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Safety, Stability, Security, Support

Thank you for opening your hearts, homes and schools to support refugees.

My name is Hannah Morris and I’m an Educational Psychologist at EdPsych4Kids. I help families and schools understand and support the learning, emotional and development needs of children.

There are already many refugee children in the UK, and soon thousands more will be arriving, having fled the war in Ukraine.

In light of the new sponsorship scheme, I thought it would be helpful to share some information and resources for how sponsors and local schools can prepare to support the mental health needs of children who have experienced trauma. 

Best practice would be for sponsors and schools to plan together in advance, and continue supporting communication between the child’s parents and school moving forward.

For or the purpose of this blog I use the term ‘school’ to refer to all education settings, including Early Years, colleges and specialist providers.

SAFETY

No matter how lovely a person you are, how warm your home is, or how welcoming your school is, traumatised children may take longer than you expect to seem settled. A sense of safety is very important to help a child adjust and there are things you can do to help:

> When refugees initially arrive to live with a sponsor, they will likely benefit from a gentle, warm welcome, then a few days to focus on rest, eating/drinking, hygiene, urgent medical care and communicating with family or friends abroad.

> Discuss with the child’s parent how best to help the child feel safe and ask if their child has any particular worries. Don’t try to ask the child directly yourself, they will most likely be unable to explain this, even if they speak English. 

> Children will find it easier to ‘see’ safety rather than just be told information. So, when providing reassurance or explaining about safe places, systems and people, show pictures and words in the child’s first language, alongside what you are saying.

> Give parents a list of local and national emergency and helpline numbers, and encourage them to share the 999 number with their children.

> At school, introduce the child to staff who are responsible for safeguarding and wellbeing. Consider giving the child named pictures of key staff, to help them remember who they are.

> Ensure the child has a safe place and space. Where can they go for alone time and privacy? Where can they keep things that are special to them? 

> Establish a safe, quiet place the child can go to at school if feeling overwhelmed.

> Check if the child has clothing and shoes appropriate for the weather.

> If you have time, you could create a welcome book for the family with key information.

STABILITY

When dealing with trauma, it is really helpful for children to have a sense of routine and predictability. This helps things to seem more stable at a time when their whole world is in chaos. Here are some ways your can help with this:

> Support the child’s family to establish small daily routines for the child. Are there any routines that were part of their lives in their home country that can be developed here?

> Visual timetables at school can be adapted to include labels in the child’s first language, to help them know what to expect each day.

> Check the child has a watch, alarm clock, diary/calendar and other school equipment.

> Support the family to understand and use public transport.

> Support the child and their family to navigate the new local environment and school building by giving maps and offering to take the family to key local facilities.

> If the family would like to, share a meal together once a week or every day.

> Identify a key member of staff at school who will check in with the child at the same time every day, twice per day if possible. Try asking open ended questions, rather than yes/no questions, and use a translation app or website to help communicate. 

> To promote consistency, minimise changes of school staff working with the child in school. Ask the parent about the child’s interests and offer these activities at the same time every day, with a key member of staff and small group of children, eg painting, football, computing.

SECURITY

As children start to feel a sense of safety and experience predictable routines, you can further support their mental health and wellbeing by helping them to feel a sense of security. 

Children feel secure when all their basic needs are being met, they have positive relationships with others and they experience a sense of belonging. Below are some ideas for fostering a sensory of security:

Basic needs: 

  • Buy ingredients/food familiar to the child.
  • Share recipes from your different cultures.
  • Give the child a water bottle they can keep.
  • Ask the parent what helps the child settle to sleep (light on, music, reading, soft teddy, etc).
  • Help the parent register their child with the local doctor and dentist.
  • Encourage the parent to have their child’s hearing and eyesight checked to rule out any damage from the sound of shelling, dust in the air, etc.
  • Give the child paper and pens.
  • Check if the child is eating school lunches, as the food may be different to what they are used to.
  • Provide fruit/veg snacks to take to school.

Relating to others:

  • Offer to give the family a photo album they can use, perhaps to print old photos from their phone and take new photos as they settle.
  • Encourage the sharing of stories about your different lives during happy times (with the parent, not with the child alone).
  • Help older children access their social media accounts to connect with friends abroad (with parental permission).
  • Ask the parent if they are worried about anyone in particular and support them in trying to make contact.
  • If the child is neurodiverse or has a disability, find out from their parent how best to communicate, and if there is anything you should avoid saying or doing that might unintentionally cause distress.
  • At school, proactively establish friendship groups/systems to help reduce isolation and enable new friendships to be developed – are there children who share similar interests in the child’s class?
  • At school, ensure all staff, teaching and non-teaching, understand the child’s key needs and how to support them/communicate.
  • Ask the parent if there are any extra-curricular activities their child would like to be involved in, and support them to link with local providers.

Belonging:

  • Share information about local community events.
  • If the family is of a faith, help them connect with local faith communities- are there any religious resources that are needed for use at home?
  • If the child is neurodiverse or has a disability, try to connect the family with local support groups and services.
  • Encourage the parent to ask their child if they have any questions or there’s anything they want to know about, helping the parent find the answers where possible.
  • At school, display the child’s work as soon as possible.
  • At school, quickly ensure the child’s strengths and attributes are celebrated through reward systems.
  • Ensure the child has school uniform, if needed.

SUPPORT

You do not need to be a Psychologist to provide emotional support, but you should be mindful about how you try to help traumatised children. Here are some thoughts that may be useful:

Showing you care is therapeutic.

Listening is more powerful that talking.

Empower parents and children by giving them options not instructions.

When children trust their teachers and have positive relationships with school staff, they achieve better and have stronger mental health.

Children communicate and cope through their behaviours.

There is no ‘right’ way to respond to trauma. 

If you pressure a child to talk about their feelings, you will likely push them further away.

The human brain releases high levels of stress chemicals when experiencing trauma. This affects how the brain functions, especially parts of the brain related to attention, language and memory.

Not all children need to talk. Some just need space.

Calm is the best medicine for anxiety.

Be prepared for puddle jumping; traumatised children may quickly switch from happily playing, to suddenly being distressed, to playing again.

Punitive approaches to negative behaviour, especially shouting, can trigger traumatic responses in a child’s brain.

Children do not need adults to solve their problems. They need their feelings acknowledged, reassurance and guidance with the choices they make.

Traumatised children need adults to be sensitive to their mood, but also show them it’s ok to laugh and cry.

Play and expressive arts are powerful tools for healing.

Children are incredibly resilient, especially if surrounded by proactive adults who try to understand their needs and perspectives.

RESOURCES

For schools… It is strongly advised that you ensure all staff are trauma-informed. Training is available through Local Authorities, charities and independent companies.

Visual communication aids can be really useful to help overcome language barriers. There are lots available at www.twinkl.co.uk

A great way to prevent difficulties, is to proactively find out if the child has any worries. Consider having a picture board of things children typically worry about at school, and ask the child to put happy or sad faces onto pictures, if they cannot verbally explain. Examples include:

  • Toilets
  • Lunchtimes
  • Friends
  • Missing family
  • Confused in lessons
  • Home learning
  • Pets
  • Noise

For sponsors… Offering a home to a refugee can be an incredibly rewarding experience, but it can also take an emotional toll on you. Be mindful of how you are feeling and ensure your own needs are being met. You will be much better able to help others if you ensure you help yourself too.

Set up a support network of family and friends that can help you with both practical and emotional needs. A simple way to look after yourself is through engaging in mindful activities. There are lots of apps you can get, and this link explains a bit more about mindfulness: https://www.mindful.org/what-is-mindfulness/

Getting expert help… Many children will adapt with nurture and support from their family, sponsor, school and local community. However, some will require specialist psychological support. Or you may want to seek advice if the child’s parent seems too traumatised themselves to help their child emotionally.

Although children’s mental health services are provided free of charge under the NHS, unfortunately our current system is in crisis, so accessing support will be difficult and limited. It is advisable to look into alternative provisions prior to a child arriving to live with you or attend your school, so you have options to access help if it is needed. Independent Psychologists and Therapists can be found at these links:

www.achippp.org.uk

https://www.bps.org.uk/public/find-psychologist

https://www.annafreud.org/clinical-support-and-services/

There may be local charities that offer counselling and all children can contact Childline for FREE:

0800 1111

www.childline.org.uk to chat online

The above suggestions are not exhaustive, but will hopefully provide some practical starting points for sponsors and schools helping refugee children. Below are lists of charities that specialise in children’s mental health and/or child refugees. Many have free resources and are happy to be contacted for advice. 

Some useful websites for sponsors and schools:

https://www.sanctuaryfoundation.org.uk

https://www.bell-foundation.org.uk

https://www.childline.org.uk/info-advice/bullying-abuse-safety/your-rights/child-refugees-and-asylum-seekers/

https://www.place2be.org.uk

https://www.annafreud.org/schools-and-colleges/resources/

https://www.youngminds.org.uk

https://uktraumacouncil.org/research_practice/refugee-asylum-seeking-resources?cn-reloaded=1

https://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/get-support/services/my-view-childrens-therapy/

https://www.redcross.org.uk/about-us/what-we-do/how-we-support-refugees/surviving-to-thriving

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