What you can do to support refugee children in early education

Show children the world is a nurturing, gentle place.
December 1, 2021
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In a rush? Here’s the quick run-down.

  • This story is about refugee children in early education, and what you can do as an educator to help children and their families feel comfortable and welcome.
  • It’s best to be gentle, gradual and reassuring in your approach, and to give families space and time to process the stress and changes they’re feeling.
  • You’ll pick up practical tips and best teaching practices for how you can make this process as nurturing as possible.

You’ve just heard that a group of refugee families with young children will be resettled in your town, and you’re wondering what you can offer them. 

A lot, actually.

In the language of resilience research, early educators are a most valuable protective factor. You give resettled children hope that good adults can look out for them, and you let them control their confusing situation by allowing them to play and learn. Your everyday actions, as small as they might be, do help children overcome fear, and begin to trust that the world is safe again. 

And as you know, when we work with children, we work with families. So as you care for and educate the children, you also contribute to the well-being of their adults . You become the cultural guide to help them navigate this strange place where they have landed. As a skilled guide, you show the way at the same time that you honor their knowledge and culture. 

Here are some tips to welcome refugee children and families, and offer them the best care and education. 

Three children sitting on stairs

Pay attention to sensory experiences. 

With everything new around them, the children are re-learning to make sense of life. And part of that happens through what they touch, smell, see, hear, and taste.

  • Touch: Sensory play is calming and reflective. Offer many opportunities for touching and feeling textures at the sensory table: play dough, sand, water, or glurch. 
  • Smell: Children remember the scent of their parents. Ask parents to leave a small object or scarf. Tell the child it’s a special reminder of their mom or dad they can keep in their cubby or play with at school. This will make the daily separation more tolerable. 
  • Sight: Children need to see themselves in this unfamiliar early childhood environment to feel like they belong. Post their creations (paintings or scribbles) and their own images, or pictures of their family  at eye level. Have storybooks with families in everyday life.
  • Hearing: The sounds of their home language tell the children that they will be understood. Honor their home languages with greetings and simple songs. If you do not speak the children’s language, speak English slowly with gestures to augment comprehension, and use a caring tone. Play soft music at circle time and before naps to signal a change of pace and help children relax.
  • Taste: Children may refuse unfamiliar foods. Offer simple meals to eat with fingers or a spoon, and sit and eat with the children and make pleasant conversation. Encourage them to try small amounts, making sure to name the foods.   

Provide sensitive behavior guidance. 

The children you’re welcoming have lived under much stress. Some may react to stress by having tantrums, or others by withdrawing and becoming unusually quiet. They may have been living non-stop with their parents, or they may have lost a parent or other close relatives. Now they may experience painful separation anxiety, being left in your center. 

To support them well, you may want to plan a staggered departure for parents, where their parents or guardians can extend their absence everyday. Stay with the child, and invite them to observe the room without pressure to engage. Maintain a quiet and responsive demeanor and reassuring tone of voice, as you encourage children to adjust and become comfortable in your care throughout the day. 

One big factor can be making sure your physical setting is a comforting environment for children. Your children will need a calm atmosphere, and adults who can show them interesting activities to try. Here are a few things you might consider:

  • Offer simple, familiar activities in your dramatic play area, like kitchen toys or dolls.
  • Give children the chance to explore new forms of play, perhaps with blocks, art materials and manipulatives.
  • Spend time doing parallel play with children, and naming items or ideas in their play to help build up vocabulary skills.
  • Give children time to explore on their own, and when you lead, do so gently and with a smile.

Two girls walking holding her hands

Supporting and including parents

To understand and empathize with refugees, it’s helpful to keep in mind that they may be having mixed feelings about their situation. They are grateful to be safe, but they don’t know what to expect. Maybe they made the decision to leave, or maybe they were whisked away without papers or belongings. Maybe they left without saying good bye, or are worried about relatives back home. With all this in mind, you’ve got the opportunity to help families adjust to the big transition they are making. 

Here’s what you can do to welcome families with empathy.  

  • Show interest in parents’ backgrounds, and respect their boundaries.
    Do a simple online search to gain some general knowledge about the geography, the language, and cultural practices from where people are from. That way, when talking with parents, you can ask informed questions and make knowing comments. If they talk about themselves, and where they came from, listen. If they don’t, avoid asking probing questions. Their story may be too complicated to explain yet.

  • Explain who you are, and how you teach.
    Parents are leaving their child in your hands. They want to know who you are and what your intentions are. Tell them about yourself, your credentials, your family. That makes a human connection. Explain how you teach their children: sing songs, read stories, have meals, and play games. Let them know that with these activities their children are learning letters, numbers, to get along with other children so they can be ready for elementary school. This reassures families that their children will have the skills to be successful in this country. 
  • Affirm their parenting skills.
    Refugee parents have given their children nurturing, protection, and love while they were in survival mode. Now, when everyday life is safe, they may be disoriented, wondering if their old ways of raising children still work. They need your message that they are good parents, even as they learn new ways. Encourage parents to speak their home language, and reassure them you will teach the children English. Give them positive reports on their children’s learning, such as “Rama really enjoys the story of the three bears”, or “Aamir knows how to sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”

Boys running

Why early education is so important

It’s estimated that there are more than 26 million refugees (granted asylum) in the world and 12 million are children under the age of 17. There are also many more migrants, not officially classified as refugees,  who desperately escape intolerable living conditions.

In your program, refugee families may act tentative, not sure if they belong, and worried about fitting in . They feel what Dr. Pauline Boss calls ‘ambiguous loss.’ They absorb the chaos, the airplane ride, the passage in the middle of the night, carrying the babies in their arms. They live with a dull ache of grief and homesickness and still they have hope for the future, especially for their children.

In general, refugee families will be grateful to have your good early childhood center care for their children. Your program is the welcoming port of entry to the host culture. You are the guide who gives them the code so they learn to explore their new life. In your daily acts of caring and teaching you are supporting discovery, building their confidence, and celebrating their new beginnings. 

Angèle Sancho Passe is an expert in early childhood and family education. She writes books for educators, parents, and children. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and she is a former child refugee.

The big ideas

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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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