Support in times of crisis
Given the ties that many students and their families have to countries overseas, there may be times when they are affected by international social and political crises such as civil unrest and war.
Students in NSW government schools come from all over the world. Over 37% of students have a language background other than English (LBOTE) and a significant number of students were born overseas. Individual circumstances such as length of time in Australia, previous experiences and proficiency in English may also affect how some students and families are impacted by extreme events such as pandemics and natural disasters within Australia.
The geographic location, duration and severity of an international event as well as a student’s cultural and family attachment to the countries or regions involved are factors which may influence the level of distress experienced by students and their families. Some communities may also feel particularly vulnerable because of their experiences prior to coming to Australia.
Who is at risk?
Newly arrived students, including those from refugee backgrounds, and their families may have difficulties coping in response to emergency situations if they:
- do not speak or understand English well
- have limited social networks in the community
- have experienced racism or discrimination, or similar experiences which have made them feel unsafe in the community
- have limited access to accurate and relevant information
- have extended family or relations living in the affected area.
It is important to remember that the distress and impact will not be limited to individuals with direct connections to a crisis but may be felt by others as well. This may include:
- people from neighbouring countries
- communities who have experienced similar events in their own countries
- individuals who have links to, or are friends with people from the affected areas
- people who are concerned about the broader implications of a crisis.
Support during crises
When civil unrest or war breaks out it is important to remember that the distress and impact will not be limited to individuals with direct connections to a crisis but may be felt by others as well. This may include:
people from neighbouring countries
communities who have experienced similar events in their own countries
individuals who have links to, or are friends with people from the affected areas
people who are concerned about the broader implications of a crisis.
In response to Russian military operations in Ukraine, martial law was declared in February 2022 by the Ukrainian president. Thousands of residents fled their homes in the capital, Kyiv and other cities, to find shelter in urban areas and neighbouring countries. This situation has created overwhelming feelings of fear and anger for many people from Ukraine who live in Australia, who have family and friends in Ukraine or have other links to the country.
The current events in Ukraine may also have an impact on students from other countries which are in close proximity to Ukraine, such as Poland, Romania and Belarus.
Supporting students and families from Ukraine contains resources, support services and enrolment advice.
The EAL/D NSW statewide staffroom provides additional advice including access to meetings and briefings held to support students and families from Ukraine.
In August 2021 tens of thousands of people fled their homes as the Taliban seized control of the country. This situation, including graphic scenes of chaos in Kabul created overwhelming feelings of fear for many Afghans living in Australia, and those or who have family and friends in Afghanistan or other links to the country.
COVID-19 and the lockdowns over the same time period exacerbated this distress due to children and families not being able to access their usual familial and community supports.
Additional advice to support students newly arrived from Afghanistan can be found by searching 'Afghanistan' on the EAL/D NSW statewide staffroom.
The current conflict in the Middle East is continuing to cause distress within our communities and in our schools. To assist school leaders, teachers and other staff in supporting school communities who may be significantly impacted by the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, additional resources have been developed:
- Supporting the school community during the current conflict in the Middle East (DOCX 233 KB).
- Supporting the school community during the current conflict in the Middle East (PDF 196 KB)
- Letter to parents and carers for schools (DOCX 18 KB) to use as a model for communicating with parents and carers about the conflict. This letter is available in community languages.
While all members of the school community will be affected and require support during natural disasters like floods or bushfires, students and families from culturally and linguistically diverse communities, particularly those from refugee backgrounds, may need additional support. Alarms, evacuation sirens, deployment of military personnel, evacuation to temporary shelters and loss of property may cause distress and trigger trauma associated with prior experiences of loss and displacement.
Families who do not speak English well may need additional support to:
- understand the advice provided by emergency services
- access emergency services
- understand the dangers associated with bushfires and flash flooding
- adjust to changes to routine, such as closure of schools.
Advice to assist parents, teachers and students following bushfires is available via the School Operational Status website.
National health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic and associated stay at home orders, has had a long term impact on the community, particularly on refugee communities, students from refugee backgrounds, and newly arrived students and their families who do not speak or understand English well. Many students and families from these communities felt particularly anxious and isolated due to:
disruption to school routine
lack of access to technology required to support learning from home
difficulties accessing and participating in online learning
parents’ and families' perceptions of their capacity to support their children learning online.
With increased police and military personnel presence in the community, some families and communities experienced a heightened sense of anxiety or trauma as a result of associations with experiences of war, conflict, persecutions and/or loss of freedom.
Many LGAs which experienced harsher restrictions such as Fairfield, Liverpool, Canterbury-Bankstown, Cumberland, Blacktown, Parramatta, Georges River and Campbelltown also had significant numbers of refugee residents. This meant that many of the usual supports available to students and their families through schools were more difficult to access and many are still suffering the effects of this.
Schools continue to play an important role in maintaining a supportive environment for students from refugee backgrounds.
See EAL/D learners learning from home for support and extra information.
The COVID intensive learning support program provides small group tuition for students who need it most due to the impact of COVID 19.
How are people affected?
The learning, behaviour and wellbeing of students who are feeling distressed or anxious as a result of international events and crises can be greatly impacted, with some students disengaging from learning and exhibiting anti-social behaviour. The capacity of parents and carers to fully support their children’s learning may also be impacted during these times.
- Anxiety associated with a sense of loss of security and safety
- Re-emergence of previous trauma: re-traumatisation
- Increased sensitivity to issues of justice and equity
- Behaviour changes such as withdrawal or acting out
- Conflict with peers
- Feelings of uncertainty worry and fear about what is happening to loved ones who are still in the affected area
- Helplessness and despair
- Survivor guilt due to being ‘safe’ while loved one's face threat to life and basic human rights
- Distress due to frequent graphic or uncensored images via media or social media particularly for younger children who may be overly exposed to this content and not have the capacity to process what they are seeing
- Grief due to disintegration of peace and safety in the affected area
- Anger and resentment due to many social and political factors that have contributed to the current conflict and destruction of safety
- Feelings of not being understood by the wider community
- Headaches and general body pains
How can schools help?
Schools play a critical role in maintaining connection and engagement with students and families during periods of uncertainty and community unease. Students and staff are encouraged to continue to focus on their core business of teaching and learning in a supportive educational environment.
- Maintain routines as much as possible. This is one of the best ways to make students feel safe.
- Acknowledge that some students and/or staff may be feeling very distressed and worried. However, when talking to students it is important not to make assumptions about the way any individual student or group of students will react. Some students may be less aware than others about what is going on overseas, so the support needed by individual students may vary significantly.
- Be aware of, and sensitive, to students’ family, cultural, religious and language backgrounds as well as students’ individual circumstances.
- Listen to what students have to say.
- Check that instructions are understood by students. Additional clarification may be necessary because some students may be distracted.
- Be understanding and flexible with the completion of homework and assignments.
- Reassure students that your classes are safe places.
- Allow time for students to access individual support systems. Friendship bonds are really important for distressed students as is being in contact with others from the same ethnic or cultural group.
- Encourage students to exercise and be as active as possible and help students take control of their own learning. Being actively involved in learning develops emotional strength.
- Mainstream teachers and EAL/D teachers should share observations and work together to determine the best way to support students.
- Monitor students for signs of distress including sudden changes in behaviour, school attendance and/or participation and notify the principal if students show signs of extreme distress.
- Speak to the school counselling staff if a student appears particularly distressed or you have concerns for a student. They can organise support or referral to other agencies where appropriate.
- School Learning Support Officers (Bilingual) may be able to assist in contacting students and families. Some bilingual staff with links to affected areas may also be experiencing trauma or re-traumatisation at this time and care should be taken to maintain staff safety and self-care.
- Where appropriate, schools may wish to establish additional processes that allow students to anonymously or discreetly express concerns to staff. This may include email correspondence as well as individual appointments with staff. A variety of people within and outside the school can offer support, including the school’s welfare team, counsellors, youth workers, community organisations and other relevant government and non-government agencies.
Family members may be a source of support in times of international crises. However, families and adults may be experiencing their own distress as well. Some parents and adults may also unintentionally expose children and young people to media reports about the crisis, including potentially violent and graphic images. Parents and families may not be aware of the consequences of this type of exposure on children. It may be helpful to recommend to parents and carers to monitor their children’s exposure to current events on the news and social media.
Handle communication with families sensitively. Telephone interpreting can be used to assist in communicating with parents who do not speak or understand English well. See the Department of Education’s interpreting and translations website for more information.
A letter to families outlining the school’s response and the support available may be of assistance. A general letter regarding steps taken to support students in response to stressful community events is available in translation: Letter to parents regarding recent community events.
Schools may decide to conduct meetings with students and families to help them to understand how the school can support them. For resources to support communication and engagement with recently arrived families, see:
Some members of staff may also experience a heightened anxiety due to their previous experiences. Remind staff that it is important to look after their own emotional wellbeing. Some may need to talk with a friend or a colleague. Support for staff is also available from the Employee Assistance Program: 1800 060 650.
Resources and support services
- The Multicultural Education team promotes intercultural understanding and social inclusion in schools, and support for English language learners, students from refugee backgrounds and newly arrived students.
- Supporting refugee students webpages provide information about students from refugee backgrounds and available support.
- Refugee Student Education Advisor: Ph (02) 7814 3796
- Interpreting and translations webpages provide guidelines on how to use an interpreter for interviews, including information about funding for interpreting, and translations of important information and documents.
- Strengthening harmony and building resilience in school communities: Advice for schools (PDF 267 KB) provides advice to schools about building and maintaining school community harmony. Includes suggested responses for managing community disharmony
- English as an additional language or dialect education webpages provide an overview of EAL/D student support including delivery and funding.
- Henry Parkes Equity Resource Centre has a large collection of materials to support schools. These include resources for trauma, resilience and wellbeing including specialist counsellor resources.
- Email: EquityResourceLibrary@det.nsw.edu.au
- Ph: 8808 1177
- The Refugee Student Counselling Support Team provides support for schools through:
- advice and tailored professional learning
- targeted support in complex cases
- Telephone: 1300 579 060 or Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Information and resources for school staff can also be found on the RSCST Google site. Please ensure you are logged into your Department of Education google account in order to access this site.
- Kids Helpline – Free phone and online counselling support for young people aged 5 to 25
- Call and chat service operates 24/7
- Ph: 1800 551 800
- Beyond Blue – Information and mental health support
- Call and chat service operates 24/7
- Ph: 1300 224 636
- Reachout – Online mental health organisation for young people and their parents
- Red Cross Recovering from an emergency resources for teachers
- Australian Psychological Society Tragic events and community violence
- Emerging minds Community trauma toolkit
- Australian Institute of Family Studies Supporting children after natural and human induced disasters
- NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS) - Phone and Zoom-based consultation services to school staff across NSW
- Counselling referrals and telehealth counselling sessions to people with refugee experience: STARTTS Referral Form
- STARTTS School Liaison Officers
- “Hints for Healing” website resources created by STARTTS to support educators and school counsellors that work with students with refugee experiences
- STARTTS Witness to War Hotline can be reached on 1800 845 198