Skip to content

EdNC. Essential education news. Important stories. Your voice.

‘Resilient schools create our resilient communities’ — How one ESL teacher is responding to trauma among refugee students

Our world, in its long history of conflict and persecution, has never had more refugees than it has now. By the end of 2018, nearly 30 million refugees had been forced from their homes according to the United Nations.

And that’s just the number who have actually been certified as refugees.

“The way that people achieve refugee status is by being able to demonstrate profound adversity and trauma,” said Catriona Moore, an ESL teacher at Forest View Elementary School in Durham. “Refugee is a legal status that has a very narrowly-defined pathway.”

Moore advocates for English language learners at Forest View — including a small population of refugees — and helps them develop English language proficiency.

The Immigration and Nationality Act defines a refugee as any person who is unable or unwilling to return to a country due to “persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network states that trauma stemming from persecution can result in aggression, anger, irritability, withdrawal from others, sadness, and fear of separation for elementary-school-age refugees.

“The impact of trauma developmentally is very real on learning,” Moore said. “That’s a huge challenge, right — to just come in and be sitting in this cognitive dissonance and cultural dissonance of this classroom and looking around, and first trying to figure out if it’s safe, and then secondly, just kind of figuring out the language and the rules.”

Courtesy of Catriona Moore, ESL teacher at Forest View Elementary School in Durham

For several years, Forest View has been partnered with the Center for Child & Family Health in Durham with the goal of becoming a trauma-informed school.

The Center for Child & Family Health combines community-based methods and academic research to practice and teach treatment and prevention of childhood trauma.

Institutions that are trauma-informed are able to recognize and respond to traumatic stress in children, caregivers, and service providers in order “to maximize physical and psychological safety, facilitate the recovery of the child and family, and support their ability to thrive,” according to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

“Students are oftentimes in fight or flight,” Moore said. “So what we want to try and do is help pull them out of that into their rational thinking brain, where they can access working memory more efficiently and bring learning into the long-term memory.”

The best way to pull students out of fight or flight mode is for educators to form predictable routines, responses, and behaviors so students know what to expect, especially if they’re having behavioral issues, Moore said. 

“With older kids, sometimes they need to be able to see the doors and know what’s behind them,” Moore said.

“For young kids sometimes it’s just having the teacher within arm’s length, and making or not making eye contact, that kind of thing. These routines and procedures give the kids an understanding that today and tomorrow and the next day, you’re going to get breakfast, you’re going to get lunch, you’re going to sit in your chair.”

Predictability builds trust so students can settle into learning, Moore said.

“We really need those community wraparound services to help reinforce that for everyone,” Moore said. “Resilient schools create our resilient communities.”

After building resilience to trauma, the next step is to identify students’ learning gaps. Some refugees who arrive at Forest View have had limited or interrupted formal education, Moore said. 

“We’ll get a 9-year-old or a 14-year-old that’s only been in school on and off for a few years. And so, they have just huge gaps in their education that need to somehow be figured out and filled,” Moore said. “That’s a tricky challenge on both ends, from the position of educators and school systems and also for the students.”

Once gaps are addressed, Moore said, students have shown accelerated development.

“They can make up an incredible amount of lost time,” Moore said. “In two years, they can make six years’ progress in literacy, that kind of thing. And we see that over and over again—these kids do the most amazing things in a short period of time.

“You get to see the amazing lessons and amazing assets that students like refugees bring to everyone’s experience in education. They are an incredible example of how you make your own story, and how you can rise up from adversity and lean into this completely unfamiliar thing and grow together.”

Sasha Schroeder
Sasha Schroeder is an engagement fellow for summer 2020 with EducationNC. Sasha is a rising junior at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she is pursuing a double major in journalism and global studies with a concentration in international politics.
At UNC, Sasha is a writer and copy editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She is also an intern in the UNC Global Relations office, where she is an associate editor of Carolina Passport Magazine. Before joining the EdNC team, she wrote for the Durham VOICE and WALTER Magazine. When she can, Sasha loves to travel, get outside, and learn new things.