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Podcast Season 3: Episode 3 – Creating a sense of belonging for asylum-seeking and refugee children

In this episode of our podcast we discuss creative, trauma-informed ways to support children and young people who are refugees or asylum seekers. Our guest is Cat Jolleys of Trauma Informed Consultancy Services, who shares how she created a trauma-informed approach in a school with many languages, cultures and backgrounds, to help create a sense of safety and belonging for pupils and staff.

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


Please note that this transcript is auto-generated and therefore will contain some errors and natural pauses in conversation.

DAWN: [00:00:00] Welcome to the creative life story work podcast, where we explore how to make life story work better for all care experienced children and young people. Creative Life Story Work is a new approach which can improve children and young people’s lives and their relationships with others at home and at school.

It’s based on the Rose Model of Therapeutic Life Story Work. Every month, we’ll explore a different aspect of Creative Life Story Work, and we’ll give insights into how you can use this approach to help care experienced children and young people make sense of their past. And build a brighter future. My name is Dawn Williams and I am an associate at Blue Cabin, one of the partners on this exciting work in the region.

In today’s podcast, [00:01:00] we will explore creative ways to support children and young people who are refugees or asylum seekers, and I’m really delighted to welcome to the studio, Kat Jollies. Kat has been a primary teacher, deputy head teacher, designated safeguarding lead and SENCO 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 co led the Restorative Approaches Project in Stockport Family, delivering relational training to schools and social care partners, and became a member of the Restorative Justice Council with the RJC Training Mark in 2017.

Kat is a training practitioner from Trauma Informed Consultancy Services, [00:02:00] which offers an extensive range of training sessions related to all aspects of how we apply a trauma informed framework for setting services. and systems. Hello Kat and Ariella. Welcome to our studio this morning. Thank you for having me.

You’re very, very welcome. I wondered if, first of all, you wanted to just paint us a picture of some of the work that you were doing around restorative and trauma informed practice in schools before we dive into the detail of creative life story work. What might we have seen and heard in some of the sessions you were running?

CAT: So, I, for the last five years, worked in a school, a primary school in Manchester, in quite an inner city setting which involved a lot of children who were new to the UK because their families had relocated here, possibly they were asylum seekers or refugees or international new arrivals. There were also a lot of children who moved in and out of that [00:03:00] area because it’s an area of very cheap housing and so it means that the school had a lot of kind of churn and a lot of difference.

And a lot of diversity and a lot of positives that come with that, but challenges as well. So the whole school, the staff, and the whole ethos and culture needed to be one that was trauma informed. We needed to be compassionate practitioners. We needed to have our eye on academic progress. But really we needed to make sure that we were intentionally going about creating a culture of psychological safety for these children day in, day out.

And making sure that staff that were working with these children also had their needs met and so that couldn’t happen by accident. We needed to be intentionally trauma informed and everything that that involved. We needed to be working with relational and reflective and restorative practice and we needed to make sure that we were constantly training staff around the tools and the skills and all the strategies associated with that and making sure that we [00:04:00] put a lot of support into staff needs as well because whilst it’s it’s amazing and fun and really really rewarding working in schools like that it can be challenging and we have to make sure we’re looking after staff because if they if their needs aren’t met they’re not going to be able to meet the needs of those children either so.

DAWN: I’m wondering you’ve already mentioned there about it it needing to be safe for the children and for the staff as well and I’m imagining that’s That looks and feels quite different for those, for, for different people. How, how do we know what that safety looks and feels like for the, for the, for the children and for the, for the adults?

Is it different? Is it the

CAT: same? Yeah, that’s a good question. I think, I think it probably is the same in a lot of ways because I think, I think one way we used to, I mean, you can’t measure safety as such because it’s subjective and it’ll, it’ll feel and look differently for different individuals. But I think we used to, I remember doing some training where we [00:05:00] used to say that we know we’ve established trust and a feeling and a sense of belonging and psychological safety for a child if they say yes.

start to ask for help because an awful lot of children might, you know, feel that asking for help is just something that requires, well, they might not know this, but it does require trust in the adult that you’re asking it off. And so when they begin to do that, that, that’s kind of a little bit of a.

symbol of psychological safety beginning to be established and I think therefore you could say the same of adults if they’re trusting in their leaders in a school and they’re asking for help you know you can see where that they’re starting to feel that that sense of belonging and trust and I think also another way is around self esteem.

is around motivation, is around that feeling of self worth, and, you know, this culture of belonging, which was something that really underpinned what we were trying to achieve there. For everybody, staff and children, and particularly children new to the school, that, you know, how do we know we’ve achieved that [00:06:00] sense of belonging for children?

And there were lots of different ways, but also, you know, We talk a lot in the media, we hear a lot about teachers turnover and losing a lot of teachers from the profession and that sense of belonging and making sure that you’re looking after staff needs and they’re feeling that sense of felt safety day in day out so that they’re wanting to come to school, they’re wanting to keep working there, you know, that’s around building that sense of belonging and that psychological safety, which so, yeah, so I think it’s, it’s really, there are a lot of parallels between what we’re, what we can measure in children and, and in the You were

DAWN: talking there about belonging and, and the school, and that’s the environment that your work’s taking place in.

I’m wondering, in terms of creating safety or a safe space, how you do that in a school? Are there changes to the environment that you, uh, that you think about making when beginning to develop those relationships with the children who were coming into the school and the [00:07:00] teachers who were working alongside those children?

CAT: Yeah, we definitely had to be very creative. We’re lucky that we’re in a very new building. So we had, and we were kind of a new school that was still filling up the classes. So there were, you know, those pockets of space that could be breakout spaces. And after, you know, after a pattern and kind of more or less put it into a a protocol really about what we do to create, you know, which practical steps we take to, to create that safety and begin those steps of belonging.

And where possible, if we could, we tried to do a home visit first with what we call the kind of key worker with the child or an emotionally available adult. So that was ideally two adults, just in case one was off or wasn’t available at the time, who would try and go to meet the child before they first came to.

So that then when the child came on their visit or their first day of starting and, and it wasn’t always possible because sometimes, you know, they would just arrive and maybe the afternoon before we’d be like, Oh, you’ve [00:08:00] got somebody turning up tomorrow morning. So, you know, this was the ideal protocol, but obviously we had to be flexible.

It couldn’t always work like that, but where possible. If then when they did come for their first experience of coming into school, if there was that known person who had a name, ideally, we would do the home visit and, and give them something, you know, a photograph of the school or some kind of what we call a transitional object, which will be something that they could then bring from home into.

school and vice versa, and it was something that they could focus on. It might be a little activity or just something that was, you know, a physical object for them to carry with them and think about, talk about with their carers or family that they were with whilst they weren’t in school. And then when they did come into school, we straight away just really made sure that everybody was, you know, through a lot of training and just remembering and trying to put ourselves in that.

In that, in the, in their shoes, you know, because I used to constantly think, imagine if one of us as adults just got plonked in a country where we didn’t speak the language, you know, we’ve all [00:09:00] hopefully had that experience in terms of holidays or something very easy, but being plonked into somewhere where the language and the culture and the sounds and the smells and the food and then every manner is, you know, everything is.

It’s so foreign to you and to, to do that for seven or eight hours must be so exhausting. So we had loads of training and, and understanding around cognitive overload, around language overload, because an awful lot of children that came to us would sit very passive. And quietly in the classroom, which is then, you know, as a teacher who’s doing their best with 30 children to meet the various needs of the other children as well as progress the learning and make sure everybody’s reaching those outcomes.

If somebody’s sitting quietly and passively in the corner, it’s very easy to just think they’re fine, they’re fine. They’re taking a bit in, they’re not causing any problems, they’re fine, but you know. What’s really going on for that child when all they’re hearing is, is, is content in a whole different language and, you know, they’ve possibly and probably been through some [00:10:00] traumatic experiences in their home country or on the journey here, so, you know, we would, we would make sure that we had a physical stay away if we space that was somewhere where they could be when we perceived or could see there was some anxiety or distress, or just that they could regularly go to, even if they appeared passive, but we would be thinking, you know, they’ve been in an hour of maths where they’ve not understood a word of it.

The chances are they need that, that respite and that break. And then we have lots of strategies and practical things to do. And we put a big emphasis on the outdoors, on outdoor learning because this. There’s, you know, there’s a lot of research to back up how our nervous system responds better when we’re learning outdoors, how sometimes communicating when we’re outside is easier and less pressured.

So we would put a lot of emphasis, we had forest schools in place with outside practitioners coming in, we had qualified horticultural therapists. that would come in for specialist sessions. And we just put a lot of our resources and effort into making the outdoors be a place where [00:11:00] children could explore, could learn, could play.

And what we really noticed in younger children, particularly in the early years in Key Stage 1, is that they would just get outside and run. You know, they would just, that was their socialising. It was very unreliant on communication verbally. It was just… I’m running now! And so we would try and put that kind of physical movement in the outdoors, in place as well as a safe space inside and really try and reduce the time they were just in the classroom even if they were seemingly not causing a problem to their learning or anyone else’s learning.

be very mindful of cognitive overload and language overload.

DAWN: Really lovely to hear about the considerations between inside and outside and the impact that that has on those children newly arrived, newly arrived here as well. You’ve started to touch on it already but I wondered what other tools were some of your colleagues using to support Those children recently arrived in the [00:12:00] UK.

CAT: We have a kind of system in place and a lot of schools use it in the UK now called zones of regulation and it’s just a brilliant visual model of four different colours with kind of the green zone being the optimal one for learning and the red zone meaning, you know, we need an intensive strategy to support this child.

A blue zone might mean your energy levels are quite low or you might be feeling a bit unwell and then a yellow or orange is somewhere between the green and the red. So the advantage of this is that, you know, it’s, I think it was devised and we used it a lot for autistic children or those with other barriers to communication, but If you have a barrier because you have very limited English, then being able to just respond to these four colours and communicate.

So we would have like a little photograph of the child’s face and they, you know, we would try and create that autonomy and encourage the independence that they would go and get their face and move it to another zone, which would then, you know, we’re not reliant on communicating verbally. This lesson’s [00:13:00] a bit much.

I need to get out there. We would use a lot of different symbols, visual symbols, which again were probably devised and used for autistic children or children with other additional needs, but they were really great for children being able to, you know, communicate. I need a drink. I need to get the loo and those other basics that, you know, and just try and make the demand on them to have to get an adult’s attention or do something very proactively, really.

reduce those barriers because, you know, for children to then think, Oh crikey, I’ve got to now get her attention, try and remember the word for toilet or get up and, and, you know, be very exposed to other children that I’m moving my face on a big obvious symbol on the wall. So try and get things that were on the desk that were really subtle and try and make sure that the adults were really tuned into that, which was just really repeated training around, you know, those barriers and those challenges for children.

If they’re, they’re managing. So many other things in addition to the trauma they might have experienced and what that might feel [00:14:00] like if you don’t have the spoken language or the vocabulary. So a lot of visual strategies that, that we used, yeah, were really helpful. Thank you.

DAWN: And strategies that have already been that are already in place in the school that you’re tweaking, not creating a whole other load of strategies.

Let’s go to a break so that you can hear more about Blue Cabin’s Creative Life Story Work membership scheme.

CAT: We want people to gain more of an understanding about what it’s like to be care experienced and to have a better understanding of what it actually means. Could Creative Life Story Work make a difference to the care experienced children and young people you work with?

Maybe you’re a social worker.

DAWN: I think we

CAT: forget at our

DAWN: peril that actually telling a child the

CAT: story of their early life is one of the most profound uses of social work power that we could

DAWN: ever operate.

CAT: Perhaps you’re a foster carer. You know when they say it’s all about the child [00:15:00] it’s not because our experiences.

It’s about the carer and the child, and it just gives a new angle to our relationship because we’re learning about each other together. A Creative Life Story Work membership will give you, or your whole team, access to resources Including activities you can use in direct work with children and young people.

Training with life story work experts and lots more. And I think a lot of our children are looking for meaning, looking for, you know, well why is it I feel this way when my, you know, my friends don’t? Why is it I get angry eternally? And my friends don’t. The greatest thing we see is when we are able to say to young people, this is your story, this is about who you are.

And then children towards the end say, it’s not my fault that these things happened, but it is something that I can do something about. And once we have that, then we know we can move forward. Find out about our membership for individuals and for organizations on our website, creativelifestorywork. com.[00:16:00]

DAWN: When at Blue Cabin, when we’re, uh, exploring. Life story work, exploration of identity, so who am I? And being aware of each other’s cultural beliefs and values and how they might differ. How can practitioners support the exploration of cultural identity with the children who are in the schools where you’ve been working?


CAT: think, as I said earlier, we really made, you know, really focused on that sense of belonging, community, and we’re welcoming you. You’re one of us. We gave everybody a free jumper because I think that visual belonging and, you know, we don’t need to worry about can we afford a jumper, is it the right colour, etc.

So, you know, just that initial, from the get go, before you even come into the studio. school. You’ve got the jumper. We used to give children roles and responsibilities so that they would feel useful rather than just passively, Oh, where are we going? Am I sitting here now? Where am I [00:17:00] going? So lots of really tangible strategies and, and things we could do to help the sense of belonging.

But kind of balancing that with this real celebration of diversity and the cultural richness which the school already had just because of the nature of where it was placed in Manchester and all the different nationalities that were represented there and the languages. So we did lots of things in terms of recruitment.

We would try and make sure that our staff reflected the children so that, you know, as far as possible, when children were in the classrooms and walking around the building and, you know, doing different parts of their school day, there would be an adult there that perhaps looked like them, dressed like them, celebrated some of their cultural beliefs or shared language or customs.

So that all helps with that kind of pride and self esteem. Their own cultural backgrounds and traditions. We would have an international day every year where we, which was. It was the best day of the year, definitely, everybody said that, [00:18:00] where we would encourage staff and children to come dressed in costumes that reflected their heritage, we would encourage them to come and perhaps, and some of the Year 6 girls really went to town on learning dances that they would demonstrate for practice for weeks beforehand to everybody that, you know, used music and culture from their backgrounds.

We would encourage families to come in and bring fun. food and have this really big huge joint picnic in the afternoon and kind of showcase the costumes and the, you know, some of the art or, um, whatever people have prepared. So we definitely tried to make sure that that wasn’t just tokenistic because it was only on one day of the year, but that, that celebrating of diversity and inclusion and really celebrating it was just.

So we would make sure that we had a really strong emphasis on different local to Manchester, that part of Manchester, but also reflective of our school community, different authors and poets that we would use throughout English lessons. [00:19:00] We definitely, every Monday morning we had circle time and we would always start that off with a story.

So there would be a theme that ran through it that was, you know, maybe around a value or a skill that we wanted to develop in the children. But then we would use. stories to kind of as the vehicle for that learning. So, you know, make sure that we would use a story that had an author or a setting and include some language that was reflective of the children in that class there.

And then we would often say, if you’ve got a book that is from perhaps a country that your family are from, or you’ve visited, bring that in. We would every assembly, we had three assemblies a week, and we would always start that with music that was representative and it was their choice. So I had to vet it sometimes because.

You know, there was some crazy tunes coming out from some of the boys with Libyan heritage that would be on YouTube and I’d be like, Oh my word, I don’t speak Arabic. I hope this is appropriate. But, you know, that, if they, as they entered then the assembly and they heard music that they heard at home that they loved, you know, it was, it really, you could [00:20:00] see their faces light up and how much that was thrilling to them, really.

So, we made sure that there was always this emphasis that it wasn’t that the English culture and customs and traditions and language, was of more importance. You know, we were, we were a family that represented the whole world here and we were, we are a rights respecting, a gold rights respecting school.

So that meant that that was, it’s a UNICEF qualification that needed a lot of training and we have to demonstrate to the assessor how much we see. Celebrate all these different cultures and languages and customs that the children are bringing and and just this kind of known Acceptance that that was adding to the school experience rather than a burden or a barrier You know everything that those children were bringing was just adding to it and I used to About five times a week say, I only speak English, you know, you lot are learning at such a high level in an additional language and, and it was very often to find a class where children had, were managing three or four languages, you know, that was quite normal.

So, [00:21:00] to, to be inspired by them and impressed by these six, seven year olds managing and learning in several languages. It’s, you know, it’s, it’s mind blowing. So that was, you know, it was just this kind of admiration and celebration of that rather than seeing it as a challenge. Wow. Wow.

DAWN: I’m trying to imagine those assemblies.

You mentioned, you mentioned, well, two things. You mentioned at the beginning about the initial visit to the home and then you talked then about we are a family. I wondered about the impact of all the work that you’re doing on the parents who are presumably part of the school family as well and what you’d noticed about, what you’d noticed about that?

CAT: Yeah, so I think something that really struck me was how appreciative and grateful families were. An awful lot of them have perhaps, you know, fled their countries or left their home countries because of, you know, they were in danger and it [00:22:00] wasn’t safe. And then some families came to the UK because of education for their children.

You know, that was a real draw for them. And they were just… I’m not saying we were all a bit ground down by families that were not appreciative of it, but it just struck me how, you know, they would shower you with gifts and be really, really grateful for perhaps what we took for granted as just this offering of, of education to our children.

So it made you very empathetic to perhaps what they’d experienced in, in their home countries. We had a family support worker, a full time member of. staff, non teaching staff in school who, whose role was to really encourage and engage families because we know that the healthier and more positive our relationships with parents and families and carers is, the, the more likely we’re going to be able to, if we have challenges around attendance or around, you know, anything really that’s going to impact the child’s success in school.

If we’ve got that really positive relationship with the families, that’s, that’s obviously going to go a long way and, you know, an [00:23:00] awful lot of our families had perhaps. anxieties or apprehension around communicating to staff, maybe because of language, maybe because of a previous experience they’d had in their own education or their own backgrounds.

And I think, you know, we had, we had a policy in place, which was a meet and greet policy. So staff would be out on the gates. And on every classroom door, you know, and we, we put a lot of work into that to make sure it was consistent and it happened and what the rationale for that was. And it was, you know, there’s a lot of science around if you’re greeted with a warm smiley face, you know, we, we as leaders had, we were all stationed out on the road just to stop any errant parking problems that sometimes happen as well.

And we, you know, if you would just. Just, just that, ooh, look at your wellies, I love that umbrella, and just that kind of, you know, welcoming parents, remembering everybody’s names, so these sound like obvious things, but they’re not always obvious, and I think if we then, and we, so we did, we literally had a meet and greet policy [00:24:00] that meant sure that we would then Not only letting parents feel safe that they’d left their children in a safe pair of hands for the day, we were also including those families and welcoming them.

We didn’t do the whole, you know, lock the gate, send them packing, you have to come in the front entrance at nine o’clock. You know, we had to keep it safe and they had to go that way, but we made sure that the The office staff were greeting and meeting in a similarly warm and compassionate way. We would have regular coffee mornings because we would try and create those bonds and those relationships between, it was often mums, there was lots of dads, but it was often mums who’d come over to the country, didn’t have the language and perhaps weren’t in work either.

So we would try and reduce that sense of isolation amongst them by creating coffee mornings. We would have really, we would bring in Different services, so we would bring in a sleep clinic from the school nursing service. We would bring in picky eaters clinic so every week we would have something that might be a barrier or You know a problem that [00:25:00] they felt quite lonely and isolated with handling at home And we would bring in as I said earlier.

I had lots of members of staff that had shared languages other than English. So we would always be offering these coffee mornings and these advice and drop in sessions, you know, with additional language support. So that wasn’t a barrier. And whilst the, there were information sessions often, because sometimes I think just saying coffee morning can be a bit threatening thinking, Oh, crikey, I’ve got to chat for an hour.

But I think if, if, you know, all right, I’m going to get some information, but kind of, there was a. stealthy mission there that we would try and kind of create friendships and support among some of the families. If there was a child that we had concerns around because maybe we were, there was a bit of an intrinsic additional need there that we wanted to address or maybe there was a punctuality or attendance issue or whatever it may be or even a health need.

We knew if we could get that mum in, we could get her to start developing relationships with the, some of the staff, then having those [00:26:00] conversations would just be so much easier. So I think, you know, we would regularly get feedback. What are we doing that’s working? What are we doing that it’s not working so well for you, particularly in, you know, lockdown where those relationships.

were so much harder to have because we weren’t seeing them, although we did stay open all the way through and had an awful lot of children coming to school every day throughout lockdown. But, you know, our main priority was, was us knowing our families because we knew that that would create that trust, that would create and add to that sense of belonging, which is going to benefit the children ultimately, so.

And I love

DAWN: that. We’ve gone round in a circle where we started off talking about creating those really strong bonds and relationships with the child and that now ripples out to the, the school and the families as, the families as well. My final question really is, we are very lucky that you are going to be delivering a live classroom in January the 30th about supporting [00:27:00] young refugees and asylum seekers and some of my colleagues from the virtual schools will be attending.

I just wondered if you wanted to say what they can expect from that session that you’ll be running with them. What will they take away from the session that they’ll be attending with

CAT: you? Yeah, so hopefully they will leave the session with some information and tools and strategies and guidance and language around creating that, uh, sense of belonging and inclusion for staff to have that understanding and background in neuroscience, a little bit about the vagal tone and the nervous.

system and how children can respond very differently to trauma and adverse experiences and how that might present so that we’re all looking at all communication through that lens. Sorry, looking at behavior through that lens of it’s communicating something to us. What is it? What can we do so that staff feel, you know, that they’ve got those first early steps.

So a little bit [00:28:00] about the theory of that and, and what underpins trauma and how we respond. Respond to it and view it. And then some really practical tips around what they can do as classroom practitioners or support staff, the whole staff team so that you know, really practical things around helping children who might not have English, how they can communicate their needs.

It’s how we can start to not be therapists in school, but how we can start to support therapeutically so that children begin to the steps of emotionally regulating and developing their emotional literacy. Because all of those things will take a long time for some children, but they’re needed so that they can then begin to socialize, make friendships and begin to learn and thrive in our schools.

So there’ll be lots of really practical hands on tips that won’t need any fancy resources or equipment. But we’ll just help staff perhaps go into school feeling really equipped to what they can do to support children who might be, who might have faced adversity and trauma and might not have a lot of English [00:29:00] and how they can help them, you know, get more from the school day and really become, feel a productive part of our schools.

DAWN: Thank you, Kat. Thank you for such a… Fantastic insight into the work that you’re doing in schools. It’s been an absolute pleasure to talk to you this morning,

CAT: thank you. Thank you. Thanks for your time.

DAWN: Whether you’re a foster carer, someone who has experience with the care system, or you work with children and young people, we hope this episode has given you an insight into how we can make life story work better for young people and how you can use it in your own practice.

You can find out more about Creative Life Story Work on our website, creativelifestorywork. com And you can find us on LinkedIn and Twitter, or X as it’s now called, at Creative LSW. Please do get in touch there with any comments or questions as we’d really love to hear from you. If your podcast app allows you to do so, please take a moment to [00:30:00] rate or review our show.

It really helps others to find the podcast. So until next month, bye for now.

Produced and mixed by Will Sadler of Anya Media. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts by clicking one of the following links:

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