Early Childhood Education



Immigrant children make up the fastest growing sector of the U.S. child population and represent about 20 percent of all children in the United States. Some immigrants plan to stay for a lifetime, others hope to return to the home nation when economic or political change occurs, and still others will decide to move again because of upward mobility in the business world.

The United States and some other nations favor the term immigration for the act of people entering from other nations to settle and use immigrants as a term for the people. The term migrants is reserved for those who move about within the national borders. European nations usually refer to new arrivals from other nations as migrants. Canadian terms for immigrants include newcomers, a general term used for all new arrivals from other nations. Transnational migration is an increasingly recognized international term for those who move from one nation to another.

The semantics used to describe the phenomenon are not as important as the recognition of the enormity of the global phenomenon of movement from one nation to another and the impact on societies, communities, and schools. The transnational displacement of peoples is endemic, with some 12 million people worldwide seeking to move from their home country to a different country each year.

The thrust behind the movement of people from one nation to another can be for such reasons as seeking a better way of life, joining family, or for a work assignment. Unfortunately much of the movement of families and individuals is not by choice. Refugees leave their home country because of well-founded fears that they will be persecuted due to their religious beliefs, political opinion, or membership in a given group, or because they are affected by civil war or armed conflict.

Today’s transnational migrants are from many different countries and varied socioeconomic backgrounds. While immigrant families are more likely to have limited skills and income, an increasing number of those who move from one nation to another are highly skilled and well-educated workers, managers, and entrepreneurs (Fix and Passel, 2003). The trend toward global movement among the skilled workers, while it represents a small percentage of the overall numbers engaged in transnational migration, illustrates one aspect of global change, and the individuals may consider themselves to be global citizens, comfortable almost anywhere (Friedman, 2002). Even for those who have firmly planted themselves in the new host community, communication with friends and family in the sending nation may remain strong, partly because today’s technology offers swift communication across boundaries and distances. However, children of such families may have no clear concept of their familial or societal culture, identifying instead with two or more unlike cultures, but not sensing a personal identity with either one.

Although four-fifths of children living in immigrant families are U.S.-born citizens, their childhoods are shaped by their parents’ experiences as immigrants. Of the California children from birth through eleven years of age who live in immigrant families, 45 percent have parents who speak no English or do not speak it well (Children Now, 2004). While children in immigrant families are more likely to be poor and live in crowded housing, research shows that life is difficult for all immigrant children (Suarez-Orozco and Suarez-Orozco, 2001). School may be fragmented for immigrant children, with time lost for moving, getting settled, and getting documents or whatever is necessary to enroll the child. Immigrant children’s preparation for life and schooling in the new host nation varies widely. Those who have come from societies where early education is valued, and whose parents have invested time and effort into helping the child with the transition, may enter with excellent preparation and support. Others may have little or no firm preparation for dealing with the many stressors of relocation, lacking any prior schooling or experiences outside of the family.

Two frequent problems are that the child, regardless of socioeconomic status of the parents, lacks facility with the language of the school and, because of that lack of language, is confronted with the inability to forge new peer relationships. The multiple losses the children and their families experience from the move, the fears, confusion, sadness, loneliness, and alienation they feel, are carried with the children to their new schools (Kirova-Petrova, 2000).

Debates over the education of immigrant children include issues associated with language, training teachers to address the specific needs of immigrant children, developing instructional materials, and developing assessment instruments in language other than English. The prevailing impression is that immigrant children, regardless of their country of origin, do not adjust well to school and perform poorly academically, draining resources from an already overburdened educational system. However, there is evidence that in spite of often difficult circumstances some immigrant and refugee children perform at least as well academically and may stay in school longer than their U.S.-born native English speaking peers of similar class backgrounds. They may even exceed the native peers’ academic norms (Board NRC/IOM, 1995).

Although there are agencies committed to assisting new immigrants and supporting families in beginning their life in their new country, the school or childcare setting serves as the central resource for these families. In addition to educating children, child-care programs and schools today also attend to children’s health and mental health needs and to the needs of their parents by providing or identifying various forms of assistance essential for people who are learning a new language, culture, and customs. Some of the problems faced in this process are related to cultural barriers to parental involvement, including linguistic and academic issues as well as practical concerns concerning parents’ work schedules, child care and fear of detection. Teachers are sometimes resistant to involving newly arrived parents because of all those challenges. Overcoming the challenges calls for child-care and school settings, and the host communities at large to be accepting and supportive of newly arrived families. Creating innovative ways to work with families may include meeting parents at their workplace, developing family resource centers, hosting classes, activities, and workshops within the school, and building a network of relationships with local businesses and community-based organizations. The strong commitment on the part of the teachers, administrative, and support school personnel is needed to help immigrant children regain a sense of mastery and pride. Strategies implemented may include having the new arrivals teach other students their own language or about their home nation and involving children in a variety of activities that do not require language as the sole means of communication (Yale, 2003).

Roughly one in six children in the United States lives in an immigrant-headed household, and the languages spoken in those households are as varied as the cultures represented. Transnational migration adds to the nation’s diversity and complexity and to its hopes and directions of the future. Immigrants are a vital source of human capital that expands and strengthens the social, cultural, and economic fabric of the host society. In respect to early childhood education, meeting the complex and diverse needs of immigrant children challenges educators to examine their own policies and practices and to pursue culturally competent pedagogy. Providing an on-going and effective support to promote academic success and well-being of all children reflects teachers and administrators’ abilities to respond optimally to all children, understanding both the richness and the limitations reflected by their own sociocultural context, as well as the sociocultural contexts of the children.

Further Readings: Board on Children and Families, National Research Council, Institution of Medicine (NRC/IOM) (1995). Immigrant children and their families: Issues for research and policy. The Future of Children 5(2; Summer/Fall). Washington, DC: Author, pp. 72-88. Available online at http://www.futureofchildren.org/pubs- info2825/pubs-info.htm?doc_jd=; Children Now (2004). California Report Card 2004: Focus on Children in Immigrant Families. Oakland, CA: Author. Available online at http://www.childrennow.org/publications.cfm; Fix, Michael and Jeffery S. Passel (January 28-29, 2003). U.S. immigration—Trends and implications for schools. Presented at the National Association for Bilingual Education NCLB Implementation Institute. New Orleans, LA; Friedmann, John (2002). The prospect of cities. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press; Kirova-Petrova, A. (2000). Researching young children’s lived experiences of loneliness: Pedagogical implications for language minority students. Alberta Journal of Educational Research XLVI(2), 99-116; Suarez-Orozco, Carola and Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco (2001). Children of immigration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Yale Center of Child Development and Social Policy (2003). Portraits of four schools: Meeting the needs of immigrant students and their families. New Haven, CT: Author. Available online athttp://www.yale.edu/21C/report.html.

Leah Adams and Anna Kirova