Educational starting points for students of refugee backgrounds are different to those of mainstream students and other migrants. You can greatly support students by adapting the good teaching you are currently doing. This section provides a variety of learning strategies to enhance your work with students of refugee backgrounds.
Social & emotional learning (SEL)
Before arriving in Australia, students are likely to have experienced severe disruptions to their schooling and childhood attachments. They may, therefore, not have developed the core social and emotional competencies required for successful learning at school.
Students can benefit from social and emotional learning (SEL) to develop the knowledge and skills needed to support learning, positive behaviour and constructive social relationships. SEL competencies link to the Foundation House trauma recovery goals by enhancing students’ sense of safety and control, promoting their connections with others, and enabling meaning-making.
Things to consider
- Evidence presented by Beyond Blue shows the teaching of SEL skills improves students’ academic performance and reduces risk behaviours.
- The most effective interventions use a whole-school approach in which social and emotional learning is supported by a health-promoting school climate.
- SEL is a key component of the nationally funded Be You resource to support student mental health and wellbeing, and SEL programs are widely used in Victorian schools.
- Details of SEL programs can be found on DET’s SELS webpage.
- Resilience, Rights and Respectful Relationships learning materials are for teachers in primary and secondary schools to support students’ SEL.
- Respectful Relationships is an initiative to support schools to teach children and young people how to build healthy relationships, resilience and confidence.
A primary school in Melbourne’s South East, identified that many of their students from refugee backgrounds were not attending school camps. The school decided to use the Refugee and Asylum Seeker Wellbeing Supplement to augment the camps, sports and excursions fund. Due to this change, parents and carers of students of refugee backgrounds are now only required to pay an out-of-pocket sum of $40 per student per camp.
Parents and carers helping in school
Promote the opportunity for parents and carers to help in school, which is beneficial to students and teachers.
A parent’s level of English language and education need not be an issue.
‘I don’t speak English, but could chat with students who speak my language,’ (Parent). ‘I really enjoyed speaking to the students and helping them. They enjoyed it too!’ (Parent)
- Help parents and carers obtain a Working with Children Check (WWCC).
- Ask for helpers via your newsletter and Multicultural Education Aide (MEA) connections.
- Send student-made invitations to parents/carers.
- Provide invitations to information sessions.
- Invite parents/carers to observe and try helping with activities.
- Organise a training session. Make a video of school activities (and helpers) with voiceovers in key languages.
- Invite parents/carers to come with a friend to improve confidence.
- Profile a helper in the school newsletter.
Parents and carers supporting at-home learning
‘There is confusion about homework. In my home country there was a different approach … Here parents are expected to help.’ (Parent)
Families of refugee backgrounds may have different expectations about the home help they can offer to their children’s learning.
In their countries of origin, parents and carers may have regarded teachers as unquestionable authority figures holding sole responsibility for their children’s education. In Australia, they may lack confidence to support their children’s learning, particularly when a new language is involved.
There are many ways you can assist parents and carers to support their children’s learning, even if they do not speak English or cannot read in their first language.
- Explain that ‘helping’ at home means encouraging, listening, responding, praising, guiding, monitoring and discussing – not ‘teaching’ school subjects.
- Organise and invite parents and carers to a tailored information session around supporting at-home learning (with the assistance of Multicultural Education Aides (MEAs) and using interpreters and translations as required).
- Describe to parents and carers the value of showing interest in their children’s school work.
- Encourage them to talk in their own language to their children about what they have been doing in class.
- Describe other ways of showing interest and supporting their children’s learning, such as:
- displaying children’s work in the house (e.g. on the fridge)
- listening to children read in English.
- allowing time and space for homework.
- encouraging discussion and debate.
- Personally invite parents and carers to attend student-led conferences and parent/carer–teacher interviews.
- Explain to families that it is important for children to have a good breakfast and arrive at school on time.
- Reiterate the importance of a healthy school lunch and snacks.
- Remind parents and carers to check children’s school bags daily for school notices.
‘Homework’ is not only work done alone, but also interactive activities shared with others at home or in the community, linking schoolwork to real life.
Parents and carers can help their children with homework by:
- Discussing with them what homework needs to be done.
- Providing a quiet space and time.
- Encouraging them to participate in local homework clubs.
Multicultural education aides (MEAs) in the classroom
Multicultural education aides (MEAs) (or bicultural workers in some schools) are invaluable in assisting students and teachers because they understand the refugee experience and its impact upon students’ learning and students’ home cultures.
MEAs are employed by schools to support EAL learners and their families. As stated in DET’s MEA Handbook, one of the main roles of an MEA is to assist EAL students in classroom programs. Under teacher supervision and guidance they can:
- Support EAL students in their learning by explaining concepts or instructions in the learners’ first or other languages.
- Assist individual EAL students or groups of students in mainstream or EAL classes.
- Provide teachers with insights into students’ cultural backgrounds and experiences.
- Assist with activities and excursions.
- Assist the teacher with the development of materials.
- Contribute cultural perspectives to curriculum content to make it more relevant to all students.
- Assist teachers to communicate with parents and other family members.
- Prepare simple (low-risk) written information for parents, such as notes, notices or basic information about the school.
- MEAs are often exposed to confidential and sensitive information. It is vital to support MEAs by providing supervision and debriefing.
- Professional development should be made available, and the role should be reviewed regularly.
- It helps to profile your MEAs’ work among the broader staff so the MEAs’ role is clear.
For more information about MEAs’ responsibilities in Victoria, see DET’s MEA Handbook.
Students with disabilities
Students of refugee backgrounds who are living with disabilities face many barriers and accessing educational support services can be difficult.
There are significant barriers to accessing ongoing educational supports for children and young people who may:
- Arrive with a condition that is undiagnosed or not formally diagnosed
- Arrive with a poorly managed condition
- Be a young person presenting with a condition that is typically diagnosed during childhood
- Arrive without necessary aids and equipment (for example, a wheelchair or walking aids)
- Be recovering from the impacts of traumatic refugee experiences.
Special schools are eligible for the Refugee and Asylum Seeker Wellbeing Supplement, which can be used to provide a range of supports.
Students learning English as an additional language (EAL) are a significant group in Victorian Government schools, including students in special schools. EAL funding is not currently available for children with disabilities in special schools. This includes funding for multicultural education aides (MEAs).
Schools that do not receive EAL funding often employ bicultural/bilingual workers to support students of refugee backgrounds and other EAL students. These staff members often have similar roles to MEAs.
After undertaking cognitive, speech and medical assessments 12-year-old Martin is diagnosed with a moderate intellectual disability and speech delay. Martin’s parents are distressed by the diagnoses. They are confused about what supports may be available to them and what the best decisions are for his future.
Things to consider
- Families may not readily disclose their child’s impairment for fear of stigma and immigration consequences.
- In some communities there is stigma associated with intellectual disabilities and epilepsy.
- Children living with disabilities may not have attended school in the country of transit because of stigmatisation.
- Cultural considerations may mean that families are less accepting of outside help.
- Families are unlikely to be aware of available support services and concepts of care, and of the notions of rights for people who are living with a disability.
- Sometimes when a child’s disability has been coped with for some time, attending to it is not a top priority for families dealing with other settlement challenges and supporting relatives remaining overseas.
What you can do
- Provide information opportunities for families aimed at destigmatising intellectual disabilities.
- Build a trusting relationship with students’ parents/carers.
- Connect the family with local disability support services.
- Advocate when needed to promote early referral and access to disability services.
- Inform parents/carers that case management is available for newly arrived families of refugee backgrounds with complex needs. See Humanitarian Settlement Program, Specialised and Intensive Services.
- Organise professional learning for school staff around engaging families of refugee backgrounds, and the impacts of refugee experiences upon children’s learning and development.
Accurate and thorough assessments require a trusting relationship between the student, family, school and health professionals.
Challenges may present within the classroom and school in terms of a student’s learning and behaviour. It is important that students with apparent developmental delays, language delays and intellectual disabilities are referred early in order to promptly access appropriate supports.
School–family engagement will help identify the possible influence of other factors on the child’s development, including:
- Past exposure to traumatic events
- English language proficiency
- Language/s spoken at stages of the child’s development
- Family functioning
- Prior school experiences
- Undiagnosed medical conditions.
There is a need for appropriate professional learning for school staff and health professionals around engaging families of refugee backgrounds, and the impacts of refugee experiences upon children’s learning and development.
Trauma informed practice in education is an excellent online resource with an array of practical tools developed by Rebecca Harris and based upon her work in student and family wellbeing at Carlton Primary School
LMERC – Languages and Multicultural Education Resource Centre has a vast range of services and resources available to school staff. You can subscribe to the LMERC newsletter by emailing email@example.com with the word ‘subscribe’ in the subject line.
PETAA – Primary English Teaching Association Australia publishes primary resources, including professional development and research in EAL and multicultural perspectives