Relationships: Paramount to Successful Refugee Education

There are many important funding and policy decisions that need to be made about refugee education, but what truly cannot be bought or planned: supportive and loving relationships with refugee students. That’s the topic of this blog post and it was inspired by a discussion I had with a colleague today. My colleague was teaching in a program for refugees this spring and his experiences reminded me of volunteering in a similar program in Germany last year. Both of us commented that without putting relationships at the forefront, no real learning would occur.

The importance of relationships is not a new concept to any teacher (I would hope, at least), so this knowledge may be common knowledge to a lot of people. However, I feel that it needs to be explored in the specific context of teaching refugee students. All types of relationships are important in this circumstance, such as teacher/student, school/parents, school/community, and pretty much any other combination.

When a student comes to class for the first time, it can be scary and intimidating, but that is an even bigger factor with a refugee student who has been uprooted, faced terrors, and doesn’t even speak English. A warm environment that celebrates what these children have to offer, supports them in their challenges, and grows their strength is essential. No matter what the official policies are, teachers can make or break this situation. Teachers need to take an interest in the children’s lives beyond academics, and understand that they are a human first. Like my colleague shared, “relationships trump lesson plans”. Students may be coming into their new school experience with a distrust of authority and negative feelings about school in general, so being someone they can count on and who can show the importance of education is essential.

However, a teacher is not the only person in a school, and a student usually comes from a family. In the most successful programs supporting refugee students, there is an understanding that the student is only one member of a unit and everyone needs to be supported and kept in the loop. Parents coming to Canada as refugees with their children are facing just as many new challenges as their children are. They desire to be good parents, but navigating the new terrain can be difficult. Without adequate knowledge of the language or structures, how are they supposed to be able to enroll their children, realize all that it takes to equip their kids for school, and help them succeed academically? The short answer is that they cannot. Those are difficult struggles when they are also worried about getting a job, learning English themselves, and dealing with their own trauma. That is why having positive and encouraging relationships with the families of refugee children is crucial to their success. Teachers and other Canadians need to act as cultural brokers, teaching about what it takes to be a Canadian student – from wearing a toque in the winter to what provincial achievement tests are. Perhaps most importantly is that interactions must be positive whenever possible. A quick phone call or note home telling all about the excellent progress their child is exhibiting may work to still worries and provide evidence that the hard journey to Canada is worth it.

Finally, relationships also exist outside of the inner circle of family and teacher. While those relationships are certainly paramount to success, the relationship and ethos surround them also need to be in order. Many programs for refugees take place in schools with regular programs as well. In these cases, the programs for refugees should be an example of a safe place where they can flourish, not just a holding pen meant to keep them away from the mainstream classes. Having flow and relationships between the mainstream classes and newcomer rograms is necessary to combat negative stereotypes, racism, and bullying. Being forward looking  is important as well. For example, if school is meant to, at least in part, prepare students for the “real world”, then the students need to be exposed to it. One of the best ways to do so is have partnerships between the school and the community. Reading programs, using services and going on outings are some such avenues. Students should see the community serving them, and also in turn have opportunities to give back and realize that they, too, are now part of that community.

In the end, to fully support the Syrian refugee students in our Alberta schools there needs to be an overall environment of communication, caring, and movement. With the 150th birthday of Canada coming up this summer, what better time is there than now to practice the inclusion and celebrate the multicultural makeup of our country?


Here are some sources that informed my opinion and can provide extra reading for the curious:

Tran, D., & Hodgson, B. R. (2015). Meeting the needs of refugee and immigrant students and families in a culturally responsive way. Voices in Urban Education, (41), 7–15.

Stewart, J. (2017, March). A culture of care and compassion for refugee students: Creating a state of nhân đạo. Education Canada. Retrieved from

Williams, R. (2007). The psychosocial consequences for children of mass violence, terrorism and disasters. International Review of Psychiatry, 19(3), 263–77.

Szente, J., Hoot, J., & Taylor, D. (2006). Responding to the special needs of refugee children: Practical ideas for teachers. Early Childhood Education Journal, 34(1), 15–20.

Ogilvie, G., & Fuller, D. (2016). Restorative Justice Pedagogy in the ESL classroom: Creating a caring environment to support refugee students. TESOL Canada, 33(10), 86–96.

Photo credit: “kids” by Brian Wong on Flickr


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