SecondaryHealth & Wellbeing

Refugee children – How schools can be places of support and healing

Abstract sketch of a displaced refugee family

Josh Corlett explains what schools can do to become islands of safety for refugee and asylum-seeking children

Josh Corlett
by Josh Corlett
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SecondaryHealth & Wellbeing

Against the backdrop of concurrent crises in Afghanistan and Ukraine, the widening of asylum dispersal policies and the Homes for Ukraine scheme, many communities across the UK have welcomed more refugee children than ever before over the past couple of years.

Almost overnight, some schools – particularly those in rural areas – went from never having had any refugee or asylum-seeking students to welcoming many in space of just a few days.

And yet, in contrast to housing and healthcare providers or employers, schools are often left out of debates surrounding the resettlement and integration of refugees.

That’s despite schools and teachers often being at the forefront of the support provided to asylum-seeking and refugee children and their families. The role that schools play in fostering smooth transitions from conflict and crisis zones into classrooms and wider communities can’t be underestimated.

A safe place to land

In recognition of both the challenges and opportunities this can present for schools, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has set aside time and resources to support schools and teachers in creating safe, predictable environments. These are ones in which refugee children can develop socially, emotionally and academically.

We’ve specially adapted the IRC’s Healing Classrooms programme to fit the current UK context. We’ve delivered it in over 500 schools across the country so far.

The transition from conflict and crisis zones to classrooms can sometimes take just a matter of days. Sometimes it can take years, with children and young people experiencing stays in multiple countries prior to their arrival in the UK. Even once they arrive, many young refugees and their families will remain in transient and precarious situations. They often live in temporary accommodation and are unsure of when they may have to move.

With much of these children’s formative years characterised by uncertainty and upheaval, schools can provide a hugely valuable sense of stability and predictability. They can serve as islands of safety for refugee children and asylum seekers.

Individuals, not numbers

The first session in the Healing Classrooms programme examines the steps schools can take to ensure that newly arrived students feel safe and welcome in their new environment. It’s common to see newly arrived children as numbers rather than individuals. They may feel like they have no control over their lives or futures.

School can provide a welcome opportunity for them to regain an element of control over their lives and rebuild those feelings of self-worth and safety.

To that end, schools should look at how they can make their learning environments as welcoming as possible for all students. This might involve the use of effective buddy systems and implementation of culturally responsive curriculums. Or it might involve translated signs positioned around the school and inclusive food options at lunch.

At the heart of the first Healing Classrooms session is the importance of embedding consistency throughout the school culture. This is as well as the need to ensure that school remains a safe place with consistent routines and no sudden surprises. Only then can children begin to recover, settle and learn.

A sense of community for refugee children

As an organisation, we’re fond of the saying, ‘Refugees bring more than they carry’. And nowhere is this more apparent than in schools. We view newly arrived refugee students as assets to the school community, rather than burdens.

Newly arrived students need to feel valued as individuals and welcome in their new communities. They need to have trusted adults who can support them, and be able to form healthy relationships with their peers. Extracurricular activities, whether related to sports or the arts, can provide outlets for students that are less reliant on speaking and understanding English.

Similarly, effective group work focused on specific projects, such as a school beautification initiative, can be an effective step that schools and teachers can take towards further building and developing their learning communities.

In order for newly arrived children to feel part of such communities, however, it’s important that we keep them in mainstream lessons as much as possible. Regardless of their English proficiency, we’d only recommend separate English intervention in a minority of cases. Yet unfortunately, schools adopt this approach far too frequently.

“We’d only recommend separate English intervention in a minority of cases”

Separating refugee students from their peers can create a physical and cultural separation that does little to help build the sense of community and belonging. This sense is so vital if refugee students are to thrive. We should only ever do this under very specific, and even then, only strictly time limited circumstances.

Prior knowledge

However, even when embedded in mainstream lessons, refugee students will often find themselves in low sets on account of their lack of – or perceived lack of – ability to speak in English. This misconception that fluency in English is an indicator of academic ability leads to placing students in sets where behaviour is often worse. Teachers are also less able to set aside time for additional support.

The final session of the Healing Classrooms programme seeks to address this by focusing on how schools can effectively foster academic success amongst newly arrived students. One way is by encouraging schools to let students work in their first languages, under certain circumstances.

Teachers can be understandably hesitant to allow this. But it’s a practice we ultimately recommend in structured environments where the cognitive challenge is high.

For example, just because a student can’t describe the water cycle in English, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have no knowledge of what it is.

By allowing students to describe the water cycle in their own language first, before then translating this into a simpler English explanation, we’re simply using all the languages they have at their disposal to facilitate learning. At the same time we’re also growing their English vocabulary.

Better still would be providing keyword worksheets translated into the student’s language prior to lessons. This could help to unlock a wealth of prior knowledge that you otherwise might miss.

Ensuring that your curriculum is culturally responsive and reflective of the wider school community is important for ensuring academic success. By teaching in a way that engages learners whose experiences and cultures are often left out, we can ensure all students gain the critical consciousness and cultural competence needed to prosper. This is both socially and academically.

Trauma-informed approaches

A key pillar of our work centres around the embrace of a trauma-informed approach. This equips teachers with the skills needed to better support students from refugee and asylum-seeking backgrounds.

Schools have the potential to be environments of healing, where mental wounds caused by displacement can be alleviated. This allows children and young people to reclaim their sense of childhood.

For every student, regardless of background, school should be a safe and supportive environment. It should be somewhere they feel a sense of belonging and self-worth. Given the right opportunities and support, refugee students can recover and thrive after experiencing trauma.

The most important message to take forward is that all classrooms can, and should be Healing Classrooms. And that it’s easier than you may think to achieve this. Often, it’s the smallest changes that can make the biggest impact for a refugee or asylum-seeking child in your classroom.

Josh Corlett is the UK education coordinator at the International Rescue Committee; for more information about the IRC’s UK education programming, visit the organisation’s website or contact josh.corlett@rescue.org

All IRC training courses and supporting resources are provided free of charge

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