In the lead-up to the withdrawal of US and UK forces from Afghanistan, there were violent, chaotic scenes at Kabul airport as desperate families tried to flee the new Taliban rulers.
Dominic Raab estimated in early September that around 8,000 Afghans, more than half of them children, have been relocated to the UK as part of the evacuation programme for those who worked with the British military and government. That means that around 4,000 children, many of whom have gone through terrifying experiences, will be joining, or will have already joined, our schools.
We all need to be aware of the signs of trauma to look out for in these vulnerable children and have some straightforward ways of dealing with it. So, what do teachers need to know?
1. Extreme emotional and physical behaviour
Children who have undergone trauma or witnessed violence are often overwhelmed by these experiences: the “thinking part” of the brain switches off, while parts that produce more emotional and physical responses remain switched on.
This results in more extreme physical and emotional behaviour than might be expected in any given situation. For example, a pupil may suddenly feel angry and hit another child, they may complain of a sore stomach, or they may become emotionally distant to everyone around them and not wish to engage in any interaction at all.
In these cases, it’s critical that teachers recognise that these disparate behaviours spring from the same source – an overwhelming hormonal “fight or flight” response in the child.
Keep your voice low and move slowly. Be calm and offer the child a safe space, perhaps apart from the other children in the room. You, or a classroom assistant, can take the child outside and walk around with them or give them a simple physical task in the classroom, such as stacking books or tidying a cupboard.
2. Time and space to talk
You will be an important bridging adult for these children, helping them to make the journey from one culture to another. Children who have experienced stress and trauma may open up to you unexpectedly.
It is important that the child feels heard and valued at this point but you must balance this with your own needs and assess how much you can manage in an everyday classroom setting. If you feel comfortable listening to the child for this time, ensure you are in, or can move to, a quiet place. If you do not have the time or the space to do this, then make sure that you can direct the child to an agency – either in school or out of it – where the child can safely talk.
3. Work with parents and guardians
It is particularly important for children and families who have been displaced to have a stable and involved relationship with the school. What can you do to facilitate this?
- Regularly communicate about your new pupil/s progress, positive achievements and any challenges (in a positive manner) with parents.
- Try to understand how the home is set up, what responsibilities the child has at home, what relationships are at play, how much time they have for homework, and the home culture.
- Could you consider holding a parent evening or a monthly breakfast club for your class to introduce parents to each other? Make sure you have provision for other siblings (a few books or toys) so that parents feel they can bring them along.
- If there are other parents of children in the class that appear open to connecting with Afghan or other new parents, make an introduction.
- Can you, or your school, find a translator (another parent, a local community organisation) if there is a language barrier?
- Think about the school day, look around your classroom – what is there that you think would seem strange to a child suddenly transplanted here? Can you explain what flexi-Friday is or why there is a hamster in a cage in the corner of the room?
4. Care for yourself
Self-care is very important for teachers working with children who have experienced trauma. Accessing existing support, like school counsellors or psychologists available for teachers, would be a great way to look after yourself, or you could create a group of teachers to talk together about shared experiences and solutions.
Remember to self-monitor, and when you know you have had a difficult day or week, find ways to recharge, such as doing exercise or meditation, catching-up with a friend or loved one, or simply spending some time out of doors.
Dr Fiona Birkbeck is a teacher and research associate at the University of Nottingham