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Aletta Jacobs School of Public Health

“Refugee children need to find their place within a school”

27 June 2024
Kids at school

Students with refugee backgrounds often struggle with social interactions with their teacher and peers. PhD student Yol Nakanishi is going to conduct research on these interactions of young refugees in the classroom through an M20 grant. “Through collaboration of different disciplines, we have obtained an innovative perspective to develop a practice-based intervention that is actually needed.”


From asylum seekers‘ center to asylum seekers’ center

“Refugees in the Netherlands are being passed around like a hot potato, so to speak,” says Elisa Kupers, associate professor orthopedagogy, and that affects education of young refugee children. Kupers, together with professor orthopedagogy Marijn van Dijk, associate professor communication sciences Myrte Gosen and newly appointed PhD student Yol Nakanishi, started a study on young refugees' interactions in the classroom through an M20 grant.

Refugee shelters are often temporary. This not only means that refugee children have to leave their new home repeatedly, but also that they have to constantly change schools. It can take years before they finally have a stable place to build a new life. And those years are often far from pleasant; refugees are passed from one overcrowded asylum seekers' center to another while the question of whether they will be allowed to stay in the Netherlands causes constant stress. This makes refugees a vulnerable group, including in education, Kupers argues.


Missing protective factors

Kupers and Van Dijk already looked at symptoms of trauma in refugee children in an earlier project. That study showed that children with a refugee background were more likely to show behavior that could indicate trauma compared to children without that background. But the differences were small and there is also a large group of refugee children who do not show increased trauma-related behavior in the classroom.

A larger difference was seen in protective factors. Protective factors are factors that reduce the likelihood of developing long-term trauma. For example, friends, positive interactions at school and good self-esteem are protective factors. Whether experiencing a profound event develops into psychological trauma or not depends largely on these protective factors. It is very important to consider what else is going on in your life, whether you feel good about yourself, have good self-esteem and whether you have good relationships with the people around you, says Kupers.

These protective factors are often a lot less present in children with a refugee background than in children without a refugee background. “This is of course because of the situation they are in, where they often have to change schools,” Kupers says. "We see that they score less well on a good relationship with the teacher and fellow students and are often more insecure. Precisely those factors that should protect these children are lower."


Social difficulties

Pupils with a refugee background often run into problems with social aspects such as language and interactions with the environment, Kupers argues. Students with a refugee background often have a native language that is very different from Dutch. They do not learn Dutch with German as their base, but with Arabic or Ukrainian as their base, and that is a very big step. Dutch is a complex language for these students to learn, but they need the language to build good relationships with peers.

The interactions with the teacher and fellow students are very important. “Students with a refugee background not only need to be able to function in a society where Dutch is the language of instruction; the interactions are actually used to build good relationships and are therefore crucial,” says Gosen. ”Indeed,” adds Kupers. “A school is actually a small society, and they need to find a place in that.”


New research

The new M20 study focuses on the interactions between refugee students and teachers. It is not about how well or poorly the students master grammar, but rather about communication and how that is related to trauma-related behavior. In addition, the researchers will look at how teachers perceive this issue and whether they encounter problems when teaching students from refugee backgrounds.

Nakanishi will observe in classrooms and survey student interactions. In the process, she will also interview teachers and administer a questionnaire to create a broad overview of what teachers encounter. According to Gosen, it is important to really look at what is happening in the classroom when doing so. “We should not just ask how the teachers and students experience it, but take the interactions themselves as a starting point.”

Ultimately, the researchers want to find out through the study what could be improved. They are deliberately not starting with an intervention, but the aim is to eventually come up with some proposals for new interventions. And schools are very keen on that. Gosen says that for other kinds of research, they sometimes have to lobby quite a bit to find schools. “Here, schools jump into the pen right away and tell us they want to participate,” she says.


Interdisciplinary work

The new research is an interdisciplinary project combining orthopedagogy and communication sciences. According to Kupers, this is very important. "We put a camera down in the classroom and make sure the teacher and students are clearly audible. But once you have that data, you can analyze it in different ways." It is precisely the different perspectives of the different disciplines and coming to conclusions together that makes this project so interesting, Kupers argues. Nakanishi adds that the collaboration of the different disciplines contributes a lot to the final product. “Through this collaboration, we can obtain an innovative perspective to develop a practice-based intervention that is actually needed.”

The project's interdisciplinary approach also makes it a bit out-of-the-box, according to Kupers. She explains that this also makes it more difficult to get funding from bodies such as the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). These organizations like to see large samples, closer to what has already been done, Kupers argues. “Without the Ubbo Emmius Foundation, this project could not easily have gone ahead.”

The project was funded by The Ubbo Emmius Foundation as part of the 2023 M20 grants through the Aletta Jacobs School of Public Health. The M20 grants are there to support interdisciplinary projects and give researchers the finances needed to appoint a PhD like Nakanishi. “We knew the results would come on that day, but in the end it turned out it had ended up in the spam folder,” Gosen says with a laugh. “Once we figured that out, it was of course very good news, and it also really re-energises us.”

Last modified:28 June 2024 11.45 a.m.
View this page in: Nederlands

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