Why the oldest child in Syrian refugee families needs the most urgent support and what schools can do


This article focuses on the case study of Mariam, a fictional eldest child based on children we met in our research. Mariam, 14, fled Syria with both parents and her two younger siblings (6 and 10 years old). Mariam has the greatest responsibility in her family and often accompanies her parents to appointments to help with the translation.

Our sketch by Mariam is based on a longitudinal study that examined the reading skills and well-being of 122 Syrian refugee children from 73 families in our multilingual and literacy laboratory at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Forty-two children were six to eight years old; 50 children were nine to eleven years old; 30 children were 12 to 14 years old.

We learned that the oldest students lagged the most in reading skills compared to their English-speaking classmates, even more so than their younger siblings. The oldest students had the lowest scores and the slowest growth in English vocabulary and reading comprehension compared to younger refugee children.

Unique loads

As the oldest child of a Syrian refugee family, Mariam faces many unique pressures:

  1. Complex trauma;
  2. Lowest level of English skills compared to their colleagues;
  3. Highest interrupted education from her siblings;
  4. At least time to meet with their peers before graduation;
  5. Greatest burden to support her family socially and financially;
  6. Least resources to support their academic success.

While older children in Syrian refugee families are confronted with different family expectations depending on their gender, the primary goal is always to support the family. For example, if Mariam were a man, she would likely be looking for a job to support her family instead of helping with childcare. Despite these differences, the language development and well-being of the oldest male and female children are equally affected.

We propose targeted solutions that teachers, principals and other educators can rely on to help children like Mariam be more successful.


Children in refugee families, like Mariam, are very likely to be affected by trauma and mental illness.

The term “triple trauma” explains the unique trauma that Syrian refugee children experience when they flee Syria, seek refuge in temporary settlements, and then adapt to an unfamiliar environment in Canada. Once settled, the trauma of forced migration continues to affect their social integration and academic performance. Experiencing trauma, especially at a young age, affects the development of the brain. Repeated exposure to memories of traumatic experiences (triggers) causes the brain to react differently to situations.

A list of triggers and common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Language development

Children learning a new language take one to three years to learn a conversational language and between five and seven years to learn an academic language. Science language is topic-specific vocabulary of scientific subjects such as math or science that children learn in a typical school context.

Mariam, who is 14 years old and in 9th grade, does not have enough time to develop the academic language before graduation. She will have acquired the conversational language, but the lack of English academic language will limit her employment opportunities after graduation. It is therefore crucial that students like Mariam receive immediate and intensive language training. We often recommend a systematic and explicit approach.

It may seem absurd that Mariam, the oldest child, learns the least English. The main reason for this is the high number of interrupted trainings that Mariam experienced both in Syria and during her emigration to Canada. On average, children lost three to four years of schooling when they arrived in Canada. In addition, their younger siblings are closer to the optimal age for language learning (10 and younger). The younger children are, the easier it is for their brain to pick up new languages.

Graph showing comparisons of how different age groups perform in reading comprehension and performance over time.
Age group comparisons of English vocabulary and reading comprehension (standard values), averaged over time.

Promote early reading skills

As researchers, we are often asked about the most efficient solution to help refugee students. In other words, which strategy will have the maximum impact? We offer several key research results.

We know that the greatest predictor of academic success is development of early reading skills. That is why the Child and Youth Refugee Research Coalition, a nationwide alliance of municipal partners, scientists and authorities for the successful integration of refugee children, adolescents and their families, focuses on the development of reading. Recent studies from this group have shown that one of the strongest predictors of reading success is exposure to the English language both in and out of school.

We therefore propose a variety of flexible activities aimed at improving language contact with English, such as:

  1. “Book Buddy” programs, where English speakers team up with students learning the language;
  2. Access to English media (films, music, books);
  3. Lunchtime or afternoon activities in English (chess clubs, science programs, yearbook club, etc.), taking into account that family responsibilities could affect the availability of students;
  4. Family resources at home (books siblings can read together).

It can be overwhelming for teachers to help displaced students in any area they need support. A study conducted with teachers found that the best suggestion was to build collaborative learning. This means that instead of relying on additional support from families, teachers have worked with colleagues and their other students to develop a support system for the children who need them most.

Young refugees participate in programs run by Human Endeavor, a nonprofit dedicated to the inclusion of marginalized communities in Vaughan, Greater Toronto Area. Left: Rina Singh conducts a self-portrait workshop through art and poetry. Right: Maulik Chaudhari leads Muai Thai / kickboxing sessions.

Addressing wellbeing, racism in the curriculum

An aggravating factor for these students is the complex trauma they face. While one-on-one counseling during school hours can be difficult to implement, there is new evidence that teacher-led, classroom-wide interventions are effective. This innovative study shows that integrating wellbeing into the curriculum is effective in helping students cope with their trauma.

Refugee children also experience racism. Some research has found that this can be mitigated by providing positive examples of cross-cultural friendships in the form of stories.

Read more: Celebrating diversity is not enough: schools need an anti-racist curriculum

Our study finds that Mariam, the oldest child in her family, is in need of the most urgent support regarding language development, social inclusion and mental health. We urge all educators to think about how they can better support students like Mariam in their schools.

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