• Kristin Grayson, Ph.D., and Hannah Sung • IDRA Newsletter • March 2018 •

Kristin Grayson, M.A.Imagine you are a student sitting in a classroom. Even though you’ve been in the classroom many times before, everything still seems foreign to you. Everyone is speaking in a language you recognize but can’t quite fully comprehend. Your classmates seem to be following rules only they seem to know.

The teacher has given the class a task to work on. It seems that everyone knows what to do except you. You want to ask for help but you don’t know what questions to ask. The other students are already writing. You suddenly feel lost and alone.

This is the experience of many refugee children. Since 2005, three quarters of a million refugees have entered the United States. They make up an increasingly more diverse population in terms of their countries of origin and primary languages (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2016; Hooper, et al., 2016).

Refugees are a specific group of immigrants. According to the 1951 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (United Nations, 1951), a refugee is someone who has a deep and well-founded fear of being persecuted on the basis of race, religion, national origin, or membership in a particular political or social group and is outside their country of origin. Because of this fear, they are unable or do not feel safe enough to return to that country.

Many refugee children and youth have experienced some kind(s) of trauma, including children born in the United States and those seeking refugee status. Trauma-related symptoms can be subtle or clearly apparent to others. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines trauma as an “emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea” (2008).

Refugee children and youth may have directly or indirectly experienced war- or conflict-related trauma. Such conflict destabilizes and disrupts an individual’s existing supports and relationships, leading to what researchers call an “ecological shock” (Dryden-Peterson, et al., 2017). As a result, traumatic experiences may result in physical, social, emotional and mental loss that can lead to depression, anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Bemak & Chung, 2017; Betancourt, et al., 2012; Hart, 2009).

The effects of trauma can be far-reaching and negatively affect refugee students’ ability to function on a day-to-day basis. Recurring nightmares may interrupt sleep cycles and impair concentration throughout the day (Hart, 2009). Uncertainty about the future may contribute to high levels of anxiety that can inhibit thinking processes (Graham, et al., 2016).

Refugee children and youth may experience a second wave of shock when they are relocated. In refugee camps, they may be exposed to unsanitary and unsafe conditions with little access to medical or other forms of care (Bemak & Chung, 2017). In asylum countries, refugee children and youth may encounter racism and discrimination, adding to their existing trauma and stress (Dryden-Peterson, 2016). Their perceived differentness can make them targets of bullying as well (Graham, et al., 2016; Hart, 2009). As a result, many refugee children and youth experience extreme loneliness and isolation.

Yet, it is problematic to see refugee students only as “traumatized” because it focuses on negative aspects of students’ experiences rather than their strengths and assets (Taylor & Sidhu, 2011).

Legal Requirements and Equitable Opportunities

Schools can pro-actively create a welcoming and positive learning environment to help refugee students cope with trauma by building relationships and providing supports. All refugee students are entitled to an equitable education in U.S. schools. The Plyler vs. Doe U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1982 ruled that school districts are required to provide all children, including undocumented students, free and equitable access to public schools.

Equitable access includes decreasing obstacles in paperwork requirements and processes for admission as well as providing support for learning English (see article on Page 5). Schools cannot require student or parent social security numbers. Schools also may find alternatives to other traditionally required paperwork, like birth certificates and school transcripts. Schools can employ liaisons and language interpreters to help navigate regulations and paperwork.

Special funding to support refugee students and their educational needs falls under various federal programs, such as Title I and Title III. [For more information consult with your federal programs officer and see the U.S. Department of Education letter to the country’s Chief State School Officers (Duncan, 2015).]

Creating a Supportive Environment

Schools play a central role in helping refugee students find supports and build relationships (Taylor & Sidhu, 2011). Creating a supportive, welcoming environment involves – first and foremost – understanding the unique situations of refugee students. Their diverse experiences may require different types and/or levels of assistance (Rutter, 2006; Taylor & Sidhu, 2011). Importantly, recognizing the diversity of refugee students can help school staff, teachers and students be sensitive to cultural differences and avoid stereotypical characterizations (NCTSN, 2008).

In the classroom, teachers can demonstrate appreciation of refugee students as an asset to the school because of their array of experiences and languages. This creates a more inclusive cultural climate that builds supportive relationships and breaks down barriers.

A positive learning environment involves a commitment to equity. Targeted, equitable policies and procedures can help educators effectively respond to refugee students’ needs. School leaders can coordinate referral procedures and services (school counselors, school psychologists, mental health professionals) to provide a holistic approach to address the effects of trauma.

Schools can foster belonging by including refugee students as members of school and classroom communities rather than physically or socially isolating them (Taylor & Sidhu, 2011; NCTSN, 2008). Promoting caring, stable social relationships is central to helping refugee students rebuild a support network.

The IDRA EAC-South equity assistance center supports districts across an 11-state region of the southeastern United States to put systems into place and prepare teachers to welcome all students, including refugee students, into their classrooms. Please see our website at http://www.idraeacsouth.org for more information.


American Psychological Association. (2018). Trauma, web page (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association).

Betancourt, T.S., Newnham, E.A., Layne, C.M., Kim, S., Steinberg, A.M., Ellis, H., & Birman, D. (2012). “Trauma History and Psychopathology in War-Affected Refugee Children Referred for Trauma-Related Mental Health Services in the United States,” Journal of Traumatic Stress.

Bemak, F., & Chung, R. C.-Y. (2017). “Refugee Trauma: Culturally Responsive Counseling Interventions,” Journal of Counseling and Development.

Dryden-Peterson, S. (2016). “Refugee Education in Countries of First Asylum: Breaking Open the Black Box of Pre-Resettlement Experiences,” Theory and Research in Education.

Dryden-Peterson, S., Dahya, N., & Adelman, E. (2017). “Pathways to Educational Success Among Refugees: Connecting Locally and Globally Situated Resources,” American Educational Research Journal.

Duncan, A. (October 20, 2015). Policy Letters to the Chief State School Officers, archived (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education).

Graham, H.R., Minhas, R.S., & Paxton, G. (2016). “Learning Problems in Children of Refugee Background: A Systematic Review,” Pediatrics.

Hart, R. (2009). “Child Refugees, Trauma and Education: Interactionist Considerations on Social and Emotional Needs and Development,” Educational Psychology in Practice.

Hooper, K., Zong, J., Capps, R., & Fix, M. (2016). “Young Children of Refugees in the United States: Integration Successes and Challenges,” Migration Policy Institute.

NCTSN. (2008). Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators (Los Angeles, Calif., & Durham, N.C.: National Center for Child Traumatic Stress).

Rutter, J. (2006). Refugee Children in the UK (New York, NY: Open University Press).

Taylor, S.C., & Sidhu, R.K. (2011). “Supporting Refugee Students in Schools: What Constitutes Inclusive Education?” International Journal of Inclusive Education.

United Nations. (1951). Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, Refugee Convention (New York, NY: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees).

U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 2016 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, Table 13 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Homeland Security). https://www.dhs.gov/immigration-statistics/yearbook/2016/table13

Kristin Grayson, Ph.D., has served as an IDRA education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at contact@idra.org. Hannah Sung is associate director of research and continuous improvement at the MAEC Center for Education Equity. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at hannah@maec.org.

[©2018, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 2018 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]