04 March 2020

Students with foreign backgrounds have difficulty integrating into Swedish society. The reason often given for this is that the groups do not meet – neither where they live nor in school. But a new study shows how segregation accompanies high-performing students with foreign backgrounds into the classroom. They are excluded from the Swedish community, even though they are formally seen as successful examples of integration.

Researcher Layal Kasselias Wiltgren wanted to investigate the success factors for why some students with foreign backgrounds do so well in school. Layal Kasselias Wiltgren, senior lecturer at the department of behavioural sciences and learning. Photo credit Charlotte PerhammarHowever what she discovered was that the students themselves did not feel they were included. They had difficulty making contact with their Swedish classmates, and struggled with feelings of exclusion.

“This exclusion occurs in such a polite way that it’s hard to identify, or to express in words. But for the person excluded, it hurts just as much”, says Layal Kasselias Wiltgren, whose study has been published in the journal Race Ethnicity and Education.

Closed doors

This is how one student describes one attempt to make contact with a Swedish classmate:

[...] what have you been doing the last few days?” “Nothing!” […] That was his answer. How does someone continue from there? When someone direct gives you a coldanswer. Other people usually say “eh, not much, actually you know, just going around”. And you can continue from there, but when someone just say “Nothing”, that cold “nothing!” […] It’s really hard to connect with someone that does not wanna talk […] You knock on the door and they open and then they close immediately, like a door slam in your face… (Ali)

As a participant observer at the school, Layal Kasselias Wiltgren also saw the division between the students, and how the Swedish students isolated themselves.

“The students sit on different sides of the classroom, and they don’t socialise during breaks. But formally, this class is seen by teachers and school management as a successful example of integration”, says Layal Kasselias Wiltgren.

The upper secondary school class where Layal Kasselias Wiltgren conducted her studies has an international focus and the classroom language is English. During the term she spent in the class, she interviewed 36 students, six teachers and one school head.

The results show that students with foreign backgrounds struggle to get to know their Swedish classmates, who don’t let them into their group. As a result they feel dismissed and shut out when the Swedish students don’t say hello, give minimal responses when addressed, or speak Swedish during group work, even though not all the students speak Swedish, and English is the classroom language. Layal Kasselias Wiltgren calls what goes on in the classroom ‘polite exclusion’.

Layal Kasselias Wiltgren sees three strategies that the excluded students use to manage the feelings this causes:

One is to shrug their shoulders and convince themselves that they don’t care. Another is to see their time in Sweden as temporary, and a third is to not give up, and to be persistent in attempts to get into the Swedish group, despite repeated dismissals.

“Be alike” – the key to being let in

Students and teachers provide different explanations for why students with foreign backgrounds and Swedish students live parallel lives at school. The Swedish students say that to be part of their “core group”, you have the “be alike”, have the same sense of humour and that “you can sense who is similar to yourself”. The students with foreign backgrounds believe that the division is because they are “not Swedish enough”. The teachers believe it is a result of the Swedish students knowing each other for a long time, commuting together and living in the same area – although it turned out that this was not the case.

“It takes a huge amount of energy for an individual to try to break through the wall and get into the group. And even if they did, that person would only be an exception, there would be no change for the rest of the group which is still excluded”, says Layal Kasselias Wiltgren.

Polite exclusion: high-performing immigrant students experience of peer exclusion, Layal Kasselias Wiltgren, Race Ethnicity and Education. DOI: 10.1080/13613324.2020.1718083


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