Each year, approximately 60,000 children of refugee background are resettled in Western countries. This paper reviews the effects of the refugee experience on cognitive functioning. The distinctive influences for these children include exposure to traumatic events and the need to acquire a new language, factors that need to be considered to avoid overdiagnosis of learning disorders and inappropriate educational placements. Prearrival trauma, psychological sequelae of traumatic events, developmental impact of trauma, and the quality of family functioning have been found to influence cognitive functioning, learning, and academic performance. In addition, the refugee child may be semiproficient in several languages, but proficient in none, whilst also trying to learn a new language. The influence that the child’s limited English proficiency, literacy, and school experience may have on academic and test performance is demonstrated by drawing on the research on refugees’ English language acquisition, as well as the more extensive literature on bilingual English language learners. Implications for interventions are drawn at the level of government policy, schools, and the individual. The paper concludes with the observation that there is a major need for longitudinal research on refugee children’s learning and academic performance and on interventions that will close the academic gap, thereby enabling refugee children to reach their educational potential.
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