Psychological distress, resettlement stress, and lower school engagement among Arabic-speaking refugee parents in Sydney, Australia: A cross-sectional cohort study

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by Jess R. Baker, Derrick Silove, Deserae Horswood, Afaf Al-Shammari, Mohammed Mohsin, Susan Rees, Valsamma Eapen


Schools play a key role in supporting the well-being and resettlement of refugee children, and parental engagement with the school may be a critical factor in the process. Many resettlement countries have policies in place to support refugee parents’ engagement with their children’s school. However, the impact of these programs lacks systematic evaluation. This study first aimed to validate self-report measures of parental school engagement developed specifically for the refugee context, and second, to identify parent characteristics associated with school engagement, so as to help tailor support to families most in need.

Methods and findings

The report utilises 2016 baseline data of a cohort study of 233 Arabic-speaking parents (77% response rate) of 10- to 12-year-old schoolchildren from refugee backgrounds across 5 schools in Sydney, Australia. Most participants were born in Iraq (81%) or Syria (11%), and only 25% spoke English well to very well. Participants’ mean age was 40 years old, and 83% were female. Confirmatory factor analyses were run on provisional item sets identified from a literature review and separate qualitative study. The findings informed the development of 4 self-report tools assessing parent engagement with the school and school community, school belonging, and quality of the relationship with the schools’ bilingual cultural broker. Cronbach alpha and Pearson correlations with an established Teacher–Home Communication subscale demonstrated adequate reliability (α = 0.67 to 0.80) and construct and convergent validity of the measures (p < 0.01), respectively.Parent characteristics were entered into respective least absolute shrinkage and selection operator (LASSO) regression analyses. The degree of parents’ psychological distress (as measured by the Kessler10 self-report instrument) and postmigration living difficulties (PLMDs) were each associated with lower school engagement and belonging, whereas less time lived in Australia, lower education levels, and an unemployed status were associated with higher ratings in relationship quality with the schools’ cultural broker. Study limitations include the cross-sectional design and the modest amount of variance (8% to 22%) accounted for by the regression models.


The study offers preliminary refugee-specific measures of parental school engagement. It is expected they will provide a resource for evaluating efforts to support the integration of refugee families into schools. The findings support the need for initiatives that identify and support parents with school-attending children from refugee backgrounds who are experiencing psychological distress or resettlement stressors. At the school level, the findings suggest that cultural brokers may be effective in targeting newly arrived families.