Welcoming Refugees Into Your Classroom

Walking into a new classroom for the first time can be anxiety inducing for students and teachers alike. If that new classroom is also in a new country, with different traditions, practices and expectations, the challenges become exponential.

More than 14 million people worldwide have had to flee their homes and become refugees to escape persecution and war.

Children arriving as refugees from countries in conflict may have also experienced trauma and witnessed atrocities. Their needs are complex and require a multi discipline approach between various agencies offering social assistance, housing and employment services, language learning and translation options and health supports, including mental wellness and counselling.

Although new arrivals face many challenges, it is also a time of excitement, especially for children, as the experience brings with it new opportunities, new friends and an end to an incredibly stressful start in life.

School can be sanctuary without the daily reminders of the devastation that was left behind, and in this safe space teachers can work to create a welcoming, inclusive environment that seeks to protect and nurture all students.

Practical Tips to Welcoming Refugees in Your Classroom

  • Prepare Your Class

Encourage kindness and acceptance by asking the students, before the newcomers arrive, to practice empathy and imagine the emotions and worries that their new classmates may be bringing with them. Perhaps encourage them to make welcome cards or drawings for their new classmates.

  • Embrace Diversity

Ensure your classroom library features a range of diverse literature to best reflect the multicultural community, see our list of books that promote diversity. Specifically also include a selection of books that directly deal with issues of displacement and focus on personal refugee stories. The UN Refugee Agency has produced a booklist seperated by grade level.

  • Special Spaces

Create quiet spaces in the classroom or quiet periods in the timetable, where students are expected to keep noise levels low. Playing calming music during this time can really set the scene for a low stress environment.

  • Listen

Allow new students to share their stories, if they wish, this can be cathartic for them and can help the rest of the class to understand and appreciate the struggles they have encountered.

  • Welcome Buddies

Consider assigning  “Welcome Buddies” to new arrivals, students who volunteer to help acclimatise new classmates to the school building, rules and expectations and who will also hopefully become a new friend.

  • A Family Welcome

Build school- home links by developing connections with families and community groups. Send home regular notes about the child’s progress, translated if necessary, and encourage parents to come and speak with you, join in with extracurricular activities or volunteer opportunities, so that they understand you are welcoming the whole family into the school community, not just the student.

  • Baby Steps

Be prepared for setbacks, language barriers can create frustrations for students especially those that were high achievers in their home setting. Many refugees also suffer from varying degrees of PTSD and some school routines such as loud bells can cause fear or anxiety. Try to explain routines explicitly, perhaps with the use of picture cues and repeat your expectations regularly.

When children are exposed to people from other communities and cultures they usually find that they have far more similarities than differences, and with kindness, patience and empathy a newcomer can become a new friend.

Unicef has produced an excellent resource for educators to sensitively teach their students about the worldwide refugee crisis, for some background knowledge take a look at this informative article on how to talk to children about terrorism and war by The New York Times.

Fiona Tapp is a Freelance Writer, Educator and Mom. An Expert in the field of Pedagogy, a teacher of 13 years and Master’s Degree holder in Education. Take a look at her website or blog to connect.