Unprecedented levels of forced displacement have caused a global migration and refugee crisis, but societies worldwide struggle to provide long-term solutions to the issue. Most migrants flee to nearby countries with urban centers, as has occurred with Burmese refugees who have settled in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which hosts nearly 200,000 refugees, including at least 50,000 children.
Refugees need practical and fast paths to integrate into new societies, which begins with access to quality education, says UMD College of Education Associate Professor Colleen O’Neal. Yet, it is illegal to be a refugee in Malaysia and attending public school is forbidden. Many refugees in Malaysia attend informal refugee schools, taught by refugees themselves, who may not have a strong background —or any background—in teaching. There are more than 100 informal refugee schools in Kuala Lumpur, and teachers of refugees often face significant challenges due to lack of resources and complexity of student needs.
“Refugee education research can promote access to and quality of refugee education, and bring marginalized refugees’ stories to light,” said Dr. O’Neal.
Due to the lack of solutions for those affected by this crisis, particularly in developing countries which have chosen not to be signatories to the 1951 UN convention protecting refugees, Dr. O’Neal led the first study on promoting classroom management and teacher self-care in this setting. In 2010, Dr. O’Neal partnered with Malaysian universities, such as HELP University, a private university in Kuala Lumpur (KL), and non-governmental organizations working with refugees, to provide a program called Resilient Refugee Intervention (RRI) to teachers. The RRI program provided training in classroom and emotion management, and resulted in significant effects on teaching outcomes.
“Our partnership with entities like HELP University’s psychology department has been essential in building community relationships, and training HELP graduate and undergraduate students,” said Dr. O’Neal.
During the initial pilot, 12 Burmese refugee teachers were interviewed. The pilot revealed that ethnic and religious oppression by the Burmese government created a crisis situation for Burmese minority groups, forcing ethnic minorities to flee and, unfortunately, the route from
Myanmar to Malaysia involved significant stressors, including safety hazards and fear of discovery. They also found life in Malaysia difficult because of the additional challenges of living in a country openly hostile to refugees.
As part of the 2019 RRI research program, UMD doctoral students in Dr. O’Neal’s Emotions, Equity, and Education lab will conduct refugee teacher and consultation research. Additionally, the clinical team includes psychology graduate students from two universities in KL who have volunteered as ‘RRI consultation interns’ to be trained and provide consultation to the refugee teachers at refugee school locations all over KL; the research team is from the same universities. Local entities have also shown a great deal of interest and participation; the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has helped recruit refugee schools, and local refugee schools have assisted with RRI project recruitment efforts.
In preparation for the current third RRI iteration, a May 2018 pilot was conducted in Malaysia. This pilot research was funded by Mark Sohn (Ph.D. ’75), an alumnus of the UMD College of Education invested in access to education for refugees. In response to the outcomes of the first phases of this research, Dr. O’Neal received a prestigious 2013 Fulbright Alumni Engagement and Innovation Fund Award and a 2019 US State Department Fulbright Scholar Award to carry out the third, consultation research phase of this intervention.
To date, 249 volunteer teachers from 46 refugee schools in Malaysia have undergone the Refugee Teacher Training Program. The 2010 and 2013 iterations of the training program have shown statistically significant results for refugee teacher classroom management and self-care. After the initial 2019 consultation training, both the refugee teacher consultants and the interns had significant improvement in their self-reported
consultation skills and ability to promote students’ emotion, engagement and behavioral skills.
During the third phase of this project this spring, individual consultations are being conducted with 103 refugee teachers to help promote change in their teaching techniques and to support individual student progress. Trained consultants meet with refugee teachers to help teachers promote refugee students’ emotion regulation, emotion engagement and behavior skills. Dr. O’Neal and team will focus on achieving four main objectives. The first objective is to promote refugee students’ emotional regulation and behavior skills, as well as teachers’ own emotion and stress management. The other goals of this intervention are to train refugee teachers to be consultants of their peer refugee teachers, to understand the RRI implementation process, and to evaluate whether RRI is effective in promoting refugee teacher consultation skills, self-care, and ability to promote refugee students’ emotion, engagement and behavioral skills.
The ultimate purpose of RRI is to empower refugee teachers to build emotion, engagement and behavioral skills in their refugee students, and to empower the refugee teachers via consultation that may be sustainable in their refugee schools over time. In the near future, Dr. O’Neal plans to disseminate RRI to other refugee-in-crisis teachers across various countries.
Dr. O’Neal is a faculty member in the Department of Counseling, Higher Education, and Special Education who specializes in research on emotions and stress among underserved, ethnic minority immigrant and refugee children, as well as teacher consultation research promoting immigrant and refugee student emotions and mental health.
Originally published in the College’s alumni magazine, Endeavors Summer 2019 issue.