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This 2-year study examined the challenges and barriers that refugee families and schools encounter in their new homeland. The researchers sought to determine what can be learned from parent and educator experiences of these obstacles in order to optimize parent-teacher collaboration for refugee families. Contextualized within a LEAD (Literacy, English and Academic Development) program in an urban centre in western Canada, the study triangulated data from focus groups comprising Syrian and Iraqi Arabic-speaking families, teachers, and settlement workers. The data was qualitatively analyzed incorporating Epstein's six types of involvement, a culturally responsive model accounting for parental engagement within the context of home-school-community collaboration (Epstein & Sheldon, 2006). From this model, the researchers make recommendations that include province-wide initiatives to support leadership and teacher training, mandated programming to support refugee and immigrant youth, and the establishment and expansion of Board and in-school settlement best practices province-wide. Cet article porte sur une étude de cas qualitative axée sur une période de deux années. L'étude a examiné les défis et les contraintes auxquels les familles réfugiées et les professeurs de leurs enfants font face en établissant les rapports nécessaires pour la réussite académique de ces étudiants. La recherche a tenté de déterminer comment optimiser la collaboration parents-professeurs pour ces familles. Située dans le contexte du programme Literacy, English and Academic Development (LEAD), dans un centre urbain dans l'ouest du Canada. L'étude a collectionné des données triangulées des groupes de discussion, comprenant des familles syriennes et irakiennes-arabophones, des professeurs, et des travailleurs sociaux. Nous avons analysé les données en utilisant le modèle proposé par Epstein ou il s'agit de six types de participation, un modèle qui décrit l'engagement des parents dans le contexte de la communauté maison-école (Epstein & Sheldon, 2006). À partir de ce modèle, les chercheurs font des recommandations qui incluent des initiatives à l'échelle de la province pour soutenir le leadership et la formation des enseignants, des programmes mandatés pour soutenir les jeunes réfugiés et immigrants, et la création et l'expansion des meilleures pratiques d'établissement des conseils scolaires et des écoles à l'échelle de la province.
The Challenges and Barriers Behind Successful Refugee Parental Engagement in their
Children’s Schools
The Canadian Journal of Education (December 2021)
Rahat Zaidi, Tom Strong, Christine Oliver, Hanan Alwaraq
This 2-year study examined the challenges and barriers that refugee families and schools
encounter in their new homeland. The researchers sought to determine what can be learned
from parent and educator experiences of these obstacles in order to optimize parent-teacher
collaboration for refugee families. Contextualized within a LEAD (Literacy, English and
Academic Development) program in an urban centre in western Canada, the study
triangulated data from focus groups comprising Syrian and Iraqi Arabic-speaking families,
teachers, and settlement workers. The data was qualitatively analyzed incorporating
Epstein’s six types of involvement, a culturally responsive model accounting for parental
engagement within the context of home-school-community collaboration (Epstein &
Sheldon, 2006). From this model, the researchers make recommendations that include
province-wide initiatives to support leadership and teacher training, mandated programming
to support refugee and immigrant youth, and the establishment and expansion of Board and
in-school settlement best practices province-wide.
Cet article porte sur une étude de cas qualitative axée sur une période de deux années.
L’étude a examiné les défis et les contraintes auxquels les familles réfugiées et les
professeurs de leurs enfants font face en établissant les rapports nécessaires pour la réussite
académique de ces étudiants. La recherche a tenté de déterminer comment optimiser la
collaboration parents-professeurs pour ces familles. Située dans le contexte du programme
Literacy, English and Academic Development (LEAD), dans un centre urbain dans l’ouest
du Canada. L’étude a collectionné des données triangulées des groupes de discussion,
comprenant des familles syriennes et irakiennes-arabophones, des professeurs, et des
travailleurs sociaux. Nous avons analysé les données en utilisant le modèle proposé par
Epstein ou il s’agit de six types de participation, un modèle qui décrit l’engagement des
parents dans le contexte de la communauté maison-école (Epstein & Sheldon, 2006). À
partir de ce modèle, les chercheurs font des recommandations qui incluent des initiatives à
l'échelle de la province pour soutenir le leadership et la formation des enseignants, des
programmes mandatés pour soutenir les jeunes réfugiés et immigrants, et la création et
l'expansion des meilleures pratiques d'établissement des conseils scolaires et des écoles à
l'échelle de la province.
Keywords: Syrian refugees, Iraqi refugees, Arab refugees, literacy, English-language
development, parent-teacher engagement, education-parent participation
The Challenges and Barriers Behind Successful Refugee Parental Engagement
Under the Canadian government’s 2015-16 Syrian Refugee Resettlement Initiative,
Canadian classrooms welcomed the children of more than 40,000 individuals. Beyond
providing basic education, school districts seek to identify best practices for inclusion and
are important partners in the resettlement process (e.g., Calgary Board of Education, 2007,
2008; Ontario Ministry of Education, 2007, 2008). Services include needs assessments and
referrals, information and orientation, language assessments and training, and community
connections (Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, 2018). Welcoming and
supportive educational opportunities that are sensitive to and integrative of families’
ethnocultural identities, as well as learners’ adaptive, affective, and academic needs, aim to
build on strengths and promote resilience and positive learning outcomes for the children
of this refugee group (DeCapua & Marshall, 2010, 2011; Dooley, 2009; Ontario Ministry
of Education, 2014; Stewart, 2011).
This study is centred on the particular experience of Arabic-speaking refugee
families in Calgary, Canada, as they engaged with a public education system. Focusing on
the Literacy, English and Academic Development (LEAD) program aimed at refugee
English language learners with limited formal schooling, we analyze opportunities for
enhancing the relationship between parents and teachers and suggest ways that schools can
optimize parent-teacher collaboration. The data gleaned from our research was based on
responses to the following questions: What are the challenges and barriers to optimizing
refugee parents’ engagement with their childrens’ school? What are some proposed
Literature Review
Traditionally, literature on parental engagement has tended to prioritize forms and
contexts that reflect the dominant groups in society. Researchers increasingly point out
that the focus must shift towards frameworks that are more inclusive of components that
recognize and are responsive to stakeholders’ cultural backgrounds (Amjad, 2016;
Bernhard, 2010; Bushaala, 2016; Hamlin & Flessa, 2018). Research indicates that parent
engagement—understood here as parents’ commitment to the academia of their children’s
lives both in and out of school—is positively correlated with student learning behaviour
and academic outcomes (Epstein & Sheldon, 2006; Goodall & Vorhaus, 2011; Hamilton,
2004; Jeynes, 2005; Pomerantz & Moorman, 2010; Pomerantz, Moorman, & Litwack,
2007; Young & Chan, 2014). Parent integration and acculturation are also cited as key
factors in their engagement with their children’s schools (Bassani, 2008; Rousseau &
Guzder, 2008, cited in Young & Chan, 2014, Pomerantz & Moorman, 2010).
Canadian educational policy documents acknowledge that refugee learners often
hail from unstable or conflict-ridden locations. Added emotional and psychological stress
stemming from their individual situations can result in specific needs that must be met
before some sense of normalcy can prevail in their lives (e.g., Ontario Ministry of
Education, 2007). Some provincial and school district authorities have developed
educational guidelines that specifically aim to address these needs (e.g., British Columbia
Ministry of Education, 2018; Calgary Board of Education, 2014; Manitoba Education,
2011, 2012; Ontario Ministry of Education, 2008). These guidelines have resulted in the
school system becoming a critical component in promoting successful resettlement and
social inclusion. For example, the Waterloo Region District School Board’s Accelerated
Basic Literacy Education program (Waterloo Region District School Board, 2008) offers 3
years of tailored language learning, including a settlement worker assigned to each
student’s family and transportation to a specific “congregated class” at a centrally located
school (Hird-Bingeman, McCabe, & Brewer, 2014, p. 178). The Vancouver School Board
similarly employs multilingual settlement workers and offers a Settlement Workers in
Schools program that promotes learner and family engagement in schools and communities
through community referral, advocacy, and supported relationship building. That program
hosts orientation workshops and regular information drop-in clubs during the school year,
working closely with multicultural liaison workers who provide cross-cultural
understanding, interpretation, and translation (Vancouver School Board, 2019).
Programs such as these often establish partnerships with community organizations
and incorporate settlement support staff, family-school liaisons, mental health
professionals, language learning specialists, and educational assistants. Depending on the
school district’s resources and the number of learners with limited prior formal learning,
programming may be concentrated in selected schools or offered in a more decentralized
fashion. This typically entails a refugee reception centre informing families about
education options, initial language and literacy assessments, and establishing a connection
to relevant schools and programs.
Policymakers recognize a lack of Canadian research about effective school
community supports available to optimize refugee parental/family engagement (Ennab,
2017). The overarching objective of any education system as it relates to this demographic
should be to create policy that ensures refugee students are able to view themselves as
learners who will eventually find newfound self-confidence in their adopted homeland and
begin to contribute to the classroom and school community. This involves processes of
parental engagement and relationship building (Nordgren, 2017) and foregrounds the need
for strategies to promote home-school connections and parent or guardian involvement.
It is for this reason that the researchers in this study chose Epstein’s Six Types of
Parental Engagement to inform and provide the analytic framework for our research. We
found this widely adopted organizing and framing tool appropriate because of its
simplicity, easy-to-follow characteristics, and alignment with our methodology. Following
is a schemata of the model (Table 1).
Table 1: Six Types of Parental Involvement in Their Children’s Schools
Assist families with parenting skills, family support, understanding child and
adolescent development, and setting home conditions to support learning at each
age and grade level. Assist schools in understanding families’ backgrounds,
cultures, and goals for children.
Communicate with families about school programs and student progress. Create
two-way communication channels between school and home.
Volunteering and
attending events
Improve recruitment, training, activities, and schedules to involve families as
volunteers and as audiences at the school or in other locations. Enable educators
to work with volunteers who support students and the school.
Learning at home
Involve families with their children in academic learning at home, including
homework, goal setting, and other curriculum-related activities. Encourage
teachers to design homework that enables students to share and discuss interesting
Include families as participants in school decisions, governance, and advocacy
activities through school councils or improvement teams, committees, and parent
Collaborating with
the community
Coordinate resources and services for families, students, and the school with
community groups, including businesses, agencies, cultural and civic
organizations, and colleges or universities. Enable all to contribute service to the
Adapted from “Partnering With Families and Communities: A Well-Organized Program of Family and Community
Partnerships Yields Many Benefits for Schools and Their Students,” by J. L. Epstein and K. C. Salinas, 2004, Educational
Leadership, 61(8), p. 15. Copyright 2004 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
The overlapping types of involvement recognize the key stakeholders in student
learning as family, school, and community (Center for Family, School, Community
Engagement, n.d.; Fazily, 2012; Manitoba Education, 2011). Furthermore, the model
provides holistic parameters in the context of home-school-community collaboration
through which a thorough and complete analysis can be undertaken (Epstein & Sheldon,
2006). The framework highlights “the need for reciprocal interactions of parents,
educators, and community partners to understand each other’s views, to identify common
goals for students, and to appreciate each other’s contributions to student development”
(Epstein & Sheldon, 2006, p. 4). Epstein’s framework also offers a classification system
for providing possible solutions in overcoming the barriers and challenges to refugee
parental engagement.
Study Design
The research is contextualized within the Literacy, English and Academic
Development (LEAD) program in Calgary, Canada. The program enrolls English language
learners (Grades 4–12) with limited or interrupted prior schooling experience. As a short-
term accelerated language learning program, LEAD supports learners to transition into
mainstream classrooms and English language learning courses, usually within two years.
Specialized features include access to psychologists who assist learners in overcoming
difficulties associated with trauma, support from Diversity and Learning Support Advisors
(DLSAs) and in-school settlement practitioners (ISSPs), and English language learning
assistants in all classrooms. Typically, classes have no more than 15 students. Upon
completion of the program, students relocate to their local, designated school.
Participants included 11 Arabic-speaking parents of LEAD students (six families
represented by 1 single mother and 5 couples), as well as 19 LEAD teachers and three in-
school support workers (two DLSAs and one ISSP). All parent participants were originally
from Syria or Iraq and had experienced displacement for three to seven years. Some families
had accessed formal or informal schooling delivered in Turkish, English, Arabic, or a
Kurdish language prior to arriving in Canada. The teachers (five elementary school teachers,
seven junior high school teachers, and seven high school teachers) represented all 11 LEAD
program schools in the school district.
Method and Procedure
Through a cooperative inquiry approach based on a shared agenda and interests (Heron
& Reason, 1997), we engaged in cycles of action and reflection to elicit and analyze the
experiences of parents, teachers, and in-school support workers within the LEAD programs.
University and school district partners (the authors of this article) collaborated in the design
and implementation of this research. Arabic-speaking research assistants recruited parents
within the community, were invited to participate in focus groups that were held entirely in
Arabic to ensure the parents’ understanding and encourage participation. Of importance, the
families in this study were all of the Muslim faith, and typically, men and women are
segregated in formal settings. Based on this premise, we separated the focus groups by gender
and conducted them after school hours with warm halal Middle Eastern meals and babysitting
provided. A semi-structured interview format encouraged contextualized responses, providing
Arabic-speaking facilitators with a framework for guiding discussion. This limited any undue
personal, political, or uncomfortable conversations that might surface in light of the complex
experiences that often characterize refugee migration. Follow-up telephone interviews in
Arabic were conducted with five mothers and three fathers. Individual interviews were also
conducted with two ISSP and two DLSA workers. Three focus groups were conducted with
19 teachers in the LEAD program. Following this, an online focus group discussion was
created in which teachers were presented with findings extracted from the first round of
discussions compiled by the research team. Seven of the teachers responded to the online
forum and their responses were included in the triangulated data.
The focus groups and interviews (held over the span of two years) were audio
recorded, transcribed, and translated into English as necessary, with any identifying markers
anonymized. We used Braun and Clarke’s (2006, 2014) thematic analysis to analyze the
transcript data in two stages, first in aggregate and then synthesized. The first stage involved
in-depth analysis of each transcript, extracting emerging themes. In the second stage, we
collectively analyzed the themes, weaving a thread through all of the data and extracting
shared themes and findings that address the research questions. The reflections of the
parents, teachers, and in-school support workers were triangulated to develop an
understanding of Arabic-speaking newcomer refugee parent involvement in schools.
Parents, teachers, and in-school support workers articulated perceptions that
intersected at several points and resonated with literature findings in the context of policy,
school, teachers, and parents. The data gleaned and analyzed using Epstein’s model as a
theoretical framwork deepened our understanding of the tensions that were uncovered
during research and brought the resourcefulness of parents, teachers, schools, and in-school
supports into perspective. Building on Epstein’s model, we were then able to present our
own suggestions for moving forward towards optimizing refugee parental engagement.
Epstein’s model highlights the significance of parents’ level of education, parenting
skills, supports for learning at home, and the importance of assisting schools in
understanding families’ backgrounds. The researchers assumed that much of the parents’
role in supporting their children’s learning came predominantly through interaction with the
school. To support this statement, one of the teacher participants commented:
You know maybe different ideas of how school works. You know when you’re
speaking with people who, you know are born and raised here. They have a better
idea of how school works and they’re…. I find often when I’m working with parents
of kids who were immigrants, they just say ‘whatever you say’.
The parents’ interaction with the school regarding their children’s learning produced
some of the most informative challenges that were found in this study. Language barriers
prevented many parents from being able to initiate all but brief exchanges with teachers
when dropping off a child, and, often, messages were delivered via their children. (Fathers’
Focus Group). One parent described an effort to engage by saying, “I went more than once
and took my eldest son to translate for me and everything stayed the same (Fathers’ Focus
Group). The foundational problem here seemed twofold: an issue that the older child could
not adequately bridge the communication barrier between the two parties and a perceived
lack of receptiveness from school personnel. The father’s comment regarding the static
nature of the school’s reaction highlighted the importance of two-way communication
between parents and the school.
Epstein’s model suggests parents' support for their children’s learning implies a
unification of sorts where all stakeholders possess similar goals and values for their
child’s/student’s education and well-being. However, one aspect in which parents felt the
school fell short was in not upholding the parents’ sense of culture, language, and faith.
They perceived a defined lack of school support and staff familiarity with these three factors
of the child’s history before entering the LEAD program. As a result, parents commented
that the responsibility fell largely on them for maintaining their culture, language, and faith
as they witnessed the interplay between their children adapting to a new culture and
language, while still trying to maintain the traditional aspects of what they had known in the
past and wanted to preserve.
Parental support was also an obstacle as it related to the strategy of phoning parents
if there was a concern or a necessity for some sort of communication. Teachers commented
that phone calls often proved to be ineffective. In part, this seemed to have roots in various
The undependability of phone numbers, the frequent inability of parents to pay their
phone bill, resulting in cancelled accounts; and multiple phone numbers attached to
one child (including parents, other family members, support people, and sponsors).
(Teachers’ Focus Group 1)
The school’s ability to implement web-based technology to support parents proved
to be equally challenging. Translation apps, email, and educational learning management
system messenger programs “sounds like a great idea in theory” (Teachers’ Focus Group
1) but failed to meet the needs of LEAD program families, many of whom did not have
reliable access to this technology. One teacher remarked, “Email’s set up, but then the
password’s forgotten, or they have like five email accounts, and it’s like ‘which one did I
give to you?’” (Teachers’ Focus Group 2). Another teacher added, “Maybe internet’s cut
off, because they don’t pay the bill and then the cycle goes again. They have to set it up”
(Teachers’ Focus Group 2).
Nevertheless, while meeting optimal levels of Epstein’s parenting model for
supporting children’s learning was often challenging, the value of ongoing efforts was
expressed well by one teacher, who commented on the ostensibly unending attempts
needed to keep up good communication and the value of frequent endeavours to do so:
Texting, calling, having them come in, keeping available, and working through the
DLSA worker. … Sometimes you have an interpreter that you go to just [to] help
you. And just keep at it because it’s so hard and it’s so easy to just not do it. But it
gets better the more contact that you have. (Teachers’ Focus Group 1)
Some parents attempted to create different strategies in an effort to increase verbal
understanding. For example, they would sometimes request their child audio record a
conversation with a teacher (Fathers’ Focus Group) in an effort to better understand any
ongoing issues with their child. Another strategy described by one father established “an
agreement between me and the teacher” to exchange messages in his child’s agenda that
are translated by “a neighbour who is well-learned and speaks Arabic” (Fathers’ Focus
Group). Asked if they had ongoing communication with the teacher, parents answered
affirmatively and described their presence and readiness to engage: “Yes there is, I reach
out regularly with the teachers. … Whenever they need me to, I’m there” (Fathers’ Focus
Epstein’s model reiterates that communication plays a vital role in ensuring there are
two-way channels of interaction, especially regarding students’ academic progress.
One obstacle to optimizing Epstein’s two-way communication model was the language
barriers cited repeatedly as a key challenge to establishing meaningful contact with the
school. Interpreters are the voice for refugee families, and without them families are unable
to self-advocate. Teachers noted that in some instances when parents rely on translation by
a friend of the family, “that family friend isn’t as good at English as the family thinks they
are, and so the message gets scrambled” (Teachers’ Focus Group 3). A frequent source of
parental concern was the inaccuracies during informal translation and the unintended
privacy breach that can occur. Because of the limited language resources available to them,
the school could only fulfill part of its mandate with respect to communicating to parents..
It was then up to the parents to find ways to comprehend, leaving the school to hope that
they understood the full impact of what was being said.
Given the value that Epstein places on communicating well, the study found that
parents were typically only invited to the school for parent-teacher interviews or when a
conflict occurred. Moreover, the parent teacher interview uncovered the limitations of the
15-minute time limit placed on this process as the teachers acknowledged ELL students are
inevitably given extra time to complete assignments due to language barriers. Therefore,
using the same reasoning when conducting parent-teacher interviews, it would seem
logical to afford the families the same adaptations during interviews. As one teacher
remarked, “[There is] the language barrier, and then it’s just so rigid, and if we were
booking translators, we need more time than what that system allows us” (Teachers’ Focus
Group 2). Another teacher remarked:
Time for parents for whom English is their second language, and the time that we
need to have an interpreter to explain what we are saying. … That’s double the time,
because we’re talking, and the interpreter needs to talk. So minimum, the system
needs to allow parent-teacher interviews for ELL [English language learner] and
LEAD students at least 30 minutes per student. (Teachers’ Focus Group 1)
The researchers perceived this as highly problematic as it further reduced the
amount of anticipated and effective communication with this demographic. To further
complicate the matter, currently, all schools host interviews within roughly the same 2-
week block, and thus compete to schedule interpreters. One parent shared that she had
refused a parent-teacher interview without an interpreter “because I will not understand
what is being said about my children. There needs to be an interpreter present” (Mothers’
Focus Group). Adding to the frustration, an online booking system also proved to be
somewhat ineffective due to issues with technology access and familiarity with the system
for refugee families.
A further source of tension between families and the school was the handling
of cases of inappropriate student behaviour and the ensuing request for communication. In
some instances, when a conflict arose between students, and parents were asked to come in
to discuss issues, they were not provided with an interpreter and, in some instances, were
simply left to review security footage of the incident. Not only was there minimal parent-
teacher contact, but parents were coming into a conversation around a negative school
experience that they did not understand. The researchers identified a lack of accountability
on the part of the school in being able to supply an effective number of translators.
Inevitably, the parents’ increased stress and pressure was perceived by them to inhibit their
ability to address the situation adequately.
Whether informing them about difficulties or seeking to collaborate with them
about possible solutions or consequences, teachers also cited examples where parents
seemed unable to engage effectively in light of broader family dynamics. The sense of
shock and distress seemed to be a prevalent factor in how parents were able to cope with
day-to-day life. One teacher commented:
I’ve noticed some of the parents who are strictly [experiencing] mental illness,
whether it’s related to their trauma or other things going on, that they’re, they’re just
trying to hold it together. … It’s hard for them to make meetings or ensure that their
kids have a lunch or are getting to school on time and things like that because they’re
just trying to survive. (Teachers’ Focus Group 3)
El-Khani and colleagues (2016) established that parents’ own trauma (e.g., trauma
related to anxiety or anger, feelings of guilt (overusing harsh discipline or poor caregiving),
lack of confidence, and past traumatic experiences (e.g., exposure to violence and fear) are
all indicators of difficulties related to establishing good communication with them. In our
study, the data revealed numerous examples of parents who felt overwhelmed by their
situation. One parent, for example, was explaining how they were having anxious
moments because they were not literate: “…Having not had the opportunity to go to
school when I was younger, it was very difficult coming to Canada because everything
requires reading, writing, and learning.”
Another parent commented how a previous serious medical incident in a Turkish
refugee camp convinced the government authorities that he needed to “get out”. There
were several parents who expressed the anxiety they felt around financial pressures and
the fact that they seemed to have no control over their children. With these emotions
dominating so much of their lives, it was a challenge for parents to create a sense of
normalcy, including the amount of communication with the school in which they could
effectively engage.
Nevertheless, in spite of the perceived barriers to good communication, the parents’
focus group participants described home-school interactions in generally positive terms.
Participants expressed appreciation for the teaching, the sense of security given to the
children, the “excellent manners” the teachers displayed, and the rate at which the children
learned the language and excelled. One parent said, “I feel a sense of safety and security.
Those dealing with my kids are giving them their rights and not treating them any
differently than the Canadian kids” (Fathers’ Focus Group). Another parent stated:
I wish for increased collaboration between the school and the parents to support that
beginner learner to go up to intermediate, and the intermediate to become confident.
I just wish for increased collaboration so we can help the students achieve that
progress. Of course, I understand that this is an English school, but learning the
mother tongue and learning Arabic at home will help with their English language
acquisition because that skill transfers. (Fathers’ Focus Group)
Overall, parents found that having the consistency of good communication with the
school was advantageous, whether it involved a Centre of Immigration Services volunteer
or someone from the Syrian community to help with paperwork. Additionally, all teacher
focus groups identified in-school support workers as essential to enabling more effective
communication with refugee parents. One teacher said, “Our parents mostly contact our
bridge settlement worker to talk to us. She is usually the liaison between—the parents
phone her, she emails us, we email her, and then she calls the parents back” (Teachers’
Focus Group 3).
Within this context, teachers noted the level of assistance that in-school support
workers can provide depends on the workers’ caseload which traditionally varies
depending on the school in which they are working. As the case load goes up in any given
school, the amount of time and depth that could be given to individual students decreases.
Hence, some schools are able to offer more support than others.
The study also reiterated the important role these workers play in “repairing” home-
school relationships that can become strained due to communication difficulties:
The school may have tried so many times to connect with the parent and that leaves
their relationship broken sometimes … you come to make sure everyone, the school
and the parent, is aware of each other’s perspective and how relative it is to the
education of the child and wonderful things happen out of that first connection and
first understanding. (DLSA interview)
Teachers also expressed a positive interpretation of the home-school interactions.
As one teacher said, “I was surprised to see my student’s mother and she said, ‘I can speak
English now. I’m confident and I’m here to take control of my children’s education’”
(Teachers’ Focus Group 2). The teacher recognized the value of this statement in that it
emphasized the interest and energy this parent was willing to invest in her children’s
education and the importance she placed on good communication.
Volunteering/Attending Events
Epstein suggests incorporating strategies that can lead to an improvement in
recruitment, training, activities, and schedules to involve families as volunteers and as
audiences at the school or in other locations. The model also advocates for educators to
work with volunteers who support students and the school. With limited prior volunteering
experience, parents in this study did not consistently feel incentivized to participate in
school learning activities. One father’s comment resonated with many others: “We don’t
do that in our country. That’s not something parents ever did” (Fathers’ Focus Group).
Parents also reported that although they were aware of Canadian norms for parent
volunteering and participation, they had not done so “because, to be honest, no one ever
requested it” (Fathers’ Focus Group). Considering this perception that parents are rarely
invited into the schools, the onus is on the schools (and the teachers themselves) to explore
increasing alternative, informal opportunities for engagement. However, teachers shared
mixed feelings regarding how they could accommodate parents in a volunteer role: “I’m
not quite sure what I would get them to do … how I could use their expertise or their
knowledge ” (Teachers’ Focus Group 1). With a nod to Epstein’s model, the researchers
took note of the DLSAs and community liaisons who could be a potential source of help
and guidance for the teachers to develop and improve upon the volunteering role for
refugeee parents.
Several parents had been provided participation forms to sign but the school did not
follow up. One father commented, “We wish they would request something … of us, or for
us to join them” (Fathers’ Focus Group). A teacher’s comment was, “In order to volunteer
they have to be able to complete a police security clearance.” (Teachers’ Focus Group).
Important to note, however, a person new to Canada cannot submit to any police security
clearance unless they have a valid work permit, further barring some of the parents from
volunteering, even if they were willing.
Several fathers also noted language barriers left them feeling uncomfortable
attending field trips and other similar extracurricular activities. As one stated:
I never volunteered in Syria, but I know over here sometimes they like for parents to
participate. Most of the kids all speak English, but I lack the language. So how am I
supposed to interact with them or help when I don’t have the language myself? This
is the biggest challenge for me. (Fathers’ Focus Group)
Additional factors that restricted parental volunteerism were the difficulties
experienced by some in accessing transportation and the realization that parenting
responsibilities for other children also had to be taken into account. Some of the fathers
also expressed their reticence at missing their ELL classes. Restrictions on the number of
absences permitted would further prevent them from being able to volunteer or participate
in their children’s school activities.
In spite of these perceived barriers, overall, the teacher participants viewed the
parental role in volunteering as useful and meaningful: Furthermore, by using the levels of
Epstein’s framework to brainstorm possibilities, teachers could expand on ideas around
how parents could be involved in their children’s schools:
Trying to tap into some of the skills that the moms have and even the dads … would
be awesome. You don’t need to speak English to teach weaving. … It can be a real
sharing. They are coming with skills. I’m looking for knitters and weavers right now.
I’m not having much luck, but I would love anybody to come into my classroom .
(Teachers’ Focus Group 2)
If they’re literate in their first language and I can find a dual-language book, I’ve
asked parents to come and read their language part of the story and I read the English
part. But that’s the challenge with Kurmanji [a Kurdish language; Kurmanji-English
books are not available]. I’ve used it with Arabic parents who are readers in the past.
(Teachers’ Focus Group 3)
Learning at Home
Epstein’s model calls for supporting parents to help learning at home through goal-
setting exercises and she encourages teachers to design homework that involves sharing
and discussion with interesting tasks. However, this study uncovered issues that impacted
this potential level of paerntal engagement. Diversity and Learning Support Advisors
(DLSAs) met regularly with families and noted that, not only did parents not have
sufficient time to work with their children at home, but that they also felt inadequately
prepared. The workers themselves felt they too were not well enough versed in teacher
expectations and lacked a clearly defined role. As noted by one DLSA worker, “I don’t tell
them what you should be doing. … You tell me how you can support within your capacity
and I’ll support you in that” (DLSA interview). Clearly, more work needed to be done
through the LEAD program design in defining roles and expectations for both parents and
DLSAs and how they could support home learning.
Even with sufficient supports and expectations in place, the researchers recognized
limits to how much parents could do to help their children’s learning at home, especially
given the circumstances they faced:
Those families who are under the federal government sponsorship are mandated to
go to their ELL [English Language Learning] classes, and if they miss a certain
number of days, their funding will go down. Then they have medical appointments,
they have surgeries, there are many things happening; they have lots of kids —so it
impacts their attendance. And we ask them to be engaged with their children at
home, for example. Well, how can they be engaged if they go to school ’til 5, 6 p.m.?
… They’re exhausted themselves. (DLSA interview)
A common barrier to parents participating in learning at home activities were the
misconceptions about education stemming from their own educational experiences in their
home countries:
Chances are they don’t because they came from a vastly different education system
where you sit with the parents and say that your child is struggling. The parent looks
at you and says, ‘Oh, you’re the teacher, you are the second parent, so whatever you
decide, you are the captain of the ship.’ Here we try to empower parents to say
there’s nothing a teacher can do for your child without your own consent, without
your own engagement, without your own voice. Your voice is very important. So,
while I’m educating them about the LEAD program, once again, I’m educating them
and informing them about the education system here. I’m also putting them in that
leadership position, meaning that you are always going to be the captain of the ship.
(Teachers’ Focus Group)
The teachers and support workers in this study recognized that a key step in the
successful transitioning of these students and their corresponding family units is
establishing an awareness that the school has a responsibility in helping refugee parents
understand their authority over their children's education in their current environment. By
helping both parents and students understand the value of learning at home and at school,
they work towards optimizing parental engagement. This practice is intended to their
children to gain a stronger foothold as they enter into the Canadian academic sphere.
Epstein’s model advocates for parents as participants in decision making. This
includes being part of school councils, committees, and parent organizations. Some of the
challenges around decision-making to promote parental involvement in such roles were
directly linked to seeking parental consent and understanding. These factors were tied into
parents’ literacy levels, language barriers, limited time resources, and student engagement.
Some participants commented that the forms sent home were hard to understand because “I
do not have anyone to translate them” (Mothers’ Focus Group) and that school newsletters
are not necessarily “ELL [English language learner] family friendly” (Teachers’ Focus
Group 1). Parents also felt there were too many written communiques in light of the effort
needed to understand them. One mother said,
The schools send me four to five forms a day, and sometimes more. It is really
difficult to translate every word. This is a problem for me because I do not have time.
I also work and take care of a household. If the forms could be sent home in Arabic,
that would be really helpful. (Mothers’ Focus Group)
Another parent remarked that the school wants both permission for things like field
trips and vaccinations, as well as understanding from parents: “They ensure that we have
read and understood the details of what is being asked before agreeing to anything”
(Mothers’ Focus Group).Teachers agreed with this opinion, “We don’t even know that
families are able to read in their first language.” Others expressed concern that parents may
be signing forms for activity participation “when they don’t understand the safety
component” (Teachers’ Focus Group 1).
Several parents also explained that their lack of formal schooling made it difficult to
engage with any written form of decision-making. For example, one mother commented:
It was very difficult coming to Canada because everything requires reading, writing,
and learning. I receive a lot of paperwork for my kids and have to pay close attention
and memorize letters and numbers to understand what is being said. (Mothers’ Focus
Teachers remarked that some students were hesitant about parents being involved at
all. These teachers indicated the students also felt that the home experience should be kept
separate from their school and classroom experiences. In turn, some parents were
perceived as feeling uncomfortable with saying something that may contradict a teacher,
tending to defer to teachers in conversations in which parental insight and collaboration
were sought in decision-making or problem-solving: “I find often when I’m working with
parents of kids who were immigrants, they just say, ‘Whatever you say’” (Teachers’ Focus
Group 1). This would occasionally frustrate teachers who wanted to encourage more input
from parents: “This is my opinion, [but] you know your child; you know what’s best for
him and her. Sometimes I don’t always know the best (Teachers’ Focus Group 1). In that
teacher’s opinion, getting to know their students better through parental contact and
decision-making was an important step in optimizing parental engagement.
Epstein’s model supports a growing body of research that confirms the importance
of parents’ role in optimizing a school’s operations (Kelly, 2020). Parents in this study
emphasized how they valued that teachers and the school regularly sought their input in the
decision-making process.
The best thing about these schools is that they inform us before doing anything with
the children. … Nothing is done without parental and student consent, as they don’t
force our child to do something she is not comfortable with. (Mothers’ Focus Group)
Incorporating Epstein’s model as a framework for our study guided the researchers to
findings that acknowledge the value of knowing the parents better through their
involvement in different decision-making initiatives. This gives schools the opportunity to
work more productively with refugee students and break through some of the barriers as
they develop a clearer understanding of individual families’ concerns. A relationship of
mutual trust can begin to develop when barriers are reduced because parents are more
confident in the school system and more willing to participate in the process.
Community Collaboration
The importance of coordinating resources and services for families is also an
integral component of Epstein’s framework. These include businesses, agencies, cultural
and civic organizations and post-secondary institutions. Throughout the study the notion of
disconnect surfaced frequently “among the students, the school community, and then
afterwards with the parents” (DLSA interview). For example, students’ limited linguistic
abilities and a general lack of understanding of how the school’s extracurricular culture
functions limited their participation. The in-school support workers made
recommendations to families about educational and social programs that could benefit the
entire family (DLSA interviews). Some teachers referenced connections with community
organizations, such as Big Brothers and Big Sisters, which provide mentorship
programming in one-to-one and group formats (Teachers’ Focus Group 3). Mental health
practitioners were also cited as important supports and links to the broader community
(DLSA interview; Teachers’ Focus Groups 1, 2, and 3). These resources include the
Alberta Children’s Hospital Family and Community Resource Centre, the Calgary
Counselling Centre, and Family Services.
A critical impediment to family participation in such programs was the fact that
many have “no sense of belonging in the city” and “lack of language, (not being able to
complete an application), accessibility … and financial readiness for those programs in the
city”. Furthermore, the activities families accessed did not necessarily help them build
connections with “other mainstream Canadians” (DLSA interview).
A further challenge to community engagement with the refugee students was the
hesitancy of some families to permit their daughters to participate in community
programming. One in-school support worker explained, “‘No, she’s a girl, she can’t go that
far, she cannot do this, oh I don’t want her to be in this program’ … There are so many …
excuses. … We’re trying so hard to work with the family” (DLSA interview). Coupled
with gender norms, social considerations were also an impediment factor as one father
explained why he does not get involved with other children and families:
When I first came here, people started to get very nosy with their questions: How did
you get here? How old are you? What’s your banking information? How much
money do you have? So, I stayed away. I don’t ask any Syrian or Canadian anything
personal. (Fathers’ Focus Group)
The hesitancy to answer personal questions was perhaps due to a perception of dishonesty
and fraud coupled with a general distrust of the unknown.
Other barriers to community participation and collaboration included the prevalence
of parents’ busy schedules, lack of transportation, and concern about the distance that
children would be from home or how late a program would run in the evening.
Nonetheless, the teachers and school continued to encourage students and their parents to
participate extracurricularly, all with noble objectives. The teachers felt that, once the
families could break down some of the barriers, community collaboration initiatives would
become more commonplace.
Discussion and Implications
Our study revealed that a variety of intertwining factors impede optimal refugee
parental engagement with their children’s school. We were able to categorize these factors
by referencing the levels of parental engagement outlined in Epstein’s model. These factors
are due principally to circumstance and a cultural, linguistic, and faith-based nescience
stemming from both refugeesand Canadian education systems. The ensuing issues from
these societal differnces, resulted from a lack of trauma-informed supports, an insufficient
number of multilingual and multicultural in-school support staff, and a dearth of varied
modes of home-school communication (and in different languages). Additional challenges
included parent-teacher conferences and information nights with a limited time block or
insufficient number of interpreters available. Participants also recognized a rigidity in
curriculum content, and a uni-dimensional approach to accessing community networks,
professionals, and community agencies.
The implications of our discoveries suggest that the resultant chasm between
refugee parents and their children’s school can be greatly narrowed by acknowledging the
needed pertinent resources that would benefit from embracing models of improvement
such as Epstein’s framework. The school’s responsibility encompasses everything from
helping refugee parents be more effective in their new home country, to working towards
engaging in an affirming and productive citizenship.
Epstein’s model helped us realize the necessity of developing trust and good
communication channels as well as acknowledgment of the need for robust relationships. A
positive first step comes with assisting parents with skills in developing strong families and
helping the school understand the cultural, religious, and linguistic needs of its refugee
students. This results in a symbiotic relationship among parents, students, and the school.
In essence, language and culture, as well as religion, become a lens for learning for all
students and, in particular, English language learners. As teachers engage in more
culturally relevant teaching, they can stimulate their students to achieve deeper levels of
thinking and higher levels of personal achievement. The researchers suggest that this
relationship can be enhanced and optimized through public cultural celebrations, evidence
of language samples throughout the school, or demonstrations of cultural significance
when appropriate.
A vital factor in the whole process is the development of effective parent/school
communication and acting liaisons are crucial stakeholders in developing strategies to
accomplish this. These include the Diversity and Learning Support Advisors, In-School
Settlement Practitioners (DLSAs and ISSPs) as well as the teachers and administration, all
of whom play a critical role in maintaining and supporting this relationship. The in-school
support workers also play an important role in developing mutually reinforcing parent-
school trust and communication between parents and school facilitating opportunities for
parents to bring forward questions about curriculum content and children’s learning.
Responding “to their fears” (ISSP interview) with respect and kindness can help dispel any
misunderstandings and lead to a greater awareness of Canadian school culture among
refugee parents.
Parent-teacher interviews provided an example of how policies and procedures can
be unintentionally alienating for families. Improvement strategies such as providing
childcare, coordinating transportation, and arranging for discussion facilitation in the
mother tongue with interpretation for English-speakers, all position LEAD Program
parents to take a more active role in the dialogue. Also worthy of consideration is the
provision of additional time for parent-teacher interviews and more encouragement and
accountability from the school. The researchers suggest a school that encourages home
visits may prove to be beneficial, not only because they can allow parents additional time
to feel more comfortable, but they also afford teachers insight into students’ funds of
knowledge. By implementing even small changes, parental engagement as suggested
through Epstein’s model, could be more adequately optimized.
Epstein suggested that volunteering and participation in school-based activities are
also a vital part of positive parental engagement. However, refugee parents are often
inhibited from participating in and supporting their children’s academic activities because
of their own perceived deficient literacy skills. School-based or school-linked family
literacy programs that involve parents and children working together can provide a bridge
to school culture as well as familiarity with in-school literacy practices. Literacy programs
can increase parents’ sense of belonging, enhance knowledge of the local school system
and curriculum, and improve awareness of opportunities for parent and family involvement
(Bassani, 2008). If designed to be affirming of immigrant and refugee families’ home
language literacy practices, they are theorized as spaces where families draw on the
domains of both home and school and can exert agency (Anderson et al. 2017; Anderson et
al., 2011).
Providing diverse and robust opportunities with proper orientation can increase the
quality and amount of parental engagement. Initiatives could take the form of having
refugee parents and students share their culture, language and religion at various opportune
moments in the classroom. Initially encouraging refugee parents to be part of an audience
either at the school or on field trips can help them gain confidence in their abilities. We
suggest encouraging community engagement by inviting parents to be guest readers in the
classroom (e.g., using dual language books with parents helping to read out loud or
developing community groups through library programs including read aloud sessions,
identity text creation, etc).
The research also illustrated the difficulty many parents experience trying to be
involved in their children’s in-home academic learning. We suggest families can be better
equipped to set goals, ensure homework is getting finished, and accomplish other
curriculum-related activities through better communication between home and school. It is
vital that teachers design homework that enables students to share and discuss various tasks
with parents in ways that will empower them during the little time they do have. This could
include the use of checklists, brief comment boxes, or short, participatory activities where
parent and child can interact within a specified time span. Also helpful is a bilingual
component that enables the parents to respond in their first language.
Epstein’s framework also reiterated the importance of family involvement in
decision-making, governance, and advocacy activities (e.g., school councils, improvement
teams, committees, and parent organizations). Our study helped schools to recognize the
perceived barriers to effective decision-making, thereby giving them the tools to create
more “user friendly” opportunities such as digital surveys, on-line input into decision-
making, or multi/bilingual meetings that can take place virtually, so members do not have
to be physically present in order to contribute and participate.
Establishing an Action Team within the school, via Epstein’s model, may be
effective at generating contextually relevant partnership and involvement strategies. The
Action Team, comprising teachers, administrators, community partners, and parents, can
be tasked with developing annual plans for family and community involvement. This
strategy offers scaffolding for parent involvement in other committees or councils in
subsequent years of their children’s education. This could be linked with the school
council, focusing on providing child care, coordinating transportation, and arranging for
discussion facilitation in the parents’ native language (with interpretation) in order to
position them in a more active role in the dialogue.
The LEAD program, key to many refugee students’ successful transition into
mainstream society, played a fundamental role in our study. It seeks to engender the
development of support networks through which refugees’ knowledge, skills, and cultural
diversity can be recognized and better leveraged for the benefit of the wider community.
The researchers were able to determine that, in spite of the impediments brought out in the
data, a number of parents described the goals and objectives of the LEAD program as
being honourable and enhancing their feelings of safety and security. They appreciated
how it helped ease learners into the school system. The researchers felt this was important
to know and ascertained it could be used as a foundational element in piecing together next
steps in establishing even more positive parental engagement with the school.
Overall, the parents’ support of their children’s learning was largely stymied by
linguistic, cultural, and socio-economic barriers. These barriers often inhibited their ability
to influence or encourage their children’s academic success. The researchers suggest that,
in order to be more engaged with the school, programs (such as the LEAD program) need
to be well organized, with clear objectives and goals, and represented by a highly
sustainable partnership among parents, the school, and the community.
Analysis of the findings indicated that the data seemed to point towards similar
solutions. All stakeholders have a part to play in optimizing refugee parental engagement
with the school. These stakeholders include the refugees themselves, government,
sponsors, agencies, and schools. The findings from this study led the researchers to
underscore how more inclusive education policies, professional development for teachers
involved with refugee families, and school initiatives that encourage parental engagement
with refugee newcomers all need to be part of the solution. Furthermore, any policy or
model should be grounded in rights-based language, with the potential to precipitate the
formation of communities of practice within the education system. These communities of
practice can then be engaged as partners in inclusive design processes and help in forming
relevant community partnerships. A two-way communication model, such as the one
suggested by Epstein, encourages the school to be proactive in communication and
Our own recommendation for such a model includes three areas of focus:
Explicit Programming to Support Refugee and Immigrant Youth
We suggest there be a mandated province-wide standardization of programming
and staffing qualifications. This would need to address linguistic and psycho-social needs
of refugee youth and their families to prepare them for successful entrance into the school
A Local School Board Support System
It is important to establish and expand board and in-school settlement best practices
province wide. This includes interpreting services, in-school settlement programs, diversity
support workers, assessment, and welcoming centres. Proper system-wide coordination of
these elements gives better consistency and provides for more accountability.
Leadership and Teacher Training and Resource Development
By using Epstein’s model in our research, we see helpful ways to apply it to the post-
secondary experience. Our model suggests developing pre-service and in-service
professional development expectations at the post-secondary level. This includes
incorporating empathic and culturally responsive pedagogy, language learning
methodologies and resources, trauma sensitive initiatives and leadership strategies.
This study helped uncover some of the gaps in refugee parental engagement with
their children’s school and the importance of working to strengthen and maintain
communication among all stakeholders, including family, school, and community. More
work clearly needs to be accomplished to narrow the gap between the issues faced by
refugee families and the vital role the education system plays in helping to resolve them.
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The field of health and wellbeing scholarship has a strong tradition of qualitative research—and rightly so. Qualitative research offers rich and compelling insights into the real worlds, experiences, and perspectives of patients and health care professionals in ways that are completely different to, but also sometimes complimentary to, the knowledge we can obtain through quantitative methods. There is a strong tradition of the use of grounded theory within the field—right from its very origins studying dying in hospital (Glaser & Strauss, 1965)—and this covers the epistemological spectrum from more positivist forms (Glaser, 1992, 1978) through to the constructivist approaches developed by Charmaz (2006) in, for instance, her compelling study of the loss of self in chronic illness (Charmaz, 1983). Similarly, narrative approaches (Riessman, 2007) have been used to provide rich and detailed accounts of the social formations shaping subjective experiences of health and well-being (e.g., Riessman, 2000). Phenomenological and hermeneutic approaches, including the more recently developed interpretative phenomenological analysis (Smith, Flowers, & Larkin, 2009), are similarly regularly used in health and wellbeing research, and they suit it well, oriented as they are to the experiential and interpretative realities of the participants themselves (e.g., Smith & Osborn, 2007).
Abstract This article theorizes on the role of school subjects, especially history, in multicultural and intercultural education, arguing that to ensure intercultural learning there is a need to integrate these curricular intentions in subject teaching. However, the epistemological reorganization that such integration involves will challenge both a traditional structured content knowledge, and the multicultural research focused on deconstructing these traditions. This article investigates Michael Young’s concept of ‘powerful knowledge’ as a way to incorporate knowledge in the discourses of intercultural education. While proponents of the intercultural perspective emphasise educational policies and socialisation, advocates of powerful knowledge tend to dismiss such political interference. In order to use powerful knowledge in this context the concept is reconceptualised by relating it to curriculum theory and Gert Biesta’s conceptual distinction between educational purposes. Finally, this intersection is pursued through the example of history education. When acknowledging that societal needs, policy and disciplinary boundaries are interrelated, the perspective of ‘powerful knowledge’ can bring the potential of subject knowledge to intercultural research, and thus prove useful in identifying the guidelines necessary to develop History as a contemporary relevant subject.
In this chapter, we report on a bilingual family literacy program with 500 immigrant and refugee families of 3 to 5-year old preschool children from four different linguistic groups in the Greater Vancouver Area of British Columbia, Canada. We situate the work in socio-historical theory and draw on notions of intersubjectivity or shared understanding and additive bilingualism - the concept that there are benefits in maintaining one’s first or home language while acquiring a second or additional languages. Drawing on an analysis of focus group sessions, the Parents’ Perceptions of Literacy Learning Interview Schedule (Anderson, 1995), and field notes, we report on families’ perceptions of the benefits of the program, concerns and issues they raised, and changes in their perspectives of literacy learning over the course of the project.
Educational policies have increasingly promoted parental involvement as a mechanism for improving student outcomes. Few jurisdictions have provided funding for this priority. In Ontario, Canada, the province’s Parents Reaching Out Grants program allows parents to apply for funding for a parental involvement initiative that addresses a local barrier to parent participation. This study categorizes initiatives (N = 11,171) amounting to approximately 10 million dollars (Can$) in funding from 2009 to 2014 and compares them across school settings. Although results show several key contextual differences, parents across settings identify relatively similar needs for enabling parental involvement, emphasizing parenting approaches for supporting well-being (e.g., nutrition, mental health, and technology use) and skills for home-based learning. However, Epstein’s widely used parental involvement typology conceals these prominent aspects of parental involvement. A modified model of parental involvement is presented that may serve as a guide for enhancing parent participation.