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Migrant Children with Special Educational Needs – emerging findings from a recent review and their implications for educational practice

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This article was first published as part of a global conversation about the future of teaching.

Migrant children, defined as children born in another country than the one they live in, currently constitute around four percent of the under-15 population in Europe (Janta and Harte, 2017). No statistical data are available to confirm the number of migrant children who also have a special educational need (SEN). But combining figures of migrant children with those of children identified as having SEN – 4.4 per cent average across Europe, 14.9 per cent in England (Department for Education, 2019; EASIE, 2018) – indicates that migrant children with SEN form a substantial group within many European schools. Nevertheless, the intersection between migration and SEN is significantly under-researched, and migrant children with SEN are an overlooked group in educational research, practice and policy (Oliver and Singal, 2017; Pisani and Grech, 2015). This short research summary shares findings from a recent literature review of school approaches towards migrant children with SEN in Europe (Jørgensen et al., 2020).

Migrant children are a highly diverse group who vary significantly in their socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, language abilities and experiences of education prior to arrival. Additionally, schools in Europe have different experiences of diversity and multiculturalism, and varying approaches to the identification of SEN, complicating cross-country comparisons. In spite of these differences, our review identified a number of common areas which emphasise the need for a culturally reflexive and context-sensitive assessment and communication approach when working with migrant children with SEN and their families:

  • Dominant perceptions of SEN in the country of origin may affect the way migrant parents view disability (Caldin and Cinotti, 2018) and their understanding and expectations of inclusion and education of their child with SEN. This may, in turn, impact on the extent to which they engage with and share information about their children with school professionals (Hamilton, 2013).
  • Many migrant families have left their established support networks behind, and therefore schools are an important and often main point of contact for migrant families. Schools may act as ‘hubs’ or a ‘first port of call’ for families accessing the complex system of services available for their disabled children (Caldin, 2014; Oliver and Singal, 2017). This emphasises the key role of trust, communication and relationships between families and schools.
  • Home-school communication and collaboration may be susceptible to misunderstandings, at least in the in the early stages after migration (Oliver and Singal, 2017). Lack of proficiency in the school language was found to often complicate the communication between migrant parents and schools, and make it difficult for parents to navigate the educational system. The involvement of migrant parents in the schooling of their children is a key way to support the children, but migrant families may not always fully understand the teachers or suggested interventions (Paniagua 2017; Caldin 2014; Caldin and Cinotti, 2018). In addition, circumstances such as transnational caring arrangements and parental employment may impact on their possibilities of getting involved in school (Oliver and Singal 2017).
  • The assessment of migrant children with SEN is a complex area, and difficulties in separating linguistic and socio-cultural differences from SEN were found to be an issue for teachers across countries. In the Italian context, Migliarini et al. (2019) warned of the problem they call the ‘SENitization’ of migrant children – the process whereby migrant children’s illiteracy and disrupted schooling is defined as a disability. Also, in the Spanish context, Paniagua (2017) pointed to a ‘fallacious analogy’ being made between diversity and disability. Gabel et al. (2009) described how, in Germany, language difficulties often resulted in transfer to special schools and in England, Hamilton (2013) commented on the prevalent practice of seating migrant children with lower ability students, leading ‘some teachers (and perhaps children themselves) into assuming migrant learners as having special educational needs’ (p. 208).


Our findings from this emerging research emphasise the importance of language and inter-cultural competence in communication with migrant families and children. By conducting research in this field, we hope that we will help draw more attention to this specific group of children among teachers, policy makers and researchers, and provide a basis for more in-school and cross-school debates and sharing of practice.

Key Points:

  • Schools may wish to consider adopting a culturally reflexive and contextual approach to migrant children with SEN and their families, considering their varied socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, their experiences of education and SEN in the country of origin, and their employment and care arrangements in the country of settlement.
  • Relationships and trust are key to communication between schools and migrant families. Schools should carefully consider not only language support but also the wider family contexts within which the children are situated, when developing support measures and interventions. The research endorses more training of professionals in how to support migrant children with SEN and their families, including how to develop culturally and contextually sensitive and consistent assessment procedure.


Share your experiences with educators globally by joining the discussion below. How does, or how might, your school build relationships with migrant communities and families to more effectively support pupils?
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