Families face many challenges while continuing to manage the effects of trauma, forced separation and disrupted schooling. This section provides information and resources to support your school to build partnerships with families.
‘It’s very good for parents to have a relationship with the school. Some children might report what the school says. For example, “There’s no homework” or “I don’t have to wear a uniform.” If you have a good relationship and communication with the school you can check this out.’
Living in a new country, families of refugee backgrounds face challenging transitions during settlement, including:
- Learning a new language.
- Living in a new dominant culture.
- Managing housing and financial demands.
- Negotiating a new education system.
- Dealing with changes in family composition, relationships and roles.
- Support families to recover from refugee experiences.
- Enrich your school community.
- Enhance students’ engagement, wellbeing and achievement.
Understanding families of refugee backgrounds
Families of refugee backgrounds bring resilience, strengths and skills with them to Australia – which you can appreciate by looking through the three lenses for understanding refugee experiences.
The three lenses are relevant to all families of refugee backgrounds. All three lenses are important. No one lens should be used as an overarching explanation of family behaviour.
For example, people may explain family violence with a cultural lens as an expression of patriarchal societies or traditional cultural practices. The reality is a likely combination of factors, including the impact of persecution and human rights violations, daily financial hardships and loss of status in a new country.
Students of refugee backgrounds live in a diverse range of family structures, including:
- Two parents.
- One parent (likely female-headed households).
- Multigenerational households (in some cultures, three generations make up the family group).
- Unaccompanied minors living in the care of grandparents, older siblings, aunts or uncles, or other family members, and friends.
- Living with foster carers.
What you can do
- Use inclusive language – families, parents/carers – to show students your school acknowledges the variety of people who look after and care for them.
The most important function of the family in the face of traumatic events and settlement challenges is to play a protective role for each of its members.
The refugee experience can affect the capacity of families to carry out this role, particularly when parents or carers are experiencing difficulties associated with their own trauma recovery.
A safe functioning family protects children and young people from further threats of harm, retraumatisation and adverse events during settlement. The extended family can lessen stress, encourage coping behaviour, and facilitate the child’s recovery from refugee experiences.
Secure attachments are related to the presence of a supportive family member, not exclusively the parent. More broadly, a functioning family provides:
- Positive parenting/care-giving.
- Building of secure relationships.
- Facilitation of active engagement in learning and play.
- Encouragement of children’s skill development.
- Increased social and community connect.
- Access to supportive relationships.
- Valued social position for parents/carers.
- Parent/carer access to work.
- Parent/carer connections with children’s school.
- Access to adequate housing.
- Stimulating and safe family functioning.
- Reunification of family members.
- Frequently moving homes and changing schools.
- Limited access to specialist support services, e.g. refugee health.
- Isolation from community.
- Limited prospect of family reunification.
- Poor mental health of one or more parents/carers.
- Parents/carers overly dependent upon their children.
- Disconnection between family and school.
- Parents/carers fearful of people outside the family.
It is helpful for you to be aware of the intergenerational effects of refugee experiences upon students and their families.
A 12-year-old boy, Ali, displayed aggressive behaviour at school. The teacher’s assessment was that he could not adjust to the school routine of sitting in a classroom for several hours each day. At home, Ali was expected to carry out many duties, to look after his unwell mother and younger siblings. His getting into trouble at school was seen by his parents as a moral defect that needed harsh discipline.
Expectations placed upon children like Ali can be very high. When these are not fulfilled, considerable tensions can be created between parents/carers and children.
Things to consider
- During settlement parental roles and the traditional family are challenged as adults become highly dependent upon their children.
- The transmission of parent’s/carer’s feelings and attitudes about traumatic events can affect children not exposed to those events.
- Children’s empathy with the family member most affected by traumatic events can lead to secondary (or vicarious) trauma.
- Due to previous persecution, some parents/carers are fearful of people outside the family, shy away from social interaction and discourage their children from it.
Unaccompanied minors are children under 18 years of age who arrive in Australia without parents to care for them. Their parents are either dead, unable to care for them or cannot be found.
- Carers of unaccompanied minors might also be quite young and/or struggling themselves with settlement issues, they are likely to need extra support with school life and may be experiencing financial hardship.
- Students living with carers, and without parents, may feel the burden to go out and earn money, and worry about carers being angry with them or splitting their carer’s family.
- Parents may be presumed dead and missing, so unaccompanied minors carry the responsibility of finding them and hope of reuniting the family (see Red Cross Tracing and restoring family links program).
- Unaccompanied minor students’ wellbeing is enhanced if they are in touch with family members overseas and helping to support them financially.
- Some students aged under 18 years, will be attempting to sponsor their biological parents and/or siblings if they have been traced.
Partnerships with parents and carers
School-parent/carer partnership is a two-way collaboration based on good communication and trusting relationships, with the goal of enhancing children’s education.
The Australian Family-School Partnerships Framework shows the clear benefits of positive parent/carer engagement in their children’s learning, at home and at school. Collaboration between schools and families is vital for enhancing students’ learning and wellbeing.
What you can do to welcome families
- Provide interpreters.
- Offer interpreted pre-enrolment information sessions, at different times and at a variety of school venues.
- Offer other interpreted information sessions that deal with key issues families face.
- Create a welcome handbook in different languages (including relevant procedures, expectations, key personnel, and dates).
- Ensure office staff are responsive and caring.
- Provide parents/carers with information about family involvement in school life, supporting children at home, and who they can approach for help.
- Follow up information sessions with phone calls.
After a school tour, one parent said, ‘We were unaware that the school had so many facilities and now we appreciate that our children are educated in such a good environment … We consider this country is extremely lucky because we didn’t have these kinds of facilities.’
Some key strategies make for an effective school tour:
- Promote via a translated flyer.
- Make interpreters available.
- Tour the whole school – and classrooms in action.
- Explain safety arrangements (e.g. yard-duty teachers) and gender-segregated toilets.
- Explain your school’s approach to religion and cultural differences (e.g. halal food, dress codes).
Learning walks allow families to observe and reflect on their children’s teaching and learning experiences.
Effective learning walks should include:
- Comprehensive pre-walk briefings for families
- Trained interpreters
- Visual rather than verbal interactions with teachers and students
- MEA involvement.
Well-run information sessions welcome families and introduce school curriculum, policies and procedures. They assist families to transition their children into school by explaining assessment, study skills for students, and the family’s role in supporting students at home. Sessions may also cover post-compulsory pathways for senior students.
Proactive and thoughtful approaches soon see family members getting involved in the life of the school.
Some approaches schools have taken include:
- Morning or afternoon tea meetings with teachers.
- Playgroups for school parents/carers and pre-schoolers.
- Adult computer classes at school (and use of computers for driving and citizenship tests).
- Colour-coding written notices for particular actions, and following up notices with phone calls.
- English classes and sewing workshops.
- Multicultural women’s groups (covering topics such as parenting, consumer affairs, health, child development, and immigration advice).
- Sessions explaining school curriculum.
- Extracurricular sporting activities.
- Out-of-school-hours learning and support programs.
Families’ engagement with the school community is enhanced when teachers make time to chat in a culturally respectful manner. Parents/carers are often surprised at how available Australian teachers are to communicate with them.
Teachers can informally nurture trusting relationships, particularly at drop-off and pick-up times. If teachers can grow families’ confidence regarding communication, there is a flow-on effect in parent/carer engagement with other formal school activities such as parent/carer–teacher interviews and school events.
Early Learning is Fun (ELF), a playgroup for families of refugee backgrounds, is an example of an effective partnership developed between a primary school and Berry Street family support agency. The partnership and project’s aims were to: improve service access for preschool children and their families, enhance child parent/carer relationships, enrich and support children’s learning and increase families’ understanding of the importance of nurturing and play.
The initiative aligned with the school’s goal of strengthening family–school partnerships to improve students’ learning outcomes and, in a positive outcome, the playgroup’s women and children published a book, The Book of Sudanese Cows. Parents/carers welcomed the opportunity the book represented to share their culture and stories with the wider community. The book is also now used in the group’s ‘read, talk, sing, play’ learning approach.
Parents and carers – teacher interviews
‘I really liked the interview. It benefited both me and my children. My children didn’t always bring home books or enough homework, and I told them I would ask their teacher about this. This encouraged and motivated them.’ (Parent)
Your parent/carer–teacher interviews are an obvious point of engagement between schools and families.
- Ensure clear signage and maps (and MEA involvement).
- Display staff photographs, names and subject details in interview rooms.
- Create a relaxed and calm atmosphere.
- Where interpreters are used, add extra time to interviews (allocate one interpreter for a family with several children).
- Include students, (e.g. students can help families navigate the school).
- Provide parents/carers with tips on helping learning at home, and offer information about school or community after-hours programs.
You can consider:
- Alternative ways to engage with parents/carers who do not attend.
- Recording the kinds of questions parents/carers asked and issues raised (you can then provide information on these topics).
- Ensuring MEAs give teachers feedback about whether parents/carers understood what was said in the interviews (parents/carers may not admit to teachers that they misunderstood).
Opening the School Gate: Engaging Migrant and Refugee Families is a resource kit with a range of strategies to encourage families to participate in their children’s education.
CyberParent Web App developed by the Australian Multicultural Foundation, encourages safe and healthy internet use in Australian homes. CyberParent is available in 17 languages, including: English, Arabic, Dari, Dinka, Farsi, Pashto, Somali and Urdu.
The Australian Family-School Partnerships Framework shows the clear benefits of positive parent/carer engagement in their children’s learning, at home and at school.