Improving Parent Engagement Opportunities For Refugee and Immigrant Families In Early Childhood Programs

By Christina Walker

A new report from the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) highlights the significant obstacles immigrant and refugee populations face as they try to engage in their children’s education. For immigrant families, severe economic barriers are often compounded by low literacy levels or limited English proficiency (LEP), making participation in a child’s learning difficult. Early childhood programs are challenged, too, in meeting the needs of a rapidly growing number of immigrant parents with young children.

One issue identified in the report is the lack of dedicated federal funding to support immigrant families and their unique needs. Therefore, even something as basic as addressing language barriers through translation services can be difficult for programs to plan for and adequately fund. The report emphasizes additional challenges, including gaps in services and limited outreach to families who speak less common languages, as well as school and community climates that are not positive or inclusive.

The report highlights the critical need to address the challenges facing immigrant parents of young children, particularly those with low literacy or LEP. Local communities and programs can improve access to early learning opportunities through outreach and enrollment efforts targeted specifically to these families. For instance, staff should be encouraged to participate in community events, perform door-to-door recruitment, and galvanize parents of enrolled children to promote the programs to other eligible families within their communities. The enrollment process should also be more flexible and responsive to immigration families’ challenges; this can include accepting multiple documents to fulfill enrollment requirements, providing enrollment assistance, and offering enrollment times and locations that are convenient and accessible to the community.  Once enrolled, state and local communities can best engage and build positive relationships with families when their backgrounds are integrated into programs in a meaningful way through:

  • Hiring staff who reflect the families served;
  • Supporting and organizing cultural celebrations;
  • Translating program materials into the native languages of all families;
  • Making interpreters available for communication; and
  • Interacting with the families’ communities outside of the program.

As increased investments offer states new opportunities to expand early learning, state and local communities should prioritize the needs of immigrant families at the forefront of their planning efforts.