Children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are particularly vulnerable to stress when beginning child care. High stress levels not only impact on children's transition into child care, but can have undesirable long-term consequences if not handled appropriately. In Australia, there is provision for specialist personnel (called bicultural support workers in this study) to facilitate the transition into care of children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. This paper reports data from interviews with parents from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds whose children attended child care, caregivers in centres who worked with children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and bicultural support workers. Recommendations are made for quality practice during the transition phase into child care services for children and families from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.
For young children the transition between home and child care is a difficult process. Child care represents a new environment, with new people, new routines, new play opportunities and unknown peers. Ensuring the transition is a positive experience is crucial for children's development.
Children from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds enter child care unfamiliar with many components of Australian culture and child-rearing practices. The environment is unfamiliar and often they cannot communicate with the adults and children they encounter, especially if verbal and non-verbal communication are different between cultural groups. Play experiences may also be new to them, and for some children there may not be one aspect of the environment (human and physical) which is familiar.
This means there is a much higher risk that children from CALD backgrounds will experience a difficult transition into child care. A difficult transition experience means children are likely to feel less secure and more stressed, which may lead to difficulties participating in learning opportunities. They may also be less likely to develop secure attachments to caregivers, which puts them at risk of social isolation and developmental disadvantage. Recent biological research indicates that children experiencing high stress levels are more at risk of impaired neurological development. Facilitating positive transition experiences for children from CALD backgrounds is important. This study investigates transition for children from CALD backgrounds, and makes recommendations for practice.
This project used a phenomenological approach in an attempt to understand different perspectives of settling into child care.
Four families who had received the services of a bilingual support worker were contacted through the Ethnic Child Care Resource Unit in Perth and through snowball sampling. It proved to be very difficult to access families, both because of confidentiality issues related to the Ethnic Child Care Resource Unit and child care centre records, and because of language barriers. Ten caregivers who had used the services of a bilingual support worker were accessed via the Ethnic Child Care Resource Unit, snowball sampling, and personal networks. Ten bilingual support workers were accessed through the Ethnic Child Care Resource Unit.
Family members and caregivers were asked to participate in a semi-structured interview where they recounted their experiences of settling their child into care. Bilingual support workers were asked to participate in two focus groups, one at the beginning of data collection and one near the end where preliminary findings were introduced and discussed.
Interviews and focus groups were taped and transcribed. A process of constant comparison was used to identify themes and categories in the data.
Stress in the new environment
Having made the arrangements to place their child/children in child care, most parents and children in this study found the settling in period stressful and confusing. Parents themselves are uncertain that they are doing the right thing and caregivers are often aware of parental stress.
I felt awful. I came out of the child care centre and went to school thinking, `I will take him home. Oh no, I have to do this ...' It was very hard for me. I think it was as much hard for me as for my son ... I was thinking, `Oh God what did I do!' (Parent C).
Through the process of social referencing, young children react to the stress and discomfort their parents feel at this difficult time. This makes it more likely that children will react negatively to the separation from their parents and associated placement in a new environment. Both families and caregivers talked about children's distress on separation.
One of the staff was holding her, trying to divert her attention, but still for the first couple of weeks she just cried because she knows that we were not here and she cried for us ... for the first couple of weeks she didn't eat much (Bilingual Support Worker F).
Strategies for relieving stress
Parents felt more confident in leaving their children in child care when they had reassurance from friends and relatives. They also felt reassured watching caregivers care for children who appeared happy and well looked after.
We saw a lot of children there and they looked okay ... the staff were quite nice to her and tried to comfort her and get her used to it ... one of my friends, she had a daughter in that child care centre since she was a baby. She is about three years old and we saw that she was happy and played with the other kids so we thought, `well then it must be okay' (Parent A).
The presence of bilingual support workers also reassured parents. Parents saw language as a big obstacle for their children and often expressed anxiety that caregivers would be unable to understand them.
All that matters now is that someone who understands the words he says, or understands half of it, because like I said he is speaking his own language now, half English half -- and some of his own words ... but an environment where they only speak English, and that is the very first time that he goes somewhere where everyone speaking English, no -- (Parent D).
Parents also felt reassured by being shown around the centre and given an understanding of the centre's routines.
They went through everything ... when you pick him up if it is sleep time he is usually in here, if it is lunch time he is going to be in here. So the next day when I was looking at the time I could imagine where he was (Parent A).
Managing the `goodbye'
Parents expressed concern about the best way to manage the separation process itself. Some felt that, despite their child/children's distress, a quick `goodbye' was in everyone's best interests. Some caregivers also supported this view.
I think it is to the child's advantage if mum is quite brief and says her farewells and leaves. In ... case mum used to hang around anything up to half an hour or more and to me that was just delaying the inevitable (Caregiver J).
Other parents and caregivers felt it was important for children to feel secure in their new environment and that parents had a role in establishing relationships between their children and the caregivers.
She got an attachment to me straight away because her mother told her to accept me. That was one good thing, she considered me as her mother's friend and that made it a lot easier for the child (Caregiver H).
Often caregivers found it difficult to understand children and families' perspectives because they were unaware of their origins, what they had experienced, or the languages they spoke. Bilingual support workers felt this led to caregivers having difficulty understanding the children's behaviour.
This child was a problem child, hitting others, not eating. So I had to explain to them why the child was doing that, because the child had been in Sri Lanka in a camp for more than six months so I doubt the child had anything, no love, nothing, the parents were always in fear (Bilingual Support Worker G).
Parents and caregivers mentioned conflict over routines, and how different family practices related to routines distressed children and families over this period of settling into child care. Eating practices were mentioned frequently as examples of routines which caused stress and anxiety.
At meal times she wanted to sit on your lap instead of the little chairs. I found out that she wouldn't eat the food because they are used to different diets and she wouldn't eat. The caregiver tried to force her to eat it (Bilingual Support Worker E).
In contrast, some caregivers and parents mentioned occasions where children were allowed time to adjust to different routines.
With the food, all new children for the first week or so, they don't eat. They only eat fruit, and they might have something for morning tea time, they might not. As long as she had plenty to drink and fruit, I didn't worry too much. And gradually I got her to have a little bit. We try to have different menus (Caregiver D).
Toileting was often difficult for children while they were settling in. One father told how his child became very distressed when the caregivers mistook his attempts to ask for the toilet with asking for a drink. The child asked three times to go to the toilet and three times he was given a drink. After the third time he wet himself, the only `accident' he had had since being toilet trained by his parents. He became acutely distressed:
He got very upset, he got very moody, throwing every toy and things around the room and not letting anyone touch him. They wanted to change his pants and he wouldn't let them and he was shouting and screaming and they called myself ... he was so upset from this incident (Parent B).
Sleep times also cause children and caregivers stress. Different cultural practices resulted in conflict.
The mother wanted the chill wrapped up in lots of clothes and blankets on the bed, and it was really quite hot, just things like that when they were settling in (Caregiver F).
Some caregivers and centres were prepared to provide quiet, alternative activities for children who did not want to sleep. Other centres were more insistent that they sleep. When a bilingual support worker's shift ends during sleep time this can cause problems.
What I was finding was that when it was sleep time that was traumatic because the chill would just cry, and the staff would say go, and I would think the chill is going to hate me next time because the mother has left her crying and I'm leaving her crying, and their system is to leave them there to cry, and I settled her down a little bit, but you can't tell them ... (Bilingual Support Worker C).
Differences in the way adults provided physical comfort also caused anxiety during the settling in phase. Parents understood that different cultural practices existed, and felt their children needed to adapt to Australian ways. They believed, however, that the adaptation process ought to be gradual and that caregivers needed to understand the immensity of the change expected of children.
The babies coming from our country are so much used to cuddles and rocking and things, and in the first few weeks I had to do that with that baby, but then the caregivers told me you are cuddling that baby too much and you are spoiling the baby. We have to leave him crying in the outdoor sessions, I had to put the baby down because I was told not to cuddle the baby, and the baby used to crawl everywhere eating grass and sand and crying with all the tears and sand. (Bilingual Support Worker E).
Experiences of trauma
Some children come into centres having experienced devastating war or refugee-related trauma. Lack of language often means these traumas are overlooked and associated behaviours misinterpreted.
The children from my country are in a very specific situation because they come from war ... I found they speak all day about the war, about our country about everything, and I don't know for the first time when I came there that these children were not sisters, because they [were] introduced to me as sisters and all day every day when I came there that child tried to speak to me about war, how her mother [had her throat cut in front of her] (Bilingual Support Worker A).
Role of the bilingual support worker
In most cases the bilingual support worker was not introduced to the child care centre and the family until the child/children had experienced several days of stress and separation anxiety.
He wasn't happy, he wasn't smiling and when I went to pick him up they said he was just standing around the corner holding his eyes. He wasn't crying or complaining ... in the child care he wouldn't participate in anything. After a week they told me, if I am agreed that they call once a week this person from Ethnic Child Care Resource Unit, she will stay with him (Parent C).
In some cases families described receiving support from a bilingual support worker from the child's first day at the centre. There is no doubt that early support helped facilitate the settling in process for both children and families.
Many caregivers and bilingual support workers expressed concern that children experienced a double separation when the bilingual support worker left the centre after their initial period of assistance. This happened most often when the bilingual support worker had become the sole person responsible for the child concerned. Sometimes this was the result of caregivers handing over all responsibility for the child to the bilingual support worker.
He should develop the social behaviour with the rest of the group, so when he is in the group I try to link him with others ... they [the caregivers] want me to take care of just this one, to feed him if necessary, to take him to the toilet, to change his nappy ... (Bilingual Support Worker D).
The distress caused by this double separation was avoided when the bilingual support worker and caregivers focused on building relationships between caregivers and children, caregivers and families.
What we try to do is instead of one to one still have the child wi&you, but you try to get her or him to do things with the other children when you're not there, they are actually going to make it a lot easier for everyone else in the centre and not just be attached to the one person (Bilingual Support Worker F).
Implications for practice
Leaving children in unfamiliar settings is stressful for parents. Children use processes such as social referencing to detect parental stress and become stressed themselves. The role of both caregivers and bilingual support workers in providing reassurance to parents and children is an essential one. Reassurance can take a number of forms. Ensuring bilingual support workers are available at the time of enrolment helps prevent unnecessary parental stress as centre procedures and policies can be explained. Parents feel more comfortable (and children respond through social referencing to this) when they understand the environment in which their children are to spend their day. Bilingual support workers can play a role in explaining the routines of the centre, providing parents with a point of reference so they can think about their children and what they are doing throughout the day. This gives parents opportunities to talk with their children at home about their daily activities at the centre, thus providing a bridge between centre and home.
Building relationships is an important component of providing reassurance to parents and children. Children who observe friendly, warm interactions between their parents and caregivers are more likely to expect these interactions themselves. This creates a cyclic pattern as parents then observe those warm interactions between their children and caregivers and feel reassured that their children are cared for and their needs met. Bilingual support workers have a role in facilitating friendly exchanges between parents and caregivers. When families come from a CALD background, language creates an initial communication barrier. Bilingual support workers can provide support to bridge the language barrier and help caregivers and parents set up ways of communicating that will endure after their services as interpreters are no longer available.
Many parents indicated their belief that their children need to learn to adapt to Australian ways. However, even those most in favour of adaptation preferred their children to be given time to adjust slowly. In this study, parents indicated they wanted their children's needs for feeding, sleeping, toileting, and physical contact to be met as closely as possible to the way these needs are addressed in the home environment, at least in the initial stages of child care. Bilingual support workers have a role in raising caregivers' and peers' awareness in relation to different practices, and of working with caregivers to find ways that these different needs can be accommodated in the group programme.
Children and families who had experienced war or refugee-related trauma presented with additional needs beyond those of other children from CALD backgrounds and their families. In working with these children and families, bilingual support workers have a role in passing on information and, if necessary, referrals to other services such as counselling, or agencies specialising in supporting families who have undergone torture or trauma. They also have a role in raising awareness to assist caregivers in identifying children who have experienced trauma.
Caregivers and bilingual support workers differed in their perceptions of the bilingual support worker role. Some interpreted it as taking responsibility for the children. This caused the problem of double separation anxiety as the bilingual support worker had only limited time to spend with each child. The bilingual support worker role was mainly perceived to be one of support for caregivers and children in line with the recommendations of the Wallis Report. The bilingual support worker was seen to have a transition role: providing information, raising awareness of issues, and facilitating relationships to ensure a smooth transition.
Generally, while children from CALD backgrounds have greater access to services today, there still appears to be a need for greater understanding among child care professionals of their specific needs during the settling in process. Positive child care experiences set the scene for children to achieve their potential as they continue to grow and develop. We have a responsibility to ensure that all children have positive experiences in child care.
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Margaret Sims Edith Cowan University Teresa Hutchins Edith Cowan University