired at school. After connecting with the student’s parents, this teacher learned that each night, the child would sleep in the porch, beside the front door, in order to escape quickly if need be. After many years in a refugee camp, this child learned that sleep was often interrupted by noises or experiences that caused the family to flee quickly, and those feelings of fear and uncertainty carried over as they began a new life in Canada. This child’s lack of focus and drowsiness could have been dismissed as boredom or lack of comprehension in English, but the situation was understood by the teacher after connecting with the family and learning about their past experiences. This knowledge not only built empathy and understanding, but also allowed the teacher to provide more targeted emotional support as well as much needed quiet time for this student during their time of need. Genuine human connection, understanding, empathy, and support is a necessary starting point when refugee students and their families become part of a school and classroom in Canada. Connecting with students and families and earning their trust and respect is the first step in creating a positive school experience.

Once a teacher has begun the critical stage of relationship-building with his or her refugee students and their families, he or she must ensure that the school environment is reflective of students and student need. Creating a school and classroom environment in which students feel safe and comfortable is essential to the well-being and success of all learners, but especially to that of refugee students. It is important for teachers to understand that schooling in Canada may be the first educational experience for many refugee learners: “For a variety of reasons related to war, environmental disasters, civil unrest, or political instability, they have attended school sporadically, if at all. They have minimal schooling in their native language, and low levels of literacy and numeracy” (CBE, “Students with Limited Formal Schooling,” n.d., para. 1). Refugee students may have had disrupted schooling due to time spent moving between countries, or time spent in refugee camps or enclaves of displaced people for several years. Schools may have been closed or unsafe, and children may have been denied education due to gender, ethnicity, inability to pay fees, or to being victims of forced labour or forced military service (CBE, 2017). We cannot expect students with these experiences to transition quickly or smoothly to a mainstream classroom. Teachers must ensure that the classroom environment feels welcoming, safe, and comfortable to our new learners.

While some refugee students may have received schooling in their home country, the learning environment would have differed from the typical Canadian classroom. Expected behaviours in Canada such as using bathroom facilities, waiting in line or for one’s turn, staying in one place for extended periods, or using and handling school materials may have to be explicitly taught and consistently revisited for some refugee learners (CBE, 2017).  It is also important for teachers to be aware of occurrences in the school environment that may trigger anxiety or behavioural reactions for refugee students, such as dark hallways, people dressed in uniforms or heavy boots, elevated noise levels, bells, fire alarms, lockdowns, or evacuation drills (CBE, 2017).

Schools often practice for fire drills and lockdowns. It is critical that all students know why the practices happen and that they are safe throughout the process. In my EAL classroom, I made it clear to my learners that schools do the drills and practices to keep them safe. I reinforced that there was not an emergency and that they were not in danger. For one of my groups of learners, I utilized a translation tool because they were not able to understand English enough to grasp the concepts. By speaking into my phone and having the tool interpret what I was saying in three different languages, I was able to ensure that the students understood that no danger was present and that we were practicing the drills to make sure that we knew how to be safe in all situations. Teachers have to ensure the comprehension of refugee students in these situations, especially if they have experienced trauma in the past. Visuals, books, role-plays, and translation tools can assist teachers in explaining these concepts in detail as a way to avoid triggers and be sure that students continue to feel safe regardless of the occurrences taking place in the environment.

All learners must see themselves within the walls of the school and the classroom. Cultural representation should be evident and can be accomplished through displays in community languages, flags hanging throughout the school or classroom, applicable student work that is representative of each unique individual, and artifacts celebrating cultural diversity (Coelho, 2012). Teachers can also provide reading or other materials in the students’ first languages and learn key words or phrases to help students feel more comfortable as they transition into their new environment. Students must feel appreciated, recognized, represented, and valued at school in order to help them feel safe and free from stress as they begin their new educational journey.

Routines and consistency can also help refugee learners to feel safe in the classroom. When students know what to expect and are aware of what will happen throughout the school day, they are more likely to feel safe and at ease. Teachers can create predictable environments and use routines to assist students to know what will happen next. Establishing regular and consistent activities and transitions, and anticipating and preparing students for unexpected breaks in routines are some ways that teachers can provide a sense of safety and security within the classroom (CBE, 2017). These steps are important in all classrooms, but are especially beneficial when working to create an environment in which vulnerable students can feel at ease during their time at school.

As a new student enters the classroom, a teacher may feel like pairing him or her with a student from the same country of origin is a logical step. Although this may be beneficial in some circumstances, teachers must be aware that students from the same country can come from completely different socio-economic, religious, and political backgrounds and therefore have vastly different belief systems from one another (Helmer & Eddy, 2012). In all classrooms, “care must be taken not to make inappropriate assumptions by disregarding particulars of the students’ backgrounds that may seriously affect this relationship that has been imposed upon them” (Helmer & Eddy, 2012, p. 36). I experienced this first hand as our school prepared to host a Flag Ceremony earlier this fall. We wanted to celebrate the 23 countries represented at our elementary school, and, to do so, we held a ceremony in which a student from each country entered the gym carrying the flag from their country of origin. In preparation for this ceremony, students learned about their flag and had the opportunity to draw, color, and display their flags in the classroom and the school. Five of my early learners as well as nine middle-years learners came to our school as refugees from Syria, and as we were learning about flags, it quickly became clear that we were not appropriately representing our Syrian students.

Two of my first-grade learners were adamant that the flag I had presented them with was not their flag, and upon chatting with our other EAL teacher, I realized that some of her Syrian students were confused as well. After doing some research on the issue, we realized that one flag represents the political views of one group of people in Syria, while a second flag represents another set of views and beliefs. Once I became educated on the topic, I sent each student home with a blank template and had them work with their families to draw the flag that they identified with so that I had a completely accurate representation of each student. During the ceremony, we had two students who identified with one flag carry that during the ceremony, followed by two students carrying the other flag that represented their beliefs. It was an impactful learning experience and taught me the importance of genuinely getting to know students as unique individuals with complex and varying views, beliefs, and values. Had we lumped all of the children from Syria into one category, the results would have been non-representative, inappropriate, and highly offensive to some families. As teachers, we must invest time into getting to know our students and learning about their home countries and backgrounds as much as possible in order to make their school experience in Canada comfortable, responsive, authentic, meaningful, and genuinely representative of their needs.

Teachers are encouraged to take into consideration three aspects of refugee learner characteristics and needs when designing programs for refugee learners: linguistic, academic background and experience, and learner experiences and personal characteristics (Manitoba Education, 2012).  Beginning with the linguistic element, it is important to review student ability in both English and their first language. If a student has had limited exposure to English, analyzing his or her first language skills will provide pertinent information regarding how to program effectively for that student. If a student has had limited experience with literacy in their first language as well, English language support will need to be rather intensive and may progress in a slower fashion (Manitoba Education, 2012). I have worked with students who have strong literacy skills in their first language, as well as students who have limited or no first language literacy skills. Students who can read and write in their language of origin can often make connections between reading, writing, and speaking in English and their first language, and seem to progress rather quickly, even if they are beginners. Students who are unable to read and write in their first language often need differentiated activities and intensive support, as they are working to build literacy skills in general, and the entire process is new and complex.

Teachers must also consider the academic background and experiences of their refugee students. Students may or may not have attended school in their country of origin, and schooling may have been interrupted for significant periods. Some learners may have consistently attended one school, others may have attended various schools with multiple languages of instruction, and some students may have had positive educational experiences similar to those in Canada (Manitoba Education, 2012). By gathering information regarding the academic backgrounds of refugee students, teachers can better plan to transition students appropriately and develop effective and individualized programming strategies for each learner.

Each student comes with a different academic history, and teachers must utilize the appropriate documents or support workers to learn as much as possible about each student that joins the Canadian school system. These supports may include intake forms, school support workers, outside agencies affiliated with the school system that work with newcomers, and/or interpreters. Teachers must also take into account learner experiences and personal characteristics to help them plan and program effectively. Learning styles and preferences, potential learning disabilities, physical characteristics and health, culture shock and socio-emotional well-being, mental health, and educational and personal aspirations will all affect how refugee students learn (Manitoba Education, 2012). Knowing students and being aware of their individual needs and challenges can help teachers to create relevant, applicable, and meaningful learning experiences for all.

Understanding effective classroom practices when working with refugees is critical to the successful implementation of planning and programming. Although each school division is different and will have its own set of policies or strategies for working with EAL or refugee students, many of the core ideas will remain the same from division to division. The CBE offers several examples of best practices, including “age appropriate groupings, self-contained programs or classrooms offering intensive, accelerated English, literacy and numeracy instruction for at least the first year or two, and intensive small group or individual literacy interventions” (CBE “Programming Ideas,” para. 2). Effective transition plans must also be developed to ensure that students are able to access mainstream classes when they are ready. EAL teachers can plan with and work alongside teachers in mainstream classrooms to support learners and organize the use of first language educational assistants or tutors, if possible (CBE, 2017).

In order to effectively support students holistically, schools and teachers must also work with refugee families and connect them with the appropriate supports. Educators must understand that “many refugee parents or guardians are living under difficult socioeconomic conditions and experiencing emotional stress. They have a great deal of concern for their children but may lack the personal, financial or linguistic resources needed to effectively support them in the acculturation process or in their academic work” (CBE “Characteristics of a Refugee,” n.d., para. 2). School staff and affiliated outside agencies can assist parents in understanding the school system, provide access to services such as tutoring, mentoring, counselling, home-school liaison, and community services, connect parents with supports that include family learning in the area of literacy, help involve families in parent and community groups, and provide information and access to sports and art activities for children (CBE, 2017). By supporting the family unit, teachers are not only meeting the needs of their students, but also providing parents with information and resources to help meet the needs of the family as a whole.

By digging into relevant Canadian research and providing information on refugee learners with limited schooling and/or experiences with past trauma, I was able to detail effective practices that teachers can use when working these students. As more vulnerable students enter our school systems across the country, it is increasingly important that teachers have the knowledge and support in order to best meet the needs of refugee learners in mainstream and EAL classrooms. Enhancing teacher knowledge and confidence around best practices will allow schools to provide the most beneficial learning experiences possible for refugee students.



Calgary Board of Education (CBE). Teaching refugees with limited formal schooling. Education website. Retrieved from http://teachingrefugees.com/

Coelho, E. (2012). Language and learning in multilingual classrooms: A practical approach. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Government of Canada. (2017). How Canada’s refugee system works. Retrieved from http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/refugees/canada.asp

Helmer, S., & Eddy, C. (2012). Look at me when I talk to you: EAL learners in non-EAL classrooms. Toronto, ON: Pippin Publishing.

Manitoba Education. (2012). Life after war: Education as a healing process for refugee and war-affected children. Retrieved from: http://www.edu.gov.mb.ca/k12/docs/support/law/full_doc.pdf



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