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Supporting Students with Refugee Experience During an International Crisis


Image adapted from original work by Zainab Mujtaba

How are students in Australian schools affected by international crises?

In Australia, students may be directly or indirectly exposed to images, footage and audio of the traumatic circumstances surrounding the crisis, leading to vicarious or exacerbated trauma symptoms including intrusive thoughts, difficulty concentrating and sleep disturbances.

Students are likely witnessing their parents/carers in a state of distress and grief. They may also be privy to videos and updates from family members in the crisis zone. The upsetting circumstances in many families may also lead to tension and conflict within the home, which adversely impacts on children.

Students with links to the crisis zone may be saddened or angered by how the international community is responding to the crisis.

In particular, the following groups of students are likely to be impacted:

  • Students with familial, cultural, religious or geographic links to the region/s affected
  • Students with loved ones who wish to flee the affected region/s
  • Students experiencing racism, discrimination and/or hate crimes
  • Students and their families who have experienced similar violence or traumatic circumstances, similar to those associated with the current crisis are likely to be triggered at this time.

News coming out of the crisis zone can cause previously traumatised individuals to feel as though they are re-experiencing their own traumatic experience. Other trauma symptoms such as nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance and somatic complaints may also increase in frequency and severity.

Work with the student to identify at least two school staff members who the student can reach out to throughout the school day if they are struggling.

How can I support my students?

Monitor Wellbeing

  • For high school students, ensure that at least one staff member with whom the student has rapport, has been in touch with the student to ask how they and their loved ones are coping with the situation. Remind the student of the supports available to them within the school community. Arrange to catch up with the student regularly to monitor their wellbeing.
  • For primary school students, ensure that a staff member checks in regularly with a parent/guardian to discuss how they and their child are coping. Allow students and parents/guardians to control how much they disclose to you.
  • Work with the student to identify at least two school staff members who the student can reach out to throughout the school day if they are struggling.

Create a Calm and Predictable Environment

  • It is important that educators remain impartial in their discussions with students with respect to any political matters related to the crisis. Instead, educators are advised to focus on the social and emotional wellbeing of their students.
  • Provide students with a predictable class routine and prepare them for any changes where possible. Explain the purpose of schoolwork activities.
  • Discuss options for calming and comfort with students for if they become overwhelmed during lessons or while trying to complete schoolwork.
  • It can be helpful to offer some suggestions for wellbeing breaks throughout the day, such as gentle stretching, exercise, connecting with a friend, taking time to draw or paint, going outside and noticing small, beautiful things, taking five deep, diaphragmatic breaths with slow exhales.
  • Remove as many additional stressors from the students’ life as possible. For instance, consider offering an alternative time to sit tests and exams, an extension on assignment due dates and flexibility around schoolwork completion. Not only may students be struggling to concentrate and focus on these tasks at this very difficult time, but it is important that students can focus on spending time being comforted by friends and family and talking to loved ones as they try to process what is happening and brace for any further deepening of the crisis.
  • Consider the topics that the student is currently studying in their subjects. Some topics in history and geography that reference war, violence, human rights violations and poverty can be particularly triggering. Students won’t be able to learn if they are being emotionally overwhelmed by their personal associations with such themes. Such topics might be challenging for a student who is presently redefining their worldview while traumatic events unfold. It may be important to consider how to sensitively present these topics and be aware of the needs of students to have control over their experiences during this time. Students may need to be given the option of alternative work to complete.
  • Remind the student that education can serve as a refuge from the stressful situation, providing routine, purpose, interest, positivity and hope. Remind the student how they can seek help with schoolwork.

Make Appropriate Referrals

  • Ask the student (and/or parent/guardian) what would help them most at this time and make appropriate referrals.
  • Referrals to STARTTS can be made by completing our referral form.
  • Ensure the student knows how to contact services such as Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800), eheadspace, ReachOut and Lifeline (13 11 14)
  • Provide students and their families with information about the Witness to War Hotline (Free call 1800 845 198). It is a national multilingual telephone hotline for people affected by overseas conflicts. The hotline is staffed by speakers of Arabic, Dari, Hebrew, Ukrainian and English. Telephone interpreters can be used for other languages.
  • Support students to report their experiences of discrimination or vilification to Anti-Discrimination NSW

Acknowledge the Impact of the Crisis on Students

When students’ loved ones are being impacted by a crisis, it can feel very strange and incongruent that school processes seem to be carrying on as if nothing has happened. While students watch traumatic events unfold they are seeking acknowledgement of their emotions and often need help to readjust their core assumptions about the world and make meaning of what is happening. Students often look toward older family members, as well as to teachers to help them with this. Educators can acknowledge the situation and provide wellbeing support, while still remaining impartial during international crises by:

  • Checking-in with students that are likely to be impacted. In a confidential space, staff who have rapport with the student should ask how the student is feeling, what they are experiencing and whether there is anything they need help with. Make appropriate referrals.
  • Validating students’ emotional responses to the crisis
  • Respond to challenging behaviours in a trauma-informed way. For instance by using Garry Landreth’s ACT – Acknowledge the Emotion, Communicate the Limit, Target Acceptable Alternatives. Seek support from a School Liaison Officer for further assistance.
  • Emphasising what students can do to take care of their wellbeing at this time (e.g. limit media exposure, reach out to staff/school counsellor, try to get regular sleep, meals, socialisation and exercise)
  • Emphasise what individuals and agencies are doing to try to help
  • Publish a message of solidarity in the school newsletter or school messaging service and offer of support affected families
  • Organising a fundraising activity that would benefit all groups impacted by the crisis

What are the signs that a student may be struggling?

Students who are feeling overwhelmed by their reaction to the crisis may show signs or report symptoms of their distress in one or more of the following ways:

  • Having trouble concentrating. This may present as students asking for teacher instructions to be repeated, non-completion of work
  • Being more quiet or more talkative than usual
  • Sadness and tearfulness
  • Outbursts of anger and/or aggression
  • Hypervigilance
  • Reduced or increased appetite
  • Lethargy or hyperactivity
  • Stomach aches, headaches and/or a feeling of heaviness in their limbs
  • Expressions of feelings of guilt at being in Australia, while loved ones are suffering overseas
  • Expressions of feeling helpless and/or hopeless
  • Spending/wanting to spend a lot of time on their phone. Students may be feeling a very strong need to stay in constant contact with loved ones both here and overseas. Students may be anxious to receive updates about the safety of loved ones in the crisis zone.

Supporting Parents and Carers

Many families with links to the crisis zone will appreciate a phone call from the school checking in with their welfare at this difficult time. During a crisis, educators are well placed to assist parents/guardians with referrals, strengthen a sense of belonging and connection with the school and alleviate concerns about how to minimise the impact of the crisis on their child’s learning.

It can be helpful to prepare parents/carers via SMS ahead of time, that you will be calling. In the SMS, write what time you will be calling, that the call may come from an unknown number and what the purpose of your call is.

During the call, allow the parent/carer to control how much they wish to share with you and do not pry for information. Express your care and ask the parent/carer what would help them most at this time. Be honest about what kinds of supports you can and cannot provide. Outline what supports are available to the student and their family within the school and offer to refer the family to external organisations for support that is beyond the remit of the school. Schools can offer to support families to make a referral for counselling at STARTTS.

The staff member could ask the parent/guardian if they are happy to receive a follow-up phone call in a couple of weeks’ time to see how they are coping. Make sure the parent/guardian knows how to make contact with you, should they require support in the future.

Provide parents/guardians with details for counselling services such as Witness to War Hotline (Free call 1800 845 198), Transcultural Mental Health Line (1800 648 911), Parent Line NSW (1300 1300 52), Lifeline (13 11 14) and BeyondBlue (1300 22 4636).

Phone calls could be made by teachers (using a telephone interpreter if necessary) or by a Community Liaison Officer. It is important to consider vicarious trauma risks for staff completing these phone calls, particularly if the staff member is personally impacted by the crisis. Where possible, ensure that the load of making these phone calls is shared amongst several well-supported staff, that opportunities for debriefs are planned for and that multilingual staff are explicitly given the option to decline the making of these phone calls, as they are at particular risk of re-traumatisation if impacted by the crisis.

Schools can contact a STARTTS School Liaison Officer for further guidance on this topic and/or for free professional development for staff on incidental counselling skills, vicarious trauma and self care.

Supporting Educators

Educators and counsellors are not immune to the impacts of trauma. Staff may find that the crisis has affected them personally, perhaps through personal links to the region, triggering of previous traumas or through empathising with affected students, colleagues and community members. Some symptoms educators may recognise within themselves include a change in appetite, sleep and/or mood, nightmares, intrusive imagery, trouble concentrating, memory problems, social withdrawal, increased sensitivity to violence and/or feelings of despair and hopelessness.

What schools can do:

STARTTS School Liaison Program

For more information or to request specialist consultation, professional learning or support for your school community, please visit our website or contact Rachelle Coe, Acting School Liaison Team Leader,

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