Strengthening belonging and identity for immigrant families through early childhood education

Principal Investigator: Linda Mitchell 

Associate Investigators:

  • Dr Amanda Bateman
  • Dr Elaine Khoo 
  • Dr Lesley Rameka 

PhD Scholar: Raella Kahuroa 

Research Assistant: Yasmin Serhan 

Advisor: Professor Margaret Carr & Professor Bronwen Cowie

International Consultant: Dr Lynn Ang, Institute of Education, London, Teachers from Crawshaw Kindergarten, Hillcrest Kindergarten, Iqra Educare and Pakuranga Baptist Kindergarten

Project Dates: January 2018 - March 2020

Partnerships: Project funding by the Teaching and Learning Research Initiative (TLRI)

Research Team members from left: Yasmin Serhan, Raella Kahuroa, Amanda Bateman, Linda Mitchell, Lynn Ang and Margaret Carr.

Why was the research undertaken?

In 2016, UNICEF warned of the growing global crisis for refugee and immigrant children and of evidence that circumstances for a significant number are highly disadvantageous. Refugees are from countries where there has been war, ethnic, political or religious persecution, famine and poverty. Recent immigrants may lack social networks and support from family members. This project analysed the pedagogical role of ECE for immigrant bicultural belonging and participation in Aotearoa New Zealand, and the mutual benefits for all ECE participants in learning from each

What were the main goals of the research?

The project addressed three research questions. For children from refugee and immigrant backgrounds:

1.    How can the people, places and practices in early childhood settings support a sense of bicultural belonging to Aotearoa New Zealand, and sustain children’s connections to homelands and people.

This question was explored through the following questions and associated sub-questions:

2.    How do drawing, story-telling and play provide opportunities for:

  • Children to sustain connections with people and experiences from their home country?
  • Children to develop new connections in and sense of belonging with Aotearoa New Zealand?

3.    How does arts-based and play-based pedagogy enable teachers to engage with children, parents and whānau to:

  • Enable a two-way exchange and mutual learning about culture?
    Find out more about the knowledge and skills of children themselves?

What was/were the main methodology/ies used to capture data?

Two cycles of data collection, theory development and analysis were undertaken in two kindergartens and two education and care centres that included refugee and immigrant children.

Data was gathered through:

  • Video recordings of a sample of curriculum events where children were: drawing and talking about experiences and interactions with others; telling about artefacts from home and engaging in subsequent free play; engaging in other curriculum events;
  • Focus group interviews and drawings with parents about their experiences related to belonging in their home country and Aotearoa New Zealand;
  • Case studies of three children and families in each centre over 12 months to illuminate trajectories of belonging over time.

We used thematic analysis to identify, analyse and report themes within the data linked to each research question. Conversation analysis was used to provide information about where teaching and learning experiences were promoted or hindered, and to detail how children referred to their belonging in everyday conversations.

What do you consider to be the key findings from the research?

Our findings highlighted that:

  1. Drawing and story-telling can foster discussion about events, places and people that are significant to the child, and offer a way to open the teachers’ worlds to the worlds of families.
  2. Digital story-telling can be a powerful means for teachers to reflect on their own lives and foster pedagogical awareness on notions of belonging.
  3. Orchestration of a constellation of smell, sound, sight, touch and taste experiences that echo aspects of children’s home countries and cultures assists children to feel they belong.
  4. Cultural artefacts and artworks can facilitate cultural discussions and understandings.
  5. Walking and storying the land enables children to position themselves within the cultural and natural stories of a place, know the land and come to belong.

Two theoretical framings were developed from the study:

  • Whanaungatanga as an aspect of being and belonging from a Māori perspective that has relevance for migrant and refugee children and families;
  • Participatory democracy as a practice and value in education is linked to the idea of a democratic ECE community as a place where all participants are able to belong and contribute to making a difference for learning, wellbeing and belonging, and where they collectively create a world.

What groups and/or organisations would be most interested in your research results?

Early childhood teachers and teacher education providers; NZEI Te Riu Roa; Te Rito Maioha ECNZ; Early Childhood Council; other early childhood organisations

Implications from the research that would be of interest to groups.

The research developed theory and practice strategies that were trialled by early childhood teachers in Aotearoa New Zealand. It could provoke thoughtful discussion within early childhood teams about how they might work within their own context to facilitate bicultural belonging for children and families in Aotearoa, and belonging in home countries of immigrant and refugee children and families. Management could consider how to offer opportunities and access to resources for all teachers to develop as informed, critical professionals.


Final Report

Mitchell, L., Bateman, A., Kahuroa, R., Khoo, E., & Rameka, L. (2020). Strengthening belonging and identity of refugee and immigrant children through early childhood education. 

TLRI Poster

Mitchell, L., Bateman, A., Kahuroa, R., Khoo, E., Rameka, L., Carr, M., & Cowie, B., with teachers from Crawshaw Kindergarten, Hillcrest Kindergarten, Iqra Educare and Pakuranga Baptist Kindergarten (2020). Strengthening belonging and identity of refugee and immigrant children through early childhood education. TLRI poster. 

Other publications

Lees, J., & Ng, O. (2020). Whenuatanga—Our places in the world. Early Childhood Folio, 24(1), 21–25.

Mitchell, L., & Khoo, E. (2020). Comment. Early Childhood Folio, 24(1), 1-2.

Sammons, M., Ali, S., Noorzai, L., Glover, M., & Khoo, E. (2020). Fostering belonging through cultural connections: Perspectives from parents. Early Childhood Folio, 20(1), 31–6.

Treweek, L., Cloke, A., McKean, C., Walter, R., & Huang, V. (2020). Treasure Boxes: A strategy for encouraging belonging. Early Childhood Folio 20(1), 26–30.