Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things early childhood education.
In this week’s episode we discuss the complex issue of managing immigrant and refugee children in the child care preschool setting. Children new to your home country may experience culture shock, especially those who have experienced difficult circumstances in their past. Our guest Julie Dotsch is an expert and an author on the subject of adapting programs for immigrant and refugee families. She discusses strategies for helping children to deal with change including the importance of encouraging the use of their first language and just how critical parent presence is when managing child transitions into preschool through gradual separation.
To learn more about how to adapt your child care programs to help immigrant and refugee children successfully transition into a new environment. Stay tuned for this week’s episode of the preschool podcast.
Welcome to the show Julie It’s great to have you as a guest on the preschool podcast. Just to start out maybe you can give our audience a bit of information about your background and how you got involved in early childhood education and in particular interested in diversity and children and families that are coming from a different or unique background or culture.
And you know seem to have great relationships with families and easily trusting others and learning English fairly readily. And other children were a mess, and the school system certainly didn’t seem to know what to do with that. And a lot of child care centers didn’t know either. So it became my mission to find out more. And so I spent six years on that while I was also supervising a program for families and children. So it was a very exciting time.
I think the other thing that made a difference is if the parents were willing to do a gradual entry so we weren’t doing things you know where the parent would come in and half an hour later the parent would leave and go to English classes. The parent was actually prepared properly and was able to stay and do things slowly and do separations inside the room where the parent would be less involved with the child and the caregiver would gradually become more involved. This kind of humane approach made a big difference.
So some children who may have even witnessed violence somewhere had a death of a family member. They obviously they had signs of culture shock. But how long that culture shock stayed before they were able to move on. And if the parent was disconnected from the child, in other words they were going through such culture shock that the sounds they were detached then that made the biggest difference.
It sounds like one of the key themes is a balance of keeping alive the traditions including language where you’re coming from as a family. And then also balancing that with integrating with the new culture and the new language. Is that fair to say?
It’s actually stronger than that. It’s I think the other part happens all too quickly the integration within culture and learning the norms and all of that what ends up happening often, is that children lose completely their home language and that actually creates problems with family functioning as the child gets older. So you have a parent that may speak to the child in Cantonese and the child understands things but answers in English. So that is like a language loss and that is to be avoided at all costs because the connection between maintaining your home language maintaining your identity and feeling a member of your family having the humor having all of the other bonding and attachment is so important. I can’t stress that enough.
So children, we have a lot of children that are what we call subtractive bilingualism which means they’re not really fluent in either language. So if a parent thinks they’re doing their child a great favor and they switch to English at home and they being in the can is maybe six months. After a while it becomes difficult to speak all the time in a foreign language so you speak less and it’s less interactive. So sit down eat your food don’t bother your brother for long periods where the television is on which also interferes with language development. So it’s really important that they don’t lose the language base. If a parent is using what we call cursory language which means like they’re just telling the child commanding the child to just do this don’t bother you know go to bed, whatever. This kind of language is more challenging to keep the bond between the child and the parent.
Yeah it’s very interesting because I actually you went through a very similar experience myself. My parents are first generation immigrants to Canada from the Netherlands and it started out where they spoke Dutch to me and I spoke Dutch back to them and then eventually they spoke Dutch to me. I spoke English back to them and then eventually it was just all English. I know it’s something that I regret personally was not forcing myself to use Dutch throughout my childhood and into my teenage years because it eventually, you start to lose it. And all the cultural nuances I think is probably the best way to explain it that that comes with the speaking your native tongue or language.
Exactly. And when the child is quite young it can affect their sense of who they are. And so you know how you identify yourself. The pride that you feel with having a particular family name or with you know your parents speaking to you in another language do you or feel shame, do you feel pride. How does that connect? And of course in old days we didn’t know better but now we know that children actually will learn English faster when their parents use their home language.
Oh wow. Interesting.
So it’s like a complete reversal you know. And so well-meaning teachers will say you know tell parents oh you know only speak English at home with your child and they’re actually doing their child a disservice. They don’t have any idea and it’s not just me, you know Jim Cummins and you know Alice Honeck there’s many others that have done research in this area on the importance of bilingualism.
Now why do you think that is that a child would learn English slower if they’re using English at home more with their parents?
So what happens is that let’s say the parent has errors in their speech. So they say “you no go now” . So the child is learning a rhythm or pattern of inaccurate speech. So that has to be corrected at some point.
In some way it may occur naturally but it often needs extra help. The second thing is that the child’s sense of abandonment if they were using let’s say the child was two and they came to Canada and they were using and they were singing and they were laughing and their association with grandparents and their home language or whatever. They come to the new country and not only do they have to go through the weather changes and the loss of toys and loss of people but now they have to go through a loss of language. So their ability to make their needs known, if before they could say you know mom it’s not fair, or whatever, or I’m hungry or something. They are now at a point where they’re having to regress in English because they have to they will go backwards like a toddler and go to get what they need. Because they don’t know how to express it in English.
There’s much much much research on and it’s a very interesting topic and children who are fluent completely bilingual actually have increased brain capacity because what they do is say as they are learning let’s say Dutch they’re learning syntax and grammar and vocabulary and everything and the brain needs to expand a little bit there the usage to be able to take in the new language they have already understood and learned about grammatical things so it’s more demanding on the brain which actually increases capacities. So anyway that’s sort of a rather technical thing that probably most people I think the basic concept of it is important for people to understand the importance of keeping the first language the bond the attachment the trust especially with very young children. Is so important.
Yeah. One of those things you just don’t realize how all the ripple effects I guess all the consequences of that one point. We work in the field of early childhood education. You spend a lot of time in the field of early childhood education.
How should early childhood educators think about this? What can they do for example to help children and families that have come in to their child care program or early learning program who have come from this type of a situation maybe they’re refugees or they’re new immigrants to the country.
That’s a very big topic. But what I would say is that anything that they can do to help and encourage the families to keep their language. We’ve already mentioned this but there may be bilingual books. There may be tapes that a parent could make. So that’s the language part. The thing that makes the biggest difference is the gradual separation. So making sure that parents have information in their first language and if they have literacy difficulties making sure that somebody interprets it and using plain English or using their first language.
So the gradual separation and having the families on board and the staff, the early educators knowing absolutely 100 percent in heart that they couldn’t do anything else that they shouldn’t do anything of that they should never do anything cold turkey. So you know if you’re just going to have a parent coming you’ve got a two year old and you’re just going to have the parent come stay for half an hour and say goodbye and go. It’s got a lot more long term harm than anything you could imagine. There are very few things that would be worse than that. And because the culture shock makes the normal separation anxiety that children feel when they’re in a new situation. It’s like a hundred times worse for refugee children. So refugee children may have been pulled away from their parents. They have witnessed violence they may have seen a country of asylum they may have had parents missing for a period of time they may have gone through a traumatic experience like a child who’s hospitalized and the parent wasn’t able to stay. So it’s a very severe thing. So having gradual separations is probably one of the core beliefs for me.
So really well as an educator it’s your role is to understand the importance of gradual integration and to have that conversation with the parent to educate them about just how seriously important it is that they stay for example for that first day or for however long that period is.
So the first day gives you that. How did the child do. Could they be unglued from their parent’s side. You get the parent to sit. Suddenly the child is more relaxed and they know where to find the parent and there’s no sneaking out there’s no you know none of that stuff because you’re building trust. And then depending on that when the child is able to play at least five minutes before they look for their parent that means that they’re ready for the first separation. And so the first separation is 10 minutes. Our research told us five minutes was too little and 15 was too much. So five minutes. The child doesn’t really get that there is you know, they think if they cry really hard the parent will come back. The 15 minute children lose hope and despair and then you can get into one of the more serious problems with culture shock which is lack of face tone and lack of emotional tone.
So if you’ve ever visited an orphanage in other countries or something like that you see a lot of children with very, what I would call emotionless faces. And that can begin to happen with children who have too long a time and they lose hope. In my opinion the key things are the gradual separation and the home language and then a lot of interaction with the caregiver without having a lot of English. So using our animation and all these tools that we know how to use with young children, expressiveness and hiding things and having them peak out having objects that make sounds you know like a train to go Chk Chk Chk Chk Chk or you know a clock, click click click, although most clocks don’t do that anymore. But having something that was simple things that engage children and allow for them to become interested in the caregiver. The first separations would actually happen inside the room where the parent is playing less with the child. Gradually less, just becoming a bit more passive and letting the caregiver do a bit more. So at the beginning the caregiver would be on one side of the parent and the parent the child on the other side of the parent and then gradually as the parent does less, and I asked them to pull their chair back a little and then as the child shows their willingness to tolerate this and become interested then gradually the parent is at the wall sitting on a chair and the child knows they can go to them.
So the trust is there. And then they are ready they’re ready when it’s five minutes or if they can get up and change to another part of the room that’s another indicator. So if they’ve been playing with puzzles and they get up and they want to play with cards or something else they’re able to transfer to a different toy. That also it’s a very good indicator.
Now what about after the first day. Are there are things you should do differently sort of in the first couple of weeks the first couple months as well?
Yeah I would say that being relaxed with your circles with your routines having transitional have a having as few transitions as you can. Transitions are very hard on refugee children. So if you have these little schedule tight tight schedules with you know 20 minutes of box and half an hour of free play and five minutes of I don’t know. And then half an hour and circle all of these transitions are very difficult for children who don’t know what’s going on. So having pictures drawings or photos, drawings works really well of what your schedule is. So you know if you have I don’t know painting time or something and then you have books and so on. I like what they call seamless transitions which means that instead of stopping everything tidy up everything and especially not flickering the lights on and off and then you know to signal tidy up time or something. I like I like just gradual tidy. And then we move on to the next thing and not making it very big deal.
Because that’s a lot easier for children especially. Outdoor play is very traumatic and if you haven’t been in a cold climate before you’re coming from a hot climate that’s going to also be difficult. So allowing them to be the last children that get dressed and the first ones to come back in also means that the caregiver can give a bit more attention during the dressing time and depending on the culture. There are lots of other families that have different values and beliefs than caregivers. So for example in early childhood we think independence is everything. So we have our screening tools in our assessments and everything.
When can the child walk and eat and talk and do everything on their own. Because that’s the big goal is this independence and many other cultures value interdependence and so being responsible for each other being connected to each other siblings caring for other siblings is very different. Different set of values. And so recognizing the strengths that a child has, maybe in their home they were taught to stand, to lie still. So the parent could dress them which made it very fast and efficient and it worked. Instead of insisting that a child has to do you know all the zippers and everything so be relaxed with it and just you don’t recognize that some children need a bit more help and working together with families and not undermining family values and family practices but looking for the strengths of them learning from parents. Imagine that. So those are all sort of an attitude I guess. How do you start.
You know I think also expecting that children that are going through culture shock it’s going to be some time before they’re ready for friends. So not really not assessing children too early. Refugee children in particular are vulnerable to being over identified for special needs.
As someone who knew very very little about the subject before the conversation I feel like I’ve learned a lot. However if I was an early childhood educator working in the classroom and I had you know a family coming into my program that is maybe a refugee family or a new immigrant family I would feel like I would want to learn a little bit more about this. Yeah if it because it does seem like there is quite a bit of complexity behind it actually. When you get into it now if I did want to learn more you mention that you do workshops. You know what can you recommend for early child educators. But where to go to learn more about practical ways to manage your families and children in this situation.
– So I guess about two or three years ago I finished a book and it’s called Supporting the Settlement of Young Immigrant Children and their Families. it’s all filled with practical ideas. So it gives you examples of things that didn’t go so well and another way to do it is got is it’s very readable and it’s made for people working directly in the field and they could purchase that book from CMAS Canada. And I think it’s like 30 bucks or something and maybe I don’t know, 35 maybe. And I’m not I’m not getting any royalties It’s not about that. But there’s a lot of practical stuff now at that same Web site, they also have a lot of online resources they have online courses. They have a lot of my material like factsheets and things. So it’s CMAS Canada.
And the best way for people to get in touch with you is that your e-mail. Oneworld@simpatico.ca.
Wonderful. And maybe also a call to action to all the other people out Final question for you. What is most encouraging or exciting to you about what’s happening in early childhood education right now. Maybe relative to when you started your career in the field.
I think I think one of the things that’s very exciting to me is the standardization of programs. I went into a program in the 70s thinking that I was just helping a child to adapt to a new setting. And I walked in and there was a child in the stroller and the child was coming to me without knowing me at all trying to get out of the stroller and I asked how long has the child been in the stroller. And they said oh three hours. And I just II was so stunned I didn’t know what to do. So I reported it to the Board of Education that was involved in it.
And from that early start I made a presentation to people and then I worked with colleagues trying to get standards for the field. And the fact that they now have standards they have a monitoring system they have support systems. It’s now much more professional that there are all these training opportunities that they have you know conferences and workshops and things. I also like the continuous learning that’s happening the requirement of the College of early childhood education. I think it’s a good one because it means that people that have used outdated techniques that are still saying you know change to English at home. Those people didn’t have access to more training so that they can learn what is appropriate and what’s not. And the children are what keep you alive.
Those feeling that every day is different that it’s a special career and there’s much more respect and knowledge about it in the community. When I was when I was starting out it was sort of like not quite shame but certainly not a lot of pride to be an early childhood education.
And even now I start teaching maybe five years ago at the college and even some of those students they had to explain to people I’m not a babysitter. Right. So it’s you know it’s coming. The profession is coming.
Yes slowly but surely we’re definitely seeing you we’re definitely seeing change in that’s part of what we’re trying to do with this podcast is educate people even beyond the feel of early childhood education about the importance of this profession and about what early childhood educators do and going into the depths of for example managing culture shock in children who are new to our country is certainly something that shows all the complexity and knowledge and expertise that has to go in to the role of early childhood educator. So thank you for bringing that to light for us in this episode. Julie thanks so much for coming on the show.