Over time, most students from a refugee background adjust to the educational and social environments of their school and local community. As they settle, their needs may change or others emerge. Building a sense of safety, belonging and acceptance which supports students and their families to feel welcome in the school will assist with their adjustment.

It is important for teachers to be aware of and have an understanding of the backgrounds of students in their classes and the impact of refugee experiences in general.

The Trauma-informed practice in schools explainer briefly summarises the evidence on trauma informed practice with an educational context and how school leaders and teachers can implement strategies to support students. Schools may also wish to implement approaches outlined in the Trauma sensitive environment guide to create trauma-sensitive environments.

Monitor student learning and wellbeing

The school’s learning and support team should assess and monitor students’ requirements and progress.

Some refugee students adjust quickly and easily to life in Australia while others take longer. It is important to allow time for this. During this period of adjustment, students may appear withdrawn and distant, unresponsive, moody and easily provoked to anger or aggression. They may also be often absent from school. They may have other physical symptoms such as headaches, skin conditions, intermittent nausea or respiratory ailments such as asthma.

These reactions may be linked to trauma in the past or to current anxieties about loved ones who are not in Australia. They could also result from the stresses of resettlement in a new country, or may be linked to adolescence and inter-generational conflict. Any of these concerns and responses can disrupt students’ ability to concentrate on learning at school.

Refugee students' capacity to cope with past traumatic experiences varies greatly. The degree to which the learning and wellbeing of a student is affected by previous trauma depends on:

  • the severity of previous experiences

  • the number of traumas and the length of time they were suffered

  • whether parents or close family members were killed, injured or disappeared

  • the resilience of the individual in adjusting to new environments

  • how well the student's carers are coping with their trauma, resettlement and anxieties about family members in the home country

  • how well the individual student is being supported in their new country at home, at school and in the local community.

Counsellor support

School counsellors can assist teaching staff to understand the influences of trauma on students’ learning and behaviour. Counsellors can provide direct counselling to individuals or groups of students. They also help access additional community support and, where appropriate, make referrals to specialist services.

The Refugee Student Counselling Support Team offers psychological expertise to schools to support students from refugee backgrounds and their families. For more information, phone 1300 579 060 or email refugeesupportteam@det.nsw.edu.au

In some cases referral of students to the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS) by the school counsellor may be appropriate.

Learn how school counsellors can help support students from refugee backgrounds in the video below.

Counsellor support for refugee students.


Adrienne Fenely-McFadden, School Counsellor, Mt Druitt Public School

Kim Cootes, Assistant Principal ESL, Fairfield Primary School

Sherin Nair, Learning and Engagement Officer

Laura Roby, ESL Teacher, Bossley Park High School

Max Schneider, School Liaison Officer Counsellor, STARTTS

Louise Kleinbergs, Refugee Transition Coordinator, Holroyd High School

(Guitar music)

Teacher 1: I will bring you some glue sticks and scissors.

Teacher 2: So now we have started with the classification...

Louise: When you start to look for a job...

Narrator: Since many refugee students and their families suffer the effects of trauma, they may need counselling support.

Adrienne: My role is I’m a school counsellor, looking after the psychological needs of students, in terms of education, learning needs, emotional needs.

Teacher 1: What does classification tell us?

Kim: Many of our refugee students have so many welfare needs that schools need to enlist the support of the school counsellor because teachers aren’t equipped or trained to support some of those complex needs.

Louise: Great, I like that. So they need to know about...

Adrienne: I think it’s really important for a counsellor to be aware of new enrolments, particularly students who are refugees. We are used to, I guess, going through what the background factors might be in terms of children's health, what experiences they might have had in terms of trauma. Also any social, developmental factors. So counsellors are very experienced in terms of gathering that information, recording it, making sure it’s shared sensitively with other staff members, and I guess then working from there to get a plan as to how best to support the student within the school.

Teacher 2: Habitat.

Student: Habitat?

Teacher 2: Habitat, yeah it’s where they live.

Arienne: The other side that we also deal with a lot with refugee students is often kids are referred for assessment, where they’re presenting with really significant learning needs, so I think a counsellor has a really good measure of what's an appropriate assessment to be using, so we can advise the Learning Support Team on a variety of different measures and observations.

Teacher 1: A shingleback lizard is a…

Sherin: Sometimes parents find it very difficult to accept that the student might need counselling. They might find it difficult to accept that the student is experiencing anxiety or depression, it’s seen negatively, and it takes a lot of convincing that that would be beneficial to the students.

Laura: We have a school counsellor, but we find that the students will often come to us...OK mister surgeon, let’s have a go... cause we will be in pretty much all of their classes, and so they’ve formed a really tight relationship with the Learning Support Teacher that’s on their classes, and we act as their advocate. And if there’s any issues that we feel need to go further, of course we take it to the school counsellor.

Louise: Good yep ok cause that's about...What’s the question asking you?

Sherin: Having connections with organisations such as STARTTS is absolutely critical, because often students are sitting in your class with trauma.

Max: The particular complexities psychologically and socially that refugee young people and families present with are quite specific and so we have the resources and the knowledge and the expertise to be able to help move young people along and transition in the best way possible.

(Guitar music)

Louise: Refugee students receive counselling when they arrive into the IEC. Our school has an IEC based on the premises, that certainly is an advantage. I know that students meet with the counsellors, and they do develop a relationship in terms of support. Once they enter the high school, it really does depend on the amount of counselling support the school has. We do have other agencies that I’ve been able to link students up with and that would be STARTTS, a traumatic stress clinic which is based at Westmead. So, we have to outsource as well as try to cater for students within the school.

Narrator: School counsellors should be made aware of refugee student enrolments and work with teachers to develop strategies to make students feel safe in school and in the classroom.

(Guitar music)

[End of transcript]

Using a small group approach

At times, the school counsellor may feel that establishing a small group program will assist ongoing counselling by enabling the students to meet and learn from each other. The counsellor will be involved in planning and implementing the program.

There are a number of advantages to counselling using a small group program approach:

  • Many students are from countries where there are no counsellors, or there is a belief that counselling is only for ‘sick' people. A group situation provides a comfortable context for students to gain an understanding of counsellors and counselling.
  • Refugees are often fearful of disclosing things to people in authority. A group situation provides a counselling setting in which to provide information and advice while building trusting relationships.
  • Young people often feel uncomfortable about being singled out to see the counsellor. A group program helps to reduce feelings of stigmatisation.
  • A group setting helps to normalise feelings and reactions among peers.
  • Groups provide opportunities for students to gain psycho-educational perspectives on trauma, an important process for those who have lived through war and political upheaval.
  • Groups provide an opportunity to re-establish social bonds and connection.
  • A group setting provides a context in which to develop skills for resettlement and resilience.
  • A group situation provides an opportunity to identify students at risk, facilitating early intervention and referral to services.

The Settling In Program (STARTTS) is an early intervention group for newly-arrived migrant and refugee students, conducted by trained school counsellors and teachers with interpreter assistance.

This program helps students adjust to life in Australia and includes talking about feelings, dealing with anger, anxiety and sadness, people and places that can help, goal setting, problem solving, personal strengths and socialisation.

STARTTS supports children and young people using small group programs from their School Liaison Program.


  • Student management and wellbeing
  • Teaching and learning


  • EAL D

Business Unit:

  • Educational Standards
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