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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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The Rainbow Program for children in refugee families

Jackie Hoggart
School Outreach Worker, Service Innovation Program, Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture Inc. (VFST)

The Rainbow Program is a school-based approach to providing support to refugee children and their families. Schools are one of the main connections refugee students and their families will have in their new country, and strong social connectedness at school is an important factor in the successful resettlement of refugee children. The Rainbow Program is one way of enhancing the adjustment of refugee children within schools, and is particularly useful in raising class teacher awareness of the special needs of their refugee students.

Children and families from refugee backgrounds, although safe in Australia, will have experienced many difficulties during their journey and re-settlement, and all will have experienced trauma. The experiences of both adults and children might include torture, sexual assault, witnessing violence, sudden arrests and disappearances of friends and relatives, forced conscription into armies or militias, deprivation of food, safe water and medical attention, dangerous journeys to safety, and dangerous stays in refugee camps and detention. All refugees will have experienced significant loss - from the loss of home, culture and identity, to the more profound loss of parents, siblings and significant others through death, or forced displacement and separation.

Re-settlement involves adjustments to a new culture, language, education system and legal system. These challenges are compounded by the effects of hostility and discrimination, disrupted education, malnutrition and neglect of health problems, and the loss of family and other social support networks. Ongoing conflict in their country of origin may have a continuing impact on the lives of refugees. They also face practical issues such as housing, employment and income support.

Children and young people are particularly vulnerable because they are growing and developing - emotionally, intellectually, socially and physically. For many children the experiences of being a refugee and resettling in a new country will have compromised, to some extent, the conditions required for healthy progress in each of the key developmental domains. One of the most important factors influencing children's capacity to deal with past trauma, and the stresses involved in resettling in a new country, is the quality of the support available to them in the early months and years following their arrival in a safe country. While teaching professionals clearly cannot erase the impact of trauma and disruption, they can play an important role in fostering the conditions to promote children's successful adaptation and resilience.

The Rainbow program includes three integrated components:
  • The core children's component - recognising the importance of children's own understanding of the settlement process. This is a seven-session structured group program for children, designed for delivery either as part of a small group format or as part of a classroom program
  • A three-session component for parents, which seeks to establish their links with the school, provide an opportunity for them to learn about their children's settlement experience, and share any concerns they might have about their children's settlement
  • A program briefing and professional development component, the aim of which is to enhance a teacher's capacity to provide a supportive environment for refugee children and their families.
The children's component is aimed at children aged 9-12 years, recognising that older primary aged children are likely to have experienced accumulated disadvantage associated with prolonged disruption to schooling. Children in this age group also face a number of potentially stressful transitions in a relatively short period of time, including school commencement in Australia, the transition from an English language facility to a mainstream school and, at the age of twelve, transition to secondary school.

The children's component aims to make a positive contribution to children's settlement in Australia by:

  • supporting them to integrate past experiences
  • acknowledging the challenge of settlement by exploring the losses and gains in moving to a new country and culture
  • promoting a positive experience of the present
  • building self-esteem
  • exploring emotions and ways of dealing of with feelings
  • fostering trust and a sense of belonging
  • building connections with their peers
  • enabling the expression of hopes and dreams for the future and supporting children to develop a positive sense of their future in Australia.
In the sessions, the program uses a number of interactive exercises to explore the losses and gains of coming to a new country. These sessions seek to build children's self-esteem by affirming the value of their culture of origin and assisting them to appreciate the special nature of the experience of living in two cultures. By providing children the opportunity to share their journeys, the group seeks to acknowledge and share the refugee and settlement experience and reduce isolation. While the group does not focus on the trauma itself, it does aim to provide a safe environment in which children can discuss past experiences, if they wish, and at a level at which they feel comfortable. Conducting the program at school allows for safety, and communicates to children that they matter, their culture is valued, and the environment is a caring one.

Experience has shown that the program is most successful when there is considered support from school management, and the school's welfare and curriculum teams. As awareness is raised within a school, the involvement of the school's welfare system is important in order to support teachers and students. This could entail ensuring training is provided for staff, and that time is dedicated to developing relationships with local community agencies, especially in terms of services available and referral pathways. In this way, a collaborative approach between school and local community evolves, providing an effective response to the special needs of refugee students and their families, and enhancing connectedness at a number of levels, including social, school and community.

A guide has been developed as a resource for teaching professionals and counsellors wishing to run the program, and has been used successfully in both language and mainstream primary schools. Designed to maximise the ease of organising the program, it includes relevant background on issues of concern to refugee children and their families, practical guidance on planning the program, and detailed session plans for all three program components. The resource is A4 sized, with over 100 pages of background information and session plans, plus 29 overheads for teacher briefing and professional development.

Support material for schools (including parent information in relevant community languages) will be available online from the the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture from July 2004.

Subject Headings

Child abuse
Mental Health
Multicultural education
School and community
Social adjustment