Tips for Educators Teaching Refugees

A teacher holds a book and reads to a group of young students.

Worldwide, more than 70.8 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes because of persecution, violence, war, climate change, or human rights violations, according to the United Nations (UN). The UN’s data shows the number of displaced people is at an all-time high and has risen by 39 percent since 2009. Education, though, offers hope for those forced to flee their homes and resettle in a new country.

According to the UN’s New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, education presents critical support and a path of upward social mobility for refugees. For refugee children, school can provide a stable, safe, and fun environment to grow and develop.

Currently, the UN reports there are 7.4 million school-age refugees in the U.S., with the highest refugee populations in California, Texas, and Washington. This number, however, does not account for undocumented students—the Education Trust reports an additional 250,000 undocumented students ages 3 to 17 in California alone.

Dr. Tomás Galguera, professor of education at Mills College, predicts that current geopolitical and climate forces will continue to lead to rising refugee student populations. According to Galguera, “It’s become necessary to prepare teachers to become aware of the important considerations and concerns when teaching refugees and newcomers.”

To better serve these students, Dr. Galguera explains it is critical teachers and school leaders understand trauma-informed practices for teaching refugees. Educators have the tremendous potential to create opportunity for refugees and to recognize their resilience with positive school experiences.

The Challenges and Opportunities of Teaching Refugees

The U.S. school system can be challenging to navigate for refugees, according to the nonprofit Bridging Refugee Youth & Children’s Services (BRYCS). Often, refugee students face language barriers and confusing cultural differences.

Additionally, refugee students may have had inconsistent access to education. The UN estimates that because refugees spend months to years awaiting resettlement in various host countries, the average refugee student misses three to four years of schooling.

Histories of trauma are also extremely common among refugee students. The UN says educators who are teaching refugees will likely have students who have experienced severe traumas. Many refugee children have suffered abuse, witnessed the deaths of family members, or been exploited or forced into combat.

Dr. Galguera notes that trauma is unique to each student. When teaching refugees, it’s important to recognize signs of trauma, such as acting out. Rather than viewing the behavior as a problem, educators can see it as an opportunity to connect with the traumatized student. By understanding trauma, educators can reframe the way they teach refugees, focusing on their students’ resilience and abilities.

Three Approaches Educators Can Take to Better Teach Refugees

Teaching refugees is complex. Dr. Galguera explains there’s no quick path to understanding all that it entails. Three best practices follow for creating safe, empowering classrooms for refugees.

Understand Trauma Itself

When teaching refugees, Dr. Galguera says it’s important to first understand trauma itself. Trauma is a complex response composed of both physiological and psychological elements. All animals, including humans, have primitive fight-or-flight responses that are activated during traumatic experiences.

However, humans are storytellers, and trauma is complicated by the narratives we create around it, Dr. Galguera explains. Why didn’t I run? Why didn’t I fight? Why didn’t I act?

Students suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experience a myriad of complicated emotions, as well as complicated responses to those emotions. Teachers can better teach refugees by familiarizing themselves with trauma and what it looks like.

Learn What Trauma-Informed Practice Means

After coming to an understanding about trauma itself, educators can create safe classrooms and improve learning outcomes for refugees with the arc of trauma-informed education.

Trauma-informed practice bridges the three ideas of attachment, regulation, and competency, with each practice building on the one that precedes it.

Attachment

The first practice, attachment, deals with building trust, which underlies everything. Before teachers can move onto regulation and competency, they must begin by creating environments where students feel safe and supported.

As Dr. Galguera explains, trauma can take many different forms, and because of the uniqueness of each situation, when teachers are working on attachment, he suggests it’s important to remain humble. It’s OK to acknowledge the impossibility of understanding certain traumas, but it’s essential to commit to working with students in a caring, ethical way.

This might mean adjusting teaching practices for teaching refugees. For example, Dr. Galguera points out that most schools have strict rules about using cellphones in class. But for refugees, that cellphone often is a lifeline to their families.

As a case in point, in California’s Los Angeles and Alameda counties, there are 28,000 unaccompanied minors awaiting court dates to apply for asylum and special visas. In this case, taking away a cellphone could take away access to family and legal aid. Permitting cellphones for refugees is one way teachers and school leaders can build trust.

Self-Regulation

The second part of the trauma-informed arc focuses on self-regulation. This practice asks educators to move from a deficit mentality to a curiosity-driven view. For example, Dr. Galguera says behaviors such as throwing tantrums and fighting other students are often indications of trauma, particularly in refugee students who have experienced violence.

When teaching refugees, rather than asking what’s “wrong” with a student, teachers need to learn more. Dr. Galguera explains, “Throwing a tantrum, running out of the classroom, biting and then fighting with everyone else are all indications a child has suffered some horrible things. Teachers who are dealing with 22 rambunctious kindergarteners are very busy, but rather than having a ‘what is wrong with you’ kind of reaction, you can shift from a deficit mentality to a curiosity-driven view and say, ‘I need to learn more from you.’”

This is an important shift as even seemingly mundane occurrences such as hand clapping to signal a change in activity can be triggering for students suffering from PTSD.

To support self-regulation, Dr. Galguera suggests incorporating slight shifts in teaching practices. Rather than clapping their hands, teachers might play a bianzhong, a melodic Chinese bell, to signal the end of an activity. When students hear the bell, teachers can ask them to close their eyes until the sound stops. This reframes the transition, giving students a moment to focus on quiet introspection rather than react to a trigger.

Competency

Self-regulation helps build resilience, which is a competency. In Dr. Galguera’s bianzhong example, by closing their eyes and focusing quietly, students develop an awareness of physical sensations and emotions and the thoughts and behaviors that accompany them. This, then, leads to the ability to tolerate and manage new experiences.

Resiliency increases positive outcomes by empowering students to make effective decisions. Through this resiliency, students coping with trauma can begin to explore themselves and their identities and, ultimately, reframe their own narratives.

Practice Self-Care

Educators teaching refugees must practice self-care, according to Dr. Galguera. Compassion fatigue, sometimes called vicarious traumatization, refers to the strain experienced by professionals working with people suffering from traumatic events. For educators, stress can set in from hearing about the traumas experienced by refugee students. Dr. Galguera says it is perfectly normal and expected for teachers to feel like giving up at some point.

That’s where school systems can step in. Schools can provide accommodations and learning communities for teachers to share their experiences teaching refugees. As teachers support their students, it’s also critical they feel supported.

What Schools and Districts Can Do to Support Teaching Refugees

Each teacher’s individual actions are incredibly important. Refugee students need consistency, however, which means important work to support teaching refugees begins at the district level.

Through Mills College’s online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership, Dr. Galguera prepares candidates to do this work by teaching them trauma-informed practice and action research. This inquiry-driven form of research begins with identifying puzzling or challenging classroom situations and then harnesses data to inform action. Dr. Galguera says, “Using action research as an approach to guide teaching is very powerful for school leaders.”

By learning to conduct cycles of action research and adopting an inquiry-based way of thinking, Mills graduates are prepared to go into school systems and not only identify challenges but also conceptualize frameworks to address these challenges. Mills uniquely focuses on leadership models that confront social and ethical demands with thoughtful and reflective practice.

Educators interested in learning more about trauma-informed practice and the role school leaders play in supporting students can visit Mills College’s online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership program.

The American Institute of Stress, “Compassion Fatigue”

Attachment, Regulation and Competency, “What Is ARC?”

Bridging Refugee Youth & Children’s Services, “Back to School: Challenges and Strengths of Refugee Students”

The Conversation, “How Refugee Children Make American Education Stronger”

EdSource, “California Schools Help Unaccompanied Immigrant Students Combat Trauma, Language Barriers”

The Education Trust—West, “Undocumented Students in California: What You Should Know”

The Hechinger Report, “Teacher Voice: When the Nation Closes Its Doors to Refugees, Schools Can Open Them”

Indiana State Department of Health, Myths About Refugees

Migration Policy Institute, U.S. Annual Refugee Resettlement Ceilings and Number of Refugees Admitted, 1980-Present

National Association of School Psychologists, “Supporting Refugee Children & Youth: Tips for Educators”

National Immigration Forum, Fact Sheet: U.S. Refugee Resettlement

NBC News, “Largest U.S. Refugee Group Struggling with Poverty 45 Years After Resettlement”

NeaToday, “Despite Inclusive Policies, Refugee Children Face Major Obstacles to Education”

The New York Times, “For Refugee Children, Reading Helps Heal Trauma”

Refugee Council USA, “Refugee Resettlement in California”

UN Refugees and Migrants, New York Declaration

UN Sustainable Development Goals, Quality Education

UNHCR, Figures at a Glance

UNHCR, “Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2018”

UNHCR, Refugee Statistics

UNHCR, Teaching About Refugees

UNHCR, The U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program Explained

UNHCR, USA | Education

World Economic Forum, “Education Is Key to Our Refugee Crisis Response. Here’s Why”

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