Hassan is 10 years old and recently arrived in Australia as a refugee from the Middle East. After experiencing years of conflict and the conditions in a refugee camp, there is a high risk of clinical depression and/or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Hassan sometimes experiences bedwetting, disturbed sleep patterns and recurrent nightmares, and is often fearful about leaving his home. Home-schooling was initially considered but Hassan’s parents’ limited command of English, combined with his mother’s significant health concerns and his father’s long working hours, made it unworkable.
Hassan had no formal schooling before arriving in Australia, so the move to a structured school environment presented social and behavioural challenges for Hassan. The school arranged for a family advocate and interpreter to attend a series of enrolment meetings with Hassan’s parents to discuss his needs and how the school might support him.
Initially, there was some concern raised by the deputy principal and the classroom teacher that Hassan may not be able to cope with the structured environment of a regular classroom. The school decided that it was important for the staff have professional development on the impact of trauma and the symptoms of PTSD. This was arranged for a professional learning day before the start of term. The relevant school staff then met again and agreed that reasonable adjustments may be needed to provide Hassan with comparable opportunities and choices to those available to other students.
As part of the preparation for Hassan’s attendance, the classroom teacher planned lessons that focused on acceptance of diversity, and staff reinforced the school’s anti-bullying code across the school years. Hassan’s parents also agreed that Hassan could share limited information with the class on his background as a refugee.
Hassan has difficulty with concentration and memory, appears to be constantly on ‘alert’ and hypervigilant for most of the day, which his teacher believes affects his ability to learn and acquire new skills. Hassan finds recess and lunchtime particularly difficult. School staff are aware of the impact that people in uniform, sirens, fireworks, sudden loud noises, and authoritarian or threatening behaviour might have on Hassan. At times, when the playground is particularly noisy or when special events are being held, Hassan will withdraw and shut down completely. The school has provided Hassan with an area that he can access when he feels this way and still be supervised by staff, an adjustment that his parents supported as he adapts to the new environment.
Hassan’s teachers believe the difficulties he has been experiencing at school could be because of feeling anxious or fearful, based on their understanding of the impact of trauma. His classroom teacher sought permission from Hassan’s parents to refer him to the school psychologist shortly after he began at the school due to her concerns that Hassan might be at an elevated risk of developing a mental illness because of the trauma he had experienced. Hassan and his parents agreed with this suggestion. The psychologist meets with Hassan every fortnight and liaises with his teachers regarding how they can support him in the classroom and the playground. No formal diagnosis has been made while they await an appointment with the specialist Child and Adolescent Mental Health (CAMHS) team. Hassan’s parents were initially reluctant to engage with CAMHS as they feared it might jeopardise the family's residency, but the school arranged a meeting with the local CAMHS liaison person, and they were reassured.
The psychologist, the Wellbeing Leader and Hassan’s class teacher worked together with Hassan’s parents to develop an individual education plan (IEP) that they revise each term. These meetings are supported by an interpreter who also assists with translating any relevant documents and forms that might be needed before the meeting. The focus in the meetings is on Hassan’s strengths and resilience, and how these can be incorporated with his interests in the academic program. The consultation sessions are planned for the morning when Hassan’s mother can participate as in the afternoons her health issues mean she usually rests.
Building trust and secure relationships with Hassan is considered essential by the school staff. Hassan has a mentor he sees every week – a local football club coach with whom he has established a secure bond. Hassan’s mentor is working on restoring Hassan’s sense of safety, as well as his communication skills with people in authority. He also aiming to improve Hassan’s social skills through the football club and has offered to assist the school when the class physical education program includes football.
The school has implemented strategies for the classroom and playground in consultation with the school psychologist, Hassan and his parents, including providing a safe and structured routine that is kept to if possible. The class teacher has placed the daily planner on his desk, and additional instructions on the whiteboard, to assist Hassan with memory recall. A copy is provided each week to his parents to allow for preparation for the coming day.
Hassan’s teacher recommended to his parents that he join the social skills group that the Wellbeing Leader runs each Friday morning for an hour. The focus for each student is different; Hassan works on goals around meeting and greeting other students and adults, and some strategies around how to join in activities with other children during break times. As a result, Hassan’s peer engagement has gradually increased and he has recently started playing football with other children at lunchtime. The Wellbeing Leader provides feedback to Hassan’s psychologist and his parents once a fortnight.
If there is a change in routine, Hassan is provided with an explanation in advance where possible. Staff know that if an alarming or strange noise occurs in the playground, Hassan may need to be helped to go to the quiet play area and be prompted to apply the coping skills developed with the school psychologist.
Hassan sometimes still has difficulty expressing his feelings in group learning activities. He is then provided with alternatives that align with his learning strengths that include art and dance. As writing is one of his interests, he is encouraged to develop his creative writing talents using his home language as well as English. He receives a graduated desensitisation approach to unfamiliar activities, and alternative methods of assessment when required.
The school has discussed with Hassan and his parents that the adjustments that have been put in place will be reviewed frequently as he settles into the school routines. Once the CAMHS team has assessed Hassan, his IEP will be reviewed and any necessary changes implemented.