When worlds collide: Academic adjustment of Somali Bantu students with limited formal education in a U.S. elementary school

By Dina Birman, Nellie Tran

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


This paper reports on the findings of a two-year ethnographic study of newly arrived Somali Bantu refugee students in a U.S. elementary school (K-6) in Chicago. These data paint a detailed picture of students’ behavioral and academic adjustment to school, and the drivers behind “behavioral incidents” (instances when children's behavior presented a problem for school staff) and their academic engagement or disengagement. Bantu students required a degree of flexibility and accommodation from their teachers, whose attitudes toward acculturation could generally be characterized as “assimilationist” (requiring students to conform to U.S. culture and school rules) or “multicultural” (respecting and accepting the students expressing their heritage culture at the school). This study illustrates the difficulties faced by refugee students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE) when adjusting to U.S. schools, and the pressures placed on teachers and other school staff. Strategies used by teachers in working with SLIFE are described. These findings also extend the literature on the academic engagement of immigrants to this group of SLIFE. In this study, SLIFE were disengaged not because of disinterest or resisting adult expectations at school but because they were unfamiliar with the culture of schooling and did not have the academic background necessary to complete school tasks. The study also illustrates the need to provide schools with adequate support to accommodate the needs of SLIFE.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)132-144
Number of pages13
JournalInternational Journal of Intercultural Relations
StatePublished - Sep 2017


  • Academic adjustment
  • Acculturation
  • Assimilation
  • Immigration
  • Multicultural education
  • Refugee
  • Somali Bantu
  • Teacher expectations
  • Trauma

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Business and International Management
  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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