By CELA on 15 Oct, 2019

CELA explores how services can be open to and prepared for refugees in their community

Early childhood education and care services can play a significant role in helping refugee children and families cope with the transition of resettlement. To be effective, services need to ensure they adopt a trauma informed approach to practice.

Trauma can be experienced by many children in your service, not just refugees, so understanding its impact, and adopting strategies from a trauma informed perspective will help all children in your care, and their families, settle more easily.

We asked experts at STARTTS (NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors) how services can be more open to and prepared to accept refugee families into their communities, as well as how to prepare to work with families that have suffered through trauma.

The key message: there is no one-size-fits-all-approach, but there are key skills or strategies to adopt when working with families that have experienced trauma.

Building trust through familiarity

According to Rosemary Signorelli, senior early childhood counsellor/project officer at STARTTS, the most important first step is to build trust with each family, building a relationship with them as far as is possible. Asking the families about popular songs and games will help families feel respected and help the children feel safe and fit in.

“For refugee families, they are faced with enormous cultural transition,” Signorelli says. “They need to experience respect for their own culture, as well as gentle assistance to learn about the new culture and environment.”

Every culture will, for instance, have lullabies and clapping songs services can learn. “And many of them will be familiar with hopscotch,” Signorelli adds. “Hide and seek and peek-a-boo seems, from my experience, to be familiar activities, and are vital in helping a child cope with separation issues.”

Developing resilience and adjusting expectations

Children need to be supported to develop resilience from as early as possible, and educators need to be equipped with strategies specific to the needs of refugee children coping with cultural transition.

Developmental expectations and learning strategies need to be adjusted. Behaviour management strategies, for example, will not be appropriate for children recovering from trauma.

“Anyone who is overstressed or traumatised tends to go very quickly to fight-or-flight mode. This is a normal response to stress and trauma, not a behaviour problem as such. When in fight/flight or fright mode, our language and cognitive centres in our brain switch off so the person can focus on survival. So some behavioural strategies, or talking to the child at that moment, won’t help at those times.”

Instead, Signorelli suggests children need strategies to reduce their stress to a manageable level (within their “window of tolerance”), when they can think better and understand what you are communicating.

Consider using sign language for words such as stop, wait, listen, no, come here, and so on. Physical activities and repetitive patterned rhythmic activities such as dancing, drumming, music shakers, running and jumping, will also help children use up the excess energy and stress hormones that go with the fight/flight/fright response.

You may also find refugee children struggle with your service’s routine and need additional support to feel comfortable. Signorelli suggests services use music activities when transitioning from one part of the day’s program to another, to help children cope with the stress of transition.

Using visual schedule boards with pictures showing children what activities will be done at different times of the day can also be helpful, so children learn when one activity is finished and another is starting. “Likewise, I tell children at the end of a session ‘the toys are sleeping now and will wake up when you come back’. This often helps them to separate from toys.”

Explaining the benefits of play and early education

For many refugee families, our early childhood support system is totally unfamiliar. In some countries or cultures, there is no such thing as childcare or playgroups and the notion of play may also be different.

Explaining the benefits of early education and care to families will be made more challenging given language barriers.

Using an interpreter to talk with and collaborate with families will be vital, particularly in ensuring you can communicate effectively with the parents about their perceptions of the child’s progress, and their understanding of their child’s experience at the service.

If a child is struggling with separation and settling into a service, for example, the family may need referral to a service such as STARTTS for sessions with a counsellor or therapist.

“They can help the child overcome this issue, and help the parent to cope with their own distress when they see their child’s distress,” Signorelli says, “bearing in mind that the child’s crying may trigger traumatic memories for the parent who has been through disaster, bombardment, or witness to acts of terrorism.”

“[Services] may experience resistance from parents who don’t understand our Early Years Learning Framework, as it is culturally unfamiliar to address those goals outside of the home or extended family,” Signorelli suggests.

Explaining your program and ensuring each family’s culture is respected is essential, she adds. “Families and communities are often afraid their children will lose their culture.”


STARTTS provides the latest culturally appropriate psychological treatment and support to help people heal the scars of torture and refugee trauma and rebuild their lives in Australia. FIND OUT MORE >

For information and advice on helping refugee and trauma children and families in other states you can get in touch with these organisations:
QLD: Qpastt
ACT: Companion House
VIC: Foundation House
NT: Melaleuca Refugee Centre
TAS: Phoenix Centre

For more resources and links go to FASSTT – the Forum of Australian Services for Survivors of Torture and Trauma

About CELA

Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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