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First, observe: a guide for teachers of refugees

Hassan* is a typical 4-year-old in many ways. A little shy, he tends to hide behind his parents, his body withdrawn, with just his orb-like brown eyes staring up at you. But at his first day at a preschool in Sydney’s west, he threw his tiny body to the floor and screamed.

Hassan is Syrian, and spent time in a refugee camp before arriving in Australia. He is just one of the many young refugees attending our preschools. But are our educators properly equipped to deal with the idiosyncrasies of their students’ unique, sometimes traumatic pasts?

Dr Melinda Miller thinks teachers have inadequate support. A lecturer in the school of early childhood at Queensland University of Technology, she says, along with effective professional development, a way of assisting teachers of refugees is having them “share what works with other practitioners”. That being said, “There’s no one right way of teaching refugee children”.

So, what are some the multifaceted ways of teaching them?

Individuality matters

First, understanding each one is key. Hassan is different to Amina, who is different to Keji. “All children bring differences into the classroom regardless of their background,” Miller said. Nevertheless, “those differences might be exacerbated in terms of their previous histories and cultures and the context from which they have come into this country. Some of those may involve trauma.”

But not every refugee has fled bombings and been confined within barbed-wire fences. Some have simply escaped, fearing imminent persecution. Some are well educated. Others have had no education whatsoever. Therefore, Miller offered that each child should be taught according to his or her individual characteristics and needs. A way of doing this, for example, is to structure “the curriculum in terms of how that child is reflected in the daily program”, Miller said.

Make culture the core

When educating children such as Hassan, their diversity “should be seen as a resource rather than a deficit”, Miller contended. Take language, for instance, of which refugee children commonly have several. Teachers can encourage bilingualism in refugee children by providing bilingual books – in English and the child’s mother tongue. Miller suggested “the parent reads in one language and the teacher reads in English”, which also fosters a sense of security and belonging (to both cultures) in the child. Hassan might enjoy Bosley Sees the World, in English and Arabic.

Be aware of trauma

If Hassan, like the other children, builds a house from wooden blocks, but unlike the other children proceeds to knock it down with his little fists, just observe this, Miller counselled. “There’s nothing wrong with it at all,” she said, as young kids tend to act out their social world through play. She stressed the importance of teachers communicating with refugee kids’ parents to understand the basis of these behaviours.

If, however, Hassan exhibits more serious signs of trauma, like very high anxiety, social withdrawal and regressive behaviour, he may have post-traumatic stress disorder, and should be referred to a pediatric mental health professional for review, as per Australian Psychological Society guidelines.

Check your bias

“Sometimes teachers may make assumptions about individual children’s abilities based on the child’s…background. For example, they might assume that the child isn’t capable of learning to the same capacity as other children”, Miller said. Just because Hassan appears to day-dream during story time, doesn’t mean he won’t learn to concentrate better in due course. Miller deems this a form of individual racism.

Then there’s institutional racism, in which “children and families are marginalised within the curriculum and centre-based policies and procedures”, Miller explained. An example of this is having a curriculum in which a minority culture is explored only as a topic of curiosity, as opposed to being a mainstay.

Miller’s last word of advice: “By focusing on the strengths and abilities that [refugee] children and families bring, the introduction of a child into an educational program is likely to be far more successful.”

*Name has been changed.

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