You can anticipate that your senior students (Years 10–12) of refugee backgrounds will require specialised supports – due to their age and circumstances. This section explores some of the specific needs of senior students and provides tips for you to support their engagement, wellbeing and achievement at school.

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Age and circumstance-specific challenges

Your senior students are recovering from their own traumatic refugee experiences while confronting various age and circumstance-specific challenges, including:

  • Adapting to new family forms and dynamics.
  • Negotiating family relationships in a new society.
  • Managing intergenerational conflict.
  • Contributing to family income, support and care-giving.
  • Paying off debts related to settlement costs.
  • Financially supporting relatives overseas.
  • Negotiating identity and belonging in a new culture and society.
  • Managing transitions into senior schooling often with severely disrupted formal schooling.
  • Making career pathways decisions with limited support and time to understand Victoria’s education and employment system.

Intergenerational effects of families’ refugee experiences

It is helpful for you to be aware of the intergenerational effects of refugee experiences. Expectations placed upon young people can be very high. When these are not fulfilled, considerable tensions can be created between parents/carers and their children.

Year 11 student Ali displayed aggressive behaviour at school. Teachers thought he could not adjust to the classroom routine. 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 needing harsh discipline.

Things to consider

  • During settlement, parental roles and the traditional family are challenged as adults become highly dependent upon their older 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 and shy away from social interaction – and discourage their children from it.

Supportive teaching and learning

Trauma recovery through classroom engagement and learning always involves students experiencing supportive relationships with their teachers.

‘I will never give up school, even if I am working till late at night … I’ll come to school every day to see my teacher.’ (Year 11 student)

When asked why they prefer particular subjects, senior students typically state ‘the teacher’ as the most important factor.

  • 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 safety and belonging.
  • The relational qualities of warmth, genuineness and positive regard are the mechanisms for recovery.

School strategies to support trauma recovery

‘I just want to pass school, get a good job, have a family and be happy.’ (Year 12 student)

Trauma recovery involves the ability to live in the present and plan for the future without being overwhelmed by the consequences associated with past traumatic events.

Here are some school-wide protective factors for senior students that support their trauma recovery goals.

  • Scaffolding of tasks and organisational skills (e.g. finding worksheets).
  • Consistency across classrooms.
  • Implementing restorative approaches to addressing challenging student behaviour.
  • Using multicultural education aides, professional interpreters and translations.
  • Facilitating and scaffolding group work.
  • Supportive teacher–student relationships (e.g. regular check-ins).
  • Linking new students with a buddy.
  • Linking students to services and agencies.
  • Bridging programs between English language school/centre and mainstream school.
  • Providing flexible pathways and transitions support.
  • Facilitating work experience and traineeship opportunities.
  • Engaging parents and carers with students’ learning and career planning.
  • Creating opportunities for students to hear from positive role models and advocates of alternative pathways to universities
  • Celebrating students’ successes
  • Teachers providing EAL support across the curriculum
  • Promoting student voice, agency and leadership
  • Opportunities to share culture: food, music, history
  • Educating on human rights and women’s rights (including reproductive rights)

Experiences of persecution and human rights violations combined with settlement challenges can profoundly impact young people’s perceptions of the world and their place in it.

Senior students especially question why violence and other threats occurred, and experience the sense of injustice that accompanies this.

‘Why me? Why my family? Why my community? Why my country? Why my race? Why my religion?’

Parents might shield younger children from some of these questions, but it is not possible to do that with older teenagers, who will try to make some meaning of what has happened.

They may end up wanting to retaliate, or they may feel they have got to make reparation for what has happened.

What you can do

  • Promote connections with peers through a range of activities.
  • With the appropriate curriculum, assist students to develop their understanding of the political background of violence and human rights violations.
  • Consider how students might find meaning through their participation in group advocacy activities in the school setting and beyond.
  • Provide opportunities for students to participate in student voice, agency and leadership activities that provide a valued purpose.
  • Engage parents and carers with students’ learning.
  • Engage students with positive role models.

Young people who have experienced violence may blame themselves for what happened, or blame themselves for having failed to do something to prevent harm coming to others.

Excessive blaming of others can be a way of managing unrealistic guilt, e.g. that resulted in losing family members.

Students’ feelings of shame may be further compounded in Australia when they encounter racism and negative stereotypes about refugees.

Manifestations of guilt and shame may include:

  • Revenge fantasies to repair damage done during traumatic events.
  • Self-destructive behaviour.
  • Avoidance of others due to shame.
  • Inability to participate in pleasurable activities.
  • Aggressive feelings towards oneself.

What you can do to reduce shame and restore dignity

  • Promoting experiences of social inclusion at school.
  • Listening in a non-judgmental way when feelings of guilt are expressed by a student
  • Identifying and confidently addressing racism, stereotyping and other forms of prejudice
  • Encouraging students and staff to own multicultural principles and take responsibility for demonstrating them
  • Establishing group programs that include discussion of political causes of violence.

School-wide restorative practices

School-wide restorative practices that address conflict and inappropriate behaviour are well suited to the trauma recovery needs of senior students of refugee backgrounds.

Explicit and predictable restorative practices assist teachers, students and parents/carers to build, maintain and restore respectful relationships.

This is vital for students who have prior traumatic experiences of violent punishment, forced exclusion and other human rights violations.

  • Support social and emotional learning around respectful relationships.
  • Enable students to self-regulate their behaviour and contribute to the improvement of their learning outcomes.
  • Counteract the ‘wait-to-fail’ approach of restrictive frameworks and move your school to a prevention-based approach to inappropriate behaviour.
  • Promote human rights and social justice across the school.

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.

You should anticipate ‘trauma reactions’ from senior students of refugee backgrounds to present in a variety of behaviours, and be prepared to calmly respond.

Students’ feelings of intense anxiety and fear relate to their prior experiences of ongoing danger.

You may notice students:

  • Becoming highly irritable and unable to tolerate frustration
  • Showing reduced control over impulsive and aggressive behaviour
  • Withdrawing and disengaging.

Various things can trigger trauma reactions: sudden loud noises, confined spaces, unexplained routine changes, and authoritarian and threatening behaviour.

‘After the teacher yelled at me I decided that I would never say anything again in his class’. (Year 10 student)

Tip: Depression is particularly evident among senior students who have been exposed to multiple traumatic events and human rights violations.

Feelings are not usually expressed directly and can be masked by:

  • Poor learning ability.
  • Drug and alcohol abuse.
  • Precocious sexual activity.
  • Rebelliousness.
  • Bullying.
  • Risk-taking behaviour.

Some students and families report being confused by the ways schools manage student behaviour. It is vital your school explains to families that discipline is bound by Australian laws, which prevent physical punishment.

You should also carefully outline your school’s behaviour management approach, along with its alignment with student engagement and wellbeing.

What you can do

  • Provide students with clear teaching of appropriate behaviour and how it builds positive learning and social skills (e.g. Respectful Relationships program).
  • Engage Multicultural Education Aides (MEAs) to assist with communicating expectations to students and families.
  • Provide interpreted information sessions to reassure families that their children will not become ‘uncontrollable’ if corporal punishment is avoided.
  • Distribute translated information about your school’s policies on student engagement and behaviour management.
  • Be aware that families may feel their child’s lack of understanding of English or cultural norms could prevent schools from offering them fair treatment.
Good Practice Snapshot: Student-led peer-support lunches

A team of students at one senior college organised a monthly lunch to formally connect new arrivals with more experienced students of refugee backgrounds at the school. Guest speakers, such as youth and housing workers, police and legal aid were invited to provide important information. The student team also produced a monthly multilingual newsletter. Students regard the lunch event as an important source of information and support. The success of the lunch reflects the need of senior students to debrief about their experiences.


Senior students of refugee backgrounds have career aspirations and want to understand their pathways to achieve them. Encourage students in their goals while explaining that career pathways may involve many twists and turns.

Schools see good outcomes when they provide senior students with flexible career pathway options and learning supports. Flexible pathway options support trauma recovery and empower students by restoring their sense of safety and control, meaning and identity, dignity and value.

What you can do

  • Explicitly teach various pathway options during Years 7–10.
  • Offer three-year courses in VCAL/VCE/VET.
  • Present VCAL as a suitable pathway to further education that is not inferior to VCE.
  • Offer an EAL VCAL program at foundation, intermediate and senior levels.
  • Create opportunities for students to hear from positive role models and advocates of alternative pathways to universities.
  • Assist access to out-of-school-hours learning support and social activities.
  • Establish a team of professional career practitioners who understand the impact of refugee experiences.
  • Build industry and employer partnerships to increase Year 10 work experience options.

Examples of alternative VCE/VCAL/VET programs

Other pathway options 

‘Careers information is new for people from my country because there was no such thing there.’ (Parent)

You can support families to help their children by running regular career pathway information meetings (with interpreters available).

What you can do

  • Start talking with families as early as Year 7 about Senior School pathway options for their children (re VCAL/VCE and VET).
  • Carefully explain terminology such as pathways, VCE, VET, VCAL and SBAT.
  • Explain to families the importance of work experience and volunteering as pathways to employment.
  • Involve multicultural education aides (MEAs) to engage families.
  • Provide Interpreter support at family career information evenings.
  • Allocate rooms for different language groups, provide interpreters and rotate subject staff around the rooms.
  • Have translated copies of handouts and slides available for families.
  • Provide opportunities for families to hear from past students of culturally diverse backgrounds who successfully took alternative career pathways.

Helpful resources

Your senior students may face a range of compounding barriers in pursuing their career and further education aspirations, including eligibility, difficulties navigating admission processes, financial challenges, English language competencies, family responsibilities, and complex personal, health and legal issues.

‘I like school because it is the way to the future, but I must help my family.’

‘When I finish school I have to look for job to help my sister in the refugee camp.’

‘I have to pay off debts to get here [Australia] and send money to family overseas.’

‘I’m out till two o’clock working and then coming to school the next day.’

‘In my culture, you get married, you’ve got your husband and he will take care of you .’

Considering young women’s experiences

While young women may have high career aspirations, adult-like responsibilities at home, such as caring for siblings, impacts on their capacity to achieve goals.

Young women may judge getting married and having children as their most important life goal, and intend to marry and have children shortly after finishing school.

‘In my culture, you get married, you’ve got your husband and he will take care of you.’ (Year 11 student)

The failure to meet family and community obligations can have major adverse effects on their wellbeing.

Some young women may be facing forced marriage and find it hard to tell you about their situation.

What you can do

  • Regularly check in with your students.
  • Provide supports that remove schooling barriers (e.g. stationery/books, laptop, Myki pass, access to social worker, life skills development).
  • Set up staff care teams for students.
  • Listen in a non-judgemental way when feelings of guilt are expressed by students.
  • Celebrate students’ successes (e.g. results, birthdays, family reunions, citizenship).
  • Establish peer or older-student mentoring groups and relationships.
  • Engage parents and carers with students’ learning and career planning.
  • Refer students to support services and agencies.
  • Link students to learning supports and tutoring programs.
  • Start career discussions with students as early as Year 7 about the education options available to them post-secondary school, with particular attention to the eligibility requirements for students on temporary visas.
  • Assist students to navigate course application processes (including Special Entry Access Schemes & scholarships) and provide support letters as appropriate.
  • Engage in advocacy with further education institutions to support students to negotiate flexible pathways and supports.

Helpful resources