Interventions for refugee children in New Zealand schools: models, methods, and best practice

Publication Details

This review looks at different models, methods and best practice for intervening with refugee children in New Zealand schools. It examines the literature on refugee trauma, loss and grief and second language concerns, resilience, issues of migration, school and teacher effects, and conceptual and policy issues. It also discusses a range of best practices for refugee children within schools.

Author(s): Richard J. Hamilton, Angelika Anderson, Kaaren Frater-Mathieson, Shawn Loewen and Dennis W. Moore. Report prepared for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: 2000

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Chapter 1: Introduction


Refugee children are an identifiable and increasing group in our schools. New Zealand ranks 1st equal per capita in the world in terms of the number of refugees accepted, however, of the 10 countries that regularly resettle refugees, NZ rates lowest in post-arrival support. Refugees are special because they have typically experienced both displacement and trauma and now face the task of adapting to a new environment, frequently involving the simultaneous acquisition of a new language. In addition many of the issues of concern regarding their effective inclusion into New Zealand schools and classrooms will be relevant to any migrant populations, and to all children who have suffered trauma, loss or grief in their lives. These populations of children represent groups potentially `at risk' for less than optimal outcomes at school, and might have special needs and / or evidence behaviour problems. They also represent a significant proportion of our school populations. Although many schools and specific individuals within schools have worked hard to meet the needs of refugee students and their families, the current education system does not have a comprehensive refugee support system in place to assist schools refugee families and children adapt to their new schools. To know how to address their needs and how to create schools which are better prepared to meet these needs is crucial.

To that end the aim of this literature review is to identify school based interventions to help this population, methods and measures to assess the efficacy of such interventions and programmes with a view to evaluate current practice and inform future `best practice' in New Zealand. This introduction will outline the method and process used to search the literature, highlight key issues, identify appropriate theoretical models to use in this quest, and describe the model or framework used to organise this review.

The literature search process

We searched six international databases:

  • Psych-lit
  • Medline
  • Sociofile
  • Eric
  • Current Content
  • Mlit

The search terms used were:

  • Refugee and School (limited to `human' and 1990 onwards)
  • Refugee and Education (same limits)
  • Refugee and `review' or `state of the art'

The results of the searches were saved and imported into one large EndNote library. This Library formed the database, which was searched more specifically to identify relevant material. The EndNote database has some 473 entries. Of those some 129 articles have been obtained. In addition we obtained a number of books on the topic of refugees.

Key issues identified in the literature

Refugees are a legally and constitutionally well-defined group of people. While individual countries might have particular laws and regulations concerning refugees, there is an internationally agreed definition of `refugee': The Geneva Convention (1951) definition:

".... those who were outside their country of nationality and who were unable or unwilling to return to that country because of well-founded fear of persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group." (Kaprielian-Churchill, 1996, p.350)

While there is a large and diverse body of literature around refugees addressing social, medical, political, linguistic and educational issues, there is a paucity of material specifically concerned with refugee children, and only a small proportion of this is about school-based interventions and programmes. Much of the material that is available deals with issues of language acquisition. In addition research done with refugees is typically concerned with specific refugee populations. There is evidence to suggest that findings are not generalisable across cultures (McCloskey & Southwick, 1996). Cultural differences exist in the interpretation of trauma, and in ways of coping. The same event therefore may have different effects on different groups of people and the same intervention may not be equally successful with all cultural groups. In addition there are significant between group differences that affect outcomes, such as the particular circumstances around the flight, time spent in refugee camps, and cultural and geographical distance between the refugee group and the host country, to name a few. Therefore the extant literature has definite limitations.

Though there is a limited literature base dealing specifically with refugee populations, we can draw on several independent but related fields of research. All refugees have suffered grief and loss, if only over the loss of their home and familiar way of life. In addition refugees might have suffered the traumas of persecution, violence, war, the loss of loved ones and close relatives. They might suffer from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). There is a large body of mental health literature around all those issues of loss, grief and trauma, which is relevant here.

At the same time as having to cope with all these stressors, refugees also face displacement, typically involuntarily and without time to make preparations. Here again, there is a considerable body of literature, addressing issues of displacement, migration, and acculturation, examining the task of adaptation to a new environment and the factors that hinder or facilitate this process. Special for refugees is that they face this task under the worst possible circumstances at a time when they are already highly stressed, and often following experiences of significant and sometimes ongoing trauma. Related to these issues of displacement are relevant bodies of literature, specifically those concerned with the needs of linguistic and cultural minorities in schools. The resilience literature provides a useful framework to describe this task of adaptation under difficult and trying circumstances, considering a multitude of potential risk and resilience factors.

Relevant theoretical models

From these diverse literature sources a number of useful theoretical frameworks emerge. Some of the most relevant frameworks will be outlined below, in terms of their usefulness in conceptualising and organising the multitude of factors and issues to be considered in this review.

The mental health perspective (trauma, grief, and PTSD)

Several reviews describe the refugee experience in terms of trauma and loss (Beiser, Dion, Gotowiec, Hyman, & et al., 1995; Fox, Cowell, & Montgomery, 1994; Kaprielian-Churchill, 1996; McCloskey & Southwick, 1996; Pfefferbaum, 1997), discuss the applicability of the PTSD construct for refugees as a group, and describe associated symptoms in children (McCloskey & Southwick, 1996; Pfefferbaum, 1997). Much of this body of literature is situated in clinical contexts, with a focus on therapeutic interventions involving individuals following identification and diagnosis. Though this particular body of literature largely describes pre-migration stressors, it also considers the ongoing trauma of adaptation to a new environment, and the issues of grief and loss associated with displacement. It is a useful and necessary approach to consider as it provides methods of identifying and treating individuals for whom the stresses exceed their personal or contextual resources to cope, and who need intensive individual therapy.


In contrast theories concerning displacement and migration largely concern themselves with post-migration stressors. Generally speaking displacement involves a number of separate issues: 1. The physical change of location. 2. Having to acquire a different language and 3. Issues of culture and minority status. A proposed theoretical model to consider the first aspect of displacement is `the psychology of place' (Fullilove, 1996). Displacement here is conceptualised in terms of the loss of attachment to a physical place, and the additional stress placed on individuals by the increased demands resulting from having to orient the self in an unfamiliar space.

There is the large and diverse literature dealing with cultural and linguistic issues, and issues concerning minority populations. Culture is an important consideration in a number of ways. Cultural origins will also need to be considered in terms of how events are interpreted, coping styles, and appropriate interventions. In addition the process of acculturation which refugees undergo needs to be considered. Particularly relevant here is the identification of refugees as potentially at risk for developing oppositional cultural identities (Ogbu, 1995a; Ogbu, 1995b) or negative acculturation attitudes (Berry, 1987; Berry, 1995), due to the involuntariness of their migration. This body of literature is relevant here because it leads to the identification of contextual factors (both pre- and post-migration) which might moderate the traumas and stresses experienced, as well as impact on the process of adaptation and the efficacy of interventions, such as for example the cultural (as well as geographical distance) between the refugees and the host nation. In addition it might lead to the identification of interventions designed to ease the move into the new place, facilitate integration and prevent the negative outcomes of marginalisation.


Resilience is defined by Blechman as "the survival of a stressor (or risk factor) and the avoidance of two or more adverse life outcomes to which the majority of normative survivors of this stressor succumb" (Blechman, in press, p. 1). Masten and Coatsworth put it more simply "how children overcome adversity to achieve good developmental outcomes" (Masten & Coatsworth, 1998, p.205). By these definitions it is evident that the resilience literature is potentially useful in describing the task faced by refugees. It provides frameworks and mechanisms to conceptually integrate the diverse issues and factors which play a part in this task; that is to adapt to a new environment at a time of great stress. Further, it is a very positive approach with a focus on strengths, existing resources and successful outcomes. It lends itself to the identification of factors (both personal and contextual) which might facilitate healthy adaptation, and thus lead to the identification of useful interventions, including school-based interventions. There is a long list of personal and contextual variables known to be risk or resilience factors, barriers to or facilitators of the process of healthy adaptation. This list of known risk and resilience factors will help us to identify important moderator variables to consider in the task of evaluating the efficacy of interventions and identifying best practice.

An ecological approach

Bronfenbrenner's Ecological model

For the purpose of this review it is helpful to have a model which imposes some order on the wide array of contextual factors to be considered. Bronfenbrenner developed such a model, which illustrates the influence of the environment, or context, on child development. All development occurs in contexts, and can therefore only be properly understood in contexts (Brooks-Gunn, 1995). Bronfenbrenner contributed significantly to the field of developmental psychology by drawing attention to the importance of contexts. His model separates out aspects of the environment according to the immediacy with which they impact on the developing child. There is the Microsystem, which is the individual child within the settings which immediately impact on the child (the family, the neighbours, peers etc). The Mesosystem describes how the various settings within which an individual actively participates interact. The Exosystem is the extended family, the parent's workplace etc, which impacts on the child indirectly, but in which the child does not actively participate. Finally, the Macrosystem constitutes the broad ideology, laws and customs of a society. It represents the consistencies evident in all the other settings within a society or culture, such as how all schools within one country share a number of features, and are different in consistent ways from schools in other countries. Or, to put it another way, it sets the tone for everything else that happens within a particular culture. Also of interest are the intersections between these spheres, such as how well families fit into their neighbourhoods, and how successfully they interact with the wider environment, the place of work, or social institutions, for example. Bronfenbrenner visualised these interacting systems as nested one inside the other, like a Russian doll.

Bronfenbrenner defined the 'ecology of human development' thus:

The ecology of human development involves the scientific study of the progressive, mutual accommodation between an active, growing human being and the changing properties of the immediate settings in which the developing person lives, as this process is affected by relations between these settings, and by the larger contexts in which the settings are embedded." (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 21)

This definition has three important implications:

  1. The developing person is viewed as actively engaged, and is not only influenced by his / her environment, but also influences / changes the environment.
  2. Development is a process of mutual accommodation, characterised by reciprocity.
  3. The environment of interest is not a single, immediate setting, but incorporates several settings, and larger settings, which have more or less direct influence, and the interconnections between these settings.

Bronfenbrenner's model is a tool for describing human development with consideration for the role environments play in the process. According to Bronfenbrenner evidence that development has occurred requires not only an enduring change in the individual, but also a generalisation of this change across settings. In addition, because Bronfenbrenner sees the developmental process as interactive, not only is the child's development influenced by the environment, but also it can be expected that the environment will be affected by developmental changes in the child.

It has been suggested that the model could be improved, by adding an additional ring, the evolutionary history (Belsky, 1995). This would allow us to examine how behaviour changes over generations in response to environmental demands. This offers explanations of cultural differences, for example and is perhaps a way of looking at the developmental paths of societies / cultures.

An inclusive approach to education

An increasing awareness of the role of the environment in relation to behaviour and learning has led to a shift in thinking and practice towards models of inclusive schooling to meet the needs of students with special needs in New Zealand (Moore et al., 1999a; Moore et al., 1999b) as well as elsewhere (Reynolds, 1989; Reynolds, 1992; Reynolds, Wang, & Walberg, 1987; Stainback & Stainback, 1990). This has implications for the whole approach towards education within nations, and hence policy and administrative structures within institutions and service organisations (including schools). Refugees as a population of students are a good example of the kinds of students who would find themselves `at the margins' in a system where provision of services is dependent on classification and labeling. They are therefore unlikely to have their needs met in this approach the education of students with special needs. In addition the very process of identification and labeling may adversely affect the process of adaptation and acculturation these students face under already trying circumstance.

Our Model

The model we have developed as a result of a preliminary reading of key reviews, and the consideration of pertinent theoretical frameworks is a developmental model in essence. The aim is to track change over time. It allows us to conceptualise the process of adaptation (the task faced by refugees) with a view to the description of the array of individual and environmental factors that hinder or facilitate this process. To that end it helps us consider factors refugees bring with them to the task. It allows us to examine factors that operate currently both in terms of situations and variables that simply exist (factors that are) and those deliberately put in place (what is done, and what can be done), to consider actual and best practice. Lastly it leads to the consideration of the outcomes of all this. Though this model is a general one, we will in our review focus specifically on the adaptation of refugee children to the new school environment. A key feature of the model is the distinction between pre- and post-migration factors, reflecting the trend in the literature.

Critical Issues Related to Refugee Education

What They Bring (Premigration factors)
Risk and Protective     Language (L1 and L2), health, displacement and
Factors                          Loss, grief and trauma national level.

The Task:                       To adapt to a new environment

Factors That Are (Postmigration and moderating factors)

Ongoing Risk / Resilience Factors       In the individual
Including Barriers / Facilitators           The family
To Adaptation at School                       The community / school (incl. policies and services)

What Can be Done

Here the focus is on planned interventions in schools. "Best Practice" may include planned interventions in other settings and or the availability of systems and policies on a national level.

What is Done
School based interventions:       Directed at:
Referrals / treatment                     Individual, families
promoting resilience                      Whole schools, community
What Happens

Outcomes:                                As Evidence By:
Individual Adaptation:            Child Behaviour, Learning, Peer Relations and Health
Whole school Adaptation:      School Policies and Procedures Teacher Development

Organisation of this review

The following chapters have been organised to highlight the different aspects of the model outlined above. Bronfenbrenner's ecological model has been used to guide the writing of the individual chapters as well as to organise the sequence and relationship between chapters within this review. Chapters Two through Eight keeps the individual refugee child as a focal point while discussing the influence of different aspects of the variety of and progressively wider systems on the learning and development of the child. Chapter Two concerns loss, grief and trauma and centres on factors which directly influence the life and development of the refugee child. This chapter also highlights individually-focused and ecologically driven therapy as the most appropriate intervention. Chapters Three and Four (Language and Resilience) by their very nature emphasise the relationship between the individual child and their immediate environment. In particular, these chapters underline the importance of taking advantage of existing literacy skills and coping strategies which can act as "buffers" and may moderate the potential negative effects of migration and the refugee experience.

Chapter Five focuses on children as members of communities (as migrants and cultural groups) and the struggles and processes connected with adaptation and acculturation, which occur at both a group and individual level. The inevitable clash between ethnic cultures as well as institutionalised cultures (schools and families) is highlighted within this chapter. Chapter Six discusses how schools and teachers need to change and adapt in order to facilitate and support the education of refugee children. Both the changes required and the methods employed for implementing these changes are described. In addition, the importance of coordinating educational and therapeutic services is identified as a critical determinant of successful integration of refugee children within schools. Chapter Seven looks at the broader context of refugee education and focuses on the interactions between schools (as representatives of society's mores and values) and other organisations, institutions and structures. It is within this chapter that national policy issues are addressed as well as the impact of national educational philosophies and beliefs about teaching and learning in a multicultural society on the education of refugee children. As you can see the review moves from a specific focus on the individual child, to his/her relationship with their family and culture, to the child's integration within schools and then finally, how national and societal issues can indirectly influence the refugee child.

The last two chapters focus on a description and summary of the research indicators and practical implications derived from our review of the literature. Chapter Eight summarises the specific research indicators within the context of the model we presented in Chapter One. The intent is to catalogue factors which may influence the pattern and success of the process of adaptation that each refugee child will engage in when entering into a new school and society. Chapter Nine summarises best practice for facilitating the refugee child's development and learning within the school context. These issues for consideration are organised primarily along the lines of the different review chapters and are derived from the analysis and review of relevant theory and research. Given the nature of our model and the adoption of an ecological perspective, there will be overlap between the specific issues of consideration derived from each of the chapters.