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Trauma-Informed Practices

5 Trauma-Informed Strategies for Supporting Refugee Students

Educators can take the initiative to provide safe and welcoming spaces in their classrooms and school community.

October 14, 2021
Middle school teacher reads to a small group of students
AVI stock / iStock

Since 1980, the U.S. has resettled approximately 3 million refugees, and our recent withdrawal from Afghanistan will add many more to classrooms in most states. With the current influx of refugee students, teachers will have the task of supporting their integration into American society while bearing in mind the trauma(s) they may have endured.

While being aware of the factors contributing to students’ leaving their country as refugees (war, persecution, or natural disaster) can provide some context for students’ backgrounds, it’s most important for educators to understand and provide the compassionate empathy required to support the students entering our classrooms in the coping and healing process. 

Bringing trauma-informed strategies into the classroom is a universal approach for providing all students with emotional and/or psychological support. These strategies can also be adapted to help refugee students with their resiliency skills and prepare them for social and emotional learning (SEL).

We can consider the following strategies as we strive to offer support by making students feel safe and cared for.

Research Countries of Origin and Culture

Historically, refugees resettling in the United States have come from all over the world. There are also thousands of Haitian migrants who have been seeking asylum in the United States since 2010. Culture from their country of origin can comprise language, religion, beliefs, norms, familial and social habits and behavior, symbols (gestures), cuisine, artifacts, music, and art. Educators can commit to understanding the cultural nuances and customs that may hinder them from forming relationships and learning partnerships with their refugee students.

Often, refugees’ cultural identities and values are positioned as inferior within the new societies they enter and may leave them feeling and experiencing critical moments of their lives (school/work) as outsiders. This leads to cultural marginalization, as they live within two cultures but aren’t fully integrated into either of them. This is an unfortunate situation to be in through no fault of their own. It hinders their progress and allows others to avoid helping when they could.

In schools, acknowledging refugee students’ cultures and backgrounds creates cultural awareness between them and their peers and also welcomes them to school and the community by positioning their cultures as strengths and positive additions to the learning community.

The International Rescue Committee and the National Immigration Forum are two helpful sources for information about refugee student needs.

Use Trauma-Informed SEL Strategies

An important goal in trauma-informed classrooms is awareness of the signs of trauma; have a tool kit of strategies to help students and not re-traumatize them. Educators can help refugee students in the healing process by working with them to establish healthy relationships and safe spaces in schools where positive interactions, acceptance, unconditional regard, and kind words are the norm. SEL is an effective vehicle for carrying out and normalizing trauma-informed pedagogy in classrooms.

Although we may not initially see how SEL and trauma-informed teaching connect, SEL lessons can be tailored to meet the needs of children who’ve experienced trauma by providing them the emotional intelligence acuity to recognize their emotional trauma. Labeling emotions is the first step in identifying triggers and self-management strategies, including healing. Plutchik’s wheel of emotions and an emotions planner are initial tools that can be used for this purpose.

Here’s a short list of some of the most widely used trauma-informed teaching practices to help refine trauma-informed SEL plans. 

1. Develop a trauma-informed team: Supporting refugee students successfully requires all hands on deck in schools. This means that it’s important for school leaders, counselors, teachers, and organizations that provide wraparound services to be trauma-informed and support each other.

2. Empathize with students: Empathy for perspective-taking is a critical step to becoming trauma-informed, especially if we don’t have firsthand experience with certain traumas. As teachers, we shouldn’t be trauma detectives, but we can be proactive by becoming informed about types of trauma. This background can be helpful when encountering sensitive cases.

3. Make them feel safe: Trauma can alter how the brain and the central nervous system function for many young people and can cause them to feel unsafe. In extreme cases, sufferers may experience danger, terror, or constant threat. Unfortunately, these deep feelings of insecurity and fear may show up in other areas of their life, including play, relationships, and school. Educators can help make their classrooms physically, intellectually, and emotionally safer by establishing good norms and community agreements.

Here are some good ones:

  • Bring our best self to class.
  • Be mindful of the boundaries of others.
  • Respect the privacy of others. 
  • Be mindful of airtime when speaking.
  • Speak from the heart and be open to feedback.
  • Listen from the heart and respect others when they speak. 
  • Take this space to heal and grow. 

4. Remain consistent and predictable: Children of all ages with traumatic experiences can be on high alert. Providing consistency and predictability through your demeanor, fairness (being equitable), class norms and expectations, shared agreements, use of protocols, thinking routines, pacing, accountability, and scheduling can help put them at ease. 

For example, I like to format instructional time similarly on most days (10 minutes for a mini-lesson, 35 minutes for work time, and 10 minutes for reflection and debrief). Samantha Bennett’s adaptation of the Workshop Model is a helpful example of this.

If we need to meet with a student(s), avoid vagueness about intentions or creating uncertainty by saying things like “We need to talk” or “I need to tell you something.” Instead, be kind and specific: “I would love to talk about your essay. I know we can make it better with some tweaking.”

5. Know our limitations: When psychological trauma becomes overwhelming for refugee students, it might be necessary to assist families in seeking access to professional therapy for their child. Remember, our trauma-informed SEL plan is for helping refugee students cope and begin healing, but it isn’t meant to replace professional trauma-informed treatment.

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  • Trauma-Informed Practices
  • Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • Mental Health
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Teaching Strategies

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