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Caring for kids new to Canada

A guide for health professionals working with immigrant and refugee children and youth

School and Education

Key points

  • Be aware of the challenges young newcomers face in the school setting. Ask whether children are experiencing school problems and refer them to supportive resources, as appropriate.
  • Help young newcomers and their families to navigate and adjust to the school system. Some school boards have welcome programs for young immigrants, to which clinicians may want to refer patients.
  • Learn about local agencies and services that can help immigrant and refugee children adjust to schooling in Canada.


Although the literature is limited, research suggests that most newly-arrived immigrant children do well in school. In particular, immigrant children from Africa, China and other Asian countries, India and the Middle East generally achieve greater educational success than their Canadian-born peers.1

However, not all newcomer children and youth do well. It is important for clinicians to be aware of the unique challenges they face, of the factors that relate most strongly to school success, and how to help young newcomers succeed.

Factors that affect education in young newcomers

Parental factors

  • First-generation immigrant children may attain higher educational levels than their Canadian-born peers.1-3 They may be influenced by high educational expectations of their parents, by their own  resiliency, and by more traditional parenting practices that support emotional–behavioural regulation and reinforce the importance of doing well in school.3
  • Some immigrant parents have come to Canada because of the reputation of the education system, and may even choose to live in a particular neighbourhood based on test results in local schools.
  • Many educated immigrants are underemployed, and it is important not to make assumptions about their education level based on employment. Moreover, parental education level may not be as important a determinant of educational attainment for newcomer children. Higher educational achievement (compared with Canadian-born peers) has been reported in immigrant children whose parents have less education but who are still able convey its value and nurture it in their children.1
  • Newcomer parents may have different beliefs about the role of school versus home in a child’s education—such as reading aloud to or with a child. Views are not necessarily consistent across all newcomer groups.4

School resources

  • School resources, such as English-as-a-second-language (ESL) classes, can improve academic progress in immigrant children.5
  • Teachers can help young immigrants feel a greater sense of belonging at school through supportive teacher-student relationships.6 If the child is not doing well in school or parents express concerns, this is an area that can be explored.
  • Young immigrants tend to adjust better if they attend a school with a higher immigrant density.3

Different educational skill set

Young immigrants may have a different set of skills when they start school in Canada for a variety of reasons:

  • They may not have been exposed to early literacy and child development promotion resources and activities.4
  • Newcomer parents might be more likely to select non-publicly funded child care, where educational expectations may be lower.8 Research suggests that centre-based care can lead to better developmental progress in children. When appropriate, recommend and support the choice of enrolling children in more formal child care settings, especially if there are developmental concerns.9-11 Cost may be a factor for some families:  affordable access to centre-based child care varies across the country.
  • The level of a child’s cognitive stimulation at home may differ, and often relates to their parents’ pre-migration education and English or French skills.12  Newcomer children may not have access to written texts or be able to practice literacy in their own first language if materials are not available. If parents do not speak English or French at home, early reading skills at school are likely to be affected. More information about first language use and bilingualism as it relates to newcomer children is available in this resource, as is a list of sources for parent information in other languages about early literacy and child development.

Stereotypes related to ethnicity (e.g., that new immigrants are always academically successful) can obscure adaptive problems.7  Even if the child is doing well in school, clinicians should be careful not to assume well-being. Academic success may act to disguise other developmental or mental health concerns.

The clinician’s role

Health professionals should not assume that children or parents who are new to Canada have the same expectations of, or attitude toward, education as their Canadian peers.

During follow-up office visits, be sure to ask how children and families are adapting to life in Canada, including whether children are experiencing school problems. You can ask families about education in a culturally sensitive way, and connect them with community resources, where indicated. Respect for advice from a health professional can, and often does, lead to a family’s accessing and using supportive services.

Watch for signs that a young newcomer is struggling at school, first by asking parents questions such as:

  • How is your child doing in school?
  • How is he adapting to life at school, and schoolwork?
  • Has she had many absences from school?

These questions can also be directed to an older child or youth, as appropriate.

Newcomer parents may be unsure of how to interact with their child’s school. They may also be less aware of how usual it is for parents to advocate for their child within the school system.  Some school boards have immigrant welcome centres that provide information to parents about their role in school, but clinicians can also facilitate this process. For example, make sure parents know that they can ask to meet with their child’s teacher to share concerns and, if needed, with the school principal.

Watch for signs that an adolescent is at risk of dropping out of school. Historically, the drop-out rate in high school has been higher among children who immigrated at an older age. Older age may be a risk factor because adolescents have more difficulty adjusting to the process of immigration. Children who have experienced early trauma, such as a natural disaster, may also be at increased risk.13 Skipping school or classes is an early risk sign, particularly if it is already happening in Grade 9.14 Ask parents if they are receiving reports of absences from the school, or if they suspect there are absences. This one question can help to identify situations where a youth is at risk.

For families who experience such problems, being aware of local agencies and services that help children adjust to schooling in Canada is important. Some community organizations also offer homework assistance and tutoring for immigrant children or adolescents. 

Some school boards have programs that help immigrant children enter the school system. These programs introduce children and parents to the system, perform academic assessments,15 and provide additional support, such as ESL classes. Such programs tend to be available in regions with high immigrant populations. Examples include:

A list of services by province and territory, including links to school board websites that offer services for young immigrants, such as education welcome centres and ESL classes, are available on the Citizenship and Immigration Canada website.

What health professionals can do

  • Be aware of the challenges young newcomers face in their school setting.
  • Play an active role in helping young newcomers adjust to and succeed at school.
  • Avoid stereotyping newcomer patients. Cultural assumptions can make adaptive problems in young newcomers more difficult to recognize.  For example, that doing well in school does indicates overall well-being; or that immigrant children from some regions of the world always struggle in school.7
  • Recognize that families new to Canada may have different expectations of and attitudes toward education than Canadian-born parents. Ask families about their views of education in a culturally sensitive way.
  • Remind families that they can play an invaluable supporting role in their child’s education, by supervising study times and helping with homework, if they are able.
  • Connect families with community resources, where indicated. Always ask whether a young newcomer is struggling at school. Be aware that children exposed to early traumatic experiences are at higher risk for dropping out of school.
  • Try to link youth to additional supports if they are reported to be absent from school, particularly in Grade 9. 
  • Familiarize yourself with local school services that help young newcomers transition to life in Canada. Many school systems provide support and information in multiple languages.
  • Build parental awareness around their roles in overseeing homework and helping children to meet other expectations in school. School-based welcome programs can help.
  • Encourage local school boards to provide immigrant welcome programs. Calgary-based COPE is a good example of a collaboration between educational and health services in support of newcomer children.
  • Stress to parents and patients that their information is confidential: If you speak to support services or the school on their behalf, there is no sharing of information without consent.

Children with special education needs

Immigrant children and youth with special education needs may experience additional delays in having their problems recognized and supported appropriately, particularly if parents are not aware of the implications and/or are not accepting of a particular disability. More information on cultural context and special needs is provided in the section Developmental Disability Across Cultures.

A parent or teacher may erroneously attribute a language or developmental delay to lack of proficiency in English or French.16 They may not be aware that exposing a child to a bilingual environment should not cause language delay. Read more about language acquisition in this resource. A parent might also attribute poor school performance to their child’s attitude, which can undermine self-esteem.

Newcomer parents may not be as aware of publicly funded support for children with disabilities as parents born in Canada, such as the Child Disability Benefit provided by the federal government, and/or not be eligible for such support until approved for provincial/territorial health insurance. They may need reassurance that special education support is provided to children in schools at no cost, or that a child with a disability is still able to attend school. Support services may not be available in the family’s home language, but this is always worth checking. 

Child health and children’s disability programs often have information translated into multiple languages and facilitate translation services for service delivery. Linking families to such services for a known or suspected developmental concern can be an important step in culturally competent care.

What health professionals can do

  • Ask whether children are experiencing a school problem at every visit, and refer families to a specialist and supportive resources, where available.
  • Reassure parents that exposure to a bilingual environment does not cause language delay.
  • If children are experiencing a difficulty in school or have a special need, discuss options with parents for interacting with schools and reinforce their role as advocates. A clinician can recommend further psychoeducational assessment by the school. However, limited resources for assessment in some school systems may necessitate additional follow-up to ensure that further assessment takes place. Local supportive services can also help with follow-up and resources. More information about developmental assessment is available in this resource.
  • Watch for cultural modelling or family attitudes to a child’s problem that could  interfere with their accessing services. Try to find information in the family’s home language. A list of sources of multilingual parent information is available in this resource. For example, the Multicultural Mental Health Resource Centre provides information in multiple languages on mental health topics.

Selected resources

  1. Citizenship and Immigration Canada. List of services by province/territory
  2. Community Resources Serving Immigrant and Refugee Families 
  3. Online health information for parents in other languages 


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  10. Takanishi R. Leveling the playing field: Supporting immigrant children from birth to eight. The Future of Children 2004;14(2):61-79.
  11. Lang M, CPS Community Paediatrics Committee. Health implications of children in child care centres Part A: Canadian trends in child care, behaviour and developmental{file:68:url}
  12. Pong SL, Landale NS. Academic achievement of legal immigrants’ children: The roles of parents’ pre‐ and postmigration characteristics in origin‐group differences. Child Dev 2012;83(5):1543-59.
  13. Corak M. Age at immigration and the education outcomes of children. Analytical studies branch research paper series, Catalogue no. 11F0019M — No. 336. Ottawa, Ont.: Statistics Canada, 2011.
  14. Heppen JB, Therriault SB. Developing early warning systems to identify potential high school dropouts. National High School Center, 2009. 
  15. Hammer K. Why highly educated immigrant parents choose Canada. The Globe and Mail. September 3, 2012.   
  16. Hibel J, Jasper AD. Delayed special education placement for learning disabilities among children of immigrants. Social Forces 2012;91(2):503-30.


  • William Mahoney, MD

Last updated: February, 2023