Vanier researcher empowers child refugees through language acquisition research

Serena McDiarmid

PhD candidate | Psychology

profie head shot of Serena McDiarmidSerena McDiarmid, a PhD candidate in Psychology, has been recognized with the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship for her incredible research proposal titled “Supporting second language acquisition of Canada’s child refugees: a longitudinal study of risk and protective factors for language learning success.”

There are millions of displaced people all over the world, and over half of those are children, Serena points out. Thousands of displaced children reside within Canada, and upon their arrival, they are faced with numerous challenges including the language barrier they encounter that prevents them from participating fully in society.

Serena earned her Bachelor of Education from Wilfrid Laurier University in 2017 and was then hired on as an Occasional Teacher with the Waterloo Region District School Board that same year, which she continues to do even today. Through her teaching, she has encountered these students in the local school system often, and from these encounters, her research topic was born. Her research answers pressing questions such as: How are refugee children faring compared to their non-refugee peers in the Ontario school system? What does typical development look like for refugee students? and What factors are associated with more or less successful child development?

It is not feasible for educators to support these children without being equipped with information regarding their language development. Serena’s supervisor Professor Heather Henderson says, “Serena’s research into the cognitive and language developments of refugee youths has the potential to inform educational policy and practice in ways that optimize the experiences of refugee children in our community.”

Refugee children need support in order to thrive, and Serena’s work reinforces that. In one study, supported by the Mitacs GlobaLink Research Award, she worked with an Uppsala University team to examine the wellbeing of children in the Swedish school system. She found that the wellbeing of refugee youth was low and the likelihood of experiencing mental illness was high. Within the Waterloo school system, she found that refugee students had difficulty performing tasks that required executive functions mental abilities such as alternating quickly between ideas and controlling impulses. Developing these abilities is critical as they are foundational for goal setting and achievement.

woman in classroom with students, one student is writing on an easel

Serena teaches her students about the English language, and uses her research to uncover underlying language acquisition challenges for refugee children. 

There are promising findings arising from her research as well. Serena has found that while the average refugee student was struggling, some were doing as well or better than their non-refugee peers. “I’m now trying to uncover what sets apart the thriving refugee students from those that struggle,” Serena says. “Identifying risk and protective factors for development will help to identify which students are most likely to need help, and get them help sooner.” 

For Serena, working with refugee English language learners as their teacher has offered her some of the most rewarding experiences. “As their language skills grow, they are able to participate more fully in the classroom making friends and sharing their ideas,” she says. This has served as her motivation to continue with this research to identify the needs and strengths of refugee language learners, and has shown her that there is a demand for additional research and resources in this area. Her research has had rewarding outcomes among her peers as well. Henderson says, “Serena eagerly shares her own experiences with colleagues and peers in a way that fosters continual learning in her community.” Through her presentations to teachers, Serena has been able to influence the way they view the behaviour of their English language learning students, and because of this, many have changed the strategies they were employing to better help those students.

Serena is grateful to the families, teachers and community members that have played an essential role in the progression of her research. She also gratefully acknowledges the financial support she has received from Mitacs, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), and Ontario Graduate Scholarship (OGS) program.