The importance of teaching more than English to refugee students

Migrant kids may struggle to make friends in English class and do so more easily through other activities. AAP

Refugee and migrant students entering Australian schools bring with them a range of complex experiences. These may include experiences of trauma, violence or displacement. Some of these young people are entering a formal schooling environment for the first time. Often they are in a classroom where no-one else speaks their language or shares their cultural background.

Supportive and inclusive school settings are important in helping them settle in to Australia and feel at home. School is often one of the first places where refugee and migrant students and their families begin to form connections with their local communities.

In South Australia, refugee and migrant students enter an Intensive English Language Program. These are typically stand-alone classes in mainstream primary schools. Students remain in the program for about 12 months before making the transition to a mainstream class, often at a different school. Refugee children are particularly likely to change school due to things such as insecure housing and changing work settings.

Our research suggests that the South Australian Intensive English Language Program offers a “soft landing” for children. At the same time, the children in our longitudinal study showed anxiety about their English language competency. In particular, they expressed concern that English would be an issue for them as they entered mainstream classes. There was a sense among many children that they would be left behind and thus find it difficult to make friends in their new setting.

Given this anxiety, we found that class topics that don’t require English language skills – such as art and sport - help this diverse group of children to make friends and adjust to mainstream schooling. Both of these factors are important for increasing the well-being of refugee and migrant students.

It’s easier for migrant children to relate to Aussie kids through sport and other activities than through language lessons. AAP

Students want to share their experiences

Spending time on areas that are not directly related to English language acquisition also allows refugee and migrant children to share their experiences before they came to Australia. We found that creating opportunities for students to share information about themselves not only assisted them in making friends, but also helped them feel a sense of belonging in the school environment.

Many children in our study expressed a strong desire to discuss aspects of their background. This included celebrating cultural and religious festivals, sharing food and language, and talking about the countries in which they had lived. The ability to share their background provided students with a sense of self-esteem and well-being that went beyond that provided by their ability to learn English or immediately “fit in” to their new school environment after transition.

Developing English language skills obviously remains a priority for the education of migrant and refugee children in Australia. However, our research suggests that ensuring the previous experiences of these students are truly heard (rather than just treated as hurdles to English language acquisition) is critically important to their continuing development and school engagement.

We would also note that in a context of standardised education – including NAPLAN testing – it is important to ensure that refugee and migrant students have the opportunity to participate in subjects that allow them to showcase their strengths. Feeling a sense of belonging in the early years of school is vitally important to ensure that students stay engaged with their education.