Creating a sense of belonging for asylum-seeking and refugee children

Teacher and training practitioner, Cat Jolleys, explains how to welcome asylum-seeking or refugee children into your school. She shares her experience of increasing their sense of belonging and developing the empathy and inclusion within the whole school community, through a trauma-informed lens.

From 2017-2022 I was Deputy Headteacher and SENCo (and Mental Health Lead, Nurture Lead and did some Y6 teaching too!) at a primary school in Cheetham Hill in Manchester. Cheetham Hill is an area of inner Manchester with poor housing, high levels of deprivation, poor health and with many people struggling to manage with low wages, long working hours and low levels of job security and in an area of huge diversity.

A school with many languages, cultures and backgrounds

Our school had around 38 different languages spoken and children reflecting many different countries, cultures and backgrounds. In addition, children moved in and out of school frequently, due to insecure housing and job insecurity, so we had an ever changing and transient population. Every week would see a new child in school, often an INA (International New Arrival) who might be a refugee or asylum-seeker. This made school a vibrant and exciting place to work and learn, and we, as a leadership team, were consistent in our understanding that our school had to welcome children from all places with open arms, understand them through a trauma-informed lens and respond and aim to meet their needs in as relational and compassionate a way as possible, to create a felt sense of belonging and safety.

Developing a trauma-informed approach

Our trauma-informed approach was based on the premise of intentionally looking behind the behaviours we were presented with; trying to understand why a child might be behaving in such a way, what they were communicating, what might be their unmet need and what we could do to try and meet it.

We had lots of training on ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and around other broader, more structural traumas including racism, cultural bias, misogyny, homophobia etc.

We created ways of working and policies which meant that we focused on academic progress, social skills and developing the whole child, based on a culture and ethos that all good learning comes from good relationships, and maintaining these was our priority.

Our whole school, universal offer included: an inclusive and restorative, relational behaviour policy (rather than a punitive one) so the focus was on accountability for harming others and repairing the harm done; a whole-school programme on developing emotional literacy; a trauma-informed curriculum which was culturally rich and reflected the heritage of our children and their families; and a staff body who were diverse and reflected the languages, culture and backgrounds of the children they supported and taught.

We even made our recruitment trauma-aware so that we were employing staff who had a relational focus and an understanding of how to meet the complex needs of a lot of our children.

Specialist support for children with greater needs

In addition, we offered specialist support for a smaller number of children with greater needs. These were often children who were new to the UK and might have experienced trauma and adversity in their home countries or on their journeys to the UK. This targeted offer included a nurture room, play therapy, horticultural therapy, forest school and a trained EAA (empathetically aware adult or key person) to develop trust, psychological safety and emotional regulation.

Some of the challenges we overcame included situational mutism (with the help of our amazing Speech Therapist), fear of eating in school, running away or confrontational and sometimes violent behaviours where a child’s nervous system is stuck in a fight or flight mode.

We often taught passive, quiet children without any spoken English and ensured we worked hard to create lots of active or creative activities, with less emphasis on verbal interactions and which were often outside. We worked hard to develop our outside area to allow children to play, run and regulate once we realised how effective being outside was to those children who found the structure of a classroom environment too challenging.

A foundation of our offer to develop emotional literacy and regulation was based around Zones of Regulation, a visual strategy accessible to children with no language right up to very articulate speakers. The offer also incorporated lots of 1:1 or small group sensory interventions using water, sand, sound, smells, nature, drawing, movement, play and stories and books. Lots more details of these strategies will be included in the workshop in January!

Our ethos was connection and consistency before challenge. Or relationships and regulation before rigour!

Find out more about supporting refugee and asylum seeking children

Listen to our conversation with Cat Jolleys on the Creative Life Story Work podcast >>

About Cat Jolleys

Cat Jolleys has been a primary teacher, deputy headteacher, Designated Safeguarding Lead and SENDCo for over 23 years, working in a Greater Manchester primary school and an SEMH special school. She advocated for and met the needs of SEND children and those who have experienced trauma, by developing and maintaining a culture of nurture, restorative and trauma-informed practice.

She is currently training to become a Trauma-Informed Forest Schools teacher.

Cat is a training practitioner from Trauma Informed Consultancy Services, which offers an extensive range of training sessions related to all aspects of how we can apply a Trauma Informed Framework to settings, services and systems. Trauma Informed Consultancy Services works with education settings, Children’s Services, Criminal Justice and Adult Services.