More multilingual and mental health staff needed to offset trauma experienced by refugees, displaced students and their teachers

A school psychologist conducts a consultation with a teenage girl.

Researchers suggest portfolio assessments as alternative to standardized tests for resettled students to graduate

Release Date: June 2, 2021

Portrait of Melinda Lemke.
“Though type, exposure, intensity and duration vary, trauma interrupts a range of basic human needs. ”
Melinda Lemke, assistant professor of educational leadership and policy in the UB Graduate School of Education

BUFFALO, N.Y. – The trauma of displacement may negatively affect the physical, mental and emotional health of both students and educators, University at Buffalo research has found.

The study, published in the International Journal of Leadership in Education, examined whether United States educational policies and practices helped or hindered school staff in supporting the needs of students who are refugees or displaced for reasons such as natural disasters.

The researchers recommend that schools implement alternatives to standardized tests for resettled students to graduate, develop new policies to confront gender-based violence and sexual trauma, provide support to school staff to prevent educator burnout, and increase multilingual and mental health support staff.

“Though many staff had deep knowledge about the student populations they worked with and respective academic and health needs, staff also were stymied by hindrances occurring at multiple policy and programmatic levels – which ultimately could contribute to educational inequity and ineffective integration of students beyond first points of contact,” says Melinda Lemke, PhD, lead investigator and assistant professor of educational leadership and policy in the UB Graduate School of Education.

“This educational reality also can be complicated by those educators who fail to understand refugee experiences as more than encompassing histories of violence and trauma,” she says. “Our findings offer a framework for anti-deficit, cultural and linguistically responsive, and trauma-informed practices to help students who, in rebuilding a new home in the U.S., can face new and continued forms of marginalization.”

Additional investigators in the UB Graduate School of Education include Amanda Nickerson, PhD, professor of counseling, school and educational psychology and director of the UB Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention; and Jennifer Saboda, doctoral candidate and director of alternative and special education at Erie 2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES.

Removing hindrances to mental health support

The study examined a high school in New York – a top-five state for refugee resettlement – that served hundreds of students from 18 nations, including refugee and hurricane-displaced youth. The researchers interviewed school staff, conducted focus groups and site visits, and observed student daily routines and classroom learning.

Traumas experienced by students ranged from sexual violence, child soldiering and the death of loved ones to the stress of learning a new language, culture and educational system. Exams, courses and counseling services were mostly offered in English and Spanish, despite 80% of the students being in the early stages of learning English.

Although school staff were attentive to addressing student well-being – through actions such as critically framed lessons, restorative discipline practices and a range of school-community programming – hindrances existed. Educators reported that the school needed more multilingual and mental health support staff, and additional training on how to assist students who experienced sexual trauma. Staff also experienced vicarious trauma, which over time may lead to burnout, a lack of empathy and negative attitudes toward their profession.

“Though type, exposure, intensity and duration vary, trauma interrupts a range of basic human needs,” says Lemke. “A school mission and culture predicated on cultural and linguistic responsiveness, trauma-informed approaches and authentic self-care activities can benefit the overall educational ecosystem.”

The researchers recommend that schools increase school-based social workers to provide mental health support and language experts to bridge communication divides; work with community organizations whenever possible to access additional support services; offer more intensive professional development on addressing gender-based violence; and provide support for self-care and mindfulness practice among staff to help educators balance the needs of their students with their own well-being.

“Portfolio assessments – a compilation of student work that shows academic growth over the course of a class or grade level – should be considered as an alternative to standardized tests for resettled students to graduate,” says Lemke. “Portfolios not only provide a mechanism to replace accountability measures found to be problematic, but they also offer an evidenced-based and human rights-informed way to assist youth resettlement.”

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Marcene Robinson is a former staff writer in University Communications. To contact UB's media relations staff, email or visit our list of current university media contacts.