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Cultivating empathy in the classroom.

July 4, 2017

Refugee Week takes place every year globally around World Refugee Day on June 20. It features nationwide arts, cultural and educational events.


This year I channelled all my energies into schools work. It was fantastic to engage with over 2000 children in workshops and assemblies to encourage a better understanding about refugees and to inspire children to do their part in welcoming refugees and supporting them to settle and integrate.


My workshops for schools are bespoke and the content is built to reflect the ages of the children and the demographic of the school. I also aim to complement and dovetail with broader subjects covered in schools such as migration, global education, children’s rights, diversity, British values and social emotional learning.


Whilst the activities, resources and content for workshops vary, my approach always involves cultivating empathy. In basic terms empathy is to imagine what someone else must be thinking and feeling. This is key when teaching about refugees because it sparks emotional connections and it transforms the way children relate to the world and others around them.


I choose to focus on cultivating empathy in all my refugee awareness work because it empowers children to be joint partners in embedding a culture of welcome in their own school communities. A whole school and child led approach is powerful. I've found through my direct work and consultations with child refugees, if they feel welcome, supported and cared for by their peers, they are more likely to stay resilient and thrive.


So how do we cultivate empathy? Let me share an example using a primary school context.


I’m passionate about using refugee voices in all my workshops. Seeking Refuge is one of my favorite resources to use. Its a fantastic collection of five stories, told by children in their own words and voices and beautifully animated. The collection is available to watch for free here.


I tend to show Hamid’s story when working locally as Hamid moved from Eritrea to Yorkshire and I find children connect even better with stories if they can personally relate to a place, an age or an experience.


I introduce the story and I let children know in advance that Hamid story is sad in parts and if it brings up any lingering sad feelings it’s important to talk to a trusted adult after the workshop.  


After showing the film, I invite four volunteers out to the front to be journalists. I give them all a marker pen or glue stick and ask them to do a sound check on their new microphone! This always gets a few giggles and lightens the mood!  I elicit from the group what the role of a journalist involves. The children take it in turn to role play, interviewing the audience with a roving mic.


Some suggested reflective questions could be:

  • What difficult things happened to Hamid?

  • How did Hamid feel when leaving Eritrea and why?

  • How did Hamid feel during his first few days and months at school and why?

  • What helped Hamid?


The child led nature of this activity makes it stimulating and memorable. Where needed, I support the children with probing for further details, feelings, meanings etc. By the end of the activity children have emotionally connected with the experiences of Hamid, they have imagined and articulated a range of difficult life events and importantly the range of emotions that Hamid felt.

They have identified what helped, and I explicitly link this to the power of friendship and the small acts of kindness that children can show others, especially children who have recently arrived to the country.    


If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to comment below and share. Thank you! Keep a lookout for other ideas for cultivating empathy as part of refugee awareness for schools in future blogs. If you have any example of classroom activities on related themes, I’d really love to hear from you.


You can find out more about my workshops for schools here


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