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Creating a safe learning environment for refugee and immigrant students

Key strategies can help put refugee or immigrant students at ease and make them less confused or frightened.

7 min read

EducationEducational Leadership

Maria Moreno with refugee students

Las Americas Newcomer School. The author and some newcomer students having fun.

As a former principal of a newcomer school for refugee and immigrant students, creating a safe learning environment is essential for academic growth and student success. Teachers are often asked to wear different hats: caregiver, social worker, role model, etc. Often, teachers are unprepared and find these additional roles overwhelming. However, they can be essential for our most at-risk students to be successful and acculturate. I recall one student saying, “I am happy to come to school every day because my teachers care about me.”

Maria Moreno

When considering the future landscape of refugee or immigrant students, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees predicts 125,000 refugees will seek asylum before the end of 2022. This influx of newcomers entering our schools will only increase — even though just 50% of elementary school-age refugee children and 22 % of secondary-school age children have access to school, with only 1% of refugees able to access higher education. Teachers must adapt to meet the instructional needs of these new arrivals.  

When newcomers arrive, they are scared, nervous, and overwhelmed with their new environment. Students from Uganda, Afghanistan and other parts of the world have lived in refugee camps. Others are displaced because of war or different dangerous situations. Amenities like running water and electricity can be foreign and require adjusting time.

With so much adjustment needed, it will take everyone in the school community to support students. From the first day these students arrive in the classroom, teachers must play a significant role in that transition. Here are my tips to make the transition as smooth and impactful as possible.

Build a foundation at school for refugee, immigrant students

It’s important to show students and their families that schools care about and understand their backgrounds. Many students who have experienced trauma see its effects in their daily lives. They may say, “I want to hurt myself” or “I can’t go on” or “Well, it’s really hard. I’m sad, but I will be OK.”  

Teachers should gather information on students to help them transition: 

  • Where are you from? What country, village, refugee camp?
  • Who do you live with? Where are your parents?
  • Tell me all the languages you speak. Can you read or write in any of these languages?
  • Is there any information I need to know to make you happy at school?

Recognize the strengths newcomers bring to a school 

Newcomer students have a tremendous amount of grit and resilience. Some students have never had the opportunity to go to school; others could not attend due to unsafe conditions. In some cases, female students were not allowed in schools in other countries. 

Students are excited about the possibilities of learning English and the opportunities to live their dreams. It is important to recognize, and reward, that growth mindset. 

Additionally, pride in students’ heritage and owning it as part of their identity creates self-esteem and empowerment. The sharing of myriad cultures and heritages has become an integral part of creating inclusion in diverse classrooms. Celebrating customs and traditions help students appreciate the richness and sense of belonging. It also shows how different students from various countries speaking other languages can find commonalities. It is essential that teachers of newcomer students celebrate these moments and traditions, big or small, to create a diverse and rich culture of inclusivity in the classroom. 

Prepare strategies for trauma, and discipline

Teachers also need to be prepared and must use unique strategies in the classroom to support students who may have experienced trauma. 

For instance, to build background, teachers need to understand a child’s history and experience to support them better. This can occur by simply conversing with the student and understanding their journey. Young children, however, are less able to articulate their stories. Using images and other graphics on the internet can help students describe and help teachers better understand how poverty, losing a loved one, or other barriers have affected their lives.

I learned this tip from my visit to Kyangwali Refugee Resettlement in Uganda, where people were accustomer to never knowing when they’d have their next meal. I recall a family telling me that eating cassava, a perennial woody shrub, was their only meal until their harvested corn was ready to eat. When children see their native habitat, they will point to certain parts of the image and say, “You see that? In my village, we had one like that, but a herd of elephants destroyed it, and we had to build it again.”

Teachers also need to be consistent and as fundamental as possible by posting classroom routines and expectations in their classrooms. Students need to feel safe and form healthy relationships with their teachers, the school resource officer, administrators and others. Screaming, yelling and other behaviors can trigger a student to regress and form barriers that would harm a student’s success. 

Provide positive rewards for students and foster self-confidence and reassurance by creating a system that builds knowledge without overwhelming them with everything they need to know. 

While we’ve discussed areas to improve the culture and routine of a classroom for newcomer students, it is also important to set a standard of school discipline to achieve success. Often, teachers tend to mistake the role of punishment for changed behavior. When students misbehave, traditional consequences such as a suspension designed to change behavior can be ineffective with newcomers. These students require a structured conference where the student, parent and teacher come together to clarify expectations. A school contract is the best tool to achieve this. 

Before a student can be disciplined, they must understand the behavior that caused them to receive the consequence in the first place. Helping students understand what not to do helps them understand how to behave in the first place. Simply providing students with a book of rules, code of conduct or any other policy is unproductive.

The future with newcomer students

No matter what you do or what the newcomer student situation looks like in a classroom, please don’t give up on students because of behaviors they exhibit or things they may say. These students often do not have reliable or consistent support, so they don’t expect that from teachers.

I recall students saying, “Why do you care about me? Just leave me alone.” Give the student some space, then start over the next day. They will begin to trust you when they see you are not going away. 

Be patient. Every day is a new opportunity. It may take time, but the reward of seeing newcomer students succeed and thrive in the classroom is worth it all. 

Marie Moreno, Ed.D., is the former founding principal of Las Americas Newcomer School in Houston, Texas. After almost 20 years as principal, she is now the CEO of Newcomer Success, a consulting firm that supports teachers, administrators and school districts across the country with innovative strategies to help educate and create safe learning environments for refugee and immigrant students. In June, Moreno was named one of 10 Verizon and TIME Innovative Teachers for helping to change the US education landscape.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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