Educational Interventions for Refugee Children: Theoretical Perspectives and Implementing Best Practice

reviewed by Mary Jeannot - 2005

coverTitle: Educational Interventions for Refugee Children: Theoretical Perspectives and Implementing Best Practice
Author(s): Richard Hamilton and Dennis Moore
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 0415308259, Pages: 144, Year: 2004
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Educational Interventions for Refugee Children: Theoretical Perspectives and Implementing Best Practice is an important work for educators. As the five authors claim, there is a large and diverse body of literature on refugees that addresses social, medical, political, linguistic, and educational issues, but materials concerning refugee children are scarce and materials about school based interventions to address their needs are even rarer. In 144 pages, including bibliography and index, the book is an excellent comprehensive review of the literature divided into eight chapters, covering refugee trauma, loss and grief, resilience, issues of migration, policy, second language concerns, school teachers, and the education of refugee children.


Although the book draws heavily from psychological literature, it does not assume familiarity with the discipline and integrates well multiple diverse research and theoretical perspectives. Most importantly, unlike many of the psychological models with their overemphasis on the individual, this work does not ignore the significance of environmental factors in the complex and interrupted lives of refugee children. Building on the work of Urie Bronfenbrenner, the authors have adopted his ecological theory of development so as to “impose some order on the wide array of contextual factors to be considered” (p. xi). What I found to be especially impressive is the consistency with which the authors adhere to their (imposed) framework evidenced by the taut collaboration found in each chapter. Thus, the following ingenuous disclosure from the editors’ acknowledgement page bestows them with a certain credibility: “Over never-ending meetings and discussions, we fine-tuned the model and ideas which we hoped would capture the complexity of the development and change of refugee children as they migrate and enter into a new educational environment.”  The model indeed allows, if not forces, each author to investigate those aspects of the environment having immediate impact on refugee children namely the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem and macrosystem. Microsystems include those relationships between the individual and the variety of contexts (e.g., immediate family settings); mesosystems describe proximal settings in which the individual is directly involved; exosystems are those distal systems in which the individual is not directly involved; and finally, the macrosystems include broad ideologies, laws, and customs and represent the overarching pattern of micro, meso, and exosystems that characterize a given culture, subculture, or broader social context.  “The macrosystem may be thought of a societal blueprint for a particular culture…” (p. 4). This first chapter also addresses other relevant theoretical perspectives and related research including the mental health perspective, migration and displacement, and resilience which help to frame a “model for the education of refugee children” (p. 7).  In order to locate the relevant contexts in a place in time, the authors have enhanced this ecological framework by discussing three major points of disruption typical for a refugee’s life: pre-migration, trans-migration, and post migration. 

Subsequent chapters contribute to the framework by highlighting and evaluating a broad range of diagnostic indicators for refugee children in their myriad contexts, while at the same time offering practical suggestions for creating supportive educational environments. In Chapter Two, in addition to a definition of trauma and a well laid out description of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the author also provides a comprehensive list of concrete behaviors among traumatized refugee children. She identifies major influences of pre-migration, trans-migration and post-migration factors on refugee children with most of the emphasis on post-migration factors. Those who work with refugee populations will benefit from the author’s perspectives borne out of research on areas dealing with traumatic experiences, coping and loss, change and cultural bereavement and the impact of refugee grief and trauma on educational settings. She concludes this chapter with implications for “best practices.” What I found especially relevant in this chapter was the author’s careful consideration given to refugee trauma and loss viewed within the differential contexts spelled out in Chapter One. To this end, she stresses the need for school personnel to obtain cultural knowledge of particular conflicts, learning, or emotional or behavioral problems.

 Other chapters which could potentially be fraught with over simplistic psychological explanations are equally committed to the integrated ecological framework. Where resilience, for example, could be viewed an attribute or personality trait that one possesses (either you have it or you don’t), it is instead viewed as an interactive and recursive process and involves multifaceted environmental factors. Similarly, in a discussion of migration, the same author outlines the factors associated with displacement and acculturation that impact the process and adaptation to a new place and recognizes the “nature of interactions between individuals and their environments and the between- and within-group processes as they affect adaptation” (p. 64). Rather than focus exclusively on why individuals from the “out-group” may have difficulty acculturating to the dominant group, the author examines a host of social and cultural conditions of both groups.

 Second language concerns for refugee children are also addressed with the author summarizing some of the salient ideas for teachers working with second (or third or  fourth) language learners. In the first half of the chapter, the author identifies factors influencing refugee children learning a second language (e.g., different types of language proficiency, first language acquisition, age, gender, social identity) and in the second half discusses good (rather than “best”) practices for second language learners, stressing the already well established fact that “what may work well in one context with one group of refugees may not work well in different contexts with different groups of refugees” (p. 43).

 School personnel in particular will find Chapter Six, “Schools, Teachers and Education of Refugees,” to be especially helpful since it deals directly with schools. The author stresses the importance of the variety of ecological systems directly and indirectly influencing the child’s development. In this chapter, he outlines those characteristics associated with “effective” schools (quotations his), including the role of principals, parental involvement, teacher expectations, and the school environment.  Despite the consideration the author gives to the complex contextual features, he makes a subtle assumption that parents should be involved as “better home educators” (p. 86) as if the skills that refugee parents pass on to their children do not have the potential to prepare them for schools. For further reading on this topic, I would recommend, as a starting point, Gaudalupe Valdes’ work, Con Respeto.  At the very least, she cautions well intentioned school personnel against a one-size-fits-all brand of “parental involvement”   and questions the merit of typical family intervention programs designed to promote school success. Further on in this chapter, however, the author highlights the importance of clear and open communication between schools and homes, and writes: “The most effective way to influence teacher expectations about refugee students and what it means to be a refugee is to help them gain knowledge of the different cultures, values and beliefs of the students who are in the classroom” (p. 93).  He rightly adds that teachers need to support diversity in instruction by accepting and valuing differences, accommodating different learning styles, and building on cultural background.  I would also observe here that teachers need to learn something about the refugee’s language and literacy backgrounds in order to understand areas of language interference and transfer.  

 The last chapter, “Education of Refugee Children,” sums up what the author refers to as “best practices” for a variety of educational arenas including national educational policy and initiatives, school structures and policy, school and family connections, principal leadership, and professional development of teachers. Although the term “best practice” is one that deserves its own share of scrutiny (which is actually discussed in Chapter Three) the ideas presented are difficult to argue with. The suggestions for professional development of teachers included on the last page of the book, if taken seriously by school personnel, might foster a kind of critical response that moves teachers beyond single-minded romantic versions of  "celebrating diversity" that promise much but stipulate little.  In sum, this book has much to offer international researchers, practitioners, and policy makers who are invested in long term global solutions for the plight of our 12 million refugees worldwide. 





Valdes, G. (1996) Con respeto: Bridging the distances between culturally diverse families and schools: An ethnographic portrait. NY: Teachers College Press.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 2, 2005, p. 319-322 ID Number: 11405, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 3:09:10 PM

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