Supporting refugee children in Early Childhood

‘I remember one child who would hold onto the leg of a table during sessions,’ says East Sunshine Kindergarten teacher, Lynda Hyett.

Ms Hyett is talking about one of her kindergarteners from a Chin refugee background. Today he is a confident little boy who plays with the other children, thanks to Ms Hyett’s understanding and support.

Minister for Early Childhood Education, Jenny Mikakos, recently announced funding for the Victorian Government’s Early Years Project.

This project will train early childhood professionals in understanding the unique needs of refugee and asylum seeker children.

The Early Years Project is modelled on East Sunshine Kindergarten’s work with Chin refugees.

Accessing early childhood services in a new country can be daunting – even more so for refugees with a language barrier and emotional trauma.

Unfortunately, this can prevent refugee families from sending their children to preschool.

The Early Years Project with Foundation House

The $600,000 grant will fund professional development programs for teachers, health and other community workers, delivered by not-for-profit organisation Foundation House.

 Video Transcript - Early Years Project at Foundation  House (docx - 22.71kb)

‘This is going to give them the best start to their early childhood education if early years professionals have a better understanding of the particular unique needs of refugee and asylum seeker children and families.’ – Minister Jenny Mikakos

Foundation House’s Early Years Project Coordinator Katherine Cooney says professionals working with refugee families need to understand ’the impact of trauma and the refugee experience’ so they can provide more inclusive services.

Foundation House works exclusively to support child refugees who have experienced violence and trauma. Ms Cooney says refugees face multiple and complex barriers to accessing services:

  • Language barrier
  • Cultural differences
  • Lack of transport
  • Lack of stable housing

‘The concept of childcare is alien to communities that have a communal and family approach to caring for children. In addition, they may not appreciate the value of learning in the early years,’ Ms Cooney says.

The East Sunshine Kindergarten experience

Before East Sunshine Kindergarten started their Chin refugee project in 2011, the number of Chin children enrolled in kindergarten was very low.

‘We were astounded by some of the reasons why Chin families were not attending,’ Ms Hyett says.

‘One of the Chin advisers said, “we thought kinder was for rich, white people”.’

Ms Hyett reached out to the Chin community to establish culturally-appropriate services.

‘For example, enrolment conditions require a birth certificate — most of these children don’t have birth certificates,’ Ms Hyett says.

‘We were able to remove some of the barriers to access.’

In 2016, East Sunshine Kindergarten received a Victorian Early Years Award for their outstanding work with the Chin community. See: Winners announced for the 2016 Victorian Early Years Awards.

See also: Support for refugee students