Supporting Ukrainian refugee students

By Lucie Cerna

Analyst and Project Leader, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

And Jody McBrien

Analyst, Secondee, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills, and Professor, University of South Florida

Key points:

– Not all refugee students are the same, so holistic approaches to support them academically, socially, emotionally and physically are best
– Informal learning opportunities can provide needed stress reduction and enjoyment
– Collaborations between schools and refugee agencies and social services can help teachers support refugee students more effectively and provide refugee families with comprehensive services

The current war in Ukraine has already led to an estimated 4.2 million refugees, according to UNHCR. It is already becoming the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.

Estimates indicate about half of those fleeing are children and youth. Many of those could be unaccompanied or separated from their families. Refugees are mostly fleeing to neighbouring and other European countries. People have been fleeing with only basic supplies and clothes, leaving most of their belongings behind. While immediate needs are safety, food, water and shelter, it is also important to consider the education needs of refugee students. A number of countries are already setting up educational provisions for those fleeing the conflict in Ukraine.  For example, after six weeks of war, Poland had already enrolled over 160 000 children in its school system, with thousands more arriving by the day. The Paris city board of education has created a “Ukraine crisis unit” to help Ukrainian refugee parents enrol their children into schools. Many European countries have quickly responded to support Ukrainian students and their parents.

What lessons from previous refugee crises are relevant?

OECD Strength through Diversity’s work on refugee students from earlier crises has highlighted some key lessons for meeting their learning, social and emotional needs. Refugee students need to learn the host country language, while developing their mother tongue. They need to overcome interruptions in schooling or limited education, and adjust to a new education system. They also need to communicate with others, feel a sense of belonging and develop a strong personal identity. Furthermore, refugee students need to feel safe and learn to cope with loss, separation and/or trauma.

For countries supporting Ukrainian refugees and youth in particular, it is important to help teachers understand the refugee experience. Many teachers receive insufficient training on multicultural teaching and may interpret behaviours and capabilities of refugee students inaccurately, due to cultural differences and language barriers. Experience from the United States shows that collaborations with refugee agencies can help teachers gain important information about the refugee journey in general and specific refugee groups entering the country. Some refugee organisations provide refugee liaisons: adult refugees who have been in the host country longer than newcomers and who have been trained to support both newcomer families and educational staff. Such services can also support parents, helping adults create connections with the community and supporting the refugee students’ education.

Initial days and weeks as a refugee can be frightening and exhausting. For children, returning to school can provide a sense of security and stability. Initially, though, it can also be bewildering as they navigate new spaces and language while also processing loss. Informal educational experiences, such as opportunities to engage in arts and sports, can provide outlets for success and reducing stress, as the students may have enjoyed some expertise in the activity in their previous setting. Informal events also offer less stressful opportunities to practice new language skills.

How can education systems best support refugee students from Ukraine?

Education systems in host countries can consider holistic approaches to supporting refugee students, as they are likely to need not only academic services but also social and emotional support and health services. Providing speedy access to education is key for refugee students. Language learning support is important so that students do not fall behind in learning subject content. For example, most refugee secondary school students in Germany attend welcome classes within mainstream schools for one-two years to learn German and understand the school system before joining mainstream classes.

Furthermore, refugee students are not a homogenous group, so developing individual education plans in schools can enable teachers, school leaders and non-teaching staff to support them as individuals. Finland, Sweden and some schools in the Netherlands tailor individualised learning plans to refugee students, based on their needs, previous education and current social/family situation. Schools that have sufficient resources could consider loaning digital devices to refugee students so that they can continue subject matter learning in their own language through online services and also work on learning the host country language. For instance, Poland was planning to provide computer equipment for Ukrainian students who wish to study remotely.

Providing opportunities to engage with other students is also important. For example, some schools in countries such as Germany initiate “buddy systems” where a refugee student is paired with a willing native school student to provide help and to introduce the new student to others. This can help the new student not feel isolated. Professional counselling in schools can offer psychological support to refugee students. Examples of such counselling include Australia, Canada and Turkey. For counselling to be effective, the students may require a professional translator to help them communicate.

The current crisis in Ukraine has created a frightening and challenging situation for both refugees and countries working to support them. Refugee situations do not disappear quickly, so host countries need to prepare citizens for long-term support by educating them and reinforcing schools and social services.

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Photo: Shutterstock/PV productions