Nov. 4, 2020

Parent-teacher relationships critical to success of students from immigrant and refugee families

Systemic, linguistic and cultural barriers alienate members of minority groups from Alberta’s K-12 education system, researcher says

A common misconception about immigrant and refugee families is that parents in these communities lack interest in supporting their children’s learning. But a recently completed two-year study shows that a combination of systemic, linguistic and cultural barriers contribute to members of minority groups becoming alienated from Alberta’s K-12 education system.

  • Pictured above: Rahat Zaidi.

With more than a decade of experience exploring methods for enhancing community engagement among newcomers, Dr. Rahat Zaidi, PhD, an associate professor in the Werklund School of Education and a lead member of the University of Calgary’s Newcomer Research Network, recognized the value in optimizing parent-teacher relationships so that parents are welcomed as active participants in their children’s education.

“There is not enough being done to create safe interactional spaces where minority groups can have a dialogue and provide constructive input," says Zaidi. "Such dialogue and collaboration will happen if there are relationships of trust and meaningful engagement built into public sectors such as schools."

Engaging community stakeholders

To build this trust and engage in a constructive dialogue, Zaidi partnered with the Calgary Board of Education and the Faculty of Social Work to interview 33 parents, teachers and educational support workers. The parents who volunteered for the study had children attending the CBE’s Literacy, English and Academic Development (LEAD) program, which is designed to support the needs of refugee English language learners with limited formal schooling and who have experienced traumatic life events.

Meals and babysitting were provided for participants and Zaidi says conducting group discussions in the parents’ first language aided the flow of the conversation and helped in relationship-building. Parents' insights allowed the researchers to identify barriers, including the lack of translators available during parent-teacher interviews, misunderstandings about how the education system works, and when it is appropriate for them to come to their child’s school.

Parents, who all spent three to seven years in refugee camps, also expressed the challenges they face as newcomers. “Will I have shelter over my head? Am I going to be safe and will I have food the next day on my table? These are the three priorities… higher than anything else at least for the first two years,” said one participant.

Teachers who took part in the study acknowledged concerns about apathy, parent mental health challenges, the complexities of the refugee experience and the risk factors that can impede student learning and well-being.

“Educators stressed the need for more guidance and funding for school districts to undertake initiatives that champion diversity, inclusivity and identity affirmation,” says Zaidi.

Implementing findings benefits Alberta

Creating explicit programming to support refugee and immigrant youth, establishing local school board support systems and developing leadership and teacher training resources were three recommendations for province-wide initiatives crafted by Zaidi and her interdisciplinary team as a result of these conversations and follow-up phone interviews.

Within these recommendations are specific action items, including mandating programming and staffing qualifications to address the linguistic and psycho-social needs of newcomer youth and families, expanding settlement best practices by making interpreting services and in-school settlement programs available province wide, and professional development that includes empathy and culturally responsive pedagogy along with trauma-sensitive initiatives and leadership strategies.

Zaidi believes it's in the best interest of the province to implement these recommendations as Canada welcomes hundreds of thousands of newcomers each year, many of whom have school-aged children and are escaping humanitarian crises. The increasing diversity of the community is reflected in the increasing complexity of the classroom.

“The start of this decade has brought historical anomalous challenges in the sphere of education," says Zaidi. "The coronavirus outbreak and widespread civil rights resurgence have fostered a renewed emphasis on the importance of human connection as well as a dire need to help society's most vulnerable citizens. One of the most critical venues for this in which to occur is no doubt within the education system.”

Parents taking charge

This year, Zaidi's work garnered her the 2020 Alberta Teachers’ Association Educational Research Award.

“Dr. Zaidi’s research is important because it lays out what needs to happen when our students and their families are refugees," says ATA president Jason Schilling. "The challenges in those situations are very different and we need the resources to address them."

As Zaidi embarks on new projects, including two SSHRC projects that build on the findings of this research, she's reminded of an anecdote she heard from a teacher during the interviews — one she believes puts to rest any questions about how invested newcomer parents are in helping their children succeed academically.

The teacher shared that the mother of one of her students had not attended any school meetings but then she showed up during the second year, saying “I can speak English now. I'm confident and I'm here to take control of my children's education.”

Funding for this project was provided by the Research Partnership Program Alberta Education


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