Observing Immigrant and Refugee Children: What’s Different?

graybridge-malkam-cnc-staffbSPO Highlight: Graybridge Malkam CNC Program

Observations are key to supporting the development of every child. This is especially true for immigrant and refugee children settling into their new country. Yet, for newcomer children, observation takes on an added dimension of complexity.

Ann Hutchings is supervisor at the Graybridge Malkam CNC program in Ottawa. She believes there are a few key things to consider when observing immigrant and refugee children:

1. Don’t assume that a first glance gives the whole picture

Initial observations often do not reflect a newcomer child’s development and ability. The culture shock, stress and trauma often associated with moving to a new country can affect a child’s behaviour. For some, it can be their first experience with child care. Even for non-newcomer children, starting care is a major adjustment and often an upset. For immigrant and refugee children, they are also faced with:

  • a new environment
  • a new language
  • a new culture
  • new people
  • loss of possessions
  • loss of familiarity
  • loss of family members
  • loss of community

A shift in an educator’s approach can help deal with settlement issues. In Graybridge Malkam’s program, that means stop, take stock, and spend time helping each new child settle. Hutchings suggests that watching a child carefully over an extended period of time often reveals:

  • patterns of play
  • friendships that you might not have been aware of
  • sources of children’s frustration or negative behaviour

She points out that, “Careful, ongoing attention allows you to notice what might otherwise be missed and to see children in their rich complexity. The alternative is to collect simplistic observations that all look the same and could be about any child.“                                       

2. Not meeting milestones…or regression?

The upheaval of settling in a new country can also have a temporary effect on a child’s development. When newcomer children first enter the program, CNC staff often see regression. Common examples include:

  • going back to diapers after being toilet trained
  • reverting to baby talk, scribbling, or using a bottle
  • needing to carry a comfort toy or blanket
  • trouble entering play
  • a strong need for sensory play

At Graybridge Malcolm, caregivers do not assume that children who are new the program have not yet met these milestones. They know that these behaviours and needs can be temporary, stress coping mechanisms. Hutchings finds that it can take months for a child to get comfortable enough to behave more naturally. This makes it important to find out about a child from the family and wait to assess.

3. The role of culture and bias

When observing children, it’s importance to stay aware of culture and your own personal bias. Hutchings reminds us of the stresses that newcomer families are often dealing with:

  • new environment and culture
  • changes in family dynamics and social status
  • financial challenges

Caregivers need to be objective and make sure their own bias doesn’t affect their observation.

All the changes in newcomer children’s lives can affect their communications, actions and interactions. To conduct a proper observation, Hutchings says, “You have to take into account that these are not settled children yet.” And, when you adjust your approach to observations, you can better support their development and settlement.