Meeting the Complex Needs of Syrian Refugee Students

Meeting the Complex Needs of Syrian Refugee Students

Shortly after the Liberals won the election, Prime Minister Trudeau gave a speech at Canada House in London in which he argued passionately that: “We have a responsibility — to ourselves and to the world — to show that inclusive diversity is a strength and a force that can vanquish intolerance, radicalism and hate.”

When I read this it instantly took me back to 1971. I was just starting university and I remember listening to his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, say very much the same thing about the untold benefits of multiculturalism. It’s a vision of Canada that stirred me then, just as it stirs me now. But “inclusive diversity” doesn’t just happen on its own, as the result of legislation or the best of intentions.

It takes hard work, at multiple levels, as a crop of new permanent residents find housing, jobs, health care, a place in new and utterly alien communities, and, of course, schools for their children. And nothing stirs me quite so much as the effort that I see teachers across the country making to meet this challenge.

It’s the job of our teachers and school administrators to assimilate a large number of children and teens who may have been traumatized; or who have complex needs that were never addressed; or who have never been to school; or whose education was severely interrupted; or who are poised to graduate without nearly enough credits. And many of these new students will have only a rudimentary grasp of English, much less a clear understanding of Canadian customs and conventions.

The response of school boards across the nation to this daunting challenge has been nothing short of inspiring. Wherever you look, volunteer welcome committees are being formed and PD sessions are taking place to help schools prepare. Programs are in place to help these students and their families not just adjust, but thrive.

Self-Reg can, and must, play a significant role in this process; for it teaches us that a student’s greatest need – all students’ greatest need – is to feel safe and secure: emotionally as well as physically. Practices are being rolled out to reduce the anxiety that the majority of these students will be feeling. Simple things, like arranging for each new student to have a Canadian “buddy,” can do wonders in terms of making a student aware of and feel included in upcoming school events. But feeling emotionally safe often requires more. It requires understanding, patience, and all too often, help in self-regulating.

The reality is that a large percentage of these children and teens will be coming to school with a “kindled” limbic alarm. Their greatest immediate need is to have this alarm turned off, so as to make the vital switch from “Survival” to “Learning Brain.” There are all sorts of very simple things we can do to facilitate this shift: for example, the sorts of “classroom makeover” techniques that our SelfReg teachers are reporting to be highly effective (just look at some of the threads in our Twitter and online forum exchanges); or self-regulating practices woven seamlessly into the fabric of the school day. But really, the first step is for everyone to understand the importance of reframing behaviours that might seem irrational, or even “unappreciative.”

What we have to bear in mind as we work hard to support these students is that fight-or-flight so often results from a kindled limbic alarm. So things like outbursts, shutting down, bolting, a general feeling of unhappiness or negativity, or for that matter, seemingly irrational responses to friendly overtures all need to be reframed. All of our students and staff need to understand this basic principle, as much for their own benefit as for the well-being of this new addition to the Canadian mosaic.

The real secret to vanquishing intolerance, radicalism and hate is the ability to stay calmly focused and alert in the face of great stress. And that begins with recognizing and responding effectively to the great stress that this humanitarian effort entails for everyone. This is the secret to rendering inclusive diversity a genuine strength and not just a duty.


Dr. Stuart Shanker is the Founder and CEO of The MEHRIT Centre.  You can read all the posts in his “Self-Reg View of” series here. You can also read his writing on Psychology Today and The Huffington Post.

By | 2019-06-10T21:34:50+00:00 March 22nd, 2016|

Leave A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

X