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Mental Health and the ESL Classroom: A Guide for Teachers Working with Refugees

This manual provides ESL teachers with concrete steps for turning their classrooms into effective and welcoming teaching and learning environments.
International Institute of Boston & Immigration
Refugee Services of America
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation: 
International Institute of Boston & Immigration
Refugee Services of America
Resource Type: 
Number of Pages: 
Required Training: 

None - BUT, in order to implement the suggestions in this guide, it is recommended that the teacher receive further training.


This guide gives an excellent introduction to mental health issues that refugees may experience and the role of the ESL teacher in and out of the ESL classroom. As the issues the guide addresses are not confined to the classroom, this guide also applies to anyone working in a support role that comes into contact with refugees. The authors address how refugees must re-construct their lives in a new setting, underscoring the importance that the ESL classroom, community and teacher have in this new identity formation. The guide offers concrete suggestions regarding how to build a safe classroom community which takes the emotional issues that may surface while working with refugees into account. They give examples, based in experience and not specifically linked to empirical evidence, of particular curriculum that address these areas, as well as how to use community based resources for teaching. The guide addresses ESL teachers and how their involvement impacts both their professional and personal lives. Constructive advice is given to the ESL teacher regarding in-class teaching and out-of class self-care. This resource is an introductory tool, and as such, users should seek further training and specific information about particular culture groups, updated mental health literature, and additional classroom strategies to facilitate learning and good mental health for refugee students.

What the Experts Say: 

Both experts felt that the resource provides a thorough overview of the crucial issues underlying this population's concerns, from the point of view of both mental health and language issues. This resource would undoubtedly be of good value to practitioners who are often faced with the mental health challenges of their refugee learners and/or those who suffered trauma before arriving in the US. It is well-written and compassionate, though the format is not easily accessed for specific practices. However, they stressed the importance of reading and exploring beyond this work as it only exposes the tip of a very complicated topic. Following are expert comments:

The resource provides useful suggestions for teachers who work with this population, often presenting the suggestions as a menu of options. The authors provide helpful strategies for conducting needs assessments, as well as examples for dealing with health-related and classroom-related issues. Given the length of the resource, the bibliography and internet resources provided are quite extensive.

The theories underpinning the focus on the teaching/learning of English as a Second Language lie in research conducted/presented 20 years ago, and this should be noted for the user; this does not necessarily conflict with the validity of the resource. As a particular caution, the use of the term "Moslems" (p. 14) in lieu of 'Muslims' speaks to the age of the resource; the former is viewed by many as disrespectful today.

A concern about this resource lies in the fact that it is loosely based on research evidence. It would be more reassuring to have specific reference to studies or other expert mental health texts about working with persons from specific cultures. Often mental health issues are seen only through the lens of American approaches leading to mental health support that is in conflict with the immigrant's home culture.

Resources suggested by the Experts:

Cuellar, I., & Paniagua, F. (2000). The handbook of multicultural health: Assessment and treatment of diverse populations. San Diego: Academic Press.

Dana, R. (Ed.). (2000). Handbook of cross-cultural and multicultural personality assessment. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Mumford, D. (1998). The measurement of culture shock. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 33(4), 149-154.

Pantelidou, S., & Craig, T. (2006). Culture shock and social support. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 41(10), 777-781.

Yost, A., & Lucas, M. (2002). Adjustment issues affecting employment for immigrants from the former Societ Union. Journal of Self-employment Counseling, 39(4), 153-170.

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