Published on Eurasian Perspectives

Using virtual reality to help teachers better support refugee students

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Still image of VR classroom simulation featuring virtual teacher and students Still image of VR classroom simulation featuring virtual teacher and students

For children living as refugees, going to school can be challenging. While school is supposed to offer respite and create new opportunities for refugee children, it also entails overcoming language barriers and navigating different rules, norms, and expectations.

As a result, refugee children typically adopt protective behaviors that vary between self-isolation and disruptive attitudes in class. The latter can frustrate teachers and generate tensions among students. Perceiving refugee children as troublesome, low-performing students with little interest in their host country, the school community may nourish stereotypes about these students and their culture, further ostracizing them. Teachers and students may also believe refugees are in the country temporarily and thus don’t need to integrate. This attitude reinforces the refugee children’s feeling of not belonging and makes them lose interest in learning altogether.

Teachers working with refugees and host community students also face daunting tasks. They teach the same curriculum to students of markedly different academic and local language proficiency levels. They sometimes manage large class sizes with limited resources, which is stressful. School administrators may be also overstretched by having to serve a larger pool of children than their capacity allows. Teachers in these situations report feeling demotivated and defeated, with no power or tools to improve their students’ learning conditions, also known as low “self-efficacy,” which research suggests is linked to lower psychological well-being and motivation and lower student achievement.

But what if teachers could change this perception and see themselves as agents of positive change in the classroom?

Boosting teacher self-efficacy through perspective-taking

Behavioral research has been testing perspective-taking approaches to change individuals’ attitudes and behaviors towards specific people or groups. The goal is to make an individual “step into the shoes” of the other person to generate more empathy and attitude change.

In Türkiye for instance, the World Bank in collaboration with the Ministry of National Education has designed a teacher training program for schools integrating refugee students that uses behavioral-cognitive training in a virtual reality (VR) setting to help teachers gain self-efficacy and tools to foster social cohesion. The training highlights the role of teachers and principals as promoters of effective learning and agents of social change within the school. The VR training program shows teachers how refugee students perceive obstacles to feeling that they belong in the school community and presents teachers with tools to help students overcome these barriers. This complements another perspective-taking intervention with elementary school children to increase social cohesion.

Still from virtual reality (VR) simulation of a classroom

Leveraging technology to enhance training

VR offers a unique opportunity to create a fully immersive experience that enhances the cognitive process and is now being integrated into training programs with promising results. At a relatively low cost, students can learn in a sophisticated science lab or study advanced techniques without the need for infrastructure and materials. VR creates hands-on experimental opportunities that promote active learning and retention in a safe space, allowing trainees to test the effects of their actions in a given situation and receive real-time feedback. In fragile and conflict settings, VR has been used to enhance perspective-taking and promote conflict resolution, and increase empathy towards children living in refugee camps.

Our teacher training in Türkiye consists of three parts. First, through a VR video, teachers physically see the school experience from the student’s desk, helping them to gain a new perspective and empathy toward refugee students’ situation.

Next, teachers view three additional VR videos showing common scenarios and choose one of three actions to resolve the dilemma, one of which is more conducive to increase children’s sense of belonging. The video experience is followed by a discussion with a facilitator, where the group analyzes the situation and discusses how teachers can replicate the positive scenario in their daily work.

The facilitated discussion presents four teaching strategies to increase students’ sense of belonging by:

  1. Conveying belief in students’ competence and reducing interpretations of feedback as signaling criticism;
  2. Forming connections with all students (e.g., making eye contact, addressing students by name, asking about students’ interests, etc.);
  3. Implementing empathetic discipline and prioritizing trust; and
  4. Normalizing belonging uncertainty in new settings.

During the discussion, teachers are encouraged to identify actions to help increase students’ sense of belonging, and ways to constructively address tensions in the classroom.

A final video shows testimonials of a refugee student, a local student, a teacher, and a principal who talk about how positive change is possible and can be achieved when students feel a stronger sense of belonging. Believing that the complex and challenging reality can be improved, can increase teachers’ motivation to take a proactive approach and invest the effort to achieve goals.

From the virtual to the real

Globally, among the 84 million forcibly displaced people in 2021, nearly 26.4 million are refugees, and close to half of their children remain out of school. In marking World Refugee Day, we must reflect on the ordeals that so many refugees go through looking for safety and a better future for themselves and their children. For host communities, the adjustment process can be difficult, but they need to do better to make schools safe environments where children feel protected, welcome, and can  just be children, not refugees.

Teachers, school administrators and local students need tools to strengthen the sense of community in school and foster empathy and cohesion between different groups. Given the size of the challenge, it is critical to search for creative and cost-effective mechanisms to help schools deliver services to refugee children to continue their education, wherever they are.


Marjorie Chinen

Extended Term Consultant, Education Global Practice

Ana María Oviedo

Senior Economist, Poverty and Equity Global Practice, World Bank

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