By Randy Capps
Director of Research for U.S. Programs
Migration Policy Institute
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Oct. 20, 2015) — What occurs when refugee children with no prior exposure to formal schooling and limited literacy skills enter a U.S. classroom?
A new Migration Policy Institute report, The Academic Engagement of Newly Arriving Somali Bantu Students in a U.S. Elementary School, traces the significant academic and behavioral challenges experienced by a group of newly arrived Somali Bantu students in a Chicago elementary school. The researchers, who spent two years monitoring the progress of these refugee students, also tracked the pressures placed on teachers and other school staff in dealing with this unique population, as well as their attitudes towards the students and teaching strategies.
The Somali Bantu children, who came from refugee camps in Kenya, lacked any formal schooling and some were unfamiliar with use of even the most basic school supplies, such as pencils. They engaged in a range of behavioral incidents, including disruptive behavior in class, refusal to participate in the learning process, and hoarding of items. The students appeared to be disengaged not because of lack of interest but because they were unfamiliar with the culture of schooling, researchers Dina Birman and Nellie Tran found.
The teachers, who reported often feeling ill equipped to cope with the children’s academic and behavioral issues, expressed different attitudes about whether and how the students should acculturate to the United States. Regardless of their approach, they developed a range of proactive and defensive teaching strategies for dealing with this population of refugee students with limited formal education. Among the successful ones: Relationship building, one-on-one attention, and the use of materials to infuse more meaning into learning tasks.
“Despite these tremendous difficulties … Somali Bantu children were able to engage in learning activities and to make academic progress over the course of two years, with their teachers’ help,” the researchers conclude.
The report is the second in a series, supported through a research grant from the Foundation for Child Development, on young children in refugee families. Last week, MPI released a report on Syrian children living in refugee camps in Turkey, examining the effects of schooling disruptions and trauma on their well-being. OnOctober 27, MPI will host a webinar to discuss these two reports as well as a third being released next week that examines the experiences of refugee children in countries of first asylum. For more on the webinar, click here.
The report on Somali Bantu children can be read at: www.migrationpolicy.org/
The Migration Policy Institute is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C. dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development, and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national, and international levels. For more on MPI, please visit www.migrationpolicy.org.
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