The interaction of disrupted schooling , past traumatic events and current settlement challenges mean that students often require additional support for academic success. This section of provides a variety of teaching and learning strategies to enhance your work with students of refugee backgrounds.

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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.

Trauma Considerations

Children and young people of refugee backgrounds are likely to experience ‘trauma reactions’ when they are overwhelmed by uncontrollable feelings associated with past traumatic events.

You do not need to know the details of students’ individual traumatic experiences, but it is helpful for you to be informed about the likely impacts of traumatic refugee experiences upon their engagement and learning at school.

It is vital that students know they can safely talk to teachers; and, if they do share, it is important to allow them to control their level of disclosure. Teachers who supportively respond to trauma reactions and disclosures from students are meeting Standard 4 of the Australian Professional  Standards for Teachers.

You can anticipate trauma reactions and disclosures from students of refugee backgrounds to present in a variety of ways.

It is helpful for you to consider the educational starting points of newly arrived students of refugee backgrounds.

Suraya 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 and had 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 functioning – which affects their learning, behaviour and emotional wellbeing .

What you can do

  • Consider students are likely to need extra effort in academic skills acquisition.
  • Remember students will not necessarily have academic language proficiency in their first language, and it is not uncommon for children to speak multiple languages but have academic proficiency in none.
  • Interpret students’ learning and behavioural difficulties initially through a trauma lens.

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.
  • Literacy.
  • 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. This training is provided through Foundation House.

You can also learn more about developmental assessments with children of refugee backgrounds from the Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne.

Trauma recovery  almost always involves students experiencing supportive relationships with their teachers.

When asked why they prefer particular subjects, students typically state ‘the teacher’ as the most important factor for their success and enjoyment.

  • A healthy relationship has elements of feeling comforted, seeking the proximity of the teacher, and trusting the teacher.
  • In the aftermath of refugee experiences, secure attachments with teachers are vital to restoring a sense of inner security.
  • The relational qualities of warmth, genuineness and positive regard are the mechanisms for recovery.

Classroom Strategies

You can greatly support students of refugee backgrounds by adapting the good classroom teaching strategies you are currently practising.

This section provides a variety of classroom strategies individual teachers can employ to enhance their work with students of refugee backgrounds.

Engagement in an inclusive classroom is a vital protective factor for students recovering from refugee experiences.

Teachers with an appreciation of students’ pre-arrival experiences, settlement challenges and learning needs can create classrooms in which students thrive.

Effective strategies take into account students’ need to:

  • Adjust to a different education style (e.g. problem-solving rather than didactic or rote learning).
  • Organise themselves (e.g. diaries, bringing correct materials, and equipment use).
  • Manage their time (e.g. school routines).
  • Adjust to classroom expectations.

Students of refugee backgrounds often require additional support while adapting to your classroom learning.

By applying personal learning approaches (PLAs) you can prioritise students’ strengths, interests, learning and wellbeing needs. PLAs also support trauma recovery by restoring safety and control, dignity and value.

What you can do

  • Know students’ readiness, current skills, interests and learning profile to plan appropriate support and classroom strategies.
  • Plan together with students and other staff how to better support their engagement and achievement by collaboratively developing an individual learning plan.
  • Differentiate your teaching by varying goals, assessment strategies and the pace of learning for each student. This supports you to maintain high challenge while providing high levels of support.
  • Monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of your classroom approaches in relation to students’ progress and goals.

You can greatly support students of refugee backgrounds by adapting the high-impact teaching strategies you are currently practising.

The Victorian Department of Education and Training (DET) provides schools with the High Impact Teaching Strategies (HITS) Excellence in teaching and learning resource.

Teachers at each professional career stage (Graduate, Proficient, Highly Accomplished and Lead), are required to demonstrate a deepening level of proficiency in all seven Australian Professional Standards for Teachers.

To assist teachers with their performance and development plans (PDPs), three of the standards are linked closely to their work with students of refugee backgrounds.

In regards to learning behaviour in the classroom, it is helpful to consider the individual student’s educational starting point and respond to their capacity. It also helps to link wellbeing with positive behaviour.

Students of refugee backgrounds may exhibit behavioural difficulties, which – before considering other explanations – you should initially interpret through the three lenses for understanding refugee experiences.

What sorts of behaviour might present?

  • Reactive, defensive, angry patterns of interacting in the classroom (with themselves and others).
  • Inability to tolerate frustration.
  • Withdrawal and disengagement, not learning, and unable to attend in class.
  • An apparent inability to form relationships with other children.
  • Unable to be calmed, to self-regulate or co-regulate with a known teacher.
  • Sensitivity to perceived injustice.

Things to consider 

  • Students are likely to have experienced severe disruptions to their schooling, and in some instances no schooling at all, before arriving in Australia.
  • Some students may be unfamiliar with class rules/structures, including the need to pay attention, follow instructions, complete assessments and work quietly.
  • Students may need support to build the social and emotional skills needed to make positive choices in the classroom.

What you can do

  • Get to know your student/s and what may trigger inappropriate behaviours.
  • Explicitly acknowledge appropriate behaviour.
  • Use a calm voice and validating language.
  • Don’t overreact and avoid power struggles.
  • Take a collaborative approach by working with the student, other teachers, Multicultural Education Aides (MEAs), and your wellbeing team to build the student’s capacity to support positive learning behaviours.
  • Consistently reflect with colleagues on your own teaching and handling of behaviour (appropriate and inappropriate).

EAL Practice

Students of refugee backgrounds have differing needs from other EAL learners.

They are likely to be ‘at risk’ of educational disengagement because they may have significant gaps in educational knowledge and conceptual development.  They are also likely to have limited literacy abilities in their first language or additional languages, and vastly different pre-arrival educational experiences  compared with other EAL learners.

Providing consistent and sustainable EAL practice and strategies across the curriculum can act as vital protective factor  to promote wellbeing , support recovery and help engage students of refugee backgrounds.

In most instances, EAL specialists in schools are the first point of call when supporting teachers with strategies to scaffold and modify learning support for students.

What you can do

  • Offer a range of support options to your teaching colleagues, including co-planning and resource development, learning area workshops, whole staff workshops and collegial conversations.
  • Collaborate with subject teachers to identify skills in different learning areas that can be developed in the EAL program as well as in subject classes.
  • Develop a repository of resources that have proven successful in the past, so that teachers can access and adapt these to their students’ needs.

All students benefit from EAL practices/strategies that promote ongoing learning and hold academic expectations equitable for all.

Strength-based EAL practices/strategies that support learning area specific skills:

  • Health and PE: Students develop expertise through diverse experiences. Find out what students can do and support them to demonstrate, teach and compare their skills.
  • Languages: Multilingual students have extensive linguistic, sociolinguistic, intercultural and analytical skills that can enhance the Languages classroom, no matter which language.
  • English: Students often have experience translating and interpreting. Creative and purposeful translation of proverbs, poetry and literature supports many skills in English.
  • Humanities and Social Sciences (HASS): Create opportunities for students to share, compare and analyse their diverse life experience, intercultural skills and family traditions, to enrich the HASS curriculum.
  • The Arts: Arts classrooms are ideal sites to demonstrate, celebrate and develop diverse visual, musical, dance and dramatic practices from students’ families and communities.
  • Maths: Many students use their home language for mathematical thinking. Ask students how they use their languages, and plan group work or activities to capitalise on this.
  • Science: The experiential learning, connected ideas and structured texts in Science provide excellent opportunities to teach content and literacy together, working with EAL/D teachers.

Reducing shame and restoring dignity

Classroom teacher: ‘Can I help you with this task?’

Student: ‘But I don’t need help!’

Students do not like to feel singled-out in the classroom, and it is important to respect their feelings. To reduce feelings of shame and promote their dignity and value, consider different forms of support.

What you can do

  • Display resources in the classroom for all students to access.
  • Rotate through the class to work one on one with every student.
  • Offer out-of-class support to small groups or through homework clubs.
  • Be available so students can ask questions or check work with some privacy.
  • Co-plan with an EAL/D specialist to enhance both your own and the EAL/D program.
  • Team teach with an EAL/D specialist.

Languages and Multicultural Education Resource Centre (LMERC) has an extensive range of items to support teachers and EAL learners.

Victorian Curriculum Foundation-10 EAL includes draft EAL Curriculum (including current), Diagnostic Interview & EAL Profile (this will be updated Term 1 2020).

VicTESOL webpage provides support and services to mainstream teachers and EAL (ESL) specialist teachers.

Classrooms of Possibility by Hammond and Miller (2015).

Lexis Education’s Professional development on teaching ESL students in mainstream classrooms.

EAL — Provision for Newly Arrived Students and EAL Support and Funding provides Victorian Department of Education and Training’s operational policy information, guidance and supporting resources.

Good Practice Snapshot: EAL change

One school used an audit to develop greater awareness of its EAL students. The school developed a clearer understanding of EAL index funding, which led to employing Multicultural Education Aides, establishing stand-alone EAL classes for all year levels, and appointing their first-ever EAL coordinator who could help to disseminate powerful EAL strategies to teachers of mainstream subjects.

Inclusive Curriculum

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

Responding to students’ trauma reactions outlines how you can anticipate and sensitively respond to students’ trauma reactions and support their recovery from traumatic refugee experiences.

Responding to students’ trauma disclosures outlines how you can respond to student’s trauma disclosures and support their recovery.

Effects of refugee experiences upon children’s learning and development provides a holistic approach to assessing children’s learning and development needs.

Using High Impact Teaching Strategies (HITS) explains why the application of High Impact Teaching Strategies (HITS) is important for students of refugee backgrounds in supporting their trauma recovery.

Applying the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers to students of refugee backgrounds demonstrates how three of the standards are  linked to teaching students of refugee backgrounds.

Useful EAL Strategies shows you a variety of practices through which middle primary to secondary classroom and learning area teachers can support their students by explicitly connecting EAL practices with the Foundation House trauma recovery framework.

NSW DET’s Professional learning and resources provides a wide variety of excellent specialist resources for teachers with students of refugee backgrounds. You can view their videos here.

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.

PETAA – Primary English Teaching Association Australiapublishes primary resources, including professional development and research in EAL and multicultural perspectives.