Leveraging technology can make a difference in refugee children’s lives

DFID - UK Department for International Development, flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0
DFID - UK Department for International Development, flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0

Psychologist Selcuk Sirin explains how digital games can improve mental health and educational outcomes of Syrian refugee children in Turkey.

Gelgia Fetz Fernandes: You have recently presented findings of ‘Project Hope’, a digital game intervention your team has piloted with 147 Syrian refugee children aged 9 to 14 in Turkey. What is the objective of this intervention?

Selcuk Sirin: With ‘Project Hope’ we are pursuing four objectives: To enhance refugee children’s Turkish language proficiency; to improve their executive functions, that is their ability to plan, monitor, and alter behaviors; to teach them coding, a critical 21st century skill; and to improve their overall mental health.

In previous research we did with Syrian refugee children we asked them about their fears, hopes, and dreams. We asked whether they could imagine a better future – and they do, which is really inspiring. This hope is what we relied on for this intervention. The ‘Project Hope’ curriculum includes a combination of five digital games including Minecraft, which we used to measure children’s mental health and hope.

GFF: Increasing refugee children’s hopes with the right game just sounds too god to be true. Please explain.

SS: Children in the intervention group took part in daily two-hour sessions over four weeks, totaling 40 hours. My colleagues at NYU Create Lab, Jan Plass and Bruce Homer, and I have created tasks for them, to imagine a better future for themselves using the popular commercial game Minecraft. We asked the kids to create a dream house for them and their family, a dream room, a dream home and a dream neighborhood. We collected measures of children’s hopelessness before and after ‘Project Hope’, and we found that the intervention significantly lowered children’s sense of hopelessness.

GFF: Can you say more about intervention effects regarding the other three objectives, that is language development, executive functions, and coding?

SS: Using an adaptive learning technology platform called Cerego, we presented children with over 200 Turkish words. We assessed their language proficiency before and after the intervention and were able to show that Turkish language skills were significantly higher for the intervention group.

“We collected measures of children’s hopelessness before and after ‘Project Hope’, and we found that the intervention significantly lowered children’s sense of hopelessness.”

We also measured children’s executive functions that have been associated with improved health, well-being, and educational outcomes. In ‘Project Hope’, the children played Alien Game, designed to improve executive functions through rewarding short-term memory retention and quick reaction. We measured significant improvements in children’s cognitive skills after the intervention.

Finally, we used a game-based approach to teach kids the fundamentals of coding such as conditionals, algorithms, debugging, and functions. Completing a level in the game we used, Code.org, requires demonstrating competency in the concept being taught. On average, children completed 182 levels of Code.org writing over 1’800 lines of code.

GFF: Did the kids enjoy playing the games?

SS: The children completed weekly surveys to describe their satisfaction with the different games. We asked them how much they liked a game, how much they learned from it, and whether they would recommend it. Overall, satisfaction was high, and children reported that they were learning from the games and would recommend them.

“If we don’t reach refugee kids in their critical developmental period, they will be lost.”

GFF: What were some of the biggest challenges for ‘Project Hope’?

SS: Initially, we were skeptical if we could reach refugee children via technology. But infrastructure has developed and we could set up computer labs in public libraries in Urfa, a city on the border with Syria and home to the largest refugee settlement in Turkey. Still, having to bring the kids to the labs to play the games is not ideal. What would be great is to give kids laptops to take home and play; especially now with these findings that speak to the effectiveness of the intervention and let us hope to scale the project to 5’000 or even 10’000 refugees.

GFF: What is your motivation to do this kind of research, to run interventions in such difficult contexts?

SS: I don’t want to do research for the mere purpose of publishing in academic journals. I am really tired of that. I am also tired of hearing people in my field say that we need more research every time we are asked for our opinion. On a lot of issues we know what is best for children, so it is time for academic scholars to be a part of applied work. It’s not a matter of one or the other – we can do both.

I feel an obligation to reach these refugee kids. I also believe that if we don’t reach them in their critical developmental period, they will be lost.

‘Project Hope’ shows that even with limited resources and language barriers we can make a difference in the lives of refugee children through leveraging technology. The results suggest that digital games can be a cost-efficient and scalable approach to meeting the educational and psychological needs of these children.

“Digital games can be a cost-efficient and scalable approach to meeting the educational and psychological needs of refugee children.”

This is crucial because there is no way that we will be able to meet their needs through traditional methods. We simply don’t have enough teachers, we don’t have enough psychologists and psychiatrists. Also, for a lot of people we are studying, a therapist would be the last person to reach out to. They don’t believe in therapy, it’s not part of their culture.

Finally, let me say a few words about trauma therapy: if you open that gate, you will have to stick with that child for three years in order to make a difference and complete therapy. Are we going to do this, do we have the means to do this? No. This is one of the reasons why low-cost scalable and effective digital technologies are important.

Selcuk Sirin is the J.K. Javits professor of applied psychology at NYU Steinhardt. He uses empirical research methods to better understand the needs of children and families, and to arm professionals and policy makers with this knowledge so as to better address the needs of the most vulnerable. The goal that unites all of his work is to enhance the lives of marginalized children using development in context as a general framework. He focuses on immigrant children in New York, Muslim youth in the US, refugees in Turkey and Norway, and students at risk in US schools.

Sirin Research Lab