Supporting Syrian refugee children who arrive in your school

Written by: Dr Joanna Mitchell | Published:
Long road: A group of refugees leaving Hungary in October. They came to Hegyeshalom by train before then heading to Germany via Austria (Photo: iStock)

Receiving the children of Syrian refugees as they begin to arrive in the UK is a realistic possibility for many schools. It is likely that these children will face many challenges as they integrate. Educational psychologist Dr Joanna Mitchell offers a checklist for successful inclusion

The Syrian refugee crisis of recent months has raised social, political and humanitarian questions with far-reaching consequences. The extent to which we are facing a “children crisis” is now a hotly debated issue.

According to recent figures provided by the UN Refugee Agency, 7.6 million children are in need in Syria, of whom two million are refugees (1). Recent images and stories have generated a huge amount of sympathy and concern for the welfare of these vulnerable families and children.

We know that many of them will have experienced traumatic events, including violence, malnutrition, separation and even bereavement. It may be unclear in many circumstances for how long these families and children have been exposed to such adversity.

During the first six months of 2015, more than 220,000 people were detected crossing the Mediterranean towards Europe.

The prime minister’s statement on September 7, 2015, announced that 20,000 Syrian refugees will be resettled in the UK over the next five years. National and local governments are currently setting out how to work with local authorities to put in place arrangements to house and support refugees.

While refugee, asylum-seeking and other migrant children aged five to 16 have the same entitlement to full-time education as all children in the UK – see summary of relevant legislation (2) – we ask in what ways can schools prepare?

We pose some reflections from an educational and clinical psychology perspective in order to assist schools to include refugee children successfully.

What can schools do in advance of refugee arrivals?

Be proactive: It is important to note that while many schools have experience of welcoming students newly arrived to the UK, it is likely that political and media influences of recent weeks will have generated a range of perceptions about refugee families and children.

We know from psychological studies on behaviour that the way people construe events or attribute cause will determine how they respond to them. A range of perceptions will exist within families, children, and within school staff systems themselves.

For secondary-aged children already in the UK school system, they may be more aware of the issues due to their age and understanding, and interaction with social media. Good practice guidelines suggest that all children from ethnic minority backgrounds benefit from positive interactions with others from a wide range of backgrounds and where possible should have access to teachers who speak their first language in school (3).

To prepare for the inclusion of refugees, students could be encouraged to engage critically with the current issues during PSHE lessons. Oxfam has produced a set of lesson plans and resources inviting secondary-age students to consider whether the situation in Syria should be thought of as a children’s crisis (4).

Other charities are also producing educational materials along with guidance on how young people might take direct action to help, such as the Red Cross (5) and SOS Children’s Villages (6).

Revisit anti-bullying policies and practices: Bullying is an issue that all schools must deal with, but it takes on particular significance for children who have been through difficult experiences in their journey to the UK from places like Syria. For example, bullying was the single biggest barrier for refugee children settling into secondary schools according to a study by the UK’s Refugee Council (7).

Recent media coverage has heightened awareness of immigration, which may exacerbate other students’ prejudices or questioning of asylum-seekers or refugees. Children who have experienced trauma may well respond to teasing or bullying more than most, if it triggers strong emotions and memories for them.

Understanding and empathic adults are a vital part of any school pastoral support system; showing you understand may be enough to deflect and manage crisis in situations which demand intervention.

However, schools may want to revisit how robust and sensitive their anti-bullying approaches are. Specific programmes to address bullying as a community issue, e.g. KiVa (8), or to repair relationships, e.g. Restorative Justice (9), may be helpful to consider. Schools may also need to think about their own language and definition of terms to ensure they model inclusive practice. A basic outline of the asylum and refugee process is available online and may be helpful (10).

Seek information sensitively: Managing students with English as an additional language is part and parcel of school practice and many local authorities will have already have access to materials previously used to introduce new arrivals, including the Department for Education’s New Arrivals Excellence Programme.

However, language issues are only one part of the story for many newly arrived students, especially those who are asylum-seekers or refugees. Refugee children might have missed out on education for some time, or may never have been to school at all. Families, (where the child has not been separated from them), may be unfamiliar with UK systems and mistrustful of anyone in authority, including teachers.

Even once the families reach their destination country, children may feel the stress of being temporarily housed, waiting for Home Office decisions, poverty, discrimination in the community, and worrying about friends and family or rifts within their family.

Good practice tells us that we need to ascertain all key facts; sharing information is essential in today’s education and health care system. But in the case of refugee children caution needs to be applied. Ascertaining the basics is our starting point. Children and their families may have been interviewed in other circumstances which are not so benevolent, so it might be better to give opportunities for them to tell you more in their own time.

A good welcome and introduction can work wonders in the process of getting to know a new student, and there is some good advice available from NALDIC, the National Association for Language Development in the Classroom (11), to support this. Finding out key information such as the child’s name, first language and current home circumstances will help teachers to include him or her sensitively.

What support might refugee children need?

Be aware of assumptions: Although we may be aware of the many ways in which newly arrived students may be vulnerable, it is important not to make assumptions about the individual in front of you.

One perception may be that all children who arrive are “traumatised” and require specialist mental health support. While we know that many have been through extremely challenging circumstances, one systematic review (12) found that 11 per cent of refugee children suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Although this is double the rate in non-refugee adolescents living in Western countries, there appears to be a much higher incidence (around 40 per cent) of other, possibly more transient, mental health difficulties, such as depression and anxiety, which appear for children and adolescents who have experienced war-related trauma.

These difficulties appear related to current stressors such as financial problems and worries about whether they will be allowed to remain, as opposed to what they have been through (13). For schools, it may be a helpful starting point to consider that many of these children show great resilience and cope well with school, seeing it as a place of safety and stability. Practical help and advice maybe a helpful starting point as opposed to a therapeutic care plan.

Think about developing emotional competence: Some behaviour that might be very unsettling for UK school staff or peers might be explained by the student’s background. For example, some children may have learned that aggression is the way to resolve conflicts or to respond to any perceived slight.

We also know that prolonged periods of stress can have detrimental effects on a child’s ability to reason and think rationally. Depending upon their experiences, some children may lack self-regulation strategies, resorting to “fight or flight” responses in the face of perceived threat.

They may be more likely to react to stimuli which are perceived as non-threatening to others, and it can be difficult to understand what these triggers are when we don’t know the child well.

Where children do appear to be struggling more persistently with social and emotional regulation, you might find that you already have programmes running in school which could be helpful.

Good monitoring and support systems will already be in place for students who may demonstrate emotional difficulties. For example, interventions aimed at developing emotional regulation or coping skills can be effective with children who are asylum-seekers or refugees, such as Friends for Life (14).

Develop a resilient environment: According to the Refugee Council, there is a greater likelihood that older children may be arriving unaccompanied (15). There is also some evidence that children who arrive with family members are more likely to show improving mental health over time, while those who are unaccompanied show increasing problems, perhaps driven by worries about what will happen to them when they turn 18 –leaving care or deportation (16).

Adolescents can display a wide range of stress reactions, but the broad categories of post-traumatic stress symptoms are re-experiencing, avoidance/numbing and increased emotional arousal (17).

The older children get the more entrenched and sophisticated some of their coping strategies are likely to be. Some of these strategies may not necessarily be helpful; it may look like they are coping, but they may be internalising their symptoms and showing “apparent resilience” (18). For example, they may show avoidance, distraction and/or be separating themselves mentally as well as physically.

Resilience (e.g. the positive adaptation to risk) is not considered as a stable personality trait according to psychologists writing in this area (19). The capacity for a child to “bounce back” is likely to be a function of the interaction between person and environmental factors.

When considering admitting refugee children, the importance of providing a resilient school-base cannot therefore be underestimated. For headteachers, raising staff knowledge and understanding in trauma and resilience will be helpful. Henderson and Milstein offer a framework to support the development of resilience environments that schools could use to develop student resilience (20).

For staff getting to know the child, identifying some protective factors and appropriate coping methods is essential. We know that as risk levels increase, resilience levels need to increase to counteract their effect.
Positive experiences in school (social relations as well as academic success) appear to be associated with positive outcomes in adulthood for children who have experienced traumatic events (21). Engaging the young person as an active participant in this assessment is critical; we must pay attention to their personal accounts in order to ascertain what works for them.

More specific programmes to help children who have been through trauma are also readily available for school staff to use without the need for specialist therapists (22, 23, 24). Many of these resources have been developed for use in refugee camps with volunteer facilitators, as well as in more structured settings like schools.

If more individualised support is needed, local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services or educational psychologists may be able to advise or provide some direct work. However, there are some examples of school-based input, which may feel more comfortable than going to a clinic setting and may have benefits to the wider school community (25, 26).

What if refugee children struggle to make progress?

A particular difficulty for schools may be in determining underlying reasons for a lack of academic progress in refugee children. Sustained socio-cultural deprivation has an impact on cognitive development, and for some children they may have experienced this from birth.

Research has identified factors that have supported children from a refugee population to settle in school. Some of these areas are discussed above, including having clear anti-bullying policies and establishing a positive whole-school attitude to refugees.

In some cases, however, it may be that examples of good practice have been adopted, but progress in the curriculum is not evident. A number of factors are worth considering in this instance.

The effects of trauma can be misinterpreted: There is evidence to suggest that other difficulties such as ADHD or ODD (oppositional defiant disorder) have similar indicators to those demonstrated by children who have experienced trauma (27).

School staff need to be mindful of this when making decisions about children’s presenting behaviours or difficulties, giving students time to make relationships and make sense of their environment. Consultation and discussion with the SENCO may be helpful to develop appropriate courses of action in the classroom.

The issues may be due to the effects of cultural differences: Refugee children may struggle to understand the expectations and norms of a UK school environment in terms of how they should relate to others, and what the purpose and function of certain activities is.

Mentoring or buddy support may be an effective light-touch way to help the child adjust to new social norms. Providing a consistent person who can build a relationship with the student may help the student to develop a sense of belonging and to feel more able to ask for help when they need it (28).

Socio-cultural deprivation has far-reaching consequences: The stress hormone, cortisol, is well-known to have a number of adverse effects if produced at high levels for long periods on parts of the brain that are central to memory and learning and higher order thinking and reasoning (29).

However, what we have learned from the pioneering work of psychologist Reuven Feuerstein, who devoted his career to addressing the psychological and educational needs of immigrant, refugee and otherwise disadvantaged populations (30), is that the barriers to attainment largely relate to the delivery of the task and the learning environment, rather than the child’s intrinsic ability.

Feuerstein discovered that the performance of children with lower IQs was dramatically improved when the task was mediated by a more able other (e.g. parent or teacher). He concluded that cultural differences provided barriers to performance, more so than ability per se.

This means that for schools, refugee children can overcome barriers to learning through accessing mediated learning opportunities to develop their attention, motivation, impulse control and abstract thinking. So, for some children, (depending upon their rate of progress assessed over time and in context), opportunities for mediated learning with a supportive adult may need to be made available.

Final thought

While the emphasis here has understandably been placed upon the wellbeing of including a vulnerable group into our schools and communities, it is important to remember that people working with trauma can become worn out through contact over time.

Schools will need to consider who is taking care of the caretaker in these circumstances. When planning for the inclusion of potentially traumatised students, headteachers will therefore need to be mindful of providing space and time for staff supervision, reflection and relaxation.

This is something that can be considered something of a luxury in busy school settings.

  • Dr Joanna Mitchell is area principal educational psychologist with the North West Team at Creative Psychologists in Action. This article has been compiled with contributions from Rebecca Ashton, senior educational psychologist, Dr Zoe Owen, educational psychologist, and Dr Joanna Walmsley, clinical psychologist. Visit

References and further information

  3. Supporting Refugee and Asylum Seeking Children: An examination of support structures in schools and the community (Hek & Sales, 2002, Middlesex University, Haringey & Islington Education Departments).
  7. Beyond the School Gates: Supporting refugees and asylum seekers in secondary school (Doyle & McCorriston, 2008, Refugee Council).
  11. (NALDIC resources).
  12. Prevalence of Serious Mental Disorder in 7,000 Refugees Resettled in Western Countries: A systematic review (Fazel, Wheeler & Danesh, 2005, The Lancet, 365(9467), 1309-1314).
  13. Practitioner Review: Assessment and treatment of refugee children and adolescents who have experienced war-related trauma (Ehntholt & Yule, 2006, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 47(12), 1197-1210).
  14. School and Community-based Interventions for Refugee and Asylum Seeking Children: A systematic review (Tyrer & Fazel, 2014, PloS one, 9(2), e89359).
  15. (Refugee Council).
  16. Risk and Resilience for Psychological Distress Amongst Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Adolescents (Hodes, Jagdev, Chandra, & Cunniff, 2008, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 49(7), 723-732.
  17. Children and Young People with PTSD (Chapter 9 in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: The Management of PTSD in adults and children in primary and secondary care, 2005, Royal College of Psychiatrists). Visit
  18. Resilience and Vulnerability Adaption in the Context of Childhood Adversities (Luthar & Zelazo, 2003, in Resilience and Vulnerability, Cambridge University Press).
  19. Resilience and Development: Contribution from the study of children who overcome adversity (Masten. Best & Garmezy, 1990, Development and Psychopathology, 2, 425-444).
  20. Resiliency in Schools (updated version), (Henderson & Milstein, 2003, California, Corwin Press).
  21. Adversity, Resilience and Young People: The protective value of positive schools and spare time experiences (Gilligan, 2000, Children and Society, Vol 14).
  22. Children and War Foundation: Teaching Recovery (for children age eight and above).
  23. Save the Children: Journey of Hope (for all ages).
  24. War Child: I Deal (for 11 to 15 years).
  25. School-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Group Intervention for Refugee Children who have Experienced War-related Trauma (Ehntholt, Smith, & Yule, 2005, Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 10(2), 235-250).
  26. A School-based Mental Health Intervention for Refugee Children: An exploratory study (Fazel, Doll & Stein, 2009, Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 14(2), 297-309).
  27. Stress, Trauma and Post-traumatic Stress Disorders in Children: An introduction (Perry, 2002, The Child Trauma Academy).
  28. Belonging and Connection to School in Resettlement: Young refugees, school belonging, and psychosocial adjustment (Kia-Keating & Ellis, 2007, Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 12(1), 29-43).
  29. Why Love Matters: How affection shapes the baby’s brain (Gerhardt, 2004, Routledge).
  30. Feuerstein Institute website:


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