School climate refers to the character and quality of your school’s life. Students’ recovery from traumatic refugee events occurs through their engagement, wellbeing and achievement in a positive school climate. The features of such an environment are described throughout this section.

This Section

Promoting Inclusion

An inclusive school climate contributes to students reaching their full potential and better outcomes for all. Inclusiveness can be measured by the:

  • Strength of relationships between school staff, students, parents/carers and the wider community.
  • Schools’ general ambience and physical surroundings.
  • Activities and support structures in place for students.
  • Curriculum that promotes understanding of cultural diversity.
  • Classroom environments.

What you can do

  • Encourage students to own multicultural principles and take responsibility for demonstrating them.
  • Present multicultural perspectives across the curriculum.
  • Make culturally appropriate food (e.g. halal meats) available in school canteens.
  • Celebrate significant cultural and religious occasions.
  • Involve students in visual art to celebrate diversity.
  • Allow variations in school uniform to cater for religious and cultural practices.
  • Be flexible with physical education, sport and health topics, and organise gender-specific activities where appropriate.

Students of refugee backgrounds are globally engaged learners to who human rights, social justice and conflict resolution have concrete relevance.

Things to consider

  • Young people especially question why violence and other threats occurred to their families and communities.
  • Students are likely to engage with global issues as a means of recovering from their experiences of persecution, violent conflict and human rights violations.
  • Global citizenship curriculum can be included at all stages of schooling and through all learning areas.
  • When students develop a sense of global citizenship, they learn to respect key universal values, such as peace, social justice and upholding the rights and dignity of all people.

What you can do

  • Educate around global citizenship by integrating global perspectives into the curriculum, drawing on contemporary events.
  • Encourage your school to actively engage with its local community around global issues.
  • Develop school programs to support students’ understanding of the impact of inequality and discrimination upon citizenship.
  • Make the promotion of human rights and social justice an integral part of everyday school life.

Students of refugee backgrounds feel supported when their school promotes cultural and religious diversity.

Multiculturalism in the school context means respecting and valuing cultural and religious diversity, and encouraging and supporting all to contribute to the school community. In particular, many new arrivals would like to celebrate or recognise specific religious and cultural events at school as they occur across the calendar year.

Some former Refugee Education Support Program (RESP) schools’ approaches to promoting multiculturalism, have included:

  • Placing religious and cultural dates of significance on Compass.
  • EAL leader sends an email out once a week about cultural and religious events/dates of significance in the week ahead.
  • Expand/develop Cultural Diversity/Harmony Day activities.
  • Introducing Refugee Week activities.
  • Providing opportunity for SRC leadership group to plan activities that celebrate diversity.
  • Holding four cultural celebration days – Harmony Day, Afghan Day (during Eid), Pacifika Day, Indian/Sri Lankan Day (during Diwali).
  • Introducing anti-racism/social cohesion programs, e.g. Multipride or similar.
  • Creating stickers and posters that promote inclusion and celebrate diversity.
  • Creating video of students saying ‘Hello’ in different languages.
  • Developing policy on school’s acknowledgement of religious/cultural occasions.
  • Creating prayer space/quiet reflection space for students – consult with students regarding the development of the space.

For more ideas, see DET’s Multicultural Education Resources.

Interpreters and translations

To engage effectively with your school, students and families need to understand the school’s verbal and written information. Effective interpreting and translation services are vital and free for government schools. Visit DET’s Interpreting and Translation Services for operational policy information, guidance and supporting resources.

Interpreters are available for:

  • Parent/carer–teacher interviews.
  • Information sessions.
  • Educational assessments.
  • Enrolments.
  • Meetings.

Telephone interpreters are available at all times through LanguageLoop.

What you can do

  • Ensure families know that interpreters are available.
  • Create a system for the effective allocation of interpreters.
  • Train teachers to understand how to work with interpreters.
  • Set up a process for allowing families to provide feedback about service quality.

Tip: Multicultural Education Aides (MEAs) are not trained interpreters and should not be given that responsibility.

You should endeavour to have as much of your school’s written material as possible translated into numerous community languages. Visit DET’s Insert Interpreting and Translation Services for operational policy information, guidance and supporting resources.

What you can do

  • Ensure your website is available in multiple languages.
  • Use translated audio files (or podcasts) on your website.
  • Reduce translated notices to key information only.
  • Use the same template (or colour) for all actionable notices (e.g. those requiring permission or signature).
  • Establish a dedicated telephone line, in community languages, with key school dates recorded.
  • Use visuals to enhance engagement.
  • Use smartphone apps for translated group messages.
  • Create translated videos with school background information.

Multicultural education aides (MEAs) (or bicultural workers/family liaison officers (FLOs) in some schools) are invaluable for schools. They understand the refugee experience and can do much of the work of partnering with families.

‘The MEA is very important to parents from our community. We see her at all times all over the school. She stands in the corridors when parents drop off children and tells them about programs.’ (Parent)

Some families report choosing schools based on the presence of a MEA from their language group.

MEAs have a wide range of responsibilities, including:

  • Assisting newly arrived families settle into the school community.
  • Helping families with day-to-day school tasks (e.g. forms, appointments, events, general liaison).
  • Assisting communication between students and teachers.
  • Helping teachers understand home cultures and families’ school/education expectations.
  • Integrating EAL learners.
  • Translating school materials when required.

Other MEA considerations:

  • 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 MEA’s work among the broader staff so the MEA’s role is clear.

For more information about MEAs roles and responsibilities in Victorian schools, see DET’s MEA Handbook.

Remember: MEAs are not trained interpreters and should not be given that responsibility.

By proactively addressing racism at your school you are providing a vital protective factor for the engagement and wellbeing of students and families of refugee backgrounds.

Schools benefit from dealing with racism in a proactive and public way. The 2017 Speak Out Against Racism (SOAR) study surveyed 4664 primary and secondary students in Victorian and New South Wales government schools and found that:

  • About one-third of all students reported experiences of racial discrimination by peers (31%) and just over one tenth (12%) by teachers.
  • More than half (60%) of the participants reported seeing other students being racially discriminated against by their peers.

Nearly half (43%) of students reported seeing incidents of racial discrimination directed towards other students by teachers.

Experiences of racism at school may trigger trauma reactions among students and families of refugee backgrounds.

You may feel that students and their parents/carers are being overly sensitive to racial discrimination. They are highly sensitive because direct and indirect experiences of discrimination at school present traumatic reminders of humiliating experiences in their country of origin, or along the journey to Australia.

What you can do

Your school’s physical environment plays an important role in supporting students who may feel highly stressed at school.

The school physical environment comprises school grounds, buildings, facilities, gardens, décor, and organisation. It should foster interaction among members of the entire school community, while also providing quiet spaces where students and staff can safely retreat as needed.

The Victorian Government’s Healthy Schools Achievement Program defines a health-promoting school environment in this way:

“A safe environment is designed to prevent unintended injury and to promote inclusivity. This means creating school facilities that promote healthy behaviours, comply with safety guidelines, and making sure that all students can move through you school with ease, regardless of their ability. It also means creating an environment that is free from discrimination, bullying and harassment and where all students and staff feel supported.” 

You will see positive impacts when creative and practical strategies are applied across the school’s physical environment to promote safety and wellbeing. Consider supporting ‘co-design’ by involving students, teachers and other staff, and families in the process of improving your school’s physical environment.

It is important to review how your school’s curriculum promotes inclusion and an understanding of cultural diversity among all students across your learning areas.

Inclusive curriculum supports students’ recovery by restoring their sense of meaning, identity and justice, and promoting their dignity and value. Additionally, with the appropriate curriculum, teachers can assist students to develop an age-appropriate understanding of the political causes of violence and human rights violations.

What you can do

  • Collect information and keep records about the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of students.
  • Ask your Multicultural Education Aides (MEAs) to contribute their cultural perspectives to curriculum content to make it more relevant to all students.
  • Review your curriculum and audit your library resources for cultural bias: Anglo-European culturally biased curriculum resources misrepresent the cultural and linguistic diversity of contemporary Australian society.
  • Provide students with opportunities to give curriculum feedback to teachers and school leadership (e.g. How it enables their participation/How racism is addressed/How diversity is acknowledged).
  • English: understand that English is one of many languages spoken in Australia and that different languages may be spoken by family, classmates and community.
  • Science: identify how ‘race’ is represented in your science curriculum.
  • Humanities: examine how identities are influenced by people and places
  • Health and Physical Education: allow students to participate in physical activities from their own and others’ cultures, and examine how involvement creates community connections and intercultural understanding.

Helpful curriculum resources

  • The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority’s (ACARA) Australia Curriculum Website connects curriculum with student diversity and promoting equity.
  • Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority’s (VCAA) Intercultural Capability curriculum resources are available to support the explicit teaching and learning of the Victorian Curriculum F–10: Intercultural Capability.
  • The VCAA curriculum resources were developed in collaboration with primary and secondary teachers from government, Catholic and independent schools as part of the 2018–19 Intercultural Capability Project.

Empowering Students

Students of refugee backgrounds will understand wellbeing at school in terms of: having a say, being listened to, having rights, and being respected.

Anderson and Graham’s 2015 study Improving student wellbeing: having a say at school found that, in terms of understanding wellbeing at school, Australian primary and secondary students ranked ‘being respected’ most highly.

This corresponds with Foundation House’s insights from the 2019 study ‘School is where you need to be equal and learn: insights from students of refugee backgrounds on learning and engagement in Victorian secondary schools. ‘Dignity and value’ ranked most highly among the 51 students (aged 13–19) we consulted. Our participants spoke of the significant impact of student–teacher relationships in which they felt safe, respected and able to express themselves and their needs.

Student voice, agency and leadership

Effective schools build a climate where teachers and students work together, and where student voice, agency and leadership are understood and promoted

DET’s Student Voice Practice Guide (Amplify) shows how student voice, agency and leadership represent different aspects of student empowerment. 

Student voice is about students knowing they have power to influence change around what and how they learn and how their learning is assessed.

Student agency is about experiencing power in the learning environment or classroom. Student voice and agency are intrinsically linked. 

Student leadership is about representing and advocating on behalf of other students.

Helpful resources

Student Health and Wellbeing

For students of refugee backgrounds settling in your school, health and wellbeing relates to their experience of recovery through meaningful inclusion, engagement and achievement at school.

Your school is a natural context for supporting the health and wellbeing of students. You can support students by anticipating specific health and wellbeing concerns to arise, and being prepared to sensitively respond.

School staff, students, families, communities and agencies in partnership  create a school-wide health-promoting environment. The SIFR whole-school approach  is adapted from the World Health Organization (WHO) Health Promoting Schools (HPS) framework.

A Health Promoting School is a school that is ‘constantly strengthening its capacity as a healthy setting for living, learning and working’ (WHO 2011). The Australian Student Wellbeing Framework highlights the importance of teachers, students, families and communities working together to promote health and wellbeing.

Children and young people of refugee backgrounds will have similar health problems to their Australian-born peers (e.g. viral illnesses and injuries), as well as health issues specific to their country of origin and refugee experience.

They are more likely to have health concerns associated with malnutrition, disease, physical injuries, and sexual or physical abuse. The influence of potential health problems should not be overlooked when considering student wellbeing at school.

Useful Resources 

All children and young people of refugee backgrounds, regardless of age or Medicare status, are eligible for free age-appropriate catch-up vaccines. Enrolling students in school is a good time to check that their vaccinations are up to date.

Children and young people who arrive as a refugee or seeking asylum are likely to need catch-up vaccinations.

It is important to ensure that students are vaccinated according to the Australian immunisation schedule, equivalent to Australian-born children of the same age.

Vaccination status can affect Centrelink payments for families under the Australian Government No Jab No Pay policy. Read more about immunisation requirements here. If a family is experiencing difficulties with Centrelink regarding immunisation status, it is best to contact their GP, Refugee Health Nurse or a settlement health coordinator.

Refugee Health Program or Settlement Health Coordinators provide a free service, and you do not need to make a referral. Parents and carers may need support accessing information about immunisation.

Take a holistic approach to assessing children’s learning and development needs and consider their educational starting points. Students can thrive with additional supports in place.

Vanessa (aged 9) had only been at school for six months, but already they’d booked her in for a cognitive assessment. She’d previously had three terms of the ELS. She was from a refugee camp in Thailand, had been born there, no previous schooling. The school couldn’t make sense of how she just doesn’t seem to understand instructions. There were so many factors that were impacting on this student.

Exposure to multiple  traumatic events, combined with disrupted schooling  and settlement challenges, have far-reaching impacts upon children’s development and functioning – which affects their learning, behaviour  and wellbeing at school.

Things to consider about your students

  • Are likely to need extra effort in academic skills acquisition.
  • May have multiple languages spoken but academic proficiency in none.
  • May have their age inaccurately recorded (indicator is birth date 31 December or 1 January), which has implications for assessing their learning competencies and school placement.
  • Are likely to require EAL support across the curriculum.
  • May exhibit learning and behavioural difficulties, which you should initially interpret through a trauma lens.

Children of refugee backgrounds often have poor understandings of sexuality and sexual health, and limited opportunities to learn about puberty before and after their arrival in Australia

Your students may

  • Be inadequately informed about sexual and reproductive health issues.
  • Be experiencing high levels of guilt and shame.
  • Be facing forced marriage and find it hard to tell you about their situation.
  • Have past experiences of gender and sexually based violence, such as physical assault, female genital mutilation (FGM), sexual harassment, or rape.

Things to consider 

  • Students may prefer to talk with gender-matched teachers.
  • Who would they ordinarily have these conversations with (culturally)?
  • What information have they already accessed and from where?
  • Is there an appropriate family member to discuss this with?
  • Are they comfortable with you including the family member in the conversation?
  • Harm minimisation and risk assessment, including:
    • access to online information that is reputable and accurate
    • access to reading material about sexual health and puberty
    • assisting to access another service with more expertise.

What you can do

  • Anticipate conversations regarding puberty, sexual health and gender.
  • Understand these conversations with students in relation to their recovery from refugee trauma, while meeting their developmental needs.
  • Prepare to provide supportive information to students who may have lost family members and social networks they would ordinarily look to.
  • Be sensitive to culture and religion, while recognising the importance of children discussing with safe and supportive adults.
  • Include families, when possible, in these conversations, and support families to talk to their children about sexual health and puberty.

Forced marriage is not limited to any particular cultural group, religion or ethnicity. 

As a teacher, you may be the first trusted person to come into contact with a child who is facing forced marriage. It is important that you know what signs to look out for, and how to support and refer cases of forced marriage.

International best practice suggests that attempts to mediate between people facing forced marriage and their families should be avoided.

Visit My Blue Sky for information and resources for teachers about forced marriage in Australia.

Asylum seeking students and their families are likely to experience poor health owing to:

  • Stress and anxiety about the outcome of their protection claims, and being unable to plan for the future.
  • Prior extended periods in detention with deleterious effects on mental health.
  • Past trauma and torture experiences.
  • Financial hardship.

Things to consider

  • Students are likely to have adult-like caring responsibilities at home and may be affected by their parents’/carers’ trauma.
  • Some families may be reliant on charity for their shelter, food and medical care. If parents/carers do not have work rights they will not have access to Medicare.

What you can do

  • You can help ensure adequate supports are in place by identifying students and families who are asylum seekers at enrolment.
  • ‘Voluntary School Contribution’ notices are anxiety provoking for asylum seeking families. Explain to parents/carers that these payments are not compulsory, and provide a translated letter with this message.
  • Provide families with information regarding local support services and emergency relief providers.
  • Support students to access low-cost text books.
  • Provide uniform alternatives, ensuring that uniform items can be purchased at a low cost.
  • Provide food programs for all students, e.g. breakfast club, sandwiches at lunchtime, basket of fruit and packaged food items.

Children and young people can be referred to Foundation House whether they are newly arrived or have been in Australia for many years.

They are required to meet all of the following criteria:

  • Have a refugee or refugee-like background.
  • Have a history of torture and/or other traumatic events prior to arrival in Australia or be an immediate family member of such a person.
  • Have a history of torture and/or other traumatic events prior to arrival in Australia or be an immediate family member of such a person.
  • Consent to receive our services (if under 18 years of age you MUST have the consent of parents/carers).
  • Do not pose an unacceptable risk to the safety of staff or other clients.

When do students require a referral?
Not all students exhibiting trauma reactions and disclosing traumatic material require a referral to Foundation House. Where problems are persistent and severely disrupt the student’s capacity to participate and learn, a referral to Foundation House may be helpful. You will need to complete a Schools Referral Form. If you have questions about making a referral, telephone (03) 9389 8900.

Supporting Positive Behaviour

Whole-school trauma-informed and restorative approaches to addressing inappropriate behaviour are well suited to the needs of students of refugee backgrounds.

Restorative practices assist teachers and students to build, maintain and restore relationships, e.g. if a student upsets another student, they will make a plan to repair the relationship. This is vital for students of refugee backgrounds who may have prior traumatic experiences of forced seclusion and violent physical restraint.

Restorative approaches prevent inappropriate behaviour while enabling social and emotional learning. They help to enable students to self-regulate their behaviour and contribute to the improvement of their learning outcomes.

What you can do
  • Get to know your students and what may trigger behaviours.
  • Explicitly acknowledge appropriate behaviour.
  • Use a calm voice and validating language.
  • Avoid power struggle – look for win/win outcome.
  • Try to counteract the ‘wait-to-fail’ approach of restrictive frameworks and move your school to a prevention-based approach to inappropriate behaviour.
  • Link fundamentals of the whole-school approach to positive behaviour with the curriculum wherever possible, for example, as part of the Resilience, Rights and Respectful Relationships curriculum.

Staff Wellbeing

Contributing to students’ recovery is immensely satisfying. However, working with students and families who have survived refugee experiences can emotionally impact you.

After hearing about refugee events from students, teachers may experience some of the trauma responses their students exhibit. A danger is taking excessive responsibility for students’ wellbeing. There are many reasons for this, including the need to do something to overcome feelings of helplessness, the desire to protect, and the need to restore hope.

Teachers may also extend their efforts to improving school systems and increasing awareness among colleagues. While desirable, the limits of personal responsibility must be examined constantly. If left unmonitored, the emotional effects can lead to exhaustion.

The ideal is for staff to try to maintain a balance between professional detachment and empathy, which enables teachers to act in their students’ best interests.

Other Risk Factors for Teachers
  • Placing unrealistically high demands and expectations on themselves and others.
  • Being offered limited resources and time for their work.
  • Feeling lack of control.
  • Having insufficient support from leaders and colleagues.
  • Feeling lack of acceptance/acknowledgement of their efforts.

Be You for provides educators with resources and strategies for helping children and young people with their wellbeing and mental health.

Health Translations provides translated information about health and wellbeing, including sexual health and puberty.

Bright Futures: Spotlight on the wellbeing of young people from refugee and migrant backgrounds is a report by VicHealth which examines the challenges that young people from refugee and migrant backgrounds will face over the coming years.

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.

Let’s talk about race: A guide on how to conduct a conversation about racism is designed to support the start of a conversation about racism in your organisation.

Wellbeing In Schools Australia (WISA) is a not-for-profit organisation working to make wellbeing in schools accessible to all. Its website provides a variety of useful resources and support for schools.

Global Education has developed a wide range of resources for teachers to encourage a global perspective across the curriculum.

DET’s Bully Stoppers support schools to identify and prevent racist bullying and promote inclusion.