Integrating refugee children through teacher training image

Integrating refugee children through teacher training


Published 16.10.23

Special training for teachers in Turkey aided refugee children’s integration into the education system and improved key educational outcomes

Millions of children are displaced due to conflict and wars. In addition to overcoming displacement trauma, refugee children are expected to integrate in the host country and in a new and foreign educational system. Hence, many refugee children face an uphill battle in adapting to host-country education systems due to language barriers, cultural differences, inevitable breaks in school education during the process of seeking refuge, displacement-related trauma, mental distress, vulnerability as well as adjustment to a new country. Refugee families also face financial pressures, which may push their children (especially boys) into local labour markets, causing them to miss classes or drop out of school. In addition, teenage marriages may prevent young refugee girls from attending school. Consequently, refugee children have a rather tenuous attachment to education, with lower school engagement and higher drop-out rates than native children, particularly in secondary education—see, for example, Dryden-Peterson (2015) and Krafft et al. (2022). This creates gaps in the skills and knowledge of refugee children and has lifelong implications for their labour market prospects.

The complex nature of these issues suggests that any policy aiming to increase school attachment of refugee children requires acute awareness of those underlying problems. In particular, teachers can play a key role in facilitating the integration of refugee children into the education systems of host countries. However, they might not always be adequately prepared for instructing/managing diverse classrooms and be fully aware of the unique circumstances faced by refugee children, hindering their ability to cater to their needs. 

Context and intervention

The Syrian conflict has led around 6.6 million Syrians to flee their homes—5.5 million of whom are hosted by neighbouring countries. As of January 2023, Türkiye was hosting around 3.5 million Syrian refugees, the vast majority of whom resided within local communities rather than camps. In 2019, the number of school-age refugee children (5-17) was around 1.1 million and their enrolment rate was roughly 64% (Tumen 2018). The integration of these refugee children in the educational system posed a challenge for the Turkish Government, prompting the launch of several programmes to aid this integration process.

In our recent study (Tumen, Vlassopoulos, and Wahba 2023), we analyse a teacher training programme that was implemented during the semester break of the school year 2017-18 by the Ministry of National Education of the Republic of Türkiye (MoNE) and was funded by the EU. The main goals of the training programme were to increase teachers’ awareness regarding the immediate needs of refugee students and to encourage/equip them to actively engage in educational integration policies. The focus of the training programme was on three main areas: (i) language and communication, (ii) social integration, counseling, and guidance, and (iii) legislation and context.  It aimed at increasing teachers’ awareness of the circumstances and experiences of refugee students and their families; better knowledge about refugees’ rights, obligations, and legal status; better communication skills that enable them to more effectively interact with refugee students and parents; awareness that Turkish is a foreign language for refugee students and enough knowledge about the context, best practices, and long-term strategy of MoNE with regards to the educational integration of refugees. We evaluate whether the training led to an improvement in refugee children’s school attendance and learning outcomes. We use a large administrative micro-level data set encompassing the universe of primary and secondary schools in two Turkish provinces (Gaziantep and Sanliurfa). These provinces, being the largest border provinces with Syria, host a total of 872,000 Syrian refugees—corresponding to, on average, a 21% refugee to population ratio.

The teacher training programme was designed to provide training to teachers in schools with at least 15 refugee students. We draw on administrative data from all public schools (primary and secondary, grades 1-12) in these two provinces. That is, a total of 2,081 schools hosting 64,582 refugee and 743,301 Turkish students in the 2017-18 academic year. The analysis focuses on three semesters: the semester preceding the training program (Fall 2017) and the two subsequent semesters following its implementation (Spring 2018 and Fall 2018). This approach allows us to examine both the short-term and longer-term impacts of the programme.


Figure 1 summarises the impact of the teacher training programme on absenteeism, Turkish language scores, and Math scores of Syrian refugee students, both in the short term and longer term. When comparing refugee children in schools where teachers were trained to those where they were not, we find that the training programme led to a significant reduction in school absenteeism by approximately 2.7 days per semester. This reduction represents a 32.5% decrease compared to the previous semester, during which refugee children averaged 8.9 days of absence, accounting for approximately 10% of the school days. This reduction in school absenteeism is important as it can mitigate the significant learning losses associated with missing school. It is also worth noting that the school absenteeism of Turkish children was not affected by this intervention.

Figure 1: Impact of the teacher training programme on Syrian kids' outcomes

We also find that the impact of the training programme on students’ absenteeism persisted into the first semester of the following academic year, though the effect was less pronounced—around 1.5 days, as seen in Figure 1. Moreover, the training programme reduced chronic absenteeism—defined as being absent from school for at least 10% of school days in an academic year—and school drop-out rates (Tumen, Vlassopoulos, and Wahba 2023).

We also investigate whether the training programme had an impact on the academic performance of refugee students, who, on average, tend to perform worse than their Turkish peers. We relied on the end-of-semester scores/grades that students received in the semester following the program in two core subjects: Turkish language and Math. Performance in these two subjects is particularly important as proficiency in Turkish language measures the social and educational integration of refugee students, while Math proficiency proxies their cognitive/analytical capacity. Moreover, having adequate Turkish language skills is a pre-requisite to understand the material in other subjects. In addition to measuring academic performance, school grades have also been shown to be good predictors of a variety of life outcomes (Borghans et al. 2016). We find that refugee students improved their performance in Turkish language and Maths after the teacher training programme. Also, we find a strong positive correlation between increased school presence and gains in grades, suggesting that those who decreased their absenteeism the most are the ones who also improved the most academically. Similar to the absenteeism results, the impact of the programme on school grades tends to fade in size over time, suggesting the importance of continuous support and targeted interventions to sustain and further enhance the academic progress of refugee students.

Summary and policy implications

Our findings indicate that better preparing teachers to face the multidimensional challenges in diverse educational settings could substantially improve the effectiveness of refugee integration policies. The results show that teachers’ training leads to a substantial reduction in absenteeism of refugee students, effectively closing by half the gap in school absences between native and refugee students. Also, the benefits of the training programme extend beyond the absenteeism outcomes and include improvements in refugee students’ academic achievement.

These findings suggest that host countries are potentially underinvesting in programmes aiming to equip teachers with the necessary skills to address the needs of refugee students. Indeed, training teachers for diversity can be an effective tool in integrating refugee and immigrant children into the education systems of host countries.


Borghans, L, B H H Golsteyn, J J Heckman and J E Humphries (2016), “What grades and achievement tests measure,” PNAS, 113, 13354–13359.

Boucher, V, S Tumen, M Vlassopoulos, J Wahba, and Y Zenou (2021), “Ethnic mixing in early childhood: Evidence from a randomized field experiment anda structural model,” CEPR Discussion Paper #15528.

Dryden-Peterson, S (2015), The Educational Experiences of Refugee Children in Countries of First Asylum, Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute

Krafft, C, M Sieverding, N Berri, C Keo and M Sharpless (2022), “Education interrupted: Enrolment, attainment, and dropout of Syrian refugees in Jordan,” Journal of Development Studies, 58: 1874–1892.

Tumen, S (2018), “The impact of low-skill refugees on youth education,” IZA Discussion Paper #11869.

Tumen, S, M Vlassopoulos and J Wahba (2023), “Training teachers for diversity awareness: Impact on school outcomes of refugee children.” Journal of Human Resources, forthcoming.