Scholastic Achievement of Adolescent Refugees from Cambodia and Central America

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ABSTRACT

This study investigated the relationship of emotional disturbance and pre- and postmigration environment to the scholastic achievement of adolescent refugees of very different cultural backgrounds. One hundred fifty-two Central American and Cambodian students in six Canadian high schools, as well as their parents, were interviewed to assess the students' emotional problems (using the Youth Self-Report and Child Behavior Checklist) and to determine the pre- and postmigration family environment. The findings indicated that the relationship between the emotional problems and scholastic achievement of teenaged refugees was tenuous. It was concluded that a connection between young refugees' symptomatology and their functional capacity should not be assumed. Nonetheless, certain pre- and postmigration variables, particularly trauma experienced in the homeland, seem to be associated with the academic achievement of some refugees.

The lives of most adolescent refugees have been seriously disrupted by the trauma of war and cultural uprooting. As a result, refugee children may exhibit signs of major psychological distress (Kinzie et al., 1986, 1989). Since research on North American children and adolescents has found a relationship between emotional problems and trouble at school, as well as between the social and family environment and scholastic achievement (Salyer et al., 1991; Weinberg et al., 1989), young refugees, who run a high risk of experiencing mental health problems, might also be expected to have serious academic problems.

Initial investigations of clinical samples of young refugees supported this hypothesis: problems at school were among the main reasons for psychiatric consultation and constituted potential signs of major emotional disturbance (Williams & Westermeyer, 1983; Irwin & Madden, 1985). However, the results of later studies on the scholastic achievement of refugee children and adolescents were more ambiguous. Sack et al. (1995), for instance, found no differences in overall scholastic achievement between teenaged Khmer refugees with and without posttraumatic stress syndrome (PTSS) or, indeed, any psychiatric diagnosis (however, school records could be obtained for only a small fraction of their total sample). The same research team also reported that there was no consistent relationship between English proficiency and a diagnosis of PTSS among Khmer adolescents (Clarke et al., 1993).

Sack et al. (1986) hypothesized that the lack of relationship between emotional problems and scholastic achievement for Southeast Asian refugee children and teenagers can be explained, in part, by the specific form taken by disturbances observed in this population, especially the predominance of internalized symptoms. However, this hypothesis has not been systematically tested, with regard to adolescents, using a transcultural research protocol. Research with younger children indicates that the influence of culture on the relationship between emotional disturbances and scholastic achievement in teenaged refugees may be more complex than it first appears. A study of refugee children from Central America and Southeast Asia found that the relationship between their emotional problems and scholastic achievement was weak in both groups, despite their very different cultural origins (Rousseau et al., 1996). Furthermore, remedial measures implemented by the schools were more strongly associated with externalized sy mptoms than with scholastic achievement per se. Since such symptoms were more prevalent in Central American students, they were the ones more often identified by the school as having learning disabilities, despite the fact that their scholastic achievement was comparable to that of their Asian peers.

Another line of investigation suggests that the scholastic achievement of adolescent refugees is directly influenced by factors specific to their pre- and postmigration environments, such as degree of acculturation, without being mediated by psychopathological symptoms (Rumbaut, 1991; Jupp & Luckey, 1990). …