Teaching empathy for Refugees- a lesson plan

PSHE and Citizenship teachers may currently struggling how to address the current refugee crisis in lessons. I, like so many others have been deeply affected by the situation at the moment and the devastating loss of life at sea, and I am desperate to help in any way I know how. So I wanted to share this lesson plan as I think it is one of the most incredible exercises for building empathy with refugees there is.    I used to work in a school where so many students (interestingly who were mostly 2nd or 3rd generation immigrants themselves) were constantly complaining about “bloody immigrants” and I found this lesson really helped them “get it” and develop their empathy and understanding skills as a result. But bewarned it is a TOUGH lesson to deliver and recieve. It is crucial you explain to students beforehand (and possibly parents/wider school community if required) that this lesson maybe upsetting and seek their consent to participate, and don’t force any student to paticipate if they don’t want too. You need to know your class very well before you deliver it and be mindful of any students in your class who may have had experiences such as the lesson situation creates or who have been bereaved.  If you see students getting upset do go an support them individually and make sure you do proper debriefs and icebreakers at the end of the session to break the mood. If possible it is very useful to have one or two other adults present to escort any student who needs to leave the room and make sure you have tissues at the ready. Have to admit I once made 17 students in a single lesson cry by doing this lesson (there was an element of group hysteria too!) but all of them were properly supported and debriefed and many still mentioned the lesson years later as a lesson they would never forget.

REMEMBER This exercise is extremely powerful and has potential to be very upsetting. 

 Aim: To explore how it might feel to be a refugee.

Ask the class to work alone and individually, all they need is paper and a pen.
Tell the class:

“When you get home from school today there is a note on the kitchen table saying you must leave in half an hour.

You do not know where you are going, but you know it may be a long journey.

You do not know whether you will return or how long you will be away.

You can only take a small rucksack.

You need to decide on 10 items to take with you. They can be either personal or useful, your choice, but no pets.”


Play gentle music playing (ideally a slow sad instrumental tune as can help create a serious sombre mood- Ludovico Einaudi is great for this) and allow students 5 mins to write down 10 items

  1. Continue scenario.

“Also on the kitchen table are 4 tickets. Decide and write down which other 3 people will come with you.

Music playing – 3 mins for writing down who is coming

  1. Continue scenario.

“You are now told that you need to share the rucksack. It is not possible to take all 10 items. You can only take 3 items. You need to cross off 7 items from your list.”


Music playing – 3 mins for crossing off items. Students often really struggle with this bit “but I need my ipad and my passport!? What about food!?”


  1. Drama Activity – Teacher in role (playing the role of a refugee possibly called Meena)

Props : shawl or covering to change appearance whilst in role and chair (and teacher preparation as to the backstory to the role and situation for refugees and asylum seekers.

After a short introduction to the character, the children are allowed to ask questions to find out more about Meena.

Remind students of the need to be sensitive. Not call out, but wait for Meena to acknowledge before asking question.

(not possible to be teacher while in role so important to remind students in advance of your ground rules, the students will respond really well to this activity if you prepare well and take your role seriously, you can get some really fabulous genuine questions. )

Brief introduction about herself by MEENA, a refugee.

Possibly backstory- Previously a nurse in her home country, She is currently living in a refugee camp in Calais with her 2 young children. Her husband was shot and she had to flee for her life. She has other relatives and friends still in her home country, but apart from her children she is alone here. She has been at the camp for a couple of months. She relies on charities for food and clothing. She is hoping to come to England where she has a cousin.

10 mins question and answer time- The students will often ask really fantastic questions, sometimes they can try and ask insensitive or “testing” questions but a response of “I find that question too sad or difficult to answer” usually brings them back to taking the role play seriously again.

When the questions have dried up the teacher needs to exit the room for a moment to remove the “prop” and re-enter the room as the class teacher.

Continue scenario.

“There is bad news. It is not true that there are 4 tickets. There are only 3. You need to leave someone behind, you need to choose who cannot come and write them a letter saying goodbye, explaining why they cannot come and expressing how you feel etc.”

Continue to play the music allowing 5 to 10 mins to write letter in silence.  At this point it is important to be vigilant for students getting upset as some will. Understandably they will, a supportive quiet word about how this isn’t a real activity for them (although is reflecting a real situation going on in the world) and permitting them to stop if they feel they need too is important.

Sharing activity.

Stop music. Explain next activity as follows:

Students close eyes (music very quietly)

Teacher to tap one child on shoulder.

Child reads out their letter (or not if they prefer). May need to encourage, but important not to force.

Sometimes two reading concurrently.

Again some students may get upset at hearing some of the letters being read out, so it is important at the end of the activity to completely change the mood of the session before going into a debrief.  Putting on some silly music and striking poses or playing simon says can help break the mood. Very important to bring the session back to the present, the here and now where the students are safe and those situations are not real.

Allow time for a plenary session to discuss issues around asylum seekers, refugees, economic migrants and the current refugee crisis and how the lesson has affected them. Also try to make sure you allow 5 mins to relax and talk amongst themselves before moving on to next session to help breakdown the heightened emotions of the session before their next class.

Additional ideas:

Explore this website which shows the contents of refugees bags and shares some of their story.

Introduce some newspaper items and headlines about people coming to the UK to see how you feel and what you think in the light of the drama experience.

Useful to research some facts re: numbers, legal system e.g benefits and right to work, health provision, time taken to process applications, routes into UK, and so on. (either beforehand for teacher to be informed or as homework activity for class).


N.B. This lesson is adapted from one delivered by Liz Peadon who worked for Traveller Education Support Service in Cambridgeshire in 2005. I am no longer in touch with her and not sure of the exact origins of the lesson but it remains one of my most powerful lessons to teach to this day and I think one worth sharing.