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Tips for Teachers: Supporting Refugees in the Classroom

By: Danielle Shulkin


As schools across the country begin to reopen for the new school year, many teachers may be meeting their students in person for the first time. Some teachers may discover that some of their new students come from refugee families and/or have recently been re-settled into their district. While all students deserve a quality education rooted in equity and compassion, students who have been displaced from their homes may require specific support. Here are some tips on supporting refugee students in the classroom. 

  1. Get to know your students and their families. 

        You can’t help a child if you don’t know what they are facing.  Many teachers start off the year by doing some sort of student survey to learn about their students’ learning styles and interests. Consider adding questions such as “What is something you’d like your teacher to know about you or your family?” in order to allow students space to share in a low-pressure way. You may not learn everything, but this question opens the door for all students to share information about who they are and where they come from.  

    On that note, be sure to develop a relationship early on with families and sponsors (if applicable) as well. Reach out to your administration or your network if translation services are needed, and let caretakers know who you are and that you will be communicating with them about their child throughout the year.  It’s important that families know that you both play important roles in their child’s development, so it’s up to the teacher to find out how best to communicate with the child’s at-home support system.

  2. Create predictability and routines (but still make time for fun!)

        Many students who’ve faced trauma benefit from having predictability and routines in the school day. If a student has lived through a dangerous time, fear of the unknown may provoke anxiety which can manifest itself in a variety of behaviors.  Minimize this fear by creating routines for daily or weekly occurrences, such as the beginning and end of the school day, partner or group work, and transitions between subjects.  Unstructured times, like lunch or recess, are important times for socialization and movement breaks; however, students who are new or still learning English may struggle with how to engage during these times.  Consider pairing them up with a friendly student who can be their buddy and include them in their fun activities.

  3. Utilize nonverbal communication

        Students who are still learning English may not pick up on cues as quickly as native English speakers.  Be sure to use plenty of hand gestures and other nonverbal cues to allow them to follow along with directions and other information.  These gestures also aid in their language acquisition.  Teachers can set up specific nonverbal cues with the child for common directions.  Remember that body language can vary between cultures, so be sure to respect these differences and explain clearly what you mean.  Some children may not be used to common expectations in the U.S., such as making eye contact, raising hands, staying in one’s seat, or asking to use the bathroom.  Be sure to go over these expectations early on and show compassion if and when there are misunderstandings.  

  4. Aim for integration, not assimilation

        The Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR) defines integration as “a dynamic, two-way process in which newcomers and the receiving society work together to build secure, vibrant, and cohesive communities.”  Teachers can do this by incorporating various perspectives in the classroom and celebrating cultural and linguistic diversity. Assimilation, on the other hand, focuses on making the newcomer take on the traits of the new environment without reciprocity.  This process can lead to students feeling as if their own culture or language is less-than, which can lead to self-esteem and identity issues.  Studies have shown that a strong relationship to the previous culture and language correlates positively with improved social and academic success.  Educators can include books and artifacts from different countries, provide opportunities for all students to share about their families or cultures, and model how to show respect for people and perspectives that may be new or different (without tokenizing the unfamiliar).  Furthermore, it is important for teachers to be intentional about creating a positive classroom culture that all students contribute to and can share in together.  

    This list is by no means exhaustive, and teachers and schools are encouraged to do their own research as well as reach out to organizations within their own communities that can help them support refugee students and families.  Check out these articles for more tips: