UN children’s rights and refugees: Fostering equality in the classroom

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UN children’s rights and refugees: Fostering equality in the classroom

Author: Miranda Howell, EAL Specialist


The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is a human rights treaty that encompasses specific children’s rights bound by international law. It was put in place by the United Nations (UN) in 1989 and “defines universal principles and standards for the status and treatment of children worldwide.” It is important because it states children’s basic, fundamental civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights to promote a safe and fulfilled childhood.

The UN High Commissioner for refugees claims that education has the rehabilitative and restorative properties to lead to positive outcomes for children, their families and communities, by providing access to an inclusive learning environment.


What are the UN children’s rights?


The UN children’s rights can be summarised into these categories: health, education, family life, play/recreation, adequate standard of living, and protection from abuse and harm. In 2015, the United Nations adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDG, 2015–2030), which requires governments and civil societies to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and to promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” (United Nations Development Program, SDG # 4). It advocates the rights of all children to receive “free, fair, and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes.” This entitlement is irrespective of gender, religion, social origin or place of birth. It is estimated that 91% of children around the world attend primary school but only 50% of refugee children attend primary school, severely disadvantaging their chances of equality to future job opportunities and positive lifestyles.


The place of education in promoting children’s rights for refugees


Children represent over half the refugee population and present complex needs, which often cause them to lag behind their peers in most countries. Education has the potential to transform their lives leading to a better future, where they can learn the skills required to offer a valuable contribution to their communities. 

Education and schools are in a position to address this through their programmes of study and approach to pastoral wellbeing. School should be a safe haven where quality, holistic, inclusive education can serve to protect children. To achieve this, schools not only require effective policies and motivated, well-trained teachers versed in the common issues faced by refugees, but also a commitment from all stakeholders to work together to promote refugee students’ best interests. This involves clear communication and understanding, together with the knowledge required to meet the needs of the individuals. Schools will then have the ability to identify refugee children facing significant barriers, and connect them with appropriate services.


Issues disadvantaging refugees in the classroom


UNESCO research found that there is a heightened risk of violence and conflict when there is poor access to education. This can be evident in a school classroom where little attention is given to inclusion and differentiation which ensure children are fully engaged in learning. It is important to note that equality does not mean all children are treated in the same manner. Consideration of their prior content and cultural knowledge will inevitably affect their confidence and achievement. 

Teachers need to be aware that EAL learners carry an extra load. Barnes states that particularly in secondary schooling, EAL learners are stretched for time as they have to develop both language and content skills. It helps if systems are in place to support their linguistic and cultural needs, alongside their content development, through access to teachers with specific knowledge, skills and experience. 


Considerations for teachers with refugee learners


a) Teacher attitude


There are a number of key considerations for those teaching refugee learners. Firstly, teachers need to address any misconceptions regarding language acquisition. For example, a study in the USA (Reeves 2006 and Walker, et al. 2004) “found that mainstream teachers believed that EAL learners should be fluent in English within 1-2 years of studying in the mainstream classroom,” whereas realistic figures suggest between 4 and 7 years to reach proficiency. Such unrealistic expectations of progress can lead to frustration, resulting in negative views on EAL learner ability and engagement with content.

Furthermore, teachers sometimes lack the background knowledge required to understand why some refugee learners may respond in ways that can seem inappropriate. Discipline issues often arise because the student’s sense of identity and value is threatened. Encouraging teachers to develop critical thinking in order to address their own subconscious prejudice and stereotyping will enable them to recognise potential problems arising from their choice of words, materials and body language.


b) Inclusivity


Two considerations when planning for an inclusive classroom are differentiation and adaptation. Differentiation refers to changes in the content and the expected responses to it which are required to set each learner up for success. Adaptation involves the ‘how’ by considering the school environment, teaching strategies and materials. If we focus on understanding the learners’ strengths and aspirations, what they ‘can’, rather than what they ‘can’t’ do, teachers will avoid underestimating their potential, and promote motivation and engagement. Starting with appropriate assessment allows children to be placed with a programme on which they can achieve.


c) Promoting assimilation 


Refugees have usually experienced unpredictable lifestyles where there are few routines and lots of unknowns. Once in a more regulated school environment, however, many respond to daily structure and gain a sense of normality. 

The first focus should be developing language skills and cultural knowledge. This includes creating a sense of belonging for all learners in a class, which is important as it helps create unity and a positive classroom culture. At the same time, fostering identity and language enables all learners to see that there are a lot of commonalities alongside some clear differences, all of which are to be celebrated. 

The outcome of hosting refugees in classrooms with teachers and children with background information about refugees, according to the UNHCR is, “a far more constructive and knowledgeable learning environment.” UNHCR, 2021

Peer mentoring is highly recommended for promoting inclusion. It encourages collaboration, communication and a deeper understanding of diversity. Peer mentors can assist in enhancing the EAL learner’s English and improving socialization. The simple act of eating lunch together or introducing participation in extracurricular activities builds relationships. Peer mentors can also be instrumental in protecting refugees from any bullying.


The importance of teaching children about their rights


Children who understand their rights are more likely to speak out when they aren’t being met. Learning about their own rights also helps them promote the rights of others, and encourages them to respect and speak out against injustices or to offer support. Shelley Duncan in the Education Gazette, NZ, recommends looking at our rights alongside real-world problems, such as sustainability. Children learn to grow up as informed citizens, and are therefore better prepared to contribute a positive role in society. If we look after the environment and our resources, then we should look after each other. A practical resource is available for you to download with some suggested strategies.


The practical role of the teacher


A teacher can be very instrumental in welcoming refugees into the class and setting up the environment for maximum learning. Initially, the focus is on a warm welcome to the learners and their families. Checking on cultural practices and providing a welcome pack where possible in their language is a good starting point. Prepare existing learners by sharing key information to promote positive relationships. Provide a buddy and allow time to settle. Once assessment has been completed consider what differentiation and adaptations are required. These are some of the key considerations to ensure equality for refugees in the classroom. A practical resource is available for you to download with some suggested strategies.




Schools provide structure and the opportunity for children to socialise and interact with others, whilst increasing their knowledge and skills leading to productive lives. Teachers have a key role in providing the safe environment which ensures a child’s right to effective education.




Barnes, M. (2020). Creating ‘advantageous’ spaces for migrant and refugee youth in regional areas: a local approach. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education. retrieved from  //doi.org/10.1080/01596306.2019.1709415   


Education Gazette Learning about their rights empowers akonga (students) Issue Volume 101, Number 2, 23 February 2022

European Centre of Studies and Initiatives (Cesie) Equal educational opportunities for migrant and refugee children retrieved September 2023  from //cesie.org/en/studies/equal-educational-opportunities-for-migrant-and-refugee-children/ 

Human Rights Watch (2015). Turkey: 400,000 Syrian children not in school. retrieved from www.hrw.org/news/2015/11/08/turkey-400000-syrian-children-not-school. 

Ministry of Education NZ: Supporting teachers to include all learners in the school curriculum from the online resource inclusive practice and the school curriculum retrieved from 


Thomas, R.L. The Right to Quality Education for Refugee Children Through Social Inclusion published 7 December 2016 retrieved from //link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s41134-016-0022-z

United Nations Development Program (2015). Sustainable development goals. Retrieved from //www.undp.org/?search=education 

UNESCO The right to education: what you need to know about the right to education updates: 27 April 2023 retrieved from //www.unesco.org/en/right-education 

UNHCR/Sebastian Rich Starting Out – why education for refugees matters Date unknown //www.unhcr.org/starting-out-why-education-refugees-matters 

UNHCR Teaching About Refugees 2021 – Guide for Teachers posted 26 October 2021

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