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 5: Issues of migration

A central feature of the refugee experience is migration; that is movement from a familiar place, `home' to a different place, usually a foreign country and culture. The following chapter deals with issues shared by people, including refugees, who migrate and therefore experience displacement and often contact with another culture as well. It will outline the factors contributing to displacement and acculturation. The chapter first examines general theoretical frameworks, and then relates these to the specifics of the refugee situation in terms of our model. To this end pre-and post-migration factors will be considered and how they affect refugees' ability to successfully accomplish the tasks faced in migrating, to a different place and a different culture. These issues are located within an ecological perspective that takes account of both the physical and the social environment, as detailed in Bronfenbrenner's model of human development.

In chapter two the stressful effect of migration on individuals has been discussed in terms of loss, grief and trauma. This current chapter represents a discussion of issues around migration from an ecological perspective, focussing on the nature of interactions between individuals and their environments and the between and within group processes, both in terms applicable to all migrant populations and considering the specifics of the refugee situation.


The effects of displacement on people's psychological well-being have been studied from a number of theoretical perspectives, including "the psychology of place" (Fullilove, 1996), and stress theories (Ekblad, 1993). Displacement involves a great deal of disruption to everyday life. People experience even moving house within the same town as stressful. There is a loss of attachment, routines and the ease associated with familiarity, and a need to orient the self in a new space, develop new routines, and a positive identity associated with the new locality. Displacement also creates a lot of time-consuming work. Refugees have to cope with the stresses associated with physical upheaval under the worst imaginable set of circumstances, without being able to prepare for it, often without hope of ever being able to return to their home place. This happens at a time when their personal, social and material resources are likely to be already exhausted.

The saying "Home is where the heart is" reflects common notions of `home' as a place of emotional security, a place which is part of our identity, and where we `belong'. The `Psychology of Place' considers the importance of a physical locality for psychological health. It assumes that all individuals strive for a sense of belonging to a place in terms of three psychological processes: familiarity, attachment and identity. A `good enough' home, functions as a geographical centre which allows us to be productive and creative, giving expression to our selves. `Toxic environments' on the other hand threaten health and survival. Loss of `home' may lead to `nostalgia' and `homesickness' (Ekblad, 1993; Fullilove, 1996; Vantilburg, Vingerhoets, & Vanheck, 1996). Encouraging a sense of belonging following migration is seen as the ultimate goal of recovery efforts (Fullilove, 1996).

Stress theories focus on the stresses associated with relocation. The demands placed on the individual by the need to adjust to a new environment or situation are, by definition, stressful. This is apparent from the following definition of `stress' by Ekblad (1993) where "... `stress' denotes stereotyped physiological `strain' reactions in the organism when it is exposed to various environmental stimuli, changes in, or pressures and demands to adjust to, the environment." (p. 160). The extent to which people are able to successfully accomplish the task of settling into a new place depends on a number of factors: premigration experiences and personal resources (what refugees bring to the situation), social networks and contextual / cultural elements) and potential ongoing stressors.

What they bring

Many of the premigration factors, which impact on refugees' ability to deal with the task of successfully relocating, have been discussed in a previous chapter in this report. These are experiences of trauma, loss and grief that are a part of the total refugee experience, and the impact they have on individuals, their personal coping resources and hence their ability to adapt. Personal resources, such as flexibility, good health, decision-making strategies, adaptability, social skills, and an internal locus of control and so on have a direct impact on the refugee's ability to adjust to the new locality (Vantilburg et al., 1996). In addition to these personal factors refugees might also bring with them social support structures and contextual factors which could facilitate a successful accomplishment of the task of relocation. Such as existing social support in the shape of intact family units - or close friends and neighbours who all make the same journey.

Premigration factors which impact negatively on children's ability to adapt to a new place include the cultural distance between the home and the new place (Vantilburg et al., 1996). Factors specific to refugee populations include things like experiences of direct violence, an apathetic or unstable mother (parental mental health), a higher educational level for the father, separation from a parent and a lack of information about the flight. Buffering factors are an optimistic mother and social support (Ekblad, 1993; Montgomery, 1996). Interestingly, though a high parental educational level is generally associated with better outcomes for children (eg Werner, 1993), for refugee children this appears not to be the case. For these parents a high level of education is not necessarily associated with employment in well-paid, high status jobs in the host country (Ekblad, 1993; Kanal & Adrienne, 1997; Montgomery, 1996).

The task

Part of the task which faces the refugees, is the task of settling into a new place, orienting the self in a new location. To begin with the refugees need to come to terms with their situation including coping with the loss of their home and familiar way of life (Vantilburg et al., 1996). The process of adapting to a new place and lifestyle includes finding one's bearings geographically, and getting used to different ways of doing things. School children have to get used to a new route to school (maybe even new and unfamiliar modes of transport) and find their way around that new school geographically as well as negotiating heir way through its organisational and social structures. Adapting to a new place also involves the process of establishing new social networks, making friends and forming new attachments and developing a healthy sense of belonging to the new place (Fullilove, 1996). All these things can only be accomplished if the demands of the situation do not outweigh the coping resources of individual refugees.

Existing Factors

Some potential barriers and facilitators to the task of adaptation may be inherent in the new geographical and social environments. Existing structures within a locality (including schools) might either hinder or facilitate the accomplishment of the adaptation task faced by refugees. Potential facilitating factors include the availability of introductory orientation programmes to the new country (and school), along with existing procedures to welcome newcomers, and attitudes in the local population such as acceptance of diversity, inclusiveness, warmth and friendliness. Conversely, local structures and attitudes might be such that they represent barriers (Ekblad, 1993; Fullilove, 1996; Vantilburg et al., 1996).

In addition, the geographical and cultural distance between the place of origin of the refugees and the host nation and the voluntariness of the migration are important predictors of outcomes. Forced migration, (which tends to apply to refugees) particularly is often associated with vulnerability, poverty, dependence and helplessness (Ekblad, 1993; Vantilburg et al., 1996).

What is done / can be done

Environmental barriers and facilitators are amenable to intervention. Facilitators can be developed and barriers can be removed. Fullilove (1996) suggests that helping refugees to re-establish a health -promoting habitat and affirm their sense of belonging are essential. To do this one needs to ensure that people live in a `good enough' place, feel settled at home and in the neighbourhood, contribute to the care-taking of the environment (both personal and shared), know their neighbours and interact with them to solve communal problems. This can be achieved in a series of steps including working together to rebuild former activities, attending to shared emotional needs, such as mourning the lost place, and maintaining rituals of the old place as well as participating in the rituals of the new place (Fullilove, 1996).

Schools are major socialising agents and points of contact between the refugees and their new country. Schools play a vital part in helping immigrant children understand the new country, find social support, access to trusted people and experience acceptance. This enables them to become a meaningful part of their new home (Vantilburg et al., 1996). (See also Chapter 6)

What happens

Homesickness, depressive and somatic symptoms as a result of relocation are most frequent among children (Ekblad, 1993). Developmental delays due to the disruption and difficulties in adapting to a new environment are also common among children (Ekblad, 1993). `Nostalgia', by definition is the sadness that comes from longing for a familiar place, and was once recognised as an affliction which affected sailors, soldiers and others who journeyed from home for extended periods of time (Fullilove, 1996). This kind of sadness will impede refugees' ability to adapt to a new place, as well as affect their functioning in general (Vantilburg et al., 1996). These are the negative outcomes associated with migration in terms of a change of locality.

The integration of the immigrants into the new place so that they are able to participate fully in its activities, be economically independent and settled in terms of having a sense of belonging are important goals. For children this includes acquiring the host language so that they can fully and successfully participate in school life and become a meaningful part of the new place. To achieve this they need to make the transition to the new place while maintaining adaptive functioning.


Emminghaus (1987) suggests that there are at least two distinct approaches to considering the role of culture in the refugee situation. The first is that of a clinician considering the implications of working in a bi-cultural situation. The second approach is that of considering refugees as a particular group of people (albeit a rather disadvantaged and needy one) in a culture-contact situation. This section will focus largely on the second of these approaches.

One of the well-defined sources of stress and difficulty encountered by refugees stems from their need to learn to live within or alongside a different culture. The `Psychology of Acculturation' deals with the psychological adaptations individuals have to make when they come into contact with another culture. It is the study which "seeks to understand continuities and changes in individual behaviour that are related to the experience of two cultures through the process of acculturation." (Berry, 1995, p. 457) and is distinct from the main body of cross-cultural psychology, which concerns itself with comparative examinations of psychological similarities and differences between members of different cultural groups. This latter approach, which links individual behaviour to membership of a culture is also relevant to the treatment of refugees, particularly in relation to trauma, stress and culturally appropriate interventions. Some of the relevant findings have been highlighted in Chapter two of this review. This section then limits itself to a discussion of `acculturation' as defined above and as distinct from `displacement', because migration is not a necessary requirement for cross-cultural contact. Cross-cultural contact can occur in a number of ways other than as a result of migration, including via the media (TV, internet etc), or when one society is 'colonised' or invaded by another.

Theories of Acculturation

In the 1930s acculturation was studied within anthropology, and the earliest definitions of acculturation are from within that discipline (see eg Mickelson, 1993). Acculturation here is considered primarily on a population level, as a group process. More recently a focus on the psychological aspects of acculturation has led to the development of theoretical frameworks within that discipline (Berry, 1987; Berry, 1995). Psychological acculturation "refers to the process by which individuals change, both by being influenced by contact with another culture and by being participants in the general acculturative changes under way in their own culture." (Berry, 1995, p. 460). Berry's model considers antecedents, processes and consequents of acculturation at both the population and the individual level and focuses on the attitudes, the behaviour changes in individuals, and the stresses associated with the process for individuals. What follows is a brief description of this model as well as an attempt to relate relevant findings from the anthropological perspective to this model.

Pre-contact factors (what they bring)

A required situation for acculturation to occur is that there be contact between two cultures. How acculturation then proceeds depends on a number of variables. In principle it is possible that both cultures are of equal status, but generally speaking one is dominant (the `donor' culture) and the other one is the acculturating group (the receptor), which is expected to undergo the most changes as a result of the contact. That is not to say that the dominant culture does not change as well as a result of the cross cultural contact. Pre-contact variables, which affect the course of acculturation in both cultures include the following: Purpose of the contact, (eg migration for economic reasons, or invasion for the purpose of colonisation), length, permanence, size of the populations, policies (pluralistic goals versus strategies for assimilation for example), and cultural qualities (eg. how traditional / flexible) (Berry, 1987; Berry, 1995; Bishop & Glynn, 1998; Cushner, 1998a; Ogbu, 1995a; Ogbu, 1995b).

One factor considered to be an important predictor of outcomes from a number of perspectives is the voluntariness of the cross cultural contact (Berry, 1987; Berry, 1995; Ogbu, 1995a; Ogbu, 1995b). For refugees the situation is such that their migration is usually involuntary (Kaprielian-Churchill, 1996). In addition refugees often do not have the option of returning home. These factors predispose refugees for developing an oppositional cultural frame of reference (Ogbu, 1995a; Ogbu, 1995b) and negative acculturation attitudes (Berry, 1987; Berry, 1995), predictive of less desirable outcomes. An oppositional cultural frame of reference develops as a result of cross cultural contact in which the minority group is subordinate, disadvantaged as a result and consequently develops a cultural frame of reference that includes attitudes, behaviours, and speech styles which are stigmatised by the dominant group. At the same time attitudes, behaviours and ways of speaking of the dominant culture are rejected by the subordinate group - who have thus an oppositional frame of cultural reference. Attitudes to acculturation as conceptualised by Berry can be either the consequences or the predictors of the acculturation process. Negative attitudes to their own or the host culture are often associated with psychological conflict for the individual, and a possible consequence can be acculturative stress, which is accompanied by undesirable life-changes for the individual or a community (Berry, 1987; Berry, 1995; Nwadiora & McAdoo, 1996).

Many of the other factors that affect acculturation outcomes will be specific to particular refugee and host populations, such as the cultural and geographical distance between the two groups involved (Kaprielian-Churchill, 1996). The fact that two groups who are different come into contact creates a situation of conflict. Often there is a power imbalance, in that one group has less of the knowledge and tools needed to succeed. Also, people tend to find interactions with people who are different from themselves difficult, even aversive, and tend to prefer interactions with people who are similar (Ogbu, 1995a; Ogbu, 1995b). These factors contribute to the development of undesirable sets of circumstances such as the development of oppositional cultural frames of reference and marginalisation, which will be discussed in more detail in the following section. However, as Ogbu (1995a, 1995b) suggests, it is not being different which is damaging, but how the differences are interpreted.

Changes during acculturation (the task)

Changes that occur as a result of acculturation can be economic, political, demographic or cultural, and the number and extent of changes that occur may be a measure of the extent to which acculturation has occurred (Berry, 1995). On a group level the task for the acculturating population is to interpret the situation such that it allows members of the group to acquire the tools of the host culture, in work and education, enabling them to be successful and independent participants in the mainstream culture's activities, without compromising their own cultural identity. The development of an oppositional frame of cultural reference will compromise the ability of individuals to acquire the tools of the mainstream culture without fear of loosing group membership status. How the culture-contact will be interpreted by the acculturating group depends largely on the voluntariness of the contact. Involuntary cultural minorities are at risk for developing an oppositional frame of reference as they are often also subordinate and disadvantaged compared to the mainstream culture. The impact of their collective problem of a low status may force the group to seek collective solutions, which will foster the development of strong in-group identities. Between group differences then become markers of group membership and collective identity. Under these circumstances it becomes very difficult for individual minority group members to cross the cultural boundaries. To acquire tools, attitudes and values of the mainstream culture, means to loose their own cultural identity. Individuals who do so may experience anxiety and opposition from other members of their minority group. Ultimately the consequence might be to lose group membership and their own cultural identity (Ogbu, 1995a; Ogbu, 1995b).

On the other hand cultural minorities which may be just as different from the mainstream culture but are voluntarily in the cross-cultural contact situation are likely to have different attitudes. They are likely to see the between group differences as barriers to overcome. The acquisition of the majority culture's tools, norms and values for the purpose of upward mobility and success within the mainstream culture does not threaten their group membership or cultural identity. Members of such groups are free (and often encouraged by their peers) to acquire the ways of the mainstream culture without fear of loosing their `in-group' membership, or their own cultural identity. It is in these terms that Ogbu explains different outcomes for different cultural minorities, as evident in the US for example where Asian Immigrants tend to adapt successfully, and yet black Americans still suffer from the long term trans-generational group effects of an oppositional cultural identity (Ogbu, 1995a; Ogbu, 1995b).

There is however also considerable individual variability (Cole, 1996). Not all members of an acculturating group change to the same extent, or even in the same direction. It is variability between individuals that is, primarily, the focus of the psychology of acculturation. Within this framework the task for individuals as they acculturate is the same as outlined above, to successfully acquire those tools of the host culture needed to function successfully within it. Specifically, individuals must acquire `cultural competence' sufficiently to enable them to "... carry out productive work and interact effectively with other individuals to achieve valued ends." (Gardner, 1995, p. 228). Aspects of culture to be mastered exist in three domains: the physical world, the world of man-made artefacts, and the social world. Intellectual competencies of particular importance include the acquisition of the particular symbol system used, which includes formal language, but also dance, art and rituals for example (Gardner, 1995). Associated with this are meanings, values, and goals. Children need this knowledge to be able to adapt to and function within cultural institutions such as schools sufficiently to gain access to culturally valued knowledge and expertise (Berry, 1987; Berry, 1995).

Berry (1987; 1995) classified four possible varieties of acculturation - some adaptive and some associated with less desirable behavioural outcomes for individuals. Each is predicted by a different set circumstances. Assimilation is the likely path of acculturation in a situation where the acculturating individual does not wish to retain their culture of origin and seeks frequent interaction with the host culture. Outcomes associated with assimilation are the acquisition of the norms, language and values of the host culture accompanied by the loss of the culture of origin. The converse of assimilation is separation predicted by a situation where the acculturating individual wishes to hold on to his / her own cultural values and norms and at the same time avoids contact with the host culture. In this scenario the individual is unlikely to acquire the tools (language, values and ways of doing things) needed to function fully in the host culture, but maintains their own cultural identity. Integration is likely when an individual wishes to do both: to hold on to his / her own culture and acquire the values, norms and tools associated with the host culture. This is considered to be the most positive option. The tools and values of the host culture are acquired additively, that is without loss of the native culture (Cole, 1996; Kanal & Adrienne, 1997). The least adaptive option is marginalisation, which occurs when individuals neither maintain their culture of origin, nor acquire the host culture. Associated with this is often the lack of any fully functional language competency. Marginalisation is a likely outcome when individuals have negative attitudes to their own culture of origin as well as to the dominant culture. This is likely for individuals in groups with an oppositional frame of cultural reference. Members of such groups may reject their own culture due to the negative perceptions of it in the dominant culture without being able to acquire the tools and values of the dominant culture. This may explain some of the difficulty experienced by members of certain minority cultures such as black Americans (Mickelson, 1993; Ogbu, 1995b) and Maori in New Zealand (Bishop & Glynn, 1998).

Acculturation is essentially a developmental phenomenon involving change within an individual over time. It is bi-directional, and both the acculturating individual and the host culture change, though usually there is one dominant culture and it is individuals of the non-dominant culture who experience the bulk of the changes. Further, acculturation may be uneven over domains, that is individuals may seek assimilation economically (for example in work), while remaining separate in other domains, such as religious affiliation, or parenting practices (Berry, 1987; Berry, 1995).

Existing Factors

The existing factors influencing the way acculturation occurs in individuals are largely on a group / national level. These are factors likely to shape the acculturation attitudes of the acculturating individuals. The effect of voluntariness of the migration is well documented, not only on a population level, but also for individuals (Berry, 1987; Berry, 1995; Cushner, 1998b; Kaprielian-Churchill, 1996; Ogbu, 1995b). Indeed some suggest that the problems black Americans experience today are to some extent a legacy of their forced migration (Cushner, 1998b). Not only are groups of involuntary migrants at risk for developing an oppositional frame of reference as described by Ogbu, but as individuals they are also at risk for developing negative attitudes to the host culture, and their own culture. In addition attitudes towards migrants in the host country can also shape the development of acculturation attitudes in migrants. If they encounter hostility and segregation for example chances are that migrants will view the host culture more negatively than if they are met with tolerance and invited to participate fully in life in the host nation.

Whether or not migrants view their own culture of origin positively may depend in part on premigration factors, such as specific experiences, or the degree of traditionalism present in their own culture. However, attitudes and policies in the host country will also impact on this. Pluralistic societies, which value diversity, equity, and practice tolerance are more likely to foster the maintenance of positive attitudes by immigrants to their culture of origin. To what extent immigrants are able to maintain their own cultural identity will also depend on the extent to which they are permitted / encouraged, or given the opportunity to engage in cultural practices, and form associations with other members of their own ethnic group.

Schools are one of the prime acculturating agents within societies. It is here that the values, norms and tools of a particular culture are transmitted to its young. Schools are one of the settings where the general attitudes and beliefs held by a given society are apparent in their practices. Schools are also a prime point of contact between new immigrants and the host culture. As such they are ideally situated to implement interventions which foster the development of positive acculturation attitudes in refugees, a positive view of their own as well as the host country's culture.

New Zealand scholars suggest that in this country we have a situation where one ethnic group dominates, still espousing a largely assimilationist ideology. This creates barriers and difficulties for new immigrants who, particularly in educational contexts, are seen and treated as people with deficiencies in need of remediation, (Bishop & Glynn, 1998; Kanal & Adrienne, 1997). This is further exacerbated by a certain level of tension that exists due to the unresolved issues around bi-culturalism in New Zealand.

What is done / can be done

Of particular interest are all the points of contact between the acculturating individual and the host culture - wherever they occur. It is in the interactions between them, at any level, that tensions lie. It is here therefore that solutions need to be sought. However, it is suggested that to be effective change needs to occur at a systems level, with the goal of conflict resolution by removing the barriers erected for the individual by society (Cushner, 1998b; Emminghaus, 1987). This is considered the only `causal' approach and involves interventions aimed at the policy level and the institutions within a society (including schools). A compensatory approach is directed at the administration within a country in terms of the application of the law for example, as it affects refugees, but also at the interpersonal level where positive intercultural encounters can be fostered by providing information and encouraging communication, thereby reducing misunderstanding. Interventions aimed at individuals are described by Emminghaus as `props'. These are the kinds of interventions which teach individuals tolerance or coping skills (Emminghaus, 1987).

Schools are important sites for both long-term and short-term interventions at several levels. Cushner (1998b) suggests that a potential long-term goal of education could be to prepare the minds of all of our young people to include a diversity of viewpoints, behaviours and values, thus preparing them for life in multicultural societies. More immediately, effective schools need to implement strategies and programmes designed to remove the cultural barriers as much as possible. To achieve this in-service teacher education may be required as many teachers are currently "ill-prepared for the diversity in their classrooms" (Cole, 1996; Cushner, 1998b, p.361). Safe multicultural schools are characterised by setting high learning standards and clear behavioural expectations as well as promoting cooperative climates, all within interdisciplinary school-based programmes with an overall ecological orientation (Cole, 1996). This means that the problem is not seen as belonging to the student, but is a result of poor interactions between students and their environment. With this approach the multiple needs of children like refugees can be catered for with the aim of preventing negative outcomes (Cole, 1996).

Cushner (1998b), in a conclusion to an edited book about multicultural education summarises the responses of the various authors of to a scenario he set at the outset for the reader, the scenario being that a large number of refugees suddenly enter their country. The question is: "what do you think should be done in your country?" Though Cushner accepts that the answers are somewhat idealised, there are a number of similarities, reflecting the thinking of a number of leading experts in the field today. These are some of the recommendations made:

  1. Most nations suggest that refugees need some support on arrival (health-care, help with finding employment, access to counselling services and interpreters, and language training)
  2. Most recommend that all parties should be involved in the design and delivery of programmes and services. Refugee populations should be consulted and represented on school committees as soon as possible.
  3. Maintenance of language of origin should be encouraged / fostered, using bilingual teachers, in addition to ESL provisions.
  4. Though a host of other services and agencies may need to be involved, schools were seen as the central settings, where various communities could come together.
  5. Teacher training in issues related to diversity is seen as essential.
  6. Pluralism is seen as an overall goal, avoiding assimilationist ideologies.

In conclusion Cushner cites Banks (1993) who suggests that: "The major goal of multicultural education is to restructure schools so that all students will acquire the knowledge, attitudes, and skills needed to function in an ethnically diverse nation and world" (Cushner, 1998a).

What happens

What happens as a result of cross-cultural contact depends largely, as argued above on the nature of the cultures who meet and the circumstances under which they come into contact. Potential outcomes range from an acculturation experience that is positive and enriching for both cultures involved, to outcomes that lead to the development of transgenerational cycles of disadvantage in the acculturating group, an outcome which in the long run represents an economic and social burden for all (Cole, 1996). In between lies a spectrum of degrees of stress experienced by individuals, and variation in the degree to which they successfully negotiate cultural adaptation to the new society, determining the extent to which they become full participants in its activities. Children who are able to maintain biculturality perform better at school (Cole, 1996). Promoting biculturality requires an ecological approach involving the provision of multilingual services for students and their families and staff development to improve the interactions between acculturating children and the host culture (Beiser et al., 1995). Such an approach will also be able to better cater for the within group diversity in groups of refugee children (Cole, 1996).


The potential negative outcomes of unsuccessful acculturation by any groups are so far reaching and very difficult to remediate, as can be seen by the problems still experienced many generations later in Black Americans, for example. These kinds of outcomes are largely avoidable, but this requires significant change of attitude at a population, policy and institutional level.

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