An early learning framework for immigrant and refugee children

As the Ontario government launched their Best Start initiative in 2003, they struck several “expert panels” to advise them on best practices in delivering quality early learning and child care. One of the expert panels developed an Early Learning Framework, also referred to as the Early Learning for Every Child Today curriculum, or ELECT. This post explores the opportunity to adapt the framework to meet the unique needs of immigrant and refugee children.

The Early Learning Framework (ELF) provides a common framework for early childhood practitioners on what and how young children learn. It is complementary to all early childhood settings and curricula. The ELF strengthens practitioner’s ability to support young children’s early learning, growth and development.

The ELF has wide support within the early childhood community; the framework has been well received by the early childhood community and has been implemented in several locations (see the Atkinson Centre for Society and Child Development).

A settlement-focused complementary ELF, will support settlement workers in understanding and responding to the specific settlement issues of young children.

The ELF describes “how young children learn and develop (p.1)”. A settlement-focused ELF could describe how young newcomer children learn, develop, and settle. Newcomer children have specific needs, different from children of the dominant culture. The ELF does not address issues specific to immigrant and refugee children (although a background paper on diversity, equity and inclusion was prepared for and is briefly cited in the ELF). For example, in a section on brain development, a settlement-focused ELF might more fully include the research on the impact of trauma on developing brains. This is important information for practitioners working with newcomer children, especially refugee children fleeing war-torn countries and/or environmental disasters.

The ELF acknowledges the important role that families and communities play in the development of young children. A settlement-focused ELF could expand on this element and include discussion of differing values in a range of cultures and how newcomers cope with and learn to parent in a new socio-cultural context.

The ELF contains a “statement of principles… based on beliefs, values, experience and current research findings” and includes this statement “Respect for diversity, equity and inclusion are prerequisites for honouring children’s rights, optimal development and learning”. A settlement-focused ELF could begin with a similar statement but expand and ground its framework from an equity and inclusion starting point.

Using the ELF as a foundation, practitioners will share the same language as practitioners in other settings, furthering their ability to connect/liaise on behalf of newcomer children with practitioners in related sectors and therefore ease newcomer children transition into formal early learning and child care services and kindergarten.

A proposed structure for a settlement-focused ELF would mirror the ELF Table of Contents (p.3), with some changes, adjustments and additions.  For example, in addition to the section on “Understanding Children’s Development”, a settlement-focused ELF might include a section on “Understanding Settlement Issues for Children and Parents”. A glossary would be indispensable in helping practitioners understand and use a common language to discuss settlement, integration, racism, transnational families, trauma (PTSD) and etc.

The ELF itself endorses the development of a kind of settlement-focused ELF:

“Young children with different abilities, challenges, resources and cultural backgrounds and their families come together in early childhood settings. They bring unique life experiences and orientations. They and their families benefit most when they are fully included and when they feel that they belong. Children grow up with a strong sense of self in environments that promote attitudes, beliefs and values of equity and democracy and support their full participation. To include everyone, early childhood settings must encourage healthy dialogue about the principles and shared beliefs that relate to inclusion, diversity, and equity. They must recognize every child as a citizen with equal rights and unique views about how to participate in the world. To turn belief statements and principles into practice at the community level requires an infrastructure that actively promotes engagement of all children and their families (p. 12)”.

The development and use of a settlement-focused ELF would also demonstrate collaboration across jurisdictions, if jointly supported by the federal and provincial governments. Importantly, the inclusion of the core components of the ELF in a settlement-focused curriculum document would support quality early learning and care environments and outcomes for newcomer children.

I welcome expressions of interest in developing a settlement-focused early learning curriculum. See my contact info.