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Teaching Refugees

ELL refugee students refugees teaching resources

Teachers facing the challenges of teaching refugee students, get information from Pampered Teacher blog

When we think about the role of a teacher in society, the first thing that comes to mind is their critical role in the future of our country. We think about the struggles to compete globally. How is the US keeping up with our international peers? 

But an even greater challenge that has infused the modern school system is the role of teachers in providing a socioemotional, linguistic and academic stepping stone for thousands of refugee children.

Our teachers are on the front lines and therefore need to be prepared to understand their student's circumstances so they can better consider their classroom management challenges.

What Teachers Need to Know About Refugee Students

1. Language Barriers: Refugees typically don't just relocate from their native country to the US; they migrate to neighboring countries, sometimes several different countries. Therefore they are exposed to multiple languages without having mastered any of them. Many cannot read or write in any language, nor have they been read to.

2. Low Quality Previous Schooling: Due to lack of resources and different expectations for classroom behavior and participation (teacher-centric learning) students do not perform at grade level. They also approach schooling with apprehension due to a stigma of bullying and discrimination.

3. Absenteeism: Refugee children are used to frequent disruptions in their education due to violent conflicts, legal restrictions and ongoing migration, according to Sarah Dryden-Peterson of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. This disruption in their education has caused less structure in their educational routine.

4. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder:  According to information presented by Selcuk R. Sirin, Ph.D. from New York University and Lauren Rogers-Sirin, Ph.D. of College of Staten Island, CUNY, 79% of Syrian refugee children have experienced a family member die. Most refugees, not just Syrian, have lived amongst violence and witnessed a stressful life event including someone getting shot.   

5. Poverty: Many refugee families live with a host family here in the US but that doesn't necessarily mean they will have financial resources for supplies, uniforms and backpacks.

Helping Refugee Students

tips, ideas and resources for ELL teachers and those who teach refugees. Get more information at the Pampered Teacher blog

American educators face a unique challenge of bridging the cultural gap, creating an emotionally safe environment and ultimately providing a complete education for their future success.

Many school districts in the US have self-contained ELL (English Language Learners) programs so that refugees and other foreign immigrants are together.

Benefits of ELL Programs

  • camaraderie
  • better communication
  • shared resources 
  • higher level of empathy for each other

In putting together this guide, I had the pleasure of speaking with Mrs. A, a middle school ELL teacher in Illinois. She outlined some very help resources, tips and ideas for teachers of refugee students. Below is her awesome advice!

  1. Stock up on supplies and school needs so that extras are on hand when needed. This could even mean collecting old supplies at the end of the year to be reused the following year.
  2. Encourage student interaction...specifically, Mrs. A. shared that she had two students, from 2 different continents that used Google Translate to communicate with each other. Their common, immigrant situation bonded them beyond their communication barrier. This connection to another student is so key to overcoming emotional hurtles.
  3. Let other students help. Everyone loves to be needed. So instead of advanced students looking at the more needy students as a hinderance, give the advanced students the opportunity to help out by labeling the classroom or orchestrating "who/what am I" games.
  4. Provide low-level resources that are not baby-ish. Early readers doesn't necessarily mean young readers. It can be a challenge to find curriculum that teaches that is also on par with their age. Teacher can create Power Points with pictures to customize reading materials.
  5. Get teaching help with online language programs that assist with listening, speaking such as Imagine Learning, which provides instructions in many native languages. This program does cost money and licenses are needed for each student. If your district doesn't have the budget, also check out ESL Café, which is free.
  6. Communicating with parents may be a challenge if they do not speak English. To solve this issue teachers have reached out to see if other refugee parents or educators in the district could translate during parent teacher conferences or even casual communications. TIP: See if there is an ELL Parents Center through your township that offers translator services. 

Syrian refugee statistics for education and schooling; learn teaching strategies for refugees at the Pampered Teacher blog

I truly hope the above information will help teachers to:

  • Build relationships knowing that students may not be used to engaging with the teacher and participating openly. Disengagement is not always a sign of protest or disinterest but a result of prior cultural conditioning.
  • Provide affirmation and allow for problems to be worked on - perfection is not expected immediately. One teacher remedied this issue by providing a small chalk board so the student could change his work if needed.
  • Seek meaningful materials so students are challenged at their level, both academically and maturity.


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