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Unaccompanied asylum seeking children: our role, their way

Not long ago I saw a post on a professional forum seeking suggestions for supporting refugee and unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and I wondered whether to share some of my reflections.

During my training placement, I had the opportunity to spend a few weeks working with the Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children (UASC) and Leaving Care (LC) team in my local authority. I sought this opportunity out as in my previous role as a teacher, I noticed how frequently children and young people would be placed into ‘bottom sets’ or given fewer challenging academic experiences, because they spoke English as an additional language or due to differing educational experiences. Furthermore, I cannot recall any training given on supporting children and young people who may have fled their home countries, and may also be experiencing significant social, emotional and mental health needs.

In addition to my experience as a teacher, research suggests the educational experiences of refugees and unaccompanied asylum-seeking children can be difficult and traumatic. The social and mental health needs of UASC are not being met, and those over 16 receive less support than those who are under 16 and in foster care (Groark, Sclare, Raval, 2010). During my time with the UASC team, I met 30 children and young people in a LA-supported residential setting from a range of backgrounds including Albanian, Vietnamese, and Eritrean. The young people were all at different stages of the asylum-seeking process and there was great diversity within their experiences.

Challenges faced by unaccompanied asylum seeking children

There are several factors that can influence the opportunities available to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children including parental contact/involvement, language barriers and cultural norms/values. The efforts of the UASC team to provide or find solutions for some of these contextual factors provided significant opportunities for reflection.

Learning from parents

Social workers can play an important parental role in the lives of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. As well as providing guidance in the areas of education, employment, finance/budgeting, they also ensure the young people are eating well and looking after their physical and mental health and social relationships. Research highlights the important role of parents and parental involvement for children and young people’s social, emotional and academic outcomes, and social workers can attempt to fulfil this parental role. However, although social workers can be contacted most of the time, young people may not have a parental figure available at all times of the day and this may have emotional, academic and financial impacts. 

For example, a meeting I attended indicated that a young person who had just begun university lacked budgeting skills, consequently leading to him having an over-reliance on funding from the local authority. Often the young people I met did not have anyone who could support them to develop budgeting skills, or cover expenses such as phone bills, driving lessons or educational outings. The absence of a parent can have significant impacts for an unaccompanied child’s immediate experiences as well as later outcomes and life opportunities.

Barriers to maintaining contact with family members

Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children frequently experience barriers to maintaining contact with their families. Legal procedures for safeguarding unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who have been trafficked, include not sharing their location with anyone who might be able to find them. Safeguarding these young people is important as it can be dangerous for them to return to their home countries, and they (or their families) could face significant difficulties if they are found by those who were involved in trafficking them. However, the lack of opportunities for familial contact can have significant impact on their social and emotional wellbeing.

Speaking to the young people supported by the UASC team, I found that many of them had lost a parent – either before leaving their homes or since beginning their journey. One young person also spoke of losing contact with his brother who had left before him. In addition to the trauma of losing loved ones, they also spoke of traumatic journeys, and I was aware of how difficult it was for them to share their stories and experiences with me. 

A narrow view of psychological support?

Many of the unaccompanied asylum-seeking children had been referred to a local counselling service, however some of the young people shared that they come from communities where it is uncommon to talk with strangers about personal issues. Culturally sensitive therapeutic approaches, such as the Tree of Life (Kasmani, 2021; Lock, 2016) have shown promise in supporting social, emotional, and mental wellbeing for diverse communities and may be a useful alternative to traditional counselling services.

Under-explored aspirations

Some of the unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and young people appeared to have low educational aspirations. Research suggests that parental aspirations are associated with student aspirations and outcomes, however as discussed, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children rarely have regular contact with parents. Those who are residing in semi-independent settings have fewer opportunities to discuss their aspirations with adults and would benefit from advice that considers their potential. Furthermore, a few of the unaccompanied asylum-seeking children were likely to have been on courses that did not challenge or interest them. 

I wondered whether their aims and aspirations were discussed when they first arrived, and how it was decided what courses they should take. I also wondered how we would know if unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and young people were making ‘academic progress’ as the validity of any baseline assessments might be questionable, particularly if using standardised assessments where the comparison population is likely to be young people always educated in the UK.

Language barriers

During my time with UASC team we also talked about logistical details such as the use of interpreters. Due to the local authority location, it could be difficult to find interpreters for children and young people from Vietnamese backgrounds. This presented challenges when communicating with the young people, however the UASC and LC staff team were resourceful in trying to find solutions (e.g., using Google Translate) to diminish the impact this could have on their access to support/resources. 

Even with these tools however, there are challenges associated with the use of interpreting services. Phrases and language are not always easy to translate, and interpreters may add their own opinions. This can lead to miscommunication between unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and professionals across a range of settings.

How we might improve experiences and opportunities for unaccompanied asylum seeking children

De Wal Pastoor (2015) states that there is inconsistency in the support available to unaccompanied and asylum-seeking children and suggests a need for guidance for schools, educators and other adults. Seeking and sharing the views of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and young people is key in supporting them (de Wal Pastoor, 2015) and I have reflected that it could be good to ask the young people what they have or would have found helpful, in retrospect. 

Through my conversations with the young people, they shared suggestions for academic support, support with their social, emotional and mental health and support with planning for the future. A summary of their suggestions include:

Academic support

  • Access to a staff mentor
  • Differentiated tasks
  • English and Maths Tuition
  • Translation features readily available in all classes e.g. Google translate

Social, emotional and mental health support 

  • Having a buddy at school
  • Culturally sensitive counselling
  • Access to a club or group to get to know peers in a structured setting


  • Careers advice
  • Advice on further and higher education options
  • Opportunities to attend open evenings
  • Support with applications

Reflections on what is valued in education

As a trainee educational psychologist, I wondered whether the British education system allows for the strengths of other communities or cultures to be recognised, valued, or appreciated. As the employment sector favours children and young people who leave school with a certain number of qualifications, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children often miss out on having their skills or strengths understood or recognised, particularly if they arrive in Britain nearer to school-leaving age.

A quick search on Google Scholar about ‘education’ highlights the publication bias towards Western Education and there can seem to be very little acknowledgement of the benefits of education across the East, for example, bilingual and multilingualism, teamwork and collaborative problem-solving, or being resourceful in areas where resources are scarce. In addition to the suggestions above, a wider conversation should consider what inclusive education looks like for children and young people who have been taught about the value of skills and qualities that do not necessarily translate into test scores or GCSE results.


Asylum-seeking children and young people experience a number of psychosocial challenges associated with trauma, separation and loss as well as the difficulties associated with relocation and integration into a new society. Their previous experiences of education can be varied with some never having attended school yet having great ‘academic potential’. 

For those awaiting decisions about immigration, the uncertainty of their future can affect their motivation to stay in education. For those without families, the lack of parental support and involvement has significant impacts on their educational outcomes and future aspirations.

I hope my reflections are useful for educational psychologists and other professionals to support inclusion and promote equal opportunities for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and young people so that they receive the support they would value and benefit from within educational settings. 


de Wal Pastoor, L. (2015). The mediational role of schools in supporting psychosocial transitions among unaccompanied young refugees upon resettlement in Norway. International Journal of Educational Development, 41, 245-254.

Groark, C., Sclare, I., & Raval, H. (2011). Understanding the experiences and emotional needs of unaccompanied asylum-seeking adolescents in the UK. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 16(3), 421-442.

Kasmani, H.  (2021). Tree of Life: A Tool for Therapeutic Growth? Educational Psychology Research and Practice, 7(1), 1-9.

Lock, S. (2016). The tree of life: A review of the collective narrative approach. Educational Psychology Research and Practice, 2(1), 2–20

Tyrer, R.  A., & Fazel, M. (2014). School and community-based interventions for refugee and asylum seeking children: a systematic review. PloS one, 9(2), e89359. 

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