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Grassroots Effort to Train Burmese Refugee Teachers

January 22, 2014

Halima Cherif 301-405-0476

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – More than 5,000 Burmese refugee children living in Malaysia—who are prohibited from attending public schools—now have the opportunity to receive a better education, due to the work of Colleen O'Neal, an assistant professor in the University of Maryland's school psychology program in the College of Education.

There are currently approximately 40,000 school-age refugee children in Malaysia. Refugee communities are forced to teach their own children, setting up hidden schools in kitchens and apartments. O'Neal is co-leading a grassroots effort to train these community members to become effective and confident teachers, as well as helping them train their colleagues.

"Refugee children are typically hidden in urban areas, not in tent cities, and are either uneducated or undereducated," says O'Neal. "I had not planned to do refugee education research when I arrived as a Fulbright Scholar to Malaysia in 2010. However, the tens of thousands of hidden refugee children eventually became visible to me, and I saw a clear, powerful need to make an impact on their education and lives."

Funded by the U.S. State Department Fulbright program and partnering with the U.N. High Commission for Refugees in Malaysia as well as local universities, NGOs, and refugee schools, O'Neal's team of Fulbright alumni, students, and interventionists work to empower refugee teachers to improve their students' socio-emotional and academic functioning. 

Using a training manual as a guide, O'Neal and her colleagues teach behavioral and emotion-focused approaches to managing students' emotions, attention, and behavior challenges. They help them build more positive relationships with their students, employ positive management techniques, and use less physical punishment. The trainers focus on helping the new teachers identify and manage their own emotions and stress as well.

"We use as much hands-on, nonverbal training tactics possible. These teachers are refugees themselves, and although they often teach in English, their English is sometimes rudimentary," says O'Neal. "For example, we do activities like teachers pretending to be students tossing a ball from one teacher to the next, with the goal of helping them cultivate a tool box of safe, quiet physical activities they can do with their students—without their neighbors calling the police."

A total of 160 teachers have been trained to-date through refugee teacher training intervention.

The refugee project research study has shown preliminary, significant results in improving refugee teacher knowledge and confidence in managing students' emotions, behavior, and attention, in addition to the teachers improving their own stress management and self-care.

O'Neal adds, "The importance of refugee education research lies in the fact that global political change has an impact on millions of refugee children worldwide, numbers that are increasing at alarming rates."

For more information on the project, visit http://resilientrefugeesmalaysia.blogspot.com.


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