Embodied knowledge and a resource perspective: Welfare professionals and newly arrived children

Featured image of Lund's blog 'Embodied knowledge and a resource perspective'

Author: Professor Anna Lund

Sweden has changed from being considered, although erroneously, as a fairly homogenous country to becoming one of the nations in the world with the highest number of individuals of immigrant origin per capita. In 2019, 26 percent of the population in Sweden was either foreign born or had two parents born abroad.

Between 2017 and 2020 I have been engaged in a research project called Opportunity structures for inclusion and successful schooling of newly arrived youth. It was financed by The Swedish Research Council and led by professor Nihad Bunar, one of the advisors of the TEAMS-project. In that project I studied the relational work welfare professionals perform within a Swedish organization where newly arrived students come in order to find a school, to share their former school experience, show their level of numeracy and literacy and to receive knowledge about the Swedish school system. In these encounters I have been reminded of how important professionals embodied knowledge, lived experiences made both in and outside working life, are and how it plays into their everyday practices. This blog will summarize the findings of a study called, ‘“It’s important with a good start” – Screening of knowledge and situational ethics in the encounter with newly arrived children’ (Lund 2021).

Newly arrived students

The concept of newly arrived pupils in a Swedish context refers to all pupils (irrespective of their migration status) who had been resident abroad and who immigrated to the country after formal schooling starts at age seven. They are considered newly arrived up to four years after their arrival. Since 2016, it has been mandatory for the Swedish school to use nationally produced screening material for newly arrived students. The material aims to map knowledge and previous experiences of school in the country/countries in which they have previously resided, as well as any disruption in their schooling in order to work towards individual study plans and adjusted curriculum. A specific office with pedagogically trained professionals to do the screening has been arranged by the municipality, where I conducted my research.

The goal is for the mapping and screening to be done as soon as the pupil arrives in the municipality where she or he goes to school and at the latest within a time period of two months.

Previous research has shown that welfare professionals, such as teachers and social workers, can carry negative stereotypes of newly arrived children and their parents. Their resources are not acknowledged and they are, initially, evaluated as lacking, rather than having, resources (Bouakaz and Bunar, 2015; Nilsson Folke, 2017). Ignoring the fact that newly arrived children have resources is a result of unequal power relations. Tronto formulate it as: ‘Often, recipients are looked upon as incompetent because they are dependent’ (2010, p. 165). Hence, welfare professionals can have a dual role: as a mediator of knowledge and values ​​that contribute to newly arrived pupils’ social and pedagogical inclusion, but also as a gate keeper which through negative stereotypes contributes to social exclusion and marginalization of newly arrived students (Lund and Lund, 2016; Lund & Trondman, 2017).

Welfare professionals have power. Especially for newly arrived children and families who do not have access to their own social networks in the new country. But, there is a certain scope of agency in the professional practice of welfare professionals and how this freedom is used is affected by previous, private and professional, experiences. Empathy, to imagine what it would be like to live someone else’s life, has proven to have a positive effect on different encounters (Bergman Blix 2019).

The aim is the student’s resources

The welfare professionals I have met during ethnographic fieldwork at a municipality office I call Start Up work to create good and well thought-through opportunities for newly arrived children and families. At Start Up, it is about working in line with formal goals of mapping previous school experience and screening children’s knowledge, informing about Swedish (school) culture and the rights and obligations that pupils and parents in Sweden have.

This is done by giving correct information to children and families and to inform the school and the newly arrived students teacher of the results of the mapping and screening. In their professional work they take as an entrance point the newly arrived students’ resources. The aim of the work is, as one of the welfare professionals puts it, that ‘the children open their eyes to their actual knowledge’. Former school, as well as life, experiences matter. The screening of the child’s knowledge is done in the child’s strongest language. The welfare professionals at Start Up are competent in many languages. As an example, Shahram speaks, in addition to Swedish, also Dari, Pashto, Persian, Urdu and Turkish. The work with mapping and screening is intended to give the best opportunity for the newly arrived children to show their knowledge. In practice this mean that the numerals that the child is familiar with are also the ones used in the work at Start Up. If it is Persian numbers that the child has counted in in, it is these numbers that are also used during the screening.

The welfare professionals at Start Up are aware that a Western-oriented view of what counts as relevant knowledge may risk making newly arrived students’ knowledge invisible as resources and complicate the work of being able to make a reliable assessment. Avisa, working at Start Up, points out that teaching mathematics is culturally framed and the mapping material that the National Agency for Education offers corresponds to a kind of Swedish school norm about what students in different years are expected to be able to do in mathematics. So Start Up, Avisa informs me, ‘made their own math cards so the student can still show what the child has in their backpack. And it can make it a lot easier for the school as well.’ This means that a student’s mathematics profile can be more complex than what the National Agency for Education’s material can screen and find out.

When the pupil sees her or his knowledge as a resource and previous schooling as valuable the student can be strengthened in the encounter with the new school in Sweden. Like an individual with something instead of an individual without something.

Besides the formal goal of mapping and screening Start Up is also expressing solidarity by giving hope and stimulating children’s and family’s capacities to aspire under conditions of adversity. On the agenda is not only to inform about school related issues but also about civil associations, cultural events and other leisure related activities. Countries have different learning styles and expectations are expressed in different ways. In Sweden, it can seem informal and unpretentious in school at the same time as the reality is different. The welfare professionals working at Start Up are aware of this and they share that knowledge with newly arrived children and their families.

Welfare professionals embodied knowledge

Most of the employees at Start Up have their own experiences of migration and of being seen as ‘the other’ in Sweden. Experiences that become important in their encounters with newly arrived pupils. Avisa, from Western Asia, has lived in Sweden for five years. She laughs when she thinks about how it was to be new in Sweden: ‘Oh, oh, oh, do not remind me.’ She remembers that time as a ‘hell’. She ‘can understand’ the children and families she meets because “immigration is very difficult”. Avisa explains, ‘I understand those who sit here with me. Since it is really different if you have gone through similar processes or if you have only seen it on TV or read about it in the newspaper. It’s very different.’

For Lina, who came to Sweden as a five-year-old from an African country, there is no contradiction between being professional and personal. She does not want to be a ‘robot’ who only delivers information and fills in the blanks in a document. For her, work is about ‘being able to meet the person, to also be a little personal’. Subject meets subject characterise her professional work.

She also states in the light of her own migration experiences: ‘I know what it is like to come from another country.’ She explains what it was like to be reunited with her father and have a network where most have migration experiences. She sees the questions raised by migrants coming to Start Up from the perspective of many different persons. Experiences made outside the workplace are woven into her professional encounters. Experiences that exist, she says, ‘in me’. In the everyday life of professional work these experiences “come out” in her encounters with newly arrived pupils and families. For her, this means that she ‘has an increased understanding when certain things are talked about’. She exemplifies with different cultural meanings and practices related to child rearing, an awareness of how important existing networks in the country of immigration are and the significance of which sources of information that are used to navigate in a new place can have.

For the welfare professionals, it is deeply meaningful to work at Start Up. Making a difference for newly arrived children and their families, being supportive and giving hope for the future are self-evident matters. In my analysis of the welfare professionals, it is important to talk about how an empathic approach is linked to the welfare professional’s embodied knowledge, i.e. lived experiences made both in and outside working life. There is no contradiction between being professional and personal. Rather, the professional commitment is permeated by humanity where the personal experience enables opportunity structures to be opened up for the newly arrived students.


Bergman Blix, Stina. (2019) Different roads to empathy. Stage actors and judges as polar cases. Emotions and Society. 1(2): 163–180.

Bouakaz, Laid & Bunar, Nihad. (2015) ”Diagnos: Nyanländ”, in N. Bunar (red.) Nyanlända och lärande – mottagande och inkludering, Stockholm: Natur & Kultur, 263-290.

Lund, Anna. (2021, forthcoming). ‘”Det är viktigt med en bra start” – Kartläggning av kunskaper och situationell etik i mötet med nyanlända barn’, in Bunar, N. (red.). Inkludering och skolframgång för nyanlända elever [Inclusion and school achivement for newly arrived students]. Stockholm: Natur & Kultur.

Lund, Anna & Lund, Stefan. (2016) Skolframgång i det mångkulturella samhället (Red.). Lund: Studentlitteratur.

Lund, Anna. & Trondman, Mats. (2017) ‘Dropping Out/Dropping Back In: Matters That Make Learning Matter.’ Queensland Review. Vol 24: 57-74.

Nilsson Folke, Jenny. (2017) Lived transitions. Experiences of learning and inclusion among newly arrived students. Stockholm: Stockholm University Press.

Tronto, Joan C. (2010) Creating Caring Institutions. Politics, Plurality, and Purpose. Ethics and Social Welfare. 4(2): 158–171.

Published 2 March 2021