Exploring the Intersection of Inclusive Practices and Newcomer Students in the Classroom

In Canada, the immigration patterns have been dramatically increasing. Many families are arriving to their new country with a new home, culture, and community environment to navigate. With these increases, school systems are also experiencing exponential growth for newcomer students in the classrooms. Documented challenges faced by newcomer families have included both language and cultural aspects. An additional barrier faced by Canadian newcomer families involves having a child with an intellectual disability and navigating a diagnosis alongside a new schooling experience.  A case study conducted by two researchers at Cape Breton University examined the intersection of school and community inclusive practices for a newcomer family in Cape Breton with a child with a diverse learning need. The data unveiled the opportunities for school leaders to connect with community partners to support newcomer students with diverse learning needs, and their families.

Newcomer students come from diverse backgrounds with various schooling experiences and have a wide array of strengths and needs. Newcomers from other countries include students who have arrived with their families as part of a voluntary or planned immigration process. Others may have had limited or inconsistent access to schooling and may have arrived in Canada with refugee status. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Canada (2020), posit that 70.8 million refugees worldwide have been forcibly displaced from their communities and homes. Refugee families are also included within this demographic. These students face barriers to education, and appropriately educating this diverse student population presents many challenges to schools and education departments. Ayoub & Zhou (2022) investigated Somali refugees who attended public school in Ontario; results revealed that participants faced many learning difficulties and socio-cultural challenges. The findings also demonstrated examples of strength related to resiliency and perseverance for students and their families.

Understanding Newcomer Experiences

Many components have been documented which highlight the immigration processes for newcomers to Canada. These have involved a primary focus within socioeconomic, educational, health, and cultural transitions.  Turney & Kao, (2009) explored barriers to school involvement through the lens of immigrant parent experiences. Results indicated that parents felt disadvantaged in several aspects that related to their parental involvement within the school setting compared to non-immigrant parents.  The specific barriers expressed were inconvenient meeting times, no childcare, issues with safety at school, not feeling welcomed by school, problems with transportation, challenges with language and communication, especially when meetings were conducted only in English with no interpretation services.  As revealed in a study conducted by Pugh et al (2012), refugee or new arrivals children faced additional barriers to schooling. Attending a new school in the resettlement country requires significant cultural and linguistic adaptation. They often struggle with unrealistic demands in the foreign setting (Cassity and Gow, 2005). In addition, research specifically examined language and the barriers that can disadvantage students with refugee experience, both within academic and social (Davies 2008).

Supporting New Arrival Families in Education

This study examined the schooling experiences of an immigrant family who moved specifically to Canada because of their child and her diagnosed disability. The results from interviews first revealed that many components, involving both community and school can contribute to successful transitions and improved educational outcomes. Second, it is necessary

for educators to have professional development opportunities to develop further knowledge and pedagogical skill sets that will enhance collaboration work with immigrant families and students. Additionally, research with refugees found that participants reported the lack of translation support and ethnic representation among educators, settlement workers, and other services such as psychologists or allied health care workers as reasons why they did not access these services (Cheyne-Hazineh, 2020).

Guo-Brennan, & Guo-Brennan, (2021) investigated leading welcoming and inclusive schools. Among the critical components which were identified included Leadership engagement shared vision and open and inclusive processes. Schools with dramatically increased immigrant and refugee student populations need a systematic approach and inclusive process to ensure newcomer students, who differ in their backgrounds, languages, identities, frames of reference, prior educational experiences, abilities, interests, and belief systems, have equal opportunities and resources to thrive and succeed in schools. (Guo et al., p.57).

Janzen et al. (2013), discussed three main themes which can assist the support mechanisms with community immigration. The first one demonstrates how local systems change is negotiated within a broader migration landscape (contextualizing local systems change). The second lesson recognizes that a community’s historical migration response can be a springboard for local change and the third theme suggests that expanding and coordinating community engagement in the refugee and newcomer support system is integral for lasting change. This final theme can benefit the process of sustainability for action. Combined together, these strategies and resources can provide a comprehensive analysis into how local communities can be adaptive to supporting newcomer success. A whole school approach that includes school structures, culture and pedagogy is needed to provide equity for new students with refugee or immigration experiences Pugh et al. (2012, p.125).


Pugh et al (2012) reported that the cause of the growing body of literature suggesting that ‘individual teachers often have greater effects on student outcomes than schools. Hiring effective teachers is clearly vital for any school serious about improving educational outcomes for students with refugee experience. This would include teachers with a strong understanding of inclusive education, CRT and experience with English language learners.  For many schools.  continual professional development in teaching newcomer students is a key part of developing effective teachers. Pugh et al. (2012) highlighted important aspects which may be included:

  • A holistic approach to education is described and recognized as one model that could support new arrivals and families. Approaches refugee schooling holistically by embedding the school in the local community through community-led cultural awareness and community outreach
  • Provides skilled teachers through targeted professional development and reflective inquiry groups
  • Provides language and counseling support staff
  • Makes localised changes to set curriculums which address the needs of a diverse student body.

Another recommendation revealed in the study was a stronger connection between schools and settlement workers, or having intercultural aids working within the school system. Parents need cultural allies when navigating a new school system and making decisions for their children’s support plans. Understanding Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and advocating for care can be challenging and overwhelming especially if language comprehension is part of the equation.  School leaders have the opportunity to make community connections to facilitate a relationship with newcomer parents all year long. While seemingly simple, this relationship often does not happen or is not sustained throughout the year.  Newcomer parents need more than school administrators, resource teachers and educational program assistants to aid in their family journey through the school system.  Larger urban cities in Canada have seen newcomers in schools for years.  However, it is the smaller communities with fewer resources that are experiencing more challenges in the classrooms and in the school community.

New arrivals to Canada face a variety of challenges. When a parent experiences an additional complexity such as diagnosis of intellectual disability or delay for a child, it can be demanding. Identification of the barriers, obstacles, and needs, can assist families who are new arrivals to Canada. This can aid healthcare, educational, and social service professionals work with parents, advocates, and provincial government officials to improve the quality of supports for this vastly growing population in Canada. It is important that governments, school boards and schools establish and continually monitor policies, programs, and services that reflect the learning, social, cultural, and emotional needs of immigrant students and families, especially those with a diagnosed disability.

Ayoub, M. & Zhou, G. (2021). Somali refugee students in Canadian schools: postmigration experiences. https://mje.mcgill.ca/article/view/9678/7699.
Cassity, E. A., & Gow, G. (2005). Making up for lost time: Southern Sudanese young refugees in high schools. Youth Studies Australia, 24(3), 51–55.
Cheyne-Hazineh, L. (2020). Creating New Possibilities: Service Provider Perspectives on the Settlement and Integration of Syrian Refugee Youth in a Canadian Community. Canadian Ethnic Studies, 52(2), 115–137. https://doi.org/10.1353/ces.2020.0008
Davies, A. Z. (2008). Characteristics of adolescent Sierra Leonean refugees in public schools in New York City. Education and Urban Society, 40(3), 361–376.
Janzen, R., Leis, K., & Ochocka, J. (2021). The Impact of Syrian Refugee Arrivals on Local Systems of Support in Canada. Journal of International Migration and Integration, 22(4), 1221-1242.https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s12134-020-00792-z.pdf
Pugh, K., Every, D., & Hattam, R. (2012). Inclusive education for students with refugee experience: Whole school reform in a South Australian primary school. Australian Educational Researcher, 39(2), 125-141.
Schleicher, A. (2006). Where Immigrant Students Succeed: A Comparative Review of Performance and Turney, K., & Kao, G. (2009). Barriers to school involvement: Are immigrant parents disadvantaged? The Journal of Educational Research, 102 (4), 257–271. https://doi.org/10.3200/joer.102.4.257-271.
Guo-Brennan, L., & Guo-Brennan, M. (2021). Leading welcoming and inclusive schools for newcomer students: A conceptual framework. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 20 (1), 57–75. https://doi.org/10.1080/15700763.2020.1838554
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Canada. (2020). Home. https://www.unhcr.ca/

By: Dr. Kristin O’Rourke, Shaun Rann and Dr. Lynn LeVatte

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