“Turn the tide: Refugee education in crisis” is a report published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR, 2018b). It shares the stories of refugee students who fall under the mandate of UNHCR. The report reminds us that:

…the power of school runs deeper than academic qualifications. Education is a way to help young people heal, but it is also the way to revive entire countries. Allowed to learn, grow, and flourish, children will grow up to contribute both to the societies that host them and to their homelands when peace allows them to return. That is why education is one of the most important ways to solve the world’s crises.

UNHCR, 2018b, p. 9

Education may be the way to mediate negative emotions associated with displacement, loss, and trauma. It may even contribute to healing and peace building.

According to the UNHCR (2022), human displacement is happening at an unparalleled rate. Following the war in Ukraine, the number of internationally displaced people exceeded 100 million for the first time. New and ongoing crises in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria, South Sudan, Myanmar, and other areas around the globe have forced different individuals and families to find safety away from their homes and social networks of friends and family (UNHCR, 2022) . In addition to armed and political conflicts, natural disasters due to the effects of climate change, are increasing the displacement of different communities and in turn having an impact on the access to education for children (NRC, n.d). It is estimated that approximately 50% of the world’s refugees are children and/or adolescents under the age of 18 years (UNHCR, 2018a).

Frequently, refugee children and adolescents arriving to host countries endure traumatic experiences jeopardising their mental health and causing learning delays (Barrett & Berger, 2021). Before delving into issues related to the facilitation of inclusion of refugee students in the education system of host countries, it is crucial to understand the lived experiences of these students before settlement. According to Fazel et al. (2012), refugees arrive predominantly from geographically distant and economically struggling countries. Asylum seekers often rely on human traffickers to help them in their long journey to host countries, which may take weeks or months in perilous conditions. Unaccompanied minors sometimes travel alone after losing family members. Some families are forced, along their journey, to take separate ways to safety (Fazel et al., 2012). In high-income host countries, refugees face the stress of immigration processes to gain legal status in the host country, social and cultural shock, and language barriers (Fazel et al., 2012). Asylum seekers in high-income countries generally have quick access to social, health, and education services (Fazel et al., 2012). Consequently, after experiencing disrupted school years and minimal exposure to a systemic education, children are suddenly plunged in a new education system (Reed et al., 2012).

Within this context, Barrett and Berger (2021) investigate the experiences of teachers in supporting students from refugee backgrounds who have experienced trauma. The authors state that students exposed to trauma show signs of social and educational withdrawal, including self- harm, challenging authority, class disruption, and vandalising school properties. Barrett and Berger (2021) indicate that teachers struggle with the emotional regulation of refugee students while receiving little or inaccurate information about their students’ past trauma, cultural background, and academic profile. Teachers also struggle to understand the past experiences of their refugee students due to lack of training. The study indicates that educators are not prepared to accommodate and differentiate teaching instruction to match refugee students’ educational and psychological needs.

Barrett and Berger’s (2021) study asks us to consider its unique research questions and in turn addresses a major gap in the educational research literature. For example, they ask “What are the experiences of teachers in relation to supporting trauma exposed students from a refugee background?” Or, “What supports and practices are available to teachers to help them to support refugee students who have been exposed to trauma” (Barrett and Berger, 2021, p. 1262)? The authors examine the possibilities and barriers teachers face when responding to students experiencing trauma while having diverse cultural backgrounds. The study also seeks to advance the crucial role that Trauma Informed Practices (TIP) can have for teachers trying to facilitate the inclusion of refugee students. In essence, TIP recognize the way trauma affects the lives of children and adolescents. Moreover, TIP employs trauma sensitive strategies instead of the traditional disciplinary teaching practices that aggravate the effects of trauma on students’ mental health (Crosby et al., 2018). TIP seeks to create safe spaces for individuals to reduce their anxiety from unexpected changes. TIP also recognize the importance of shared decision making through building relationships of trust that seek to promote and support healing (Barrett & Berger, 2021).

However, TIP may not be sufficient to facilitate the inclusion of refugee students in schools. We must question whether these practices are being rolled out in a culturally-responsive manner. Barrett and Berger (2021) point out the importance of “programs that are tailored to the unique needs of different cultural groups” (p. 1261). However, they do not elaborate on the importance of cultural-sensitivity in supporting the educational and psychological needs of refugee students. Research suggests that although there is a universal biological response to trauma, cultural factors can influence the biopsychosocial experience of trauma and subsequent traumatic stress reactions (Whaley and Davis, 2007). According to Blitz et al. (2016), a culturally-responsive environment accepts and endorses the cultural and racial identities of individuals, appreciates the lived experience of students from different cultural groups, and responds with a flexible relational pedagogy to accommodate students’ needs. Hence, demonstrating TIP in a culturally responsive context requires the creation of a school atmosphere where students feel that their culture is positively represented (Blitz et al., 2016). Cultural representation should be present in the educational settings, curriculum, and education strategies to promote cultural pride and flexibility (Blitz et al., 2016). A curriculum from a culturally- responsive perspective should be relevant to students’ experiences and maintain their connections to their lands, traditions, and identities.

And yet, how might a culturally-responsive pedagogical response for TIP be more than just a shallow acknowledgement of multiculturalism? I suggest it needs to be framed by critical multiculturalism and cultural relationality. As Madibbo (2021) explains, critical multiculturalism is an expository perspective aiming at building critical consciousness and expanding educational practices to question dominant narratives set by Eurocentrism. Additionally, although cultural responsiveness seeks to create more inclusive spaces for minorities, it does not disrupt systemic racism present in societies and schooling systems. Currie et al. (2021) indicate that cultural responsiveness is often adopted as an inclusive approach by white settler colonial cultures to maintain powers of control within educational organizations. The authors suggest that we need to trouble these “tools of exclusion” and work toward restructuring the entire education system (p. 11). Here, I am not suggesting that culturally responsive pedagogies should be abandoned. Moreover, it should be enacted in relation to complex and evolving cultures. Donald et al. (2011) suggest a culturally relational stance where researchers, teachers, students, school staff and communities actively collaborate to interrogate how the concept of culture is considered in educational setting. Cultural relationality, as Donald et al. (2011) suggest, seeks to question our cultural assumptions while understanding the lived experience and honoring the cultural philosophies of the other. Cultural relationality may support students and educators in understanding “their relationships with each other and the communities in which they live and teach in deeper ways and suggest pathways toward enacting a less racist society together” (Currie et al., 2021, p. 23).

Therefore, a starting point for making TIP more culturally responsive, teachers must understand what students learn in their home countries and critically problematize their mindsets, assumptions, and pedagogical practices. With coaching and professional training, educators may therefore respond to the educational and psychological needs of refugees and other culturally diverse students suffering from trauma.


Barrett, N., & Berger, E. (2021). Teachers’ experiences and recommendations to support refugee students exposed to trauma. Social Psychology of Education, 24(5), 1259–1280. Link

Blitz, L. V., Anderson, E. M., & Saastamoinen, M. (2016). Assessing perceptions of culture and trauma in an elementary school: Informing a model for culturally responsive trauma- informed schools. The Urban Review, 48(4), 520–542. Link

Crosby, S. D., Howell, P., & Thomas, S. (2018). Social justice education through trauma- informed teaching. Middle School Journal, 49(4), 15–23. Link

Currie, M., Ng-A-Fook, N., & Drake, A. S. (2021). Is CRRP enough? Addressing antiracism(s) in teacher education. Journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Curriculum Studies (JAAACS), 14(2), Article 2. Link

Donald, D., Glanfield, F., & Sterenberg, G. (2013). Culturally relational education in and with an Indigenous community. In Education, 17(3). Link

Fazel, M., Reed, R. V., Panter-Brick, C., & Stein, A. (2012). Mental health of displaced and refugee children resettled in high-income countries: Risk and protective factors. The Lancet, 379(9812), 266–282. Link

Madibbo, A. (2021). Blackness and La Francophonie: Anti-black racism, linguicism, and the construction and negotiation of multiple minority identities. Presses de l’Université Laval.

Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). (n.d.). Disaster and Climate Change. Link

Reed, R. V., Fazel, M., Jones, L., Panter-Brick, C., & Stein, A. (2012). Mental health of displaced and refugee children resettled in low-income and middle-income countries: Risk and protective factors. The Lancet, 379(9812), 250–265. Link

United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). (2018a). Global trends: Forced displacement in 2017. Link

United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). (2018b). Turn the tides: Refugee education in crisis. Link

United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). (2022). UNHCR: Ukraine, other conflicts push forcibly displaced total over 100 million for first time. Link

Whaley, A. L., & Davis, K. E. (2007). Cultural competence and evidence-based practice in mental health services: A complementary perspective. American Psychologist, 62(6), 563–574. Link

Nabila El Bizri

PHD Candidate, University of Ottawa.
A life-long learner. A teacher and an advocate for inclusive education.