Blog: How to support Afghan refugee children in schools

This post is a summary of a recent webinar, hosted by The Bell Foundation and presented by the charity Refugee Education UK, which gave guidance and practical strategies to teachers on how to support Afghan refugee children in schools.

Key sections in this article:

The webinar hosted by The Bell Foundation was presented by Katie Barringer, Head of Educational Progression at Refugee Education UK (REUK) and her colleagues, Hamid Khan, Education and Welcome Project Officer, and Ehsan Habibi, Further Education Project Co-ordinator.

REUK is a UK charity that equips young refugees to build positive futures by thriving in education. REUK has built up extensive Afghan-specific experience, including supporting Afghan refugees in the UK, monitoring and analysing outcomes for returned young people in Kabul, and doing research for the UN on the links between education and integration for young Afghan refugees.

Katie began with an overview of the displacement and educational experiences that Afghan children are likely to have had before reaching the UK. Next, she identified the most common wellbeing and educational challenges that Afghan children face in the UK. She outlined strategies that teachers can employ to welcome and support their new learners, and she provided information about additional support and resources that teachers can access.

What are Afghan children likely to have experienced before reaching the UK?

1. Displacement

Recent events in Afghanistan led to a very rapid, unprepared, and traumatic displacement experience for many Afghan families. For some, this displacement has come on top of decades of hardship. Their dramatic uprooting has caused some refugees to experience acute psychosocial and health challenges. Once in the UK, families have been housed in bridging hotels, where many still remain. Resettlement plans are uncertain, so teachers can expect a lot of movement of children between schools as their families are resettled or find alternative accommodation.

2. Education

Research has shown that school attendance and completion rates in Afghanistan are relatively low, particularly for girls, and particularly at secondary level. Schooling in Afghanistan has three key characteristics:

  • Afghan schools have single sex classrooms, so children may feel some discomfort in mixed classrooms.
  • Afghan schools have a shorter school day, so children might find long days here tiring.
  • Afghan schooling has a teacher-centred pedagogy, based on rote learning and memorising, so children may feel unprepared to participate in discussions or to express their ideas and opinions.

These features mean that adjustments to UK schooling are difficult, and to illustrate this, Katie shared a contribution from a young refugee, Salma, who came to the UK in Year 10 and is now at university. Salma urged her audience to give young Afghan refugees time to find their voice, to harness their thoughts, and to develop their many talents. Salma’s success in education highlights the potential that refugee children have for high attainment.

What are the common challenges Afghan refugee children experience in UK schooling?

Katie identified two types of challenges – academic and wellbeing – and stressed that these overlap and interact with each other.

1. Wellbeing challenges

Four key experiences help to explain the behaviours that Afghan refugee children might exhibit:

  • Trauma and distress from the past, for some going back many years;
  • Trauma of the present: the destabilising effects of being in a new country and living in a hotel indefinitely with no sense of a settled future;
  • Grief for what they have lost and anxiety over those they have left behind;
  • Isolation and loneliness as they struggle to adapt to a new country and culture.

Teachers are likely to see the following behaviours at school:

  • The fight-or-flight response occurs when previous trauma and related triggers cause reactions that flood the body with adrenaline and shut off the thinking part of the brain, inhibiting the ability to learn. The fight reaction can cause children to lash out at others or to internalise their feelings and report that they feel pain.
  • The flight mechanism can lead to children becoming withdrawn and disconnected from what is going on around them.
  • Children can also struggle to concentrate and be distracted easily.
  • Children will struggle to sleep and be tired, or fall asleep at school, or come to school late.
  • Children may exhibit visible distress at school.

2. Academic challenges

Katie identified the following challenges that will be visible in the classroom:

  • Most obvious will be the language barriers and the lack of resources for English as an Additional Language (EAL) support.
  • Children will be adjusting to a new curriculum and different teaching and learning styles.
  • Some children will have special education needs and these may be difficult to diagnose and address.

There are challenges outside of the classroom that impact on academic success:

  • Home environments: Hotel accommodation (but also more permanent homes) may have limited or no internet and computer access, and limited space for completing homework.
  • Lack of parental support and engagement: Parents may not be able to support their children’s learning because of language barriers or stress, for
  • Poverty: Limited financial resources may impact on nutrition, and the ability to buy uniforms and pay for extracurricular activities.

Despite these challenges, Katie stressed that she and her colleagues see resilience, determination, and a sense of hope as they work with young Afghan refugees.

How can teachers address the challenges Afghan refugee children face?

1. Guiding principles for working with Afghan refugee children in schools

Katie identified five key principles to guide work with Afghan refugee children:

  • Build trust and have patience. Taking time to do this will help children and their families feel welcome.
  • Look beyond the behaviour. Solutions to problem behaviour are best sought in collaboration with other staff.
  • Recognise that language ability is not an indicator of academic ability or talent. Katie stressed that teachers should guard against seeing the struggles a child may have with English as an indication of their academic potential. Many of the children will have academic gifts and other talents in music or art, for example.
  • Grow children’s compassion and world view. Refugee children bring opportunities for building compassion and knowledge about the world among their classmates.
  • Recognise resilience and adopt an assets-based approach. Refugee children bring value to schools, for example by raising aspirations in the whole student body. In addition, they are multilingual and have linguistic resources in the languages they know that teachers can use as a foundation for their learning of English and learning through English.

With these principles in mind, Katie set out practical approaches, while stressing that teachers will need to tailor these approaches to fit their own context.

2. Practical approaches for supporting Afghan refugee children in schools

  • Strategies to cope with children in the fight-or-flight response:
  • Maintain calm, use a gentle voice, and move slowly.
  • Create a safe place, like a quiet room, where the child can recover.
  • Set simple manageable tasks that help to settle anxiety.
  • Strategies to help children adjust, by making sure they can be heard:
  • Move to a quiet space and listen carefully so that the child can feel they are heard.
  • If the demands on the teacher are too great, make use of referrals to other staff, such as the safeguarding officer or to outside services if a child has shared information that needs to be acted upon.

Katie advised teachers to be aware of topics that children might find too upsetting to talk about, that might trigger anxiety, such as their trip to the UK, or their family in Afghanistan, about whom they may be very worried, for example.

3. Practical interventions for supporting children

Peer support: As Katie explained, research has shown that peer support strategies, such as ‘buddy systems’, can help refugee children to settle in their new school environments. For Afghan children, buddies should ideally be of the same sex, speak a similar language, and most importantly be welcoming.

Period of adjustment: New children will need to know and understand the school and classroom rules, they will need information about key aspects of the school day, such as the timetable, the register, and what clothes or kit need to be worn at what times, and they will need to understand the school’s expectations regarding behaviour. Teacher and classroom changes should be kept to a minimum and families should be informed of upcoming events and outings. Ehsan explained that older children who have had little or no schooling will need a period of grace as they learn to concentrate for longer periods. He suggested that teachers find out what their pupils are interested in to help connect them to learning and added a reminder that all children have background knowledge that teachers can draw on.

Pastoral care: Children should know who they can turn to if they need help and be linked to a school counsellor, or other support staff member, or to an external provider if necessary.

Welcome and inclusion: Creating an inclusive environment also means being aware of cultural and religious priorities, such as recognising Islamic holidays and providing halal food. Schools can enhance their messages of welcome by having signs and messages in Pashto and Dari, the two main languages of Afghanistan, and teachers should strive to pronounce children’s names accurately. Photographs in the classroom of the previous Afghan flag, and of historical sites such as the Buddhas of Bamiyan and the Darul Aman Palace will help to comfort and welcome.

Language support: Language is a key pillar of refugee children’s welcome and educational support. The Bell Foundation provides extensive support in the form of courses and other resources for teachers who work with children who use EAL (see the links below), as does NALDIC, the national subject association for EAL. Teachers can set up lunch or after-school groups for refugee children to participate in and draw on members of the local refugee community to support classroom work, including translating.

Extra academic support: REUK runs a mentorship programme in London, the West Midlands, East of England, and Oxford, with children aged 14-plus, who receive help with their homework. There are similar projects run by other organisations in other parts of the country.

4. Practical interventions for supporting parents

Language support: Pashto and Dari speakers, who speak good English, could be approached to assist at parents’ evenings. Teachers can use Google Translate on a tablet during a meeting with parents and arrange for newsletters and messages to parents to be translated. This will help families to feel seen, included, and valued in the school community.

Helping families adjust: Organising a tour of the school for new families, with translation, and making sure that families understand the new and unfamiliar aspects of UK education, including its compulsory nature, will help to ease the difficulties of the transition. The Bell Foundation provides an ‘About the English Education System’ guidance document which is available in 22 languages including Dari and Pashto (see the links below). Schools could help families to fit in socially by connecting them with others in the community, and giving them information about helpful social groups, like mother and toddler groups.

Technology support: Refugee families are likely to struggle with the various digital platforms that schools use to communicate information, so sessions to offer basic skills such as how to log on will be necessary.

Signposting to further support: Teachers and schools are not alone in their efforts to welcome and support refugee children and their families, and schools can point families in the direction of other organisations who do work with refugees, for additional help and guidance.

A note on self-care

Katie reminded the audience that working with refugee children, especially those who have experienced trauma, can be emotionally draining. She urged teachers to look after their own wellbeing, to recognise the warning signs of the strain of experiencing vicarious trauma, and to take steps to access support from others.

What further information and training can teachers draw on?

REUK offers the following:

  • Training;
  • Resources in Pashto and Dari, and Ukrainian, for teachers and young people;
  • Hello apps, for general enquiries;
  • A welcome team for newly arrived Afghan and Ukrainian refugees.

Teachers can follow REUK on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and subscribe to their newsletter. Access their website here: Refugee Education UK | Home | London (

The Bell Foundation offers the following:

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