Grace attended James Madison University has a bachelor's degree in history and a master's degree in teaching. She previously taught high school social studies in several states around the country.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Look for a bilingual staff member or family liaison to help you communicate with these families. If you are able, find out what the family needs, and see if there is a way you or the school community can help.
Make the Classroom Familiar
Incorporating a refugee student's culture can help them feel welcome and accepted in the classroom. Although they are learning English and about American culture, this helps validate their own language and culture, which is so important with all ELL students. Some ways to do this include:
- inviting the student to share about an aspect of their culture
- playing music from their home country as background noise
- talking about news stories from their home country
Refugee students may have more stress and anxiety than other students. By ensuring that the academic, social and emotional needs of student are met, you are creating the perfect environment for students to be successful. With refugee students and others who have faced traumatic life events, it is important to:
- Build connections - share your own story (never pry for information), and pair the student with another student who speaks their language, create a buddy-system with a designated student to show them around.
- Create a comfortable environment - address triggering situations before they happen, have an open-relationship with students, and remember that acting out might be a sign of fear.
- Consult additional help - reach out to a school counselor or psychologist for help if you feel a student needs it.
Here are some tips to help these students excel academically:
- Classroom setup - post procedures and commonly used phrases (with images!) on the wall to decrease stress.
- Parent outreach - educate parents on U.S. education expectations to clear potential causes of conflict. Get a bilingual staff member to help you communicate with these families, discover their needs.
- Make the classroom familiar - incorporate a refugee student's culture into the class by having shares, or playing music or talking about news from their home country.
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