For many refugee children, the experience of leaving their home and managing the transition into a new country with an unfamiliar language and culture will be challenging.
Refugee children and their parents have left countries that have conflicts and human rights abuses and they have sought safety and protection in the UK. They may have endured difficult journeys to arrive here. Some refugee children will have experienced bereavements or may be separated from parents and family members. Others may also be vulnerable to stressful circumstances in the UK such as financial hardship, changes of accommodation and school, tensions at home, racism and negative attitudes towards refugees.
However, most refugee children and young people are very resilient despite their experiences. Going to school provides daily structure and a sense of normality and stability; it also plays a key role in helping them adapt to the changes they have experienced.
Some teachers may conceptualise the experiences and needs of refugee children through a ‘mental health’ prism. In western societies, psychological explanations are frequently used in relation to people’s problems and experiences. The word ‘trauma’ has become part of everyday language in many western countries, where people talk about experiences as having been’traumatic’ or someone having been ‘traumatised’ as a result of death, illness or accident.
The assumption is often made that experiences of war and persecution will automatically lead to ‘trauma’. Central to the notion of ‘trauma’ is the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is often used as a universal concept applied to everyone regardless of cultural, ethnic, religious background, age, gender or context.
However, this notion has been challenged by researchers, and others who work with refugee children. It is known that symptoms of PTSD that are related to past experiences may offer only a partial view of the suffering and difficulties that may arise for children from being exposed to conflict.
Children and families are affected by events from the past, but also by current stressors and also positive factors in their livesExperiences such as loss, bereavement and separation, along with problems related to asylum, poverty, housing and obstacles to integration, are equally important. In discussing how distress has become ‘medicalised’, Derek Summerfield concluded that:
Reducing experiences of children simply to a question of mental health tends to mean more focus on vulnerability in individual psychological terms rather than social ones. Ultimately, it is the economic, educational and socio-cultural rebuilding of worlds, allied to basic questions of equity and justice, which above all will determine the long-term well-being of millions of child survivors of war worldwide. For those for whom this does not happen, war may indeed turn out to have been a life sentence, but this is not 'trauma'.'
Teachers have a key role in assisting children to rebuild a social world. They need to think holistically about children’s lives and develop multifaceted forms of support that can promote resilience and positive coping.
Avoid generalisations about children’s experiences and needs
The challenge for teachers is to develop an awareness and understanding of an individual child’s particular experiences and needs. Effective admission and induction practice can enable teachers to sensitively gain an understanding of a child’s background and current situation (Link to Welcome, admission and induction).
It is very important to emphasise that refugee children and families are not a homogeneous group. To speak the same language, or come from the same village, city or country does not mean that people always feel that they belong to the same ethnic or cultural group or that they share the same beliefs and allegiances. It would be wrong to make any assumptions that all children who have had a refugee experience will have been affected by it, or will react to it, in the same way.
Identify current factors that may be affecting wellbeing
Rather than make hasty judgements that refugee children need specialist mental health treatment or support, schools should consider the child and family’s current situation. Children may be vulnerable because of the stressful circumstances they face here in the UK such as financial hardships, frequent accommodation changes with resulting changes in schools, uncertainties over asylum applications, as well as the challenges of adapting to a new culture and learning a new language. Young refugees may also experience racism and discrimination due to the negative image of asylum-seekers frequently shown in the media.
Focus on resilience and positive coping behaviours
Activities such as Circle Time, autobiographical and life story writing can help children understand and express their feelings in a safe environment. Creative and group activities such as music, play, drama, art and storytelling also develop social skills and improve motivation and learning.
Play and sports activities can help children manage experiences of loss and change. By releasing tension and having fun and enjoyment, children can often cope better and show resilience. Play and sports activities also help children develop their language and social skills (Link to Play, leisure and extended school activities).
Help children make friendships
Refugee children have consistently identified having friends as being a major support in school. Having a social network will help children feel less isolated and will also support self-esteem.
Find out about support in school and other local resources and services
The Special Educational Needs co-ordinator (SENCO) may be able to provide advice if a teacher has concerns about a child. Some schools also have ethnic minority achievement staff, learning mentors and other practitioners who may be able to support the child and their family. The SENCO should also be aware of other local agencies, such as Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), and will assist in deciding whether a referral is appropriate.
Frequently asked questions
Are all refugee children ‘traumatised’ by their experiences?
It is important to remember that both past experiences and the present will influence how a child copes with their situation. When refugee children have had challenging experiences it may be tempting to assume that all their difficulties are because they have been ‘traumatised’ by their past experiences. This can lead to ignoring other aspects of their lives such as poor housing, financial problems, tensions at home and lack of progress in learning English. After settling into school and having time to adjust, most refugee children make good progress.
Do refugee children need specialist help to enable them to cope?
The most important sources of support for refugee children are their teachers and their peers. Showing an interest in their lives and experiences, and providing consistent care and support is usually more important and necessary than referrals to outside help. A child who is making steady progress in learning, in understanding and speaking English and in mixing with other children and who does not show persistent behavioural or emotional difficulties that interfere with learning or relations with others, should not give rise to concern. However, some children may well need specialist support (see below).
How can I tell if a child is not coping and may need help?
Difficult experiences from both the past and the present can lead to emotional or behavioural problems for some children. For example, some children may be nervous, jumpy and fearful. They may be afraid of loud sounds or dislike being alone. Some children may appear withdrawn and sad. They may cry easily and may not seem interested in playing with other children. Some children become very worried or anxious. Other children may become irritable and lose their temper quickly. They may have problems sleeping and suffer from nightmares. Some children may look tired in the classroom and have trouble concentrating. If a child appears to fit any of the above descriptions, it is possible that the child may be experiencing emotional distress. However it should be remembered that these behaviours might also be normal reactions to difficult experiences.
What do I do if I am concerned about a child?
When teachers are worried about a particular child and think that additional support may be advisable, it is can be helpful to discuss these concerns with the SENCO, or the local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service. Schools should also discuss concerns with parents. Together a decision can then be made about whether a referral is necessary and which local service might be the most suitable place for the child to receive extra support.