CMAS and CVIMS: Supporting Refugee and Immigrant Children and Families

Photo Credit: Stock Snap User Liane Metzler

Photo Credit: Stock Snap User Liane Metzler

Heather Savazzi, co-author of Caring for Syrian Refugee Children: A Program Guide for Welcoming Young Children and Their Families, has had over 15 years of experience supporting diverse groups of children and families, and leads resource development for CMAS.  Writing in an article for the Spring 2016 Edition of The Early Childhood Educator she describes the findings of the CMAS review of global research conducted last year, which identified four key areas of need for immigrant and refugee children:

  1. Dealing with change and loss: “79% of Syrian families have had a death in their family since the conflict began. Children and parents are often mourning the deaths of loved ones, as well as the loss of a common and familiar culture and language, their homes and schools, and rich family and social lives. Families may feel disoriented, depressed, non-responsive, and anxious.”  Recommendations for creating a ‘safe haven’ in programs include:
    1. Develop a gradual separation plan and support families through separation anxiety.
    2. Create a welcoming entry where families can gradually enter the program.
    3. Make sure you have a quiet area where children can retreat to when they don’t want to be part of the busy program. Put pillows and simple, age- and culturally appropriate books in this area.
    4. Be flexible about routines and expectations, and try to minimize transitions.
    5. Maintaining their home language and acquiring a new language: For newcomer adults, learning English is very important. It is their route to resettling, getting jobs, and adapting to their new country.  But for newcomer children, maintaining their home language actually helps them learn a new language”.  Recommendations to encourage young children and ease their transition into programs include:
      1. Learn a few key words in the child’s first language.
      2. Be consistent and use the same words, e.g. toilet rather than bathroom, washroom or potty.
      3. Face the child when you are talking to them so they can see how you form the words.
      4. Simplify your language and use simple phrases, e.g. “Want juice?” When the child starts to have a better grasp of the language, you can expand your sentence to, “Do you want juice?”
      5. Building social networks: The article discusses a number of issues for refugee children in social integration and comments, “It’s important to give refugee children the time and space they need to develop trust and settle into friendships with other children in your program. Too often, well-meaning educators and caregivers read into normal settlement behaviours and label them as a special need.  The report recommends a patient, understanding and flexible approach and as children gradually become more comfortable and start to open up and trust others, fostering a space where:
        1. Children hear English but are not pushed to use it.
        2. Children can observe activities and are encouraged to join in, but are not required to.
        3. There is a balance of opportunities for social play (dramatic/blocks/group sensory) and solitary play (dual language books/colouring/painting/individual sensory/creative bins).
        4. Achieving well-being: The report notes, “The settlement process is filled with stressors, so it’s important to pay close attention to the overall development and challenges young refugee children face during their settlement” and recommends that the signs that a child is developing strong coping skills and resilience and is moving along in settlement are not limited to skills such as language development, but are occurring when they:
          1. Show attachment to parents but can successfully separate and reunite.
          2. Are responsive and interested in others.
          3. Are comfortable using both languages.
          4. Come to adults for comfort and support.
          5. Are able to play with others and alone.
          6. Move easily from one activity or play to another.

Further support resources (tip sheets, etc.) are available in the Supporting Refugees section of the CMAS Canada website.

In a complementary article in the same edition of The Early Childhood Educator, Sue Luoma, children’s program coordinator at the Central Vancouver Island Multicultural Society (CVIMS) in Nanaimo, writes about the hands-on work her agency is involved with working with immigrant and refugee children in the Nanaimo area.

The agency grew out of a local response to the crisis of displaced Vietnamese boat people in 1979, providing settlement support, ESL classes and job training programs to the refugees, and has now grown to a community-based registered charity serving over 2,000 people annually and providing professional services in settlement, ESL instruction, child care, employment counselling, services for families, community engagement, and the promotion of diversity and anti-racism.

Their child care program uses a very slow gradual-entry process, allowing the parent and child to spend as much time as needed for both parent and child to be comfortable before the parent goes to class.  With the parents onsite, they can drop in during class breaks or be called by staff to come to their child if the child is distressed.  On the first visit, the parent is asked to remain with the child for the full session.  Staff then work with a five-minute guideline:  when the educator can see that the child is able to play for five minutes without looking for the parent, then the parent can leave to go to their class.  Child care staff work with ESL staff so that a parent whose child is slow to settle in can do some their class work in the daycare and not feel that they are getting behind with their own learning.

Many of the CVIMS staff have been immigrants themselves and have a second or third language; interpreters are also provided to assist parents who require assistance with the initial paperwork and intake process.

Staff encourage parents to maintain their first language with their children.  They use visual prompts to assist the children (e.g. for daily routines and for songs and rhymes) and use green, yellow and red circles to manage timings.

Communication is a key element: with the team members, the parents, the ESL teachers, and with the settlement team who are working with the family.  When a family experiences challenges, there is support that can be accessed through the agency staff and other community resources.

There has been new learning for the team at the centre with the increase in numbers of families arriving recently.  This is also the first time Nanaimo has received government-assisted refugees, with responsibility for all the things a sponsorship group does, such as meeting the family at the airport, finding temporary and then long-term housing for the family, finding furniture and household items, helping the family orient themselves in the community to find their way around town, helping with shopping, and arranging bank accounts and medical appointments, in addition to the support roles the agency has done in the past.  The response of the agency to these new roles has been very positive, but it has required planning, as well as new skill development for agency staff.