Refugee families in early childhood education: constructing pathways to belonging

Early Years Research Centre

Principal Investigator: Linda Mitchell

Associate Investigators: Dr Lesley Rameka, Dr Amanda Bateman (University of Swansea), Associate Professor Polly Atatoa-Carr, Professor Margaret Carr, Professor Lynn Ang (University College London).

Teacher Researcher: Ruth Ham (AUT Centre for Refugee Education ECE Centre).

Senior Research Fellow: Dr Elaine Khoo.

PhD Student: Raella Kahuroa.

Research Assistant: Yasmine Serhan.

Advisor: Professor Bronwen Cowie.

Project Dates: March 2018 - February 2021

Partnerships: Funded by the Marsden Fund

(Above: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern visiting the Carol White Family Centre in May 2018)


There are more refugees worldwide than ever before, and many have young children. Early childhood centres are traditionally for children: can they also help refugee families and children to develop a sense of belonging? This project will research the experiences of children and their families who are attending three early childhood centres and graduates of these centres. With a focus on developing and implementing constructs of belonging for this context, the aim is to investigate how refugee children and families can be deliberately encouraged to overcome trauma, sustain their cultural identity and simultaneously live within and contribute to New Zealand society as part of constructing pathways to belonging.

What is the aim of the research?

To develop a new evidence-based theoretical model and associated strategies, that will contribute to transforming policy and practice in early childhood education in ways that enable refugee families and children to construct positive outcomes for belonging and participating in New Zealand. The research will identify specific opportunities, understandings and dispositions that enable refugee children and families to belong and participate in spite of uncertainty and change.

Knowledge and understanding will be advanced through the following objectives:

  • To develop evidence-based indicators and theories of belonging and participating for refugee children and families that can be strengthened through early childhood education;
  • To analyse the engagement and negotiation at community and family levels with cultural values and understandings of belonging and their enactment through early childhood education, building on concepts of mana whenua from Kaupapa Māori theory and from prior research in the Carol White Family Centre;
  • To analyse opportunities for children to develop their identities of self and how they belong in the world, and for adults to contribute traditional cultural and historical knowledge; and
  • To test and evaluate indicators theories and strategies of belonging in three culturally different early childhood centres two of which include refugee families and the third immigrant families.

Drawing from all these objectives, the second overall aim is to enrich intercultural understanding of belonging and approaches to intercultural education through engagement with diverse cultures and worldviews. Findings will progress understandings about social justice and wellbeing for refugee and migrant communities in New Zealand and internationally, and develop new theories and strategies to enhance equitable delivery of policy and practice for these important communities.

Who will this research help to inform?

The research will inform policy and practice internationally and in  New Zealand. Our background review of early childhood education, social and resettlement policies in host countries that, like New Zealand take UN refugees, will analyse how refugee children are positioned in policy taking as a yardstick the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. This review alongside the findings from our empirical study will offer insights for policy development. The development of a theoritical model and associated pedagogical strategies will be of interest to managers, teachers, students and academics who are keen to pursue social justice in early childhood education refugee families. Additionally, we expect the project will enrich intercultural understandings of belonging and approaches to intercultural education through engagement with diverse cultures and world views.