Social and Emotional Support for Refugee Families: A School Psychology Perspective

A girl in a hijab reading.

Learn more from Dr. Robyn Hess (University of Northern Colorado) about the importance of strengths-based approaches in working with refugees, the impacts of displacement and trauma on children, and the unique factors that affect outreach to refugees in rural communities.

Dr. Robyn Hess is a Professor of School Psychology at the University of Northern Colorado.  One of her recent projects has focused on serving refugee families and students in rural school districts in Kentucky, Nebraska, Colorado, and Minnesota; through that project, she and students have interviewed teachers and families in districts that had a track record of success in supporting refugee students. 

In this article written for Colorín Colorado, she talks below about some of the most important lessons learned from her work with refugees, particularly Somali families, including some considerations in addressing questions about mental health, working with cultural liaisons in the community to connect with families, and culturally responsive support for families.

Q&A with Dr. Robyn Hess

Would you tell us about your current work with refugees?

For about the last seven years, I have worked with my students on projects related to refugee children and their families. In some cases, I was directly involved (e.g., conducting focus groups with families, interviewing school personnel who work directly with refugee children and families), and in other cases I supervised my students as they conducted specialized groups to help refugee children understand their new school culture. Two of my graduate students conducted research studies with families of refugee youth to better understand the families’ perspectives on school and on the wellbeing of their children.

In your experience, what do educators in school settings need to learn about refugees in order to work with them effectively?

What I have learned from the various school personnel that we have interviewed is that they want to know a little bit about the culture, the families, and the backgrounds of the children. When refugee students enter the classroom, teachers haven’t always known what to expect and they want to help, but aren’t always sure how to do so. If they believe they have some knowledge, it seems to empower them a bit to move forward. They have also appreciated having a network of people that they can call for support and advice. I think having additional training once they have had a chance to work with students is also helpful so they can continue to grow their knowledge and refine their interventions.

Video: Visiting a refugee camp

Dr. Cindy Lundgren shares the story of an administrator who got a grant to visit a refugee camp where many of her students lived and how that visit helped her better support her students.

Can you talk about the impacts of the following on refugee children and families:


I don’t know that anyone can fully understand the impact of displacement on families and children. In many ways, families want to put the past behind them, but find that they cannot. They don’t always understand what is happening and tend to believe that they have a physical problem. Families tend to feel very disempowered in their new settings because they do not know the language and they don’t know how to be a part of their new communities. Furthermore, their children start to adapt more quickly so they begin to feel some distance from their own children as well. Adults remember and want to hold on to their cultures, values, and beliefs, but for children, these aspects of their culture might not be as firmly instilled. They don’t understand why certain things are done or are important. Sometimes, as families have tried to put the past behind themselves, they have also stopped sharing out their own cultures with their children. Instead, they simply feel the loss that their children won’t have the same beliefs and values as they did.


In many ways, the response from above fits here as well. For the most part, individuals do not want to talk about their trauma. The notion of mental health within Somali culture is generally either minor complaints (e.g., feeling sad, feeling anxious) and these are dealt with through prayer, support, or talking with a religious leader. The other type of mental health is considered as being “crazy” and out of control. This type of mental health problem has a stigma. In some ways, trauma falls somewhere in between these understandings. It doesn’t go away with prayer, but it isn’t so profound as schizophrenia. It seems like it leaves people confused. Some families we spoke with experienced anxiety, panic attacks, and depression, but didn’t know what to do other than go to the emergency room or to isolate themselves from others. Adolescent children often found themselves trying to care for their parents or at least facilitate their trips to the ER.

Extended time in refugee camps

The length of stay for families we met was typically quite long. There were some families who were fortunate to be able to live in the city and their children were well educated. For children who were raised in the camps, they often had gaps in their education. The schools were overcrowded, teachers did not always show up, and because parents were often off carrying out other responsibilities (e.g., getting water or food), they could not monitor their children’s school attendance. For these reasons, gaps in education were one of the biggest impacts of extended time in refugee camps.


When we talked about resettlement, families were happy to be resettled, they liked feeling safe, and they wanted to figure out how to be successful. On the other hand, there were some barriers, language and transportation seemed to be the two that families were most vocal about. As I wanted to work with their children, they wondered who would help support the adults in the family? They were also somewhat fearful that I would try to change their children to be more American.

What are some behaviors that might appear in the classroom as a result of these experiences?

For children in the classroom, probably the most pronounced issue would be a lack of educational exposure. This was a two-fold issue for the families we met as the children had varying levels of English language proficiency and may have significant gaps in their education. Determining whether the issues were related to language, lack of exposure, or both was a continual struggle for teachers.  Behaviorally, some students struggled. Here again, how much is because they are behind, how much is due to a social emotional concern, etc. These are very complicated cases and required good data gathering, especially from parents. Sometimes the answer was quite simple. A student was out of his seat constantly and a teacher was very frustrated. Once she talked to his parent, she found that he was trying to please the teacher by being helpful and that this was something that was done within his own culture. With that different framework, the problem didn’t seem so bad anymore.

What is the role of the school psychologist in addressing these needs?

School psychologists have more flexibility in their roles to reach out to community resources and find individuals who can translate for families. They can help teachers understand the culture of families and help bring in other community speakers that can provide context to what teachers are seeing. School psychologists can network with community agencies to help connect families to services as well as to bring in additional supports to the school setting.

What kinds of services and support have you found to be most helpful for refugee communities?

It is especially helpful if there is an individual who can navigate both cultures – that of the refugee and of the majority population. This person can be invaluable in helping to reduce or eliminate misunderstandings very quickly. For example, there was an issue at the high school that Somali girls were washing their feet in the sink. They couldn’t fully explain their reasoning but a community navigator explained the practice of washing before prayer and the girls were able to use an adult bathroom at certain times of the day.

Other community resources that are important are a refugee center of some kind. These types of agencies often offer support, English classes, citizenship classes, provide transportation, and can just be a general gathering place. Rural communities don’t necessarily have access to these kinds of agencies so the school may take on more of the load – offering English classes, getting together with parents on Saturdays to help them understand school, etc.

Who do you think is best suited to provide that support?

I think everyone within a school setting plays a role. Sometimes people might believe that only the ELL teacher needs to worry about working with refugee students, but it is important that everyone sees it as a shared responsibility. ELL teachers want to see their students successfully integrate into the rest of the school and into general educational settings so that these students have the same opportunities to learn as other students. It is also important that school leadership is supportive and sets a tone for welcoming families and students, creating opportunities for families to observe in the classroom, hiring bilingual family members to work in the school setting in various roles (e.g., paraprofessionals, office assistants, crossing guards) or whichever roles are appropriate based on their language skills and previous education. It is helpful for refugee and immigrant families to have someone who can interpret for them and also someone from their community who is working in the school system.

What role can school leaders play in making families feel welcome?

What I have seen in one of my schools was that the principal went to great efforts to make sure she had as much family involvement as possible. She hosted English language classes, she made an effort to connect with families at monthly Saturday open houses where she and the ELL teachers would help families learn about school in the U.S. and about what their children were learning. As parents felt included, they tended to reach out more and want to come to school, to observe in the classroom, and be a part of their children’s education. I think it is important to remember that parents made an extremely difficult choice to come to the United States and for the most part, it was because they wanted their children to have better lives. I think anything we can do to support that drive and that goal will allow families to show their strengths.

How does the stigma of mental health have an impact on working with immigrant / refugee families?

For Somali families, I described the conceptualization of mental health since there is a stigma for more serious disorders. My student hosted a women’s group where the focus was on creating a strong family and the ways that women could build better relationships with their children and address some of the challenges around working with the school and other community agencies. By focusing on the “how to” she was able to also introduce concepts around mental health. I think this helped these women to discuss some of their own struggles and revealed the degree to which they did not understand the physical ways that trauma and stress might manifest.

How do different family roles have an impact on these conversations?

I think the main thing I saw was a reversal of power in families as children were relied on as interpreters. In some cases, women believed they had even less control of their families because they couldn’t carry out some of their traditional roles. For example, in a refugee camp, a woman might be in charge of getting the food/water allotment, take care of the children, and carry out various tasks that would help the family subsist. In the United States, their experience is different. Most Somali women do not drive so they can’t go get food and they don’t need to “get” water. They do take care of children, but as their children start attending school, they experience the separation as their children start to acculturate, and for the most part, they are isolated from other women who might be experiencing the same thing. I do not know as much about men’s experiences. Many of them are able to find work and may be able to transition a bit more easily.

What are some of the unique factors in working with immigrants or refugees in rural settings?

There are fewer resources in rural settings so school leaders needed to get creative in finding assistance. In one community we visited, the English teacher was from the local community college, the United Way type agency recruited volunteers to act as mentors/supports for newly arrived refugees, and the meat packing plant was asked to contribute funds to help support these efforts. Since there was no refugee agency, other groups that might not typically be a part of these efforts in a more urban setting were called on to help support efforts. I think in some ways this helped more people be involved.

Some of the people we’ve interviewed also spoke about how easy it was to get assistance because they knew everyone. For example, one teacher knew the Somali interpreter from her previous job so could use this personal connection to ask for his assistance when she needed an interpreter. Her example was that one of the Somali students in her classroom (ELL) wanted to go out for track but his parents didn’t understand what was needed (e.g., physical clearance, money for uniform, track shoes), so she called the interpreter who was able to contact the family and help them understand what to do and why. I think this example helps illustrate just how difficult simple things are for families and students who are refugees.

In addition, the reasons refugees move to smaller, more rural communities are important to keep in mind; often, there is an industry offering low-skill jobs and there may already an established community of fellow immigrants. In the case of Somali immigrants, many of them are working in meat packing plants. (You can learn more about the experience of some Somali refugees in the meat packing industry in this Washington Post report.) That means that the companies themselves have an important role to play in integration, but sometimes the companies will have received a tax break to build in the small town and the town itself doesn’t have much of a support infrastructure for newcomers in place.  Another factor is that more companies are hiring refugees, who have legal work status here in the U.S., instead of undocumented immigrants; this can lead to tensions among different groups in the community or among their children in school.

What are some of the successful approaches you’ve seen in your work with educators of ELLs in rural settings?

Many districts are helping their refugee students stay in school until they are 21. This allows them more time to gain skills that might have been missed along the way. Another ELL teacher had divided units into smaller subsets. She discussed how frustrating it was for students to be on the same level of reading for weeks in a row so she divided the curriculum so that students could more easily see that they were making progress, even if they were still on the same overall level. When possible, schools have hired paraprofessionals who are from the specific culture (e.g., Latino, Somali) with the idea that these individuals can be helpful in the classroom as well as assist in bridging some of the language differences. Furthermore, they can act as a kind of liaison who helps teachers understand various cultural practices (e.g., reminding when Ramadan begins so that teachers understand why students might be a little more tired/off task). They might also go back to their own communities and help families understand certain practices or needs from the schools.

Why is a strengths-based approach important in this work?

I think if the focus is purely on the trauma, the lack of academic skills, the language and cultural differences- schools and communities will come to see refugees and immigrants as a “problem” rather than as an asset. When refugee/immigrant families move into small, rural communities, they are helping to revive towns that might be losing their population. As long as there is employment and families feel welcomed, refugee families will likely stay and bring in a new base of children to attend schools, customers who will shop at local stores, and future employees that will allow the industry in these communities to flourish.

What role does cultural awareness play in doing this work effectively?

I don’t know that anyone can be all knowing about the nuances of culture, so first and foremost, I would say an open mindset. I also think a healthy dose of compassion goes a long way. Some of my students have told me that some teachers don’t understand the depth of trauma that students and families might have experienced. They see refugees as “lucky” and as safe now that they are in the United States. I think this is where professional development can be really helpful to teachers who don’t have very much training, if any, in the long lasting effects of trauma and the challenges of adapting to a new environment. After that, yes, cultural awareness is important as well just to understand some of the basics such as whether or not to shake hands/touch a male (if a teacher is female), why some girls wear hijabs and others don’t, etc. As teachers understand, they will be able to help the other children in their classes understand.

I also think teachers need to be aware of their assignments. One of my students recounted the story of a teacher asking her class of students (about 1/3 were Muslim) to recount their favorite Christmas memory. The teacher had probably had this assignment forever and had not thought about how it was important to look at curriculum with a more culturally sensitive eye to consider how that same assignment might be adapted (e.g., favorite family celebration) and still meet the intent of the assignment.

How do you build bridges among newcomers and the existing community?

Courageous leadership and opportunities for interaction are two of the biggest components.

What have been some of the most surprising things you’ve learned in your research?

I think one of my biggest surprises, at least among Somali refugees, is the degree of difference in terms of their experiences among families. I’ve spoken with individuals who have Master’s degrees and speak three languages and with mothers who do not know how to sign their names.

In addition, I had always considered myself somewhat culturally aware but was totally taken by surprise in one situation in which I was having an interpreter help me translate some permission forms. One was so that students could be in the school groups, and one was for families to participate in our focus group. When the interpreter explained confidentiality, the families viewed it as me “keeping secrets.” This was very troubling to them as they believed this was how wars were started. I’m not sure if it was how the concept was interpreted or just the notion of confidentiality, but the principal had to explain to the families that it was okay. She was known to them and because they trusted her, some were willing to provide their consent. I think the degree to which families are unsure of outsiders was a bit of surprise. It is really important to build relationships and demonstrate your trustworthiness.

About the Author

Dr. Robyn Hess is a Professor of School Psychology. After receiving her Ph.D. in School Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado, she taught at the University of Nebraska at Kearney and the University of Colorado at Denver before returning to UNC. Her research interests are in the areas of school dropout/completion especially among Latino students, culturally responsive assessment and intervention, working with refugee youth and their families, systemic interventions, and stress/coping in children.


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