Founder of ESL Reads   EAL Teacher (Secondary)

6 Reasons Why Instability is a Constant for EAL Students and 10 Things You Can Do About It.

August 14, 2022 by Lauren Piovesan

Our EAL students come from incredibly unstable circumstances, having to flee across borders and be at the mercy of unpredictable governments and bureaucracy. As you know, when our students arrive in their new country, the instability continues, causing high levels of anxiety and stress.

In the last blog post, I discussed the first of five huge challenges (changing family dynamics) that I have seen in my EAL secondary and young adult students commonly experience.

In this blog, we’ll take a look at the second challenge: Perpetuating Instability. I will outline 6 reasons why instability is still an ongoing issue in our students’ lives and 10 strategies I trialled during my time in the classroom.

1. Temporary Visas

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For our asylum seeker students and their families, they may have bridging or temporary visas. This may also be the case for some migrant families. The fear of the unknown for these students, as well as the changing restrictions around work and study, can be understandably all-consuming and has serious consequences on their mental health and concentration. 

2. Temporary Housing

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Many of the students that I worked with were living in temporary accommodation for the following reasons:

  • Refuges and safe houses due to domestic violence or being outcasted by family/community members.
  • Moving interstate, usually in search of like-community members. 
  • Youth foyers where their subsidised accommodation was tied to study requirements.
  • Moving or wanting to move out of unsafe neighbourhoods or problematic housing.
  • Misunderstanding of the government housing systems and trying to move between houses.
  • Overcrowding caused older family members to seek other housing options. 

Any housing related issues in my classroom had immediate, noticeable consequences on my students’ learning. They were frequently distracted, disengaged, unable to retain information, anxious, on high alert with their phones and made little academic progress. When obtaining suitable, secure and permanent housing, there were immediate improvements in their learning. 

3. Changing Circumstances for Relatives in Home Countries.

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Many of our students have frequent contact (often late at night) with relatives in their home countries. In volatile countries, their family’s safety, health and opportunities can change at the drop of a hat. This can cause a lot of stress on our students as they worry about their relatives, or scramble to assist them. I often found out about issues with overseas relatives when students would frequently ask about their educational progress, when they would finish their course and how they could get a job ASAP. 

4. Changes in Laws and Budgets

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Our students, especially those on humanitarian visas, initially rely on entitlements, benefits and education funded by the government. When governments change and budgets are announced, our students can get more or less support both financially and educationally. This has a huge impact on their future opportunities. 

5. Changes in Education

The changes from language centres into mainstream schools, or AMEP programs to employment can also be unsettling for our students. While adapting to a new country, they are also wrapping their heads around our complex education systems. By the time they do so, it’s time for them to take on a whole other schooling or workplace experience. 

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As we know, language centres and AMEP programs are short and temporary. Depending on a student’s age, they could move schools 3 or 4 times within a short time frame, adding to their often disjointed and disrupted educational histories. 

6. Exploitative Work

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In the desperation to earn money, some students may seek work before having developed adequate language skills or an understanding of workplace rights. Our workplace rights are not easily accessible, even for highly literate people. Therefore, some students may find themselves in employment that is contractual or casual, over the legal hours, underpaid or paid in cash. This type of work may cause our students to disappear from our classrooms, as they may not communicate their work schedules due to its’ irregularity or their organisational skills. 


In the classroom, these 6 situations can manifest in fatigue (insomnia or nightmares), unfocused attention “daydreaming,” constant and distracting phone use, anxiety, disrupted schooling, disengagement and frequent changes in schools. As is aligned with Trauma Informed Practice, it’s important that we use strategies to make our classrooms as predictable and calm as can be. 

These are the strategies I used:

  1. A visual schedule to tell students what was happening each day.
  2. Binaural beats music played first thing in the morning on very low (barely audible).
  3. Circle time to check in with students – I used emoji cards with my cohort.
  4. Include a physical action or 2 minute game to get the students laughing before starting the lesson.   
  5. Mindfulness – I tried doing breathing exercises but found my students struggled with this. Instead, I tried to incorporate a physical element like mirror writing, tracing your hand or figure 8 breathing.  
  6. Pre-warn about any changes that may occur throughout the school day and give 5 minute warnings before activities finish.
  7. Break out/wellbeing spaces for students to use when they are overwhelmed or visibly anxious.
  8. Have a discreet signal or word a student can use when they are feeling stressed or overwhelmed (to direct to a support worker or break out space).
  9. Detailed student profiles and student handovers from one teacher to the next for smoother transitions.
  10. Weave some of the issues they may be dealing with into the curriculum e.g. biographical stories of migrants, workplace and housing rights and responsibilities, the stress response etc.

I know many of you will be nodding along to this list and thinking, “Of course I do this!” Trauma-informed practices, lived experiences and instincts have become part of your daily toolkits in order to work with this cohort. I’d love to know what other strategies you might have used to bring some stability back into your student’s lives. Feel free to leave a comment or reply to the blog!

Stay tuned for the next blog addressing “Ongoing Trauma” in our students’ lives. Look out for it on LinkedIn and Facebook.

*Please note: I am a teacher and am not in social services or mental health. What I write about in this post comes only from my observations and my students’ experiences across the 5 years that I have worked with them, which I communicate broadly here. 

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