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A Syrian refugee attends his first day in school in Canada on Jan. 4, 2016.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Beginning a new school year can be an anxious time for some children. For those shattered by early psychological trauma, it can be especially fraught with emotion.

A study underway at Western University is examining how the war-torn experiences of newly arrived young Syrian refugees might affect their ability to cope in the classroom, and researcher Mazen El-Baba hopes the findings will go a long way towards improving everything from teachers' lesson plans to community programs to government policy.

He says many new arrivals have not been to school in years and will almost definitely struggle in September.

"My fears are of the teacher not being able to understand where to begin," El-Baba says of what sparked the study, still in its data-gathering phase.

"It's different than teaching another kid the basics because (here) you're dealing with more mature children who are well aware that their level is way behind their actual class. There's a lot of difficulties. I really, really hope the school boards are prepared for it."

He points to a nine-year-old he knows who will enter Grade 5 despite not knowing what plus and minus are, and a 16-year-old who will enter Grade 10 despite only having a Grade 5 education. Then there's bullying, which he calls "a huge, huge problem" given the experiences of some Syrian kids who ventured into Canadian classrooms this past spring.

"All the kids we know that went to school, all the parents were telling us: 'We need help in September because our kids are being beaten up and spit at at school.' I know a six-year-old who was being hit by various other (kids) in his class."

The study involves 81 children and a battery of tests conducted in English and Arabic. They include tests to assess numerical fluency and cognition, language proficiency, impulsivity, and how subjects respond to positive, negative or neutral feedback.

It's part of a larger research project that also studied kids with typical upbringings in the London, Ont., area, says supervisor J. Bruce Morton, an associate psychology professor and principal investigator at the university's Brain and Mind Institute.

Morton notes the focus of the study isn't unique, pointing to a large study from Harvard University that analysed the psychological profile of children from Romanian orphanages.

"People are coming at this with somewhat more specific hypotheses and better measures perhaps for identifying the impact of adversity on the developing mind," Morton says of differences in this study.

"Looking for instance at the relationship between trauma and attention control, so how long can children remain focused on the task before they're kind of ready to move on and do something different? Or how long can they sit still?

"These kinds of questions of course are going to be really important as we begin to imagine these children functioning in a regular classroom."

But they're not just looking at where things can go wrong. Morton says he hopes the study can shed light on what can make a child succeed, despite the odds.

"There are going to be other kids who are going to be amazingly resilient and are going to flourish and adapt relatively well to their new social and cultural environment. And those kids I think are also equally valuable to study."

12:22ET 10-08-16

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