What does the research tell us?
Unlike migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are forced to flee their country of origin under dire circumstances arising through armed conflict, earthquakes, floods, fire or famine, with no guarantee of return. Research shows that they experience trauma throughout their lives connected with challenges encountered in their lives on the run. Due to lack of reliable data it is impossible to scope the size of this population of children either attending or not involved in any ECEC services in Australia.
There is a growing body of research on children’s awareness and understandings about race, culture and discrimination and their sense of identity and justice for others. Research focusing on young children from specific cultures or circumstances of being refugees or asylum seekers, is somewhat scarce. This article draws attention to some of the limited but important research of relevance to better supporting children and families from diverse cultures. For the purposes of reimagining new ways of taking responsive action through new knowledge, three studies involving refugee/migrant children are highlighted next:
Constructing early childhood services as culturally credible trauma-recovery environments: Participatory barriers and enablers for refugee families. Lamb, C. (2019). European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 28(2), 1-20.
The PhD study by Cherie Lamb (2019) illustrates how badly refugee children and their families were misunderstood, impacting 3-5 year old children’s access and participation in EC services in Queensland. Parents reported “exclusionary practices” at EC services that were overtly or covertly discriminatory, and whereby they “felt ignored and disrespected by educators” (p.8). Others reported “lunchbox bullying” when “being instructed” to replace traditional nutritional food with cheese sandwiches for instance, whilst simultaneously being invited to “prepare the same food for celebratory purposes” (p.9) on multiculturalism at the service.
To break the cycle of trauma and violence and create hope and optimism, Lamb says we need to establish “culturally credible services” which are safe, secure and caring spaces for children and families. She calls for urgent reforms including the use of well-qualified interpreters, provision of free ECEC services, development of bilingual/bicultural programs and continuous cultural competence training to guide parent-staff communication and pedagogy. You are urged to read Lamb’s papers on practical strategies for addressing children’s trauma induced challenging behaviours and learning difficulties.
Perspectives of children from refugee backgrounds on their family storytelling as a culturally sustaining practice. Strekalova-Hughes, E. & Wang, E.C. (2019). Journal of Research in Childhood Education. 33(1), 6-21.
Telling stories without a book or any other props, is an ancient custom that serves the profound purposes of cultural maintenance and connection between generations and homelands. This study is of interest because of its focus on children’s agency in relation to promoting culturally sustaining learning and teaching in contemporary society. This study on family storytelling was conducted amongst refugee families from Nepal, South Sudan and Somalia, living in New York. The children loved the witty entertaining stories with moral values. They also admired their elders’ abilities to remember and retell stories repeatedly without a written script or book like their teachers did.
It is easy to see how these family storytelling sessions contributed to refugee children’s language learning and the passage of values, traditions and beliefs from one generation to the next. The rich benefits of traditional methods like this can be extended to all children, by involving singers, dancers, and actors specialising in culturally specific music, movement and drama in ECEC services.
Addressing the needs of children of immigrants and refugee families in contemporary ECEC settings: Findings and implications from the Children Crossing Borders Study. Tobin, J. (2020). European Early Childhood Education Research Journal. 28(1), 10-20.
With increasing political, economic and social tensions world-wide Tobin (2020, p.11) despairs that challenges encountered by immigrant/refugee/asylum seeker families have become “more acute”. When Tobin and associates began the Children Crossing Borders study in 2003, these children were described as “the true transnationalists” and ECEC services as “key sites for social inclusion” reflecting the mutual benefits of cultural diversity (p.11-12).
This study captures the perspectives of parents and practitioners from 5 countries: England, France, Germany, Italy and USA. Tobin states the persistence of difficulties is linked with the lack of attention to cultural diversity in contemporary child development knowledge and best practice guiding ECEC. He emphasises contextualising solutions to supporting children and families in their adopted countries. For instance, it was found that Turkish immigrants living in France appreciated the academic focus of the ecole maternelle – the French preschools. In contrast, resettled in Germany, Turkish families struggled with the play-based approaches in that country. Likewise, a Mexican parent in the USA asked “would it kill them to teach my child to write her name before she starts kindergarten?” (p.15). Reconciling strongly held beliefs by parents and teachers takes time, effort and resources. It begins with a commitment to listen and learn and a willingness to negotiate and being open to new ideas.