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Research uncovers sense of belonging for refugee and immigrant families through early childhood education

1 November 2019

Two major studies are putting refugee and immigrant children at the centre of the resettlement process in New Zealand, researching how early childhood education can help refugees find a sense of belonging in Aotearoa, and sustain a sense of belonging in home countries.

University of Waikato Division of Education Professor Linda Mitchell is leading two research projects, one Marsden-funded and one funded by the Teacher and Learning Research Initiative (TLRI), gathering detailed case studies from early childhood education (ECE) centres in Hamilton, Auckland and Wellington.

The TLRI research is expected to result in a web-based resource for early childhood teachers, to be released next year.

“Through these case studies we’ve been able to build a picture of what the teaching strategies, activities and resources are that can help refugee and immigrant children and their families feel a sense of belonging here,” says Prof Mitchell.

Researchers have videoed children at play and interviewed refugee and immigrant families at length, working alongside centre teachers to understand their experiences, aspirations and views. They are also examining pōwhiri as a metaphor for understanding the development of bicultural belonging and identity for refugee families in Aotearoa.

“Belonging is a basic human need. One of the challenges when you come to a new country is you miss that sense of belonging and connection. It’s the springboard for being able to feel confident, secure and able to participate in society,” says Prof Mitchell.

She says ECE is now seen as a really important place where teachers, families and children could work together to support that sense of belonging, and incorporate cultural constructs that families bring with them.

The research is uncovering powerful tools for creating belonging. Examples include; parents participating in the curriculum, ensuring home languages are used and are visible in documentation, teachers asking children to bring and talk with others about treasures from home. Children were also asked to draw pictures about family and favourite places, enabling teachers to identify the people, places and things that are of significance to them. Teachers also took children on regular local walks to help them know the land through walking the land.

Teachers from the centres involved will come together in November for a two-day workshop to develop the web-based resource.

As part of the longer Marsden-funded research project, Prof Mitchell and her team are analysing refugee resettlement and ECE policies both in New Zealand and in five other countries, investigating the rights and positioning of refugee children. That project is expected to be complete in March 2021.

She said that the Marsden research was more theoretical. “That work is a big picture look at the framing that supports refugee belonging,” said Prof Mitchell.

She said ECE is often the first educational institution that families with young children come into, and at a time of life that is extremely important for them. Many refugees come to Aotearoa from countries where there has been war, persecution and poverty or from refugee camps and spend time in the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre, before being settled in locations around New Zealand.

“Our aim with this overall project is to build an evidence-based model with examples to improve understanding about social justice and wellbeing for refugee and immigrant families both here in New Zealand and internationally.”

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