By Molly Breen
Starting school can be daunting for any child. Even though parents and other experts understand that the preschool years are a developmentally appropriate time for children to separate from parents, all of us—parents and children—feel the zing of anxiety/excitement and newness as we hug goodbye on the first day of school. This is challenging even for those of us who have not experienced the trauma or uncertainty of relocating, possibly after a prolonged period of stress, as immigrant and refugee families have.
As preschool teachers, we must provide a continuity of care for the children in our class. That is, we intend to ensure the children in our charge feel safe, supported, and known to us as they leave the familiarity of the family embrace. How do we navigate the special nuances of this continuity of care for children from refugee or immigrant families?
Head Start, the federally funded childcare program and the first care setting for many immigrant and refugee families, has expert status when it comes to continuity of care for children from culturally and linguistically diverse experiences. A key feature to the success of this long-standing program is their approach to both the development of the whole child, with consideration of each child’s unique life experience, and the engagement of the family.
Whenever I am pondering a new teaching challenge, I always defer to research-grounded practice that has successful long-term outcomes to “stand on the shoulders of giants,” as one of my favorite professors liked to say. We may not have specialty credentials in refugee resettlement or ELL, but we can certainly use the example of Head Start programs and incorporate elements into our own.
How does your program welcome new students and families? Does your application for admission include information about family culture and values? Family culture is not necessarily directly connected to ethnic culture, but instead speaks to the values of the family.
Make an effort to provide opportunities for families to describe what is important to them in their home settings from the moment they begin to interact with your program. It’s a good idea to make sure your website and registration pages have a Google translate button included and to offer a variety of formats (print and electronic) for any school-to-home communication for translation.
These are important points of connection for families who are resettling under duress and for whom English is not their first language. In our program, we have parent liaisons who will help mentor new families navigating the start of preschool.
For welcoming children into your program, look for greeting and name songs that can incorporate the home languages of children and learn the correct pronunciation of children’s names.
Family engagement is not just newsletters home and volunteering in the classroom. If we flip the narrative a bit from “What do I have to tell families about school?” to “What do we have to learn from one another in the school-family partnership?” we can focus on a strengths-based approach to connect our practice to the unique skills and needs of the families we are serving.
Consider doing home visits before the start of your year to establish trust in relationship with all your students and to better understand them. This research-based practice helps improve long-term positive outcomes, such as stronger and more positive attachments, for children in preschool programs.
Finally, begin to offer ongoing opportunities for families to provide feedback or to ask you for more specific information. SurveyMonkey can be a simple and measurable way to collect feedback online from families about both program quality and family needs.
Our learning environments can provide tremendous architectural support for behavioral development and curricular learning. The ways in which we thoughtfully arrange our spaces will have a direct impact on how our students experience the day; in fact, the environment itself is a teacher.
Cramped and crowded play areas with unpredictable organization can feel chaotic and even unsafe, whereas uncluttered open spaces for play organized with picture labels entice children to explore materials and put items back in the appropriate places when they are done.
While print-rich environments are important for all children, ensure that dual/multiple language learners feel connected to the environment by providing sensory and art-centered activities that are self-guided and don’t require complex instructions.
If families allow it, post photographs of children in their home environments taken during your home visits and invite all families to provide real-world items from home for the preschool classroom: fabric, baskets, books, and other small tokens can help make your space a reflection of the real-life experiences of your children.
Books and reading are such a cornerstone of the preschool day, but for children who are dual/multiple language learners, books in English may feel overwhelming or confusing. If children have very emergent English language skills, do your best to provide a differentiated reading experience for them during group storytimes, such as providing picture cards and other tools for vocabulary development that can be used with an adult caregiver.
These are just a few of the many, many ways in which the environment can support the development of your students.
Our students come to the school experience with life stories already written and in progress. For refugee and immigrant children, we must take time to equip ourselves and our programs and staff to understand the unique experience of each family and to respond with equitable solutions and modifications.
Although this is a developmental approach to all teaching and learning, it must be done with a compassionate understanding of the experience of relocating, often without choice. The only outcome we can hope for is connection and a new depth of understanding.
Molly Breen, M.A., ECE, has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.
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- Responding to the ECEC Needs of Children of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Europe and North America
- Effect of Preschool Home Visiting on School Readiness and Need for Services in Elementary School: A Randomized Clinical Trial
- Culturally Responsive Strategies to Support Young Children with Challenging Behavior
- Creating Culturally Responsive Parent Engagement—Principal Shares Strategies for Success