Refugee and asylum seeker children

Children and families migrate for many different reasons. For some it is a choice, for some it may be for economic reasons, and others may have been forced from their home countries as a result of abuse, war, famine, political or religious persecution, torture, etc.

Children with histories of migration may have very different experiences before they left their homeland – particularly their exposure to traumatic events or to traumatic transit from one country to another.

Children will rarely have had a choice about leaving and this may lead to broken attachments with friends and family left behind and to the place they knew as home.

Their experiences after arrival will also be different depending on the stability of their circumstances, their socio-economic status, their exposure to bullying or victimisation, the extent to which family members are traumatised, their support network, acceptance within their new community etc. It’s also important to note that some refugee children will have arrived in the UK alone with no family ties or support.

Migration is intrinsically stressful to an individual’s mental health, even when the family has made a positive choice to leave. There can be multiple reasons for this but many are linked to the economic, cultural and social factors associated with adjusting to life in a different country. This is known as acculturative stress – sometimes simplified as ‘culture shock’.

Stresses associated with migration

Stresses associated with migration can include:

  • A loss of broader family networks, friends, customs and surroundings.
  • A need to start from scratch; sometimes together with a loss of previous social status and/or income.
  • Language difficulties – not speaking or understanding English.
  • Differences between own/cultural standards, expectations and values and those in new communities.
  • Discrimination – restricted opportunities and victimisation.
  • Intergenerational stresses linked to different rates of acclimatisation experienced by family members.
  • Trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder – and the negative effect this has on a child’s brain and ability to learn.

Spotting the signs

Due to the wide-ranging reasons leading to migration, schools will need to have effective, sensitive induction processes which do not make assumptions about needs and that fully appreciate and respect differences.

Schools will also need to be alert to some of the following signs, especially if they persist over time, that a child may be struggling:

  • Ongoing physical health problems with no apparent cause.
  • Excessive nervousness or crying.
  • Prolonged sadness or grumpiness.
  • Fear and anxiety and hopelessness.
  • Thoughts about traumatic events that won’t go away.
  • Avoidance of talking/thinking about particular subjects which may be linked to trauma.
  • Talking about a traumatic event in the present, as if it is happening now.
  • Problems managing behaviour, attention or emotions.
  • Constantly tired or falling asleep in class which might indicate that the child is not sleeping well.
  • Lack of desire to play with others.
  • Withdrawal or retreating into own world.

Some children who have been victims of war, violence or torture may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. They may experience an increase in fear and anxiety or re-live the trauma, perhaps through bad dreams and nightmares. Some children will also experience difficulties trusting and connecting with adults and peers.

Protective factors: what schools can do

Children with disrupted or different experiences of school life may find joining a new education system extremely challenging, so it’s important to be welcoming to children and parents and alert to the family’s back story.

In order to understand a child’s experience, it is important to gather basic information without delving too deep. School staff should build up more of a profile over time. Children and families may have been interviewed in other circumstances which are not so benevolent, so it might be better to build trust, be welcoming and give opportunities for them to tell you more in their own time.

Schools have the ability to provide certain ‘healing’ opportunities to refugee and migrant children – giving a daily structure to a child who may have experienced chaos, and acting as a bridge to a new way of life. Staff can help children to integrate with their classmates, who will have had very different life experiences, and help them re-build their self-esteem and develop friendships.   

Language barriers can greatly undermine a child’s confidence and make it harder for them to participate in school life and form relationships. Schools should ensure that children have the opportunity to receive additional help to develop their language skills.

Schools should also:

  • Use whole-school and smaller, targeted group work, circle time and broader curriculum opportunities to foster social and emotional skills; particularly to help children understand and deal with their thoughts, feelings and behaviour, develop coping skills and build healthy relationships.
  • Be alert and monitor children’s mental health and wellbeing – taking a proactive approach to building their resilience, giving them the support and encouragement they need, and the right tools so that they can confront their problems. Be hypervigilant to any trauma symptoms or behaviours that may communicate stress.
  • Focus on supporting inclusion, acceptance and tolerance using school-wide teaching activities and the school ethos to celebrate a diverse community.
  • Teach and encourage socially-responsible behaviours (e.g. empathy, kindness, tolerance, effective conflict management etc.) that contribute to a healthy school environment.
  • Set, communicate and reinforce clear expectations of acceptable conduct for all.
  • Use positive body language and facial expressions where the child has no English.
  • Encourage other pupils to involve refugee and migrant pupils in playground games.
  • Consider a mini topic/session on the country of origin to facilitate understanding and be helpful/inclusive for all pupils.
  • Assign a buddy to each refugee and migrant pupil.
  • Explain basic school rules and customs (school bells, breaks, uniform, ‘kit’, registers etc.).
  • Provide a tour of the school and grounds to the family.
  • Minimise the number of moves from one class to another and reduce the number of teacher changes.
  • Make sure refugee and migrant pupils know about upcoming school events so they feel included.
  • Help children and families access appropriate services and support to reduce family and environmental risk factors undermining children’s mental health.
  • Provide school newsletters and other material in appropriate languages where possible.

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