2023 Highlights Report

Improving the School Experience for Children and Youth with Refugee Experience

Schools play a key role in the settlement experience of newcomer children and youth. On this page, we  summarize CYRRC’s recent research on students with interrupted formal education (SIFEs).

Learn more about these issues in our podcast episodes and policy brief on school supports.

Refugee Resettlement Policy: School Supports for Youth

What Challenges Do Children and Youth with Interrupted Schooling Face?

Students with interrupted formal education (SIFEs) refers to those who have had significantly interrupted, limited, or no prior school experience and who enter the school system with additional language, academic, and literacy needs. 

Children and youth with interrupted schooling face multiple, interconnected barriers:

Language barriers  are one of the key challenges that youth face. Yet English as additional language (EAL) programs are not always accessible or adequate at settlement agencies and schools.

Limited English language proficiency, academic gaps due to disrupted schooling, and grade placement based on age and English language assessment (rather than academic ability) are significant challenges for older youth. These youth may fall between the cracks as they transition or age out of high school.

Youth with refugee experience feel they are not reflected in the school curriculum, which was overly focused on European history and culture.

“[W]hen they came into the school system here in Nova Scotia, there was an assumption that they couldn’t handle a certain level of math, because they couldn’t speak English. So they were sort of treated like a one size fits all homogenous group, when in fact, they’re not they have different strengths. They have different needs. – Dr. Susan Brigham, The Refuge: Starting Over – Refugee Youth and Interrupted Schooling]

The lack of economic resources affects youth’s ability to complete school. Many students are working full time to support themselves and their families.

Many SIFEs have experienced significant trauma. The process of overcoming traumatic experiences, acquiring a sense of safety, and adjusting to the expectations of a new culture impact their school experience.

Many families with refugee experience face persistent mental health issues and struggle with a lack of in-person support and a lack of mental health services.

“[O]ne of the things that we need to keep in mind is that a lot of the families and the children that come to school were forcefully removed from a familiar environment and having to settle in an unfamiliar community in school wasn’t their choice. So everything is not only new to them but it’s also strange … [They] also have a large amount of trauma and loss and grief that they bring. And sometimes, they may share it. Sometimes, they may not. But then with children, it may manifest itself in various aspects.”Jayesh Maniar, Policy Matters – School Supports for Youth

Women and girls can face additional challenges due to cultural expectations, such as housework and parental responsibility, and pregnancy. Meanwhile, boys —especially older youth who speak English— often quit school to become breadwinners for their families, resulting in a “power dynamic shift” among resettled families.

What Supports do Children and Youth with Refugee Experience Need in School?

There are a number of ways to improve the school experience of youth with refugee experience:

Students with refugee experience are more likely to persist academically in school when they feel that their peers are open to diversity, such as being interested in their background, respecting them, and wanting to interact with them. Peer friendships can help youth develop a sense of trust and belonging and boost their confidence in learning English.

Students’ educational success depends on school environments that encourage diversity and teachers who support and encourage their students. Teachers play a key role in creating environments where students with refugee experience feel welcome and accepted. In order to address the needs of these students, teachers require support and training in English as an Additional Language (EAL) teaching, trauma-informed practices, and cultural responsiveness.

An educator shared a teaching tool they used called, “While You Were at School,” where refugee students shared stories about what they were doing while age-equivalent Canadian students would have been in school. This activity helped the other students better understand the students with refugee experience and encouraged an openness to diversity.

Teachers and service providers play a crucial role in supporting children and youth with refugee experience, however, there are several challenges that negatively impacted their ability to provide culturally relevant learning opportunities and supportive environments for all students:

  • Their workload has increased as services and resources for refugees that were once provided are no longer available.
  • They face challenges of reduced funding and staffing.
  • They need professional development opportunities for working with students with refugee experience.

Improving the mental health of caregivers and service providers is important as it provides a foundation for children and youth’s socioemotional development.

Collaborative relationships between educators, school staff, and local communities create opportunities for learning and addressing students’ emotional and psychological needs. Better coordination and collaboration among refugee service providers would allow complementary services to be identified and addressed.

“[T]here needs to be that cross-collaboration between government, between the education system, the schools itself and community … school divisions and teachers and administrators just have to be open to allowing community in the classroom and not just for language interpretation and not just for translation purposes. … I would highly encourage school administrators to seek partnerships with community organizations, with ethnocultural communities and with service providers that are helping parents, that are helping community members and just collaborate and provide spaces and provide hubs where continuous learning can happen and where those supports are being made available to our students. – Kathleen Vyrauen, Policy Matters – School Supports for Youth

Despite the challenges they face, students with refugee experience show high levels of resilience and many feel optimistic and grateful to attend school in their new country.

“[T]he youth themselves even though they are struggling to succeed academically they have also … shown resilience in term[s] of trying to adapt so they come also with their own strengths of facing the challenges that they are encountering.”Reuben Garang, The Refuge: Starting Over – Refugee Youth and Interrupted Schooling


“[W]e hear it from students firsthand that they want to feel that connection to their teacher. They want to see themselves represented. They feel like they’ll be more comfortable to express if they have a need if it was somebody that knows what they’re going through.” – Kathleen Vyrauen, Policy Matters – School Supports for Youth

Brigham and colleagues “Refugee Youth and Interrupted Schooling” (2022)
Click to view infographic


Nakhaie, R., Ramos, H., & Fakih, F. (2022). School Environment and Academic Persistence of Newcomer Students: The Roles of Teachers and Peers. Journal of Teaching and Learning, 16(1), 64-84.

Refugee Youth and Interrupted Schooling: Economic and Social Implications

Researchers: Susan M Brigham1, Howard Ramos2, Nabiha Atallah3, Olga Lyobenko3, Sylvia Calatayud1, Claire Brierley1

Affiliations: Mount Saint Vincent University (MSVU)1, Western University2, and Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS)3

Research Partner: ISANS

This study highlights some of the challenges faced by refugee youth who have experienced interrupted schooling, as well as the cultural and linguistic resources they use to navigate cultural and educational spaces. Individual interviews were conducted with 24 refugee youth (16-26 years old) residing in Halifax, Nova Scotia

Supported Transitions: Effective Educational Approaches for Older Refugee Youth with Interrupted Schooling

Researchers:  Nicole Jowett1, Noelle DePape2, Abdikheir Ahmed3, and Ray Silvius4  

Affiliations: Newcomer Education Coalition (NEC)1, Manitoba Association of Newcomer Serving Organizations (MANSO) 2, Immigration Partnership Winnipeg (IPW)3, and the University of Winnipeg4

Research Partners: NEC, IPW, MANSO, and the Community Engaged Research on Immigration Network

This study examined challenges experienced by older refugee youth with interrupted schooling in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and developed responses to better support refugee youth An educator and community-informed ‘best practices’ document was developed from this study.

A follow-up study is ongoing to examine the experiences of students with interrupted schooling in small centres outside of Winnipeg.

Social-Emotional Development in Refugee Children and Families

Researchers: Tina Malti1, Tyler Colasante1, Redab Al-Janaideh1, Mona Aboumrad2, Fariborz Birjandian3, Jill Edgington Kirby3, Sarah Wayland4, Mohammed Aref4, Ali T. Ghouse5, Uzma Qureshi5, Ghazal Jessani6, Danah Elsayed7, Arsim Aliu8, Fariha Ali8, Abdillahi Abdi9, Wahed Al-Jabry9, Yusuf Kfaween10, Laura Rosella1, Maarya Abdulkarim1, Shahd Fulath Khan1, Salwa Yaghi1, Layla Akel1, and Nirma Jbara1.

Affiliations: University of Toronto1, University of Calgary2, Calgary Catholic Immigration Society3, Hamilton Immigration Partnership Council4, Muslim Council of Greater Hamilton5, McMaster University6, University of Guelp7, YMCA of Hamilton, Burlington, and Brantford8, Hamilton Downtown mosque9, Hamilton Islamic school10

Research Partners: KDE Hub, Muslim Council of Greater Hamilton (MCGH), YMCA of Hamilton, Burlington, and Brantford; Calgary Catholic Immigration Society

This study conducted a needs assessment with Middle Eastern refugee families and service providers in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area (GTHA). Refugee strengths and refugee service strengths were identified, highlighting adaptive capacities and points of service that may be leveraged to promote wellbeing and positive resettlement. Based on these findings, a virtual training initiative that supported caregiver and children’s social-emotional development was implemented and evaluated. 26 refugee caregivers of children ages 2-12 and 24 service providers from the GTHA and Calgary, Alberta participated in the training.

Youth Newcomers’ Educational Resistance

Researchers: Reza Nakhaie1

Affiliation: University of Windsor1

Research Partner: YMCA, Western Ontario

This study sought to understand refugee youth’s involvement, attachment, and resistance to school in Windsor, Ontario.  175 youth (14-24 years old) participated in a telephone survey; the majority (67%) had entered Canada as government-sponsored refugees.