For Asian Heritage Month, an early childhood educator writes about the importance of having racialized educators who can embody inclusiveness for children from immigrant families.
It has been almost two years since my partner and I moved to Saskatchewan, Canada. Our life in the Canadian Prairies started with learning something new in a field we have always been passionate about. While he entered St. Andrew’s College to become a United Church minister, I enrolled in the Early Childhood Education program. Since the Reggio Emilia approach and roles and values of early childhood educators fascinated me, I have been working with preschoolers at a daycare since August, 2018.
Being a part of the ordinary days of young geniuses is like joining an expedition adventure. As a unit, educators and children explore, develop, and nurture potentials of 20 different new continents. At the same time, there exist challenges. One of the challenges that I have been facing is to figure out appropriate guidance strategies for the children whose mother tongue is different from English language.
In my preschool room, four out of 20 kids are from migrant families. Not all of them have had trouble with learning English, but a couple have been through rough months as newcomers at the daycare and in Canadian society as well.
Yuan, a two-and-a-half-year-old girl from Vietnam, had been in Canada for three weeks when she first came to my room last November. She was smart, but didn’t speak English. It wasn’t a surprise that she cried all day long during her first month at daycare. While she was in despair, I was desperate to help her too. What I could do for her was carry her or hold her little hand while walking around our busy preschool room. I wished she could feel familiar with her play environment and her friends.
On her first day I noticed that she loved collecting toys. Yuan and I were slowly walking around the room and arrived at the dollhouse. Yuan paused her cry there while holding an armful of a moose stuffy, a tambourine, and a storybook. I offered her a purse so that she could carry around her collection of items. Her favourite items might have given her a sense of belonging, and by using a purse, she would not experience additional frustration when something dropped out of her arms.
It took only a month for her to speak simple English expressions such as “stop” and “thank you.” Just before she spoke her first English words, she had started crying less, so I assumed her understanding of English language lowered her anxiety level. The language that surrounded her must have gotten more decodable about that time.
Isaiah, a four-year-and-nine-month-old boy from Nigeria, started daycare last September. He had been in Canada for a year, but up to then had stayed at home with his mother. He spoke Nigerian English. The daycare rules seemed too harsh for him. He was not used to sharing, taking turns, and waiting. It took more than a month until he became capable of sharing daycare toys with other kids. Whenever he got frustrated, he knocked down chairs, lightweight bookshelves, and the dollhouse. He threw whatever he could reach on the floor, such as frames, a globe, and toy boxes; and he cried with ear-piercing screams for more than an hour. Nothing seemed to be able to stop his anger. Several educators tried to communicate with him, but we, who could not understand his accent right away, made him even more frustrated.
One morning, while he was screaming, I tried to converse with him in various ways. When I asked about his family, I heard some words that sounded like names in his scream. I repeated the names and asked him if they were his brothers. He said, “Yes.” For the first time since I met him, I saw sadness in his face.
On that day, I learned that he was not mad but sad, and that he was missing his brothers, his mom, and his dad. He said his dad was still in Nigeria. I also learned that he did not use the word “scream” when he described his acting out, but he thought he was only crying. When his mom came to pick him up that day, I asked her for a family photo so Isaiah could see them when he missed his family. The family photo worked, somehow relieving his pain.
Even though Yuan and Isaiah eventually settled in quite well, figuring out appropriate guidance strategies for them was a challenge. Direct child guidance greatly relies on using verbal language where non-verbal acting out occurs. Where there is a conflict, we ask children to explain what just happened and to think about what they can do differently instead of hitting, pushing, or screaming. We often offer words that can replace their aggressive body language. However, when Yuan appears to scream, or push, or hit other kids I can only offer limited words to her because she is not able to mimic all sounds of the English language. She can say, “Stop” or “I want it.” But for now she cannot say “I was using it,” or “Can I play with that?” Isaiah is still struggling with cooperative play skills, and there is still a long way to go to help him find a way to play with other kids instead of interrupting others' play.
As a migrant from Korea and a newcomer to the Canadian society, I often feel scared or frustrated when thinking of communicating in English. I usually feel inferior to the Canadian-born educators who are fluent in their language and culture.
However, while I was writing this essay, I thought that I might have something to offer in this field of early childhood education. I experienced similar difficulties in learning a foreign language which is very different from my first language in its sound, sentence structure, and way of thinking. I might be capable of empathizing with some children’s loss, frustration, and insecurity as a first-generation migrant in Canada.
In addition, representation matters. When racialized educators are not seen at daycare, it might affect to the children’s self-esteem in a negative way. Some people say that Canadian society needs more of the qualified male educators for the boys; likewise, for the children from immigrant families, this society needs more racialized educators. I dream of a childcare facility with educators who can speak a certain child’s first language. I contend that Canada needs racialized educators who can embody diversity and inclusiveness and implement different perspectives for our next generation.
— Yoonjoo Shin completed a B.A. in English literature and studied comparative literature at graduate school in South Korea, later achieving ECE Level II Certification in Saskatchewan.
The names of the children in this article have been changed to maintain confidentiality.