Ten-year-old Kate Sergieiva and her mother, Olga, still remember the blasts of Russian bombs dropping on their hometown of Vinnytsia in central Ukraine as they fled on February 24, 2022. It took three months in Moldova, Armenia, and Bulgaria before they arrived in Toronto, where Kate was able to attend school.
Olga, a single mother, worried that Kate’s transition to school in Canada would be traumatic. She says that Kate is still frightened by noises, loudspeakers, and people in uniforms. Kate worries about friends and family in Vinnytsia, where Russian missiles have destroyed their neighborhood and killed dozens of people. She relives the trauma of the bombing.
“We have this scary feeling,” Olga says. “You think every moment that it could happen again.”
But Kate loved her month in Grade 5 in Toronto and can’t wait to return in September. The teacher was very welcoming, she says, and all her classmates wanted to lend her their computers and play with her. She is glad they didn’t ask her about the war. “I am happy not to talk about it… I don’t want to bring the sad news to everyone.”
But Kate says another Ukrainian in her class was lonely because he could not understand English. The language barrier prevented him from integrating, she says. “It was much harder for him, and he mostly ignored the lessons.”
Kate’s story shows that while children arriving from war zones have things in common, each child is different and they can face different barriers to education. Teachers must create learning environments that are not only welcoming, but also equitable and inclusive.
Welcoming Ukrainian and other displaced students
New students with refugee status in Canada have legal access to resources, protection, and funding. Since Russia’s latest invasion, many Ukrainian children have arrived in elementary and secondary classrooms across the country. However, Canada has not granted refugee status to Ukrainians arriving during this recent conflict, instead offering a temporary settlement program, which for some has made their settlement process more precarious and uncertain.
Ukraine has made efforts to prioritize access to education for all children, especially since February’s invasion, yet many who have been forced to flee remain without access to school (Brookings, 2022). Ukrainian children have experienced prolonged exposure to violence and conflict, particularly since 2014 when Russia invaded and occupied the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and large swathes of the oblasts (provinces) of Donetsk and Luhansk (also known as the Donbas). Many children have had to cope with the trauma, and for them close attachments to family, caregivers, and educators are most critical for their psychosocial wellbeing (Bogdanov et al., 2021).
Multilingual learners adapting to a new landscape also need socio-emotional support in their transitions. For instance, traumas suffered by students from conflict zones need to be considered when teaching about topics that could trigger students to feel oppression or exclusion (Parker, 2021). Such social and emotional burdens make learning that much more challenging.
The welcoming process for displaced students has been complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. E-learning, social distancing, and wearing face masks have taken their toll on students worldwide, leaving many to feel disconnected and disengaged (Zakaria, 2021).
Identifying displaced students’ cultural assets
Many teachers across Canada have experience with refugee students joining their classrooms. They are faced with the challenge of differentiating their instruction to meet the needs of each student. However, addressing the needs of refugee and newly arrived students who have experienced the trauma of war is an additional challenge that many teachers may feel ill equipped to handle. The challenge is amplified by a lack of support from varying levels of the education system, including uneven resource distribution across schools, inadequate communication about the needs of these students, and few professional development opportunities.
Identifying and responding involves taking the time to understand the students’ lived experiences. Below, we offer background for supporting newly arrived Ukrainian students and pedagogical support for creating inclusive classrooms.
Critical background information for teaching children arriving from Ukraine
- It is “Ukraine,” not “the Ukraine,” since the latter denotes “borderland” in multiple Slavic languages and calls into question Ukraine’s sovereignty.
- Ukraine is multicultural, and being Ukrainian may mean having ancestors who are Tatar, Jewish, Belorussian, Georgian, Romanian, Greek, Korean, Azerbaijani, and Russian. It also means sometimes identifying as such.
- Ukraine and Ukrainians have endured (and withstood attempts at) colonization by imperialist Russia. The Ukrainian language and culture were banned for long periods of time in the USSR. As such, many Ukrainians speak Russian as their mother tongue.
- This latest invasion, along with previous ones, is a genocide. For Ukrainians, this is an existential fight. Aside from fear, worry, and other trauma-related feelings, some Ukrainians also experience shame and guilt for having survived, or having left loved ones, especially males of conscription age, behind.
Critical pedagogical peace-building practices for inclusion
To address the barriers facing students arriving from conflict zones, we suggest some essential practices teachers can implement.
- Seek to understand the individual experiences (respecting whatever the student chooses to share and how they choose to do it) of newly arrived students to tailor teaching strategies and differentiate instruction, such as making sure these students know they have the right to pass.
- Avoid making assumptions or attempting to provide a one-size-fits-all approach for all newly arrived students, who do not necessarily have deep access to the dominant language or culture
- Focus on student-teacher relationship building to address students’ physical and emotional needs and help them become ready to learn.
- Use English language learner (ELL) pedagogy, such as facilitating non-verbal partner activities or pairing students, to help students build relationships with their peers and engage academically.
- Form and renorm classroom agreements to focus on shared values to set the tone for respect and inclusivity in their classrooms.
While these factors highlight what teachers can do to support newly arrived students’ readiness to learn, more resources and training opportunities from the different levels of the Canadian education system are needed (Clark, 2017).
Restorative justice pedagogies to facilitate inclusion
Restorative justice in education (RJE) offers a framework for supporting the inclusion of students who have resettled from a war zone and helping them address their internalized trauma. Used with equity-focused and trauma-informed (see sidebar) approaches (Brummer, 2020), RJE pedagogies (such as intentional relationship building, dialogue exercises, circles, and conferencing) contribute to building the safe and welcoming community that students deserve in Canada. With a restorative approach, students are not passive members of the classroom who follow the social direction of the educator, but instead become responsible, active participants in maintaining harmony with their peer community as they engage in relationship-building.
Many teachers fear speaking about young people’s traumatic experiences. Their fears are amplified by a lack of training and support from administrators, colleagues, and communities. However, research shows that when teachers take the time to get to know their students and help them process traumatic experiences through relational connection and affirmations, their relationships with each other and with the class community deepen (González, 2015; Parker-Shandal, forthcoming). Teaching students about current issues from neutral perspectives is traditionally risky for teachers; however, ignoring or glazing over them could invalidate the experiences of some students. Teachers can use dialogue exercises and circles to help facilitate conflictual conversations, while being attune to students’ feelings and questions as they process this difficult situation.
For students arriving from conflict and war zones, building healthy relationships means creating a container for dialogue and understanding of the experiences that students bring to the classroom. The sooner educators can foster deep listening skills and develop a culture of valuing each other in the classroom, the easier integration and inclusion becomes.
Trauma-informed Tips and Strategies
- Create a board in your classroom to post images, messages, and paintings that depict cultural homeland clothing, traditional food, nature, and art.
- Introduce Twitter/graffiti board (using sticky notes), to share perspectives and ask questions.
- Create an engaging welcome package for students.
- Facilitate weekly talking circles (prep ahead of time with students to give them time to think about the questions/responses, and reiterate their right to pass/observe) (see Parker & Bickmore, 2020).
- Assign students roles that allow them to contribute to the classroom in a meaningful way.
- Prioritize the facilitation of community-building activities (with a blend of student-led and teacher-led exercises).
- Encourage reflective writing with fun and inclusive writing prompts (such as “I Am” poems, “Where I’m From” poems, “This I Believe” memoirs, or journal entries).
- Engage students non-verbally through art, music, and movement.
- Use reflective art-making strategies, such as self-portraits with various parts of the students’ faces showing different aspects of their identities.
- Overall: Remember that newly arrived students may fatigue easily; breaks will ease the cognitive load.
Develop and sustain relational connections and community
Global conflicts have infiltrated classrooms as conversations emerge based on misinformation about the pandemic, white supremacy, and this most recent genocide in Ukraine. Developing strategies to support students’ mental health and wellbeing has become part of an ongoing commitment during the pandemic. These strategies need to continue developing and being applied, especially for students from conflict zones. Focusing on the individual experiences of students, using multilingual pedagogy in teaching strategies, and prioritizing relationships through restorative justice pedagogies are all strategies teachers can use to facilitate the integration of students and contribute to creating space for peace-building in times of conflict.
Resources for Educators
Refugee Story Bank of Canada provides first-hand accounts of people who sought refuge in Canada, which could be used in lessons about refugees and autoethnographic narrative writing. This site will soon feature lesson plans and educator resources for using these narratives in K–12 classrooms. www.refugeestorybank.ca
Facing History and Ourselves Lesson plans and activities for educators to draw on to teach about the global refugee crisis.
Relationships First This restorative justice in education consortium envisions communities where the inherent worth and wellbeing of all involved are honoured and promoted. It includes lesson plans and resources to support teachers’ integration of restorative justice in their classrooms and schools. www.relationshipsfirstnl.com
INEE: has curated a collection of tools and resources relevant to the crisis in Ukraine to support the provision of education and mental health and wellbeing of practitioners, teachers, students, caregivers, and others. https://inee.org/collections and click on “Ukraine Crisis Resources”
Sesame Street In Communities: Resources in Ukrainian: These playful exercises and inclusive materials can help students feel safe and acknowledged. Activities include videos and games to support children’s emotional wellbeing.
ReliefWeb is a source for general information and news on the conflict in Ukraine.
Bogdanov, S., Girnyk, A., et al. (2021). Developing a culturally relevant measure of resilience for war-affected adolescents in eastern Ukraine. Journal on Education in Emergencies, 7(2), 311.
Brookings. (2022). Ukraine and beyond: Lessons in refugee education. A Brookings-Yidan Prize event on key issues in refugee education.
Brummer, J. (2020). Building a trauma-informed restorative school: Skills and approaches for improving culture and behavior. Jessica Kingsley.
Clark, K. (2017). Are we ready? Examining teachers’ experiences supporting the transition of newly-arrived Syrian refugee students to the Canadian elementary classroom [Research study, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto]. TSpace.
González, T. (2015). Reorienting restorative justice: Initiating a new dialogue of rights consciousness, community empowerment and politicization. Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution, 16, 457–477.
Jones, N., Pincock, K., Guglielmi, S., et al. (2022). Barriers to refugee adolescents’ educational access during COVID-19: Exploring the roles of gender, displacement, and social inequalities. Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies, 8(2), 43–72.
Parker, C. and Bickmore, K. (2020). Classroom peace circles: Teachers’ professional learning and implementation of restorative dialogue. Teaching and Teacher Education, 95.
Parker, C. A. (2021). Refugee children in Canadian schools: The role of teachers in supporting integration and inclusion. In G. Melnyk & C. A. Parker (Eds.), Finding refuge in Canada: Narratives of dislocation. Athabasca University Press.
Parker-Shandal, C. A. H. (forthcoming). Restorative justice in the classroom: Liberating students’ voices through relational pedagogy. Palgrave Macmillan.
Zakaria, P. (2021). Education under attack: An examination of education in emergencies and strategies for strengthening education. In I.Fayed & J. Cummings (Eds.), Teaching in the post COVID-19 era (pp. 149–156). Springer.