Is your school inclusive to refugees?
By Matthew Lee

Leading a school that is inclusive to refugees may not seem like a priority, but when we consider the UN’s estimate that of 68.5 million displaced people in the world there are approximately 25.4 million refugees, there is a strong chance your school is already home to a number of people who have had to leave their country of origin due to war, persecution, or natural disasters.


In 1995, Milan Mesić pointed out that the media’s superficial presentation of refugees and displaced people, which largely reduces this diverse population to “a grey mass of impoverished people dependent on someone else’s help”, is not entirely accurate. Instead, there is a wide variation in socio-economic status within the displaced community, which means it is entirely likely your school has accepted refugees now or in the future, and it is imperative that school leaders can both recognise this situation and lead on whole-school strategies to support the inclusion of refugee children in international schools.


This article is not advocating identifying individual children who may be refugees, many of whom would not identify themselves in this manner and for whom singling them out would not be in their best interests. Instead, it is focusing on whole-school policies and practice to benefit inclusion, which also helps support refugee children. We have implemented many of these policies at the International Community School of Amman (ICS Amman), due to them being great practice for all children of diverse backgrounds, rather than having a need from a specific refugee community. Ultimately, much of this article concerns good practice that will benefit many of your learners.


Presented here are five research-based strategies for international school leaders to improve their school’s inclusion, which will particularly benefit refugees.


Meeting socio-emotional needs, including PTSD

Many refugees have endured traumatic experiences and can bear the scars of post-traumatic stress disorder. They may have experienced refugee camps, become disconnected from family members, missed formal education, and certainly become displaced from their homes. Your staff need to be trained to understand the effects of trauma on school functioning, and a trauma-sensitive school recognises how internalised symptoms, such as anxiety and depression, and external factors, such as aggression and conduct problems, can be the result of life circumstances rather than intentional disobedience. This requires leadership to adopt a restorative approach to discipline that focuses on developing relationships between staff and students, and a whole-school focus on teaching students the skills they need to self-regulate their behaviours. Counselling is also an option, especially if students display symptoms of PTSD. However, bear in mind the diversity of views regarding mental health when debating whether it should be written into your school’s behaviour policy. More information can be found on two websites: Trauma Sensitive Schools and Restorative Justice 4 Schools.


ICS Amman has an inclusive approach to education where learning is personalised to the needs of the child, and we focus on well-being first to get children ready to learn, regardless of their background. We’ve also adopted an entirely restorative approach to behaviour, which has led to a decrease in exclusions and a positive increase in student’s understanding of their own situations, and the effects their actions can have on others.


Building a whole-school community of practice

A focus for any school leader in an international setting should be on building a Community of Practice (CoP) to support refugee students with any EAL and/or socio-emotional needs. The CoP is a way to allow staff collaboration to address the unique language and well-being needs of refugee students, which may be barriers to them accessing your school’s curriculum. The findings from one CoP in Australia set up by Jessica Premier and Graham Parr this year indicate a need for EAL staff to mentor mainstream colleagues, for administrative staff to be included in CPD focusing on multilingualism and well-being, and for teachers to become proactive in their own professional development to meet the needs of refugees.


At ICS Amman, our EAL teachers work collaboratively both within the classroom with other teachers, mentoring them on the strategies to support their learners, and outside the classroom with children who don’t speak English as a first language to support them with their individual needs. We also reviewed the CPL policy to place greater emphasis on staff agency. This has given staff the room to develop themselves to meet the needs of all children including refugees, and enabled a greater emphasis on peer observations and horizontal support between colleagues. This benefits all our children, regardless of their background.


Utilising international networks

According to a literature review by Kostas Magos and Mary Margaroni (2018), teachers are not ideologically prepared to support the ethnic diversity of refugee students. They may have adopted negative attitudes towards refugees from the media, however unwittingly, or not have received training on meeting the needs of refugees in the classroom. It is the role of leadership to ensure that the school’s CPD programme trains all staff to meet these needs. Help for this is available through a global network of support and best practice offered by Education International, of which your school can become a member.


Broadening the definition of community

In a 2018 case study from the US, Keri-Anne Croce reports how the concept of community needed to be broadened to accept the reality of refugees. Refugee students will have an experience of education that can be utilised within an internationally-minded curriculum; however, this may include gaps in formal education or a lack of pre-existing formal education entirely. Beyond these needs, the refugee children in the study principally required a redefinition of school culture and existing practices to accommodate the severe family stressors associated with being a refugee. Many of the students did not know the outcomes of their family members, or had experienced severe trauma due to the loss of a relative. Some of the children did not have their families with them, placing the onus on the school to adapt for parent–teacher consultations and to provide after-school support for homework. Video conferencing could have been utilised to keep families informed of progress, and a shift away from a focus on parents to a focus on family involvement was required to broaden the definition of community. A flexible approach to family involvement from leadership is key.


At ICS Amman, we hold family–teacher conferences where we encourage the whole family to participate in their child’s learning. We run community information workshops where we invite families in to receive training in a range of areas, including delivering specific interventions or supporting well-being needs at home. This inclusive approach to the broadest meaning of the term ‘community’ means everyone, regardless of their background, feels safe and included within the school.


Building relationships between schools and communities

In a 2018 study of school leadership in relation to refugee education, Nathern Okilwa argues that a key factor for school leaders to consider is building relationships. Multi-agent partnerships support the difficulties associated with the forcible displacement from a home environment by ensuring the team around the child can foster positive life outcomes for the refugee student. Ultimately the role of school leadership is in establishing the framework for these multi-agent partnerships to function, and to build a sustainable relationship of mutual trust between the school and the displaced community. Strategies to build this relationship include school leaders speaking in community centres, advocating for community causes, inviting speakers in from the displaced community, and spending time discussing ‘non-education’ issues with families.


I believe the inclusion of refugees is an important topic to consider from a school leadership perspective. There is still a lot of stigma surrounding the term ‘refugee’, and many families who have left their homes due to war, persecution, or natural disasters may not consider themselves refugees due to their affluence and status in their host country.


At ICS Amman, we’ve found that strong policies and support structures benefit all our children, and have never sought to identify specific refugee needs, as best practice for inclusion is also best practice for refugees. Ultimately, I think schools must focus on meeting the socio-emotional needs of children through a restorative approach, building on the experience and skill of EAL staff, and creating a broad definition of community to truly include all children within the school, but particularly any who may or may not class themselves as refugees.

Matthew Lee is the Deputy Headteacher responsible for whole-school inclusion at the International Community School of Amman, Jordan. He is also a researcher at Lancaster University’s Centre for Social Justice and Wellbeing in Education. You can contact Matthew at:

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