Why expressive arts, led by teachers in schools, are important for refugee children

Canada quickly settled near 47,000 Syrians fleeing the conflict in 2015 and intends to welcome 40,000 Afghan refugees. Canada has also no limit on Ukrainian refugees he will accept.

But let’s not rush to congratulate ourselves before we carefully examine our success in supporting refugees after they arrive, particularly in reducing mental health issues like childhood trauma.

Education is the most important measure for continuous integration. My research supported holistic care is vital for refugee childrenand stressed the importance of collaboration between health workers, government policymakers, settlement workers, educators, housing specialists, professional trainers and others.

A promising area of ​​research focuses on the role of imaginative play and art-making in helping refugee children heal from their traumatic experiences.

Teachers can have an impact

Teachers in particular can have a significant impact on strengthening refugees’ feelings of safety, trust and belonging. Yet many teachers still lack professional development for working with refugees, including culturally sensitive approaches and understanding what basic mental health needs look like in the classroom.

Teachers can have a significant impact on building a sense of security for refugee children and families, but many teachers lack the professional development to work with refugees.
Author provided (no reuse)

If left untreated, the trauma can worsen, limit academic growth and prevent refugees from becoming full citizens.

Federal research on Syrian government-assisted refugees found that 71% of people who have used federally funded settlement services identified a “health, mental health or wellness” need. Support.”

Yet research on the mental health of Syrian refugee mothers found that concerns about stigma and privacy are major barriers that prevent pregnant and postpartum women from seeking or accessing mental health services.

Common classroom practices are important

In a research interview I conducted, a teacher explained that refugee parents did not want their child isolated for instruction or separated from peers to access specialized services.

“Talk therapy” is generally excluded because children under 11 have not yet developed the ability to describe complex issues and understand their experiences. This is supported by neuroscience which tells us that traumatic experiences are not in the brain’s rational prefrontal cortex through language, but instead become “stuck” in the amygdala as sensations or fragments. So what are the options?

Play therapy, art therapy techniques

In the game, children act out events they don’t understand and explore their emotions, sometimes reliving the unspeakable. Fragments of memories arise and can be reinterpreted, with the child choosing to revise for more positive results. This has the potential to reduce trauma.



Read more: Children educate teachers with their testimonies from war zones


In addition, works of art through pre-verbal symbolic language that can also release trauma in a slow and natural process. Metaphors and symbols in art can provide access to unrecognized feelings that can be captured, allowing change to occur, perhaps even a return to a healthier outlook.

A child's hand seen drawing a picture.
Art works through a symbolic language.
(Shutterstock)

If understanding can be seen through a metaphor or a symbol, the inside of the person can be expressed on the outside. through pictures in areas where language was silenced, allowing for therapeutic self-transformation.

art too helps develop many academic skillsincluding critical thinking, problem solving, listening skills, responding to constructive criticism and effective communication.

Many artistic activities

Through the lens of therapy, simple art activities in the classroom are already making a difference, as in these brief examples:

visual art: drawing self-portraits strengthens a child’s self-awareness and begins to shape their new identity; visual journals help refugees communicate with their classmates, talk about them while they learn English and feel like they have friends;

• Dance: the use of the whole body coordinates the senses, breathing and movement; movement invites emotional regulation;

Children seen participating in creative movements.
Movement invites emotional regulation.
(Erika Giraud/Unsplash)

• Creative writing/poetry: for students with adequate skills in the language of instruction, teachers can use prompts to suggest parallel experiences; kids can rewrite more preferable endings to their own stories that reflect their strengths and resilience and help them out of tragedies.

Healing story, ethical concerns

By bringing aspects of the expressive arts into the classroom, teachers can help children discover a story of healing: when the child is ready, they can share their story, discharge psychic energy through self-expression and envision not an ending, but a new ongoing story.

Refugees who maintain full self-esteem are more likely to embrace the future with confidence and to feel that they belong to an unknown society.

Although teachers are not counsellors, and ethically cannot interpret art or ask difficult or pointed questions due to lack of trainingthey are nevertheless capable of facilitating artistic explorations.

Safety, belonging

The ethics of teaching intersects with the fundamental ethics of art therapy: both professions prioritize do what is best for the child while staying close to the artistic process.

In addition, teachers model ethical and sensitive uses of artistic creation with students when accepting unique student responses to the use of different art forms, allowing confidentiality of their work and content, and allowing students to decide how to participate.

Refugee children who feel safe and believe they belong in school can gradually reveal what has happened to them, which teachers should accept and support with their empathetic care and genuine caring.

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