Supporting Refugee Children and Youth: Tips for Educators

National Association of School Psychologists. Communique, January/February 2016 | Go to article overview

Supporting Refugee Children and Youth: Tips for Educators


As a result of violence and oppression around the world, many families are forced to flee their countries as refugees. Consequently, schools across the country are welcoming and serving students from diverse nations. these students bring their unique individual cultures and backgrounds while bearing some of the challenges and stresses of the refugee experience. the following tips and related resources can help educators meet the unique needs of refugee students.

Understand and recognize stressors. Refugee children and youth are often traumatized from premigration and resettlement experiences. they may have been exposed to violence and combat, home displacement, malnutrition, detention, and torture. many have been forced to leave their country and cannot safely return home. Some may have come without their parents and without knowing of their health or safety. Psychological stress and traumatic experiences are often inflicted upon these children over months or even years, and many experience some kind of discrimination once entering U.S. schools. Additionally, they often resettle in high-poverty and high-crime neighborhoods, increasing exposure to stressful conditions.

Understand the effect of trauma on school functioning. Extreme stress, adversity, and trauma can impede concentration, cognitive functioning, memory, and social relationships. Additionally, stress can contribute to both internalized symptoms such as hypervigilance, anxiety, depression, grief, fear, anger, isolation; and externalized behaviors such as startle responses, reactivity, aggression, and conduct problems. Given the often chronic and significant stress placed on refugee students, many are at increased risk for developing trauma and other mental health disorders, undermining their ability to function effectively in school. Further, given the environment of their previous schooling and the immigration to the United States, many arrive with significantly interrupted schooling; coupled with language gaps, many students arrive unprepared to participate in school with their same-age peers.

Equip staff to provide trauma sensitive responses and supports. Creating trauma-sensitive schools greatly enhances supports for all traumatized students, including refugees. A trauma-sensitive school views behaviors as a potential outcome of life circumstances rather than willful disobedience or intentional misbehavior. trauma-sensitive approaches emphasize helping school staff understand the impact of trauma on school functioning and seeing behavior through this lens; building trusting relationships among teachers and peers; helping students develop the ability to self-regulate behaviors, emotions, and attention; supporting student success in academic and nonacademic areas; and promoting physical and emotional health. Additional information is available at http://traumasensitiveschools.org.

Understand the challenges of relocation and acculturation. Refugee children and youth often have to significant adjustments to life in their new community and school. this includes language differences, not understanding how schools function, to whom or where to go for help, little familiarity with the curriculum, unfamiliar social mores, and difficulty making friends. Some refugees are relocated to communities with an existing population from their country. others may be the only people from their country, heightening the sense of isolation. Also note that children frequently adapt culturally and linguistically more quickly than their parents. over time, this can cause conflict when children deviate from tradition and can increase the burden on children when parents rely on them to navigate their new environment and to act as language translators.

Be sensitive to family stressors. Parents and other family members are also dealing with the stress of relocation, including trying to navigate and achieve self-sufficiency in their new community. this includes overcoming language and cultural barriers, finding housing and employment, establishing a social network, understanding their role in their children's schooling, accessing social services, and connecting with their faith community. …

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