Building Positive Cultural Identities in the Preschool Classroom

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Episode #127: A multicultural classroom is becoming an increasingly common thing in this day and age. How would you create a classroom that helps families from different cultural backgrounds encourage the development of positive self-identity in young children? In this episode, Zeynep Ercan, Associate Professor in Early Childhood Education at Rowan University in New Jersey, offers some strategies to support immigrant families in matters such as the retention of their mother tongue, sharing their culture with the preschool community and building leadership in young children as ambassadors for their home culture.

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Episode Transcript

Zeynep ISIK-ERCAN: If they only just speak their native language it’s a couple hundreds or maybe thousand words and it’s naturally supporting the language development in deeper level. But with that foundation they have a potential to read a lot and provide that higher vocabulary to their children. So early-childhood educators can significantly push for that.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early-childhood education”.

Zeynep, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

ISIK-ERCAN: Thank you, it’s great to be here!

SPREEUWENBERG: It’s awesome having you on the show. We’re going to talk to Zeynep today about immigrant families and children up. Zeynep Isik-Ercan is Associate Professor in Early-Childhood Education at Rowan University, and she’s Co-Director of Early-Childhood Leadership Institute. Great having you on the show. Let’s start off learning a little bit more about who you are and how you got to be involved and passionate about the subject of immigrant families and children totally.

ISIK-ERCAN: Absolutely. Thank you for inviting again. I am Associate Professor – that means I educate teachers to-be, and we have a teacher education program here at Rowan University in southern New Jersey. I’m also Co-Director [at the] Early-Childhood Learning Institute, teaching early-childhood leaders in the state and in the region for several different initiatives. And I think if I’m talking about my identity I would define myself as a researcher and learner. I have been a teacher, mentor, and coach in the early-childhood field. I’ve worked with early-childhood programs, directors and staff for their curriculum transformation process.

I do research on immigrant families and children and their educational experiences. I also do research on STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics curriculum] experiences, project-based learning in early childhood as well as professional development in early-childhood.

And why I’m involved with and interested in immigrant parents is that I am an immigrant personally, so I have firsthand experiences of coming to the [United States] 16 years ago myself as a Master’s and then later a PhD student to become a scholar. I had been a teacher in Turkey, and I’d been raising two boys in the U.S. as well. So I have this firsthand experience.

But when I look at the research and literature on immigrant parents and families I noticed that we have those larger groups of families, what they call “Asian” or “Latino”. With then we do have some gaps in our understanding of how the smaller communities of immigrants function [and] interact with schooling, especially families with young children. Again, there is lots of research about children who are in middle school and high school and beyond because they can’t speak well and can’t express themselves well. And there’s not many resource on young immigrant children as much as we have for older children. So that got me really interested into it, and I had some of these experiences with schooling that some are supported and some are not.

So that definitely helped me understand immigrant parents better. Firsthand experiences including doing research with Turkish immigrants, Turkish-American parents and their children and also… this community was higher income, mainly professional, more educated. I also work that Burmese refugees who are coming directly from refugee camps in Thailand, not even Burma or Myanmar. So I had a variety of firsthand experiences, and I regularly work with other immigrant communities. But my primary research [was] with these two communities.

SPREEUWENBERG: Cool, very cool. And you mention language, but what are some of the biggest challenges that immigrants are facing when they have young children in America?

ISIK-ERCAN: Sure. Basically, what I call is interesting because I think in today’s world immigrant children are losing their main language – first language – a whole lot quicker than what we had for 19th century, if you look at the statistics. But primarily when you look at immigrant parents they’re really very concerned fitting it and they are really concerned about integrating. And that – even though they realize or not – sometimes the first language, keeping the first language in helping the child staying or becoming bilingual, is challenging and not every family might have motivation to do that.

But from a research perspective, from a practice perspective, this will be a push, supporting both languages even though there are current challenges of the child maybe not understanding English or the parents not understanding English, we still over in the long term there [are] a lot of brain benefits that research tells us that bilingualism is so important. So I feel like even though parents may or may not recognize beyond catching up with English skills, I think keeping the bilingualism at the deeper level is a larger issue for immigrant communities.

So the challenge is definitely at the beginning of their journey to the U.S., the language barrier is there. Later on it was interesting when I did the research with Burmese refugee parents, again, they’re directly coming from and settling but there’s no formal education, no infrastructure, no water, no electricity, just this very fuzzy, tense situation. No sanitation, nothing. And then you do have parents who have their PhD’s who are or engineers or surgeons, really at the top of our income pool in the U.S., who are also immigrants, right? So they’re really educated.

But it was so interesting to me that, when you look at the second level of challenge or barrier, people shared the same kind of hesitation towards the schools in the way that, especially for Turkish-American parents that I interviewed, even though they might know the language they’re in the professional life, they share the same thing with Burmese refugee parents that don’t have any language skills, usually. They cannot feel like they’re really encouraged to connect to schools. They feel like the cultural challenge of maybe they wanted to be talking about their experiences more. They wanted to have a better relationship with teachers, a little bit more comfortable with them than we have here in general, more personal. So they’re trying to still [deal] with that kind of cultural barrier, which is still interesting to me. I expected that the more educated immigrant parents get, the more integrated they are in all aspects. But it wasn’t that way. So that was interesting to me.

SPREEUWENBERG: Interesting. And so what role do you think early-childhood educators play in supporting immigrant families that have young children that might be attending a childcare or early-childhood education program?

ISIK-ERCAN: Definitely in terms of language, if they talk about language – like I mentioned, bilingualism is still important, if they can keep that. With the language piece I think teachers need to push the parents a lot on not only speaking their home language at home besides maybe supporting the English through cartoons or someone or read aloud books or video books that children can hear native language, speaking folks, or sending them to pre-K level. They can make those recommendations for parents.

But they also… early-childhood educators have a great role to bolster that home language learning as well, and not just daily speaking but they would really need to encourage parents to read books in their home language because that will force their language development as a whole, because if they only just speak their native language it’s a couple hundreds or maybe thousand words and it’s naturally supporting the language development in deeper level. But with that foundation they have a potential to read a lot and provide that higher vocabulary to their children. So early-childhood educators can significantly push for that.

I think the second point is supporting children’s growing identities and helping children to be okay in the skin that they are. So they can help children develop positive self-concepts: “I am okay with who I am. I am not inferior to anyone. I have so much to offer.” So any type of activity where teachers can help children feel like they are leaders – the children of immigrants – and they have so much to offer to schools. For instance, something to say to children: “You know two languages, actually, and your peers may only know one language. So you are bilingual, so that’s another added plus.”

If they have a particular talent or a particular focus area that families can push forward definitely for the child to feel leadership – “I’m a leader in my class and I’m equal with my peers” – that they will feel that sense of difference. And we just want early-childhood educators that need to point out that differences are important and they are beautiful; they’re important. How very different we need to be to be diverse.

And really going beyond race or ethnicity when we want to talk about diversity is going to help a lot because even though they may not have any immigrant children in their classroom, they could still focus on diversity by looking at the general concepts like life, like sleeping practices and looking at culture as avails through family practices rather than maybe just race and ethnicity, or, “What country did you come from and when?” So they definitely should explore these concepts a little bit higher cards, and it’s okay. And definitely for children’s self image it’s really important that those pieces are spoken out. And having children teach their peers a couple words, a couple songs maybe, is really helpful.

And a few other pieces that they can help parents with: Parents really could be encouraged to share some special talents or some special pieces about where they come from, the values that they have, and again if they have some common topics that are shared by every parents – like, “How do you sleep? How do how do you celebrate things? What is your dinner time ritual?” – that every parent can reflect on, but then at the same time immigrant parents can talk about what is different and what is interesting about their lives, too.

SPREEUWENBERG: Certainly it sounds like as an early-childhood educator you have to be very proactive about this and it’s certainly not something that is just going to happen. You make some really good points there, and certainly ones that I had never thought of, in particular around like the equality and the self-image. Because I think if you’re an immigrant, once you reach the adult age you realize that you bring a lot of different, interesting and unique perspectives and things to the table. But I think there’s a risk where if you’re a young child you might be a little bit more susceptible to thinking, “If my language is a little bit behind my peers that I’m behind,” or something, which isn’t actually true at all, right? Because there are so many advantages, for example, being able to speak two languages. And so that’s a really interesting point.

And you also mentioned a great way to deal with that, which is learning from the immigrant children about things that they know in terms of their culture and traditions and language that they can share with the group, which I think is a fabulous idea. From your experience, is there any sort of like best-in-class examples or organizations or early-childhood education programs that we can look to where they’ve done a really great job with supporting immigrant families in these situations?

ISIK-ERCAN: Right. So I can not say that there are systematic ways or curriculum programs that touch on that. But any particular program [in which] they really look at parents and what they bring, and not just immigrant parents, but, “What is my parents’ culture, and what are their family practices and how can I learn from that?” If educators are looking at it from this angle and really incorporating family views when they designed the curriculum, I think that’s a great first step.

I would be able to give some specific example from some of the best practices, but not necessarily… I cannot say this is totally happening in these kinds of settings. I would say one example would be if programs are incorporating project approaches, for instance. That particularly curriculum approach has those kind of contextual ways of learning from and with children. Same with other types of project-based learning programs like Reggio Emilia-inspired programs could be one. But really I feel like it’s more traditional. Early-childhood educators should be proactive, as you were saying, and really think, “What steps should I take before leaning for some kind of fallout happening with this child?”

A couple more specific examples that people could try tomorrow: They could play music and audio stories in home language for the child during playtime. So almost all of the children’s brains are also wired with that second language, so all the kids are almost like taking an ownership of that peer: “Okay, this is their language that we’re also being exposed to. And this is a song that I also like, too.” So that kind of practice really honors the child’s first language and also tells the child, “It’s okay, what you have is beautiful and we recognize that and we love it and we want to learn, too.”

And even for infants and toddlers, for language even when really even when they cannot say anything to us we can still try to speak words in their language, and when we speak to them in English we don’t have to wait for a response. We could just force and encourage any response. And when they respond in their home language, perfect. Just encourage that with smiles and it’s just encouragement.

I also wanted to throw out that a lot early-childhood educators know about some of the childhood periods when they look at Erickson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development. Until up until age 7 children have really this innate need of being valued as a human being, and that starts in the even prenatal stage and in infancy. “Am I valued? Am I loved? Am I accepted by this group?” And this is happening with each child. But really for immigrant children, like you were saying, that could be a sensitive area, too.

And after age seven it’s a time our children really compare themselves with their capabilities. That’s I was mentioning that if this child has a special talent – like if they can play the piano, or they can play the guitar, or if they are writing in their home language, or writing stories, or they do martial arts – they have a specific set of skills that they are leader, that will be really helpful.

SPREEUWENBERG: Absolutely. It’s such an important topic and something that I certainly feel like I could learn so much more about. If I wanted to get in touch with you to learn more about this or if you can recommend certain resources for us to find if we’re listening the podcast, where can we go and how can we get in touch with you?

ISIK-ERCAN: Sure. I have two websites that people could really go to before I give my information: Teaching Tolerance has some resources, they’re more general. Rethinking Education is another platform that people could go to, and actually there’s the book that is called Rethinking Early-Childhood Education. There’s a couple other books, one is Anti-bias Education by Louise Derman-Sparks and Associates. And then Mariana Souto-Manning has multicultural early-childhood education books as well out. I’m working on a project similar to that as well.

My information is the That’s my e-mail, so if people are interested, definitely keep in touch. And at least those are some good resources to start with. And I’ll be happy to support anyone.

SPREEUWENBERG: Awesome. Thank you so much, Zeynep, for sharing those resources and all your knowledge and wisdom around working with and supporting immigrant families and children. Some great points there and some awesome resources for our listeners to check out once we wrap things up today. Again, thanks for coming on the show. It’s been awesome having you.

ISIK-ERCAN: Thank you so much, I appreciate that.

Ron Spreeuwenberg

Ron is the Co-Founder & CEO of HiMama, where he leads all aspects of a social purpose business that helps early childhood educators improve learning outcomes for children.