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Schools grapple with trauma and language barriers as Ukraine students arrive

With an estimated 2.7 million children having fled Ukraine since March, schools across Europe are beginning to welcome children displaced by the Russian invasion into their classrooms. 

Schools across Europe are beginning to welcome children displaced by the Russian invasion into their classrooms. Photo: Unsplash.

With over 86,000 visas issued to Ukrainians by the UK government, schools across the country will soon see more refugee children in their classrooms

In the face of language barriers, psychological trauma and already-strained education systems, helping forcibly-displaced children integrate into new schools can be challenging – and some organisations in the UK and Ireland are calling for more support for teachers. 

For the children who have been forced to flee their homes, likely experiencing extreme trauma in the process, returning to education should be a priority, according to Justin van Fleet, president at youth charity Theirworld

“Education is always the first social service that children lose and typically the last to be restored”

“Education is always the first social service that children lose and typically the last to be restored during an emergency,” van Fleet said. Schools are a “safe space” for children and education is an “immediate opportunity to provide a sense of normalcy”. 

Children have begun to enrol en-masse at schools in the Eastern European countries that a high proportion of Ukrainian families have fled to. Over 10,000 children have already registered in Lithuanian schools. 

Meanwhile, countries further away from the war have seen smaller – but still significant – numbers of refugee children entering their education systems. In Ireland, some 4,000 Ukrainian children had enrolled into schools in April. And, with over 86,000 visas issued to Ukrainians by the UK government, schools across the country will soon see more refugee children in their classrooms. 

On May 4, UK education secretary Nadhim Zahawi issued a letter to schools asking them to give a “warm welcome” to students and reminding them of their responsibility to ensure incoming pupils develop English language skills. 

“For the most part, you’re seeing welcoming host communities and a welcoming attitude towards the Ukrainian refugees,” said van Fleet, reflecting on the response of governments and local communities to the crisis. This, he says, isn’t always the norm. 

“We haven’t seen the same in countries like Greece with the refugee crisis or with the Syria crisis. There’s often animosity between the host country population.” 

Megan Greenwood, schools coordinator at Schools of Sanctuary, a network that helps schools support forcibly-displaced children, calls the response “heartwarming and inspiring” but emphasises that we “must not forget that there are people from all sorts of countries who are coming to the UK to seek sanctuary and every child deserves a warm welcome”. 

Schools of Sanctuary is seeing a surge in demand as teachers grapple with how best to help newly-arrived students, many of whom are unable to speak English.

The UK government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme – through which anyone in the UK can accommodate people fleeing the country –  means that children may be entering schools that aren’t used to hosting refugee students. 

These schools will need to “really prioritise developing expertise in that area”, said Greenwood. 

In the UK and Ireland, some teachers say they need more support to do so.

“While stakeholders are doing all they can to welcome and support these students, sourcing appropriate resources relating to language barriers, psychological and special needs assistance remains a considerable challenge,” said Kieran Christie, general secretary of the ​​Association of Secondary School Teachers in Ireland

The Irish and UK governments have both recently introduced measures to help schools manage the language barrier, including fast-tracking the registration of incoming Ukrainian teachers to allow them to start working in classrooms. 

The Irish government also announced last week that it would introduce summer schools, including language classes for Ukrainian students, while the UK government is working with edtech company Oak National Academy to provide lessons translated into Ukrainian. 

The “biggest challenge” for schools, however, isn’t language barriers but providing emotional support, according to Greenwood, who said that Ukrainian children are likely to have “very close experiences of war and violence” and that schools must be prepared to help them cope with the impact of such a traumatic experience. 

Trauma-informed teaching “can go a million miles in terms of outcomes for students”, said van Fleet. Theirworld has previously run training for teachers working with Syrian refugees to help them understand “what it’s like to be a refugee child, and understand the trauma that they’ve gone through and how that may manifest itself in terms of their behaviour in a classroom”.

Darmaid de Paor, deputy general secretary at ASTI, agreed that this support is necessary but said providing it could lead to further strain on education systems. 

“We already have a teacher supply crisis in Ireland, a quite serious one at secondary level and that’s only going to be exacerbated by increased numbers,” he said. “And then to find trained psychologists, trained counsellors… It’s also going to be a problem.”

“Schools have such power and influence”

In England specifically, Greenwood believes there is diminishing expertise within schools to support forcibly-displaced children from all backgrounds, due to the lack of education policy and teacher training around this. 

With the refugee crisis likely to worsen, Greenwood says it is imperative that the government incorporates asylum-seeking children into education policy and that all students are educated around forced displacement – an area in which schools can make a difference. 

“Schools have such power and influence,” she said. “They’re the centre of our communities. They have a really powerful reach and if they want to raise awareness about these things – child goes home, tells the parents, tells their grandparents – we can build a more compassionate society.”

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