How refugee students gain a sense of belonging in Australian primary schools

How refugee students gain a sense of belonging in Australian primary schools

Monash University
Monash University
Monash University

New Monash research shows that teachers and schools play a strong role in ensuring refugee children develop a sense of belonging in Australian schools. How can teachers play a leading role in creating that sense of belonging in our classrooms?

Monash PhD student Farrukh Amina outlines her findings from students of refugee backgrounds and their sense of belonging at new schools.

Due to migration and forced displacement, our schools have experienced an influx of culturally and linguistically diverse students. Understanding what helps these students feel like they belong at their new school helps schools better respond to their needs.

To respond to the needs of these students, particularly those from refugee backgrounds, schools must understand how these students can find belonging in their new school environments.

Our study showed the important role schools and teachers could play helping students feel visible and heard, and ensuring cultural and linguistic values are reflected within the school practices and structures.

1. Creating a caring and positive learning environment

For refugee students to feel a sense of belonging, it is up to schools and teachers to create a caring and positive learning environment which mirrors their diverse experiences and identities.

Creating a supportive learning environment for students of refugee background is especially important because in many cases they have experienced traumatic events and struggle to make sense of their evolving identities.

Children participating in the Intensive English Language Program in South Australia reported a strong sense of belonging within aspects of the school environment which reflected their own cultural values, experiences, and identities as refugees. They indicated that caring relationships with teachers were important and made them feel safe, valued, and connected.

Students smiling and running accros some grass

2. Supporting peer-to-peer relationships

Friendship with peers is vital for the creation of a sense of belonging among students from refugee backgrounds. Positive and close relationships with their peers help these students feel an increased sense of safety and care at school. They feel a sense of affinity with peers who are from the same backgrounds as they share common cultural experiences and can communicate in their native language, which in turn helps them feel connected with the school environment. Peers with the same first language help with translation between classmates and teachers, and this is particularly helpful when students begin school in their new country. Language familiarity increases their sense of connectedness, similarity, and acceptance, which in turn encourages participation at school.

3. Teachers’ praise and recognition

Teachers’ praise and recognition plays a vital role in creating a sense of belonging. Students said it was particularly fostered when teachers acknowledged and protected them.

For learners from refugee backgrounds, a teacher’s praise — particularly in front of others — and the recognition of their knowledge, skills, and interests, was central to that sense of belonging. One of our study’s participants told us that when his teacher praised him in front of his mother at a parent/teacher meeting, he felt confident and a part of the school. Another student felt included when the teacher chose them to answer a question out of 22 students who had their hands raised. Other examples of acknowledgement were being included in dance practise and being given a sticker as a reward for good behaviour or academic success.

A student and teacher discussing work

4. Creating more inclusive practices

New experiences, such as their first few weeks of school or school excursions were often experiences unfamiliar to new students. Navigating language barriers, rules, and routines was daunting and isolating for some students. Students felt they wanted to be better prepared for such events. One student described feeling nervous going to watch a movie with classmates. He was unable to understand the film due to language barriers. He suggested a book with common words and class rules could be given to refugee students to help them adjust faster to their new environment.

Other students in our study said the presence of interpreters in the classroom and school yard would be helpful and the supply of affordable culturally appropriate food in the school canteen would help with their sense of belonging.


Farrukh Amina, Melissa M. Barnes & Eisuke Saito (2022): Belonging in Australian primary schools: how students from refugee backgrounds gain membership, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development