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Strategies for Teaching Refugees & Traumatized English Language Learners

Instructor: Grace Pisano

Grace has taught high school history in several states with a master's degree in teaching.

Unfortunately, some students have gone through terrible life events. With the right tools, you can help the student feel safe, comfortable and prepared to learn.

Teaching the Whole Student

Each student who walks into your classroom has a unique story that, if you let it, has the chance to impact the life of every person in the learning environment. As teachers, we have the great responsibility of teaching the whole student: learning each student's social, emotional and academic needs and creating a plan to help every student in each of these domains.

Refugee students, those who leave their home country while fleeing persecution, arrive to your classroom with a unique set of needs and experiences. Although looking for a better life, these students are forced out of their home country and have seen and experienced things no child ever should.

Let's talk about how, as a teacher, you can best educate refugee students and other English Language Learners (ELL) who have had traumatic experiences.

Social and Emotional Needs of Students

In order to be successful in the classroom, students must first feel safe and welcome in the class community. It takes longer for students who have had traumatic life experiences to feel comfortable in class.

Students may come into your class with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), heightened levels of anxiety and are more prone to stress. As a teacher, there are several things you can do to decrease these factors that can negatively impact a student's learning experience.

Build Connections

Building a connection with students is the most important thing a teacher can do to help them feel comfortable in the class community. Sharing your own story can help them feel safe to share their story as well.

However, never pry for information from a student who you suspect has had a traumatic life experience. When they feel ready, they'll share their story with you.

If possible, pair the student with another student who speaks their language to help them feel comfortable in class. Creating a buddy-system, where a designated student shows them around at lunch and recess, can help refugee students feel safe and comfortable in class.

Create a Comfortable Environment

For refugees or students who have faced a traumatic experience, ordinary things may trigger a haunting memory. Things like dark hallways, school lockdown drills, bells, screaming or teasing from another student can all increase anxiety in certain students.

Although not always unavoidable, addressing triggering situations before they happen can help calm these students. Additionally, having an open-relationship with student will help them to feel comfortable with talking to you when something happens that makes them feel uncomfortable.

Note that when a student is scared, they might act out. This is a common reaction to fear and does not mean that the student actually needs more discipline. Watch for patterns in student behavior to help you identify things that trigger them.

Additional Help

Despite your best efforts, some students have faced extremely traumatic life events and need more help than you are trained to provide. If you feel that a student in your class needs professional counseling to help them process a significant life event, do not be afraid to reach out to a school counselor or psychologist for help. The school employs them to help in these exact situations!

Academic Strategies for Helping Refugees

Once a student feels comfortable in class, how can they reach their highest potential? ELL students in general, but especially refugee students, may have had a lapse in formal education or even no access to formal education.

They must learn a new language, a different set of content standards and traditional U.S. school/class procedures. There are several things you can do to help ease this adjustment.

Classroom Setup

Take your classroom setup into consideration. Post procedures and commonly used phrases (with images!) on the wall. This will give students something to reference if they are unsure of how the class functions.

Asking something as simple as, ''May I use the restroom'' or ''How do I sharpen my pencil'' can cause unnecessary stress if in a new environment where you do not speak the dominant language. Although it seems basic, this will help all ELL students in your class.

Parent Outreach

The parents of refugees come to the United States under a similar set of circumstances as their children. Educating parents on U.S. education expectations (coming to school on time, homework requirements, etc.) can help clear potential causes of conflict.

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