by Teresa Narey
Across the country, many families settle in on the fourth Thursday of November to commemorate Thanksgiving. It’s a time to express gratitude for the many joys that have brought comfort to our lives and to bond with family. For many, Thanksgiving is a time to welcome guests, old and new, and to even extend support to those in need. Though issues regarding immigration and refugee resettlement are challenging and yet to be resolved in our country, early childhood educators across the nation have welcomed immigrant and refugee families to their settings. They have been tasked with learning and teaching new languages, customs, and habits in an effort to build trust and community.
The Department of Homeland Security estimates that 13.2 million legal permanent residents (green card holders) have lived in the U.S. since 2015 (specific numbers pertaining to children are not available). In a recent report, Save the Children estimates that 68.5 million people were displaced globally in 2017, among which 25.4 million are refugees. Children make up over half of this refugee population.
Who are immigrants and refugees?
Immigrants are people who come to another country for various reasons (often in pursuit of work or better way of life) typically unrelated to threat or violence.
Refugees are people forced to leave their homes due to safety issues related to violence, conflict, or other circumstances.
What are the issues/barriers?
Immigrant and refugee children face a variety of challenging circumstances. Children new to the country will need language, social/emotional, and cultural support. For many of them, English will be a new language. It is possible that immigrant children will have faced hardship, but refugee children will certainly have been exposed to trauma. Children’s families may also need support in learning English, building relationships, and connecting to vital resources.
Organizations such as Zero to Three, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, Sesame Workshop, and Head Start have explored issues faced by immigrant and refugee children and offer resources for educators about how to implement best practices in their settings. We have reviewed some common challenges faced by educators and caregivers in working with refugee and immigrant populations and offer several activities here to support learning and community-building in your setting.
How can you be supportive?
The best thing you can do as an educator is support children in getting to know each other, address any anxieties or fears, and strengthen the community in your setting. The following activities are by no means a cure-all, but they will help you initiate conversation and support culturally responsive practice.
- Play “Match and Greet.” Take or collect images of all of the children. Photocopy or print two of each image to create a matching game. Write the children’s names below their pictures. During circle time, place the images facedown on the floor, and invite children to take turns turning over the images to make matches. When a child makes a match, locate the child whose image made the pair, and have her introduce herself by saying, “Hi, my name is Marzia.” She will take her images and another child will take a turn. Keep playing until everyone has introduced herself and has her own images. If children are shy or uncomfortable with the group experience, play the game one-on-one or in small groups, and focus on associating the children’s names with their images, not on the greeting. To extend this game, you may want to ask children to offer more information during their greeting. For example, a child might say, “Hi, my name is Marzia, and I like to eat yogurt for breakfast.”
- Anticipate fear and stress. Given the circumstances surrounding each child’s move to the U.S. and the feelings children may have about being in a new place, they may exhibit fear and stress. Be prepared to address these feelings by having a few simple activities prepared in advance. When it’s appropriate, take children aside and talk with them one-on-one. You can talk about specific feelings or worries, or you can ask them to tell you about some of their favorite things. Use supportive language by expressing sentiments such as “I’m here to help” or “How can I help you?” To help support a group of children, consider making time for breathing exercises, water breaks, and stretching. Coping Skills for Kids offers a series of simple activities to support all children in managing strong emotions. You may consider using the “5 4 3 2 1 Grounding Technique” to help immigrant and/or refugee children both address fear and stress and to assess how they are acclimating to your setting. In general, plan time for practicing simple coping strategies, which will help all of the children in your setting manage strong emotions.
- Bond during circle time. Circle time is meant to be a time for shared community and learning. Use this time to introduce children to art and music from the different cultures represented in your setting. Talk with children’s families about books, artwork, and music they enjoy. Highlight them during circle time for children to experience and enjoy. Offer art supplies and invite children to work together or lie on their tummies to create. Offer scarves and instruments to support children in listening and moving to music. Visit Colorín Colorado to find book lists that will support you in making topics culturally relevant for young children. Colorín Colorado also offers a Cultural Relevance Rubric or a series of questions you can answer to help you determine if a book is relevant to your setting.
- Build relationships with families. Of course, your best allies in teaching and caring for the children in your setting are their families. Talk with families to learn more about their experience and hardships. Work with them to develop a list of simple phrases in their home language that can be used in the classroom to support your work with children. Learn about each child’s routine and do what you can to maintain it. Keep the routines of your classroom predictable so children know what to expect. Talk with community organizations about how you can best support immigrant and refugee families in your setting. Be sure to abide by any privacy policies in place.
Are you ready to work with immigrant/refugee families?
Before implementing the activity suggestions above, consider doing a quick self-assessment. In Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards recommend asking yourself the following questions about working with immigrants and refugees to help orient your experience:
- What do you know about the experiences of new immigrant families in your community?
- What are your beliefs and feelings regarding immigrants?
- How have population changes in your community affected your life? How has you early childhood program been affected by immigration? What has that been like for you?
- Have anti-immigrant sentiments affected families and children in your community and state? Your early childhood program?
- What is difficult for you in working with immigrant families? What gives you pleasure?
Taking time to consider and answer these questions may aid you in identifying any resources or support you may need to work with immigrant and refugee families.