By Katrina Landa, Ed.D.
In 2016, the United States welcomed 96,874 refugees, including 15,479 from Syria alone, according to the US Department of State’s Refugee Processing Center. Nearly 60 percent of those refugees were children.
As these families settle into the country and children enroll in local schools, teachers face the unique challenge of ensuring refugee students feel welcomed, while also meeting their educational needs.
As the ESL and bilingual coordinator at (ACE), I frequently share my experience in working with refugee, immigrant and foreign language-speaking students and offer teachers these top five tips below.
1. Establish a safe space in your classroom. You must be vigilant and stop any bullying immediately. These students have been through a lot and they should feel safe in your classroom.
2. Try to get as much information as you can about the child’s previous schooling. Refugee children sometimes come with extensive prior schooling, and sometimes they arrive with fractured or no schooling after years of living in refugee camps and travel. Knowing how long it has been since the child has been in school – if ever – can help the teacher be compassionate and know how much routine and procedure to teach.
For example, after learning that a student of mine had never been in school – now he is in 5th grade – I started explaining our routine a little more when instructing the whole class: “Let’s all line up one behind another, let’s stay in line until we get to music class, etc.” These are things I wouldn’t normally verbalize in a 5th grade class, but it helped this student understand what we were doing.
I also started explaining how we clean up: “Let’s take all the colored pencils and put them here,” and used gestures, which allowed me to reinforce school procedures to the whole class, never singling out the student.
3. Find a trusted translator so that you can communicate with the family. When you show a family that you care enough to seek out help to speak to them, you begin establishing rapport. Again, these families have been through a lot, so just showing that you care goes a long way.
4. Take some time to model how to treat a new student with your class. Eat lunch with the class and help them start a conversation with the new student(s). Start a soccer game during recess. Sometimes just getting the ball rolling with your students can help them connect.
5. Connect the family to needed resources. The student may need glasses, or the family may need a doctor or dental care. There are refugee services in many communities that help families transition to the U.S., but sometimes timing is VERY important as these services may only be available the first six months to a year after the family arrives. Do not hesitate to give information to a family in need. Perhaps connect them to resources using your school translator as a bridge, or contact the organization yourself and see if they can reach out to the family in their native language.
No matter what, make every student feel valuable and show them they have the right to be here. Set aside politics and accept cultures different than your own to ensure bright futures for every student. You have the opportunity to help these students have a great beginning in America.
About the author
Katrina Landa, Ed.D. is the English as a Second Language and Bilingual Education Program Coordinator at (ACE). She taught at the elementary and high school levels, and also supervised adult education programs in her former school district. Presently, she is an adjunct instructor for her local community college and is a director of their dual enrollment program. She received her master’s in early childhood education and ESOL from the University of Miami, and her doctorate in special education (with a minor in educational leadership) from Florida International University. She loves to read, travel, and spend time with her husband and their daughters.