This PEN is targeted mainly at students beyond the initial stages of English language learning, working predominantly in mainstream primary classrooms. Such students may be receiving additional targeted ESL support, but their teachers in the mainstream classroom need to both understand students’ needs and the kinds of strategies and approaches that best assist their learning.
The refugee experience and its impacts on settlement and education
The refugee experience
For most students and their families, the experience of being a refugee will impact on their settlement in Australia. This impact will vary from family to family, and some will have experienced highly traumatic and distressing circumstances.
These experiences can include war, persecution, hunger, loss of family members, imprisonment, torture, lack of essential medical care, and loss of certainty and control over their lives. Many will have spent years living in refugee camps, or as refugees in countries where the chance of settling is remote. The physical and psychological effects of these experiences on families can be profound and long term, and will affect even very young children. For most refugee students, some degree of trauma and disruption will have occurred. This will vary depending on the countries from which students have come, and the experiences they have had. For example, one recently arrived student from Iraq whose father had been left behind commented that often his mind just ‘went blank’ and he simply could not concentrate on his schoolwork.
Even when in safety in Australia, families’ capacities to rebuild their lives and to support their children will vary. Many families will have long-term settlement needs, and these will impact on their children’s success at school. Some students and their families may need professional assistance to overcome the effects of traumatic experiences, and schools need to be aware of how the effects of trauma can impact on a child’s learning. Each State and Territory of Australia has a specialist agency for assisting survivors of torture and trauma, their families and communities. Information about these agencies can be found at the Forum for Australian Services for Survivors of Torture and Trauma. Publications for teachers about refugee students and their settlement into school in Australia can be found on these sites. For example the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture, Foundation House, has many downloadable publications available including resources produced for schools and education.
It is also important to recognise the strengths that refugee students and their families bring, such as resilience in the face of adversity, empathy, strong family values, sense of justice, a desire to give back to their own communities and to their new country, and hope for the future. These strengths will help them to succeed in their lives and in education.