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Usable Knowledge

After the Journey

What U.S. educators need to know about refugee children and how to teach them
Settling In

What happens to children who flee war-ravaged homelands and resettle elsewhere? The world will face that question with particular urgency over the next decade, as vast numbers of refugees from Syria and other conflict zones stream across borders.

When these children reach their final asylum and enter new schools, their turbulent histories are often hidden by “language barriers, privacy concerns, cultural misunderstandings, and stereotypes,” according to a new report by HGSE Assistant Professor Sarah Dryden-Peterson. But unless their experiences as migrants — sporadic schooling, language confusion, poor instruction, and discrimination, for instance — are understood, refugee children in the United States and elsewhere may continue to feel rootless. They may be unable to cultivate a sense of belonging or a positive relationship with teachers and peers, and they may remain disconnected from the support services they need.

“One of the particular black boxes for teachers of refugees in the US is about these children’s previous educational experiences,” says Dryden-Peterson. “While previous waves of refugees to the U.S. rarely had access to school before they arrived, current refugees usually have. This very question is actually what brought me to this work in the first place. As a middle school teacher of refugee students in Boston, I felt I did not know enough about their prior educational experiences to be a good teacher for them.”

A Closer Look at History

In the new paper, published by the Migration Policy Institute, Dryden-Peterson looks at how pre-resettlement histories can affect refugee children’s academic experiences later in their school lives. She draws on extensive data from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), as well as her own field-based research on refugee children’s educational experiences in countries of first asylum – such as Somali refugees in Kenya and Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

Here are five things that U.S. educators should know about the refugee children in their communities:

  • Refugee children may have gaps in their skills and knowledge resulting from disrupted schooling — not a lack of aptitude.
  • Refugees’ schooling before and during migration is typically sporadic, which may shape family attitudes about school and investment in a school community.
  • Refugee children are often exposed to many languages of instruction over the course of their migration, resulting in language confusion and limited opportunities to master academic content. Experience in an English-language school does not guarantee proficiency in English.
  • Refugee children may be unaware of the behaviors and approaches to learning required of them in U.S. classrooms. Explicitly teaching them how to ask questions and engage in learning may be essential.
  • Refugee children may have suffered discrimination and bullying in countries of first asylum. Helping them develop a positive ethnic and cultural identity can dull the lasting effects of those negative experiences.  

These findings, Dryden-Peterson says, should inform decisions of U.S. educators about children’s grade placement, remedial assistance strategies, and ongoing learning support.

Additional Resources


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