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Refugee children in the EYFS


Young refugee children benefit greatly from access to early years educational provision. The support, facilities and care provided will help them to feel safe and secure, develop confidence and promote their language and communication skills.

Social contact with other children and adults who speak English will promote their early language learning. Play experiences, in particular, can help children make sense of their experiences and build confidence and social skills. Good early years practice should also seek to promote equal opportunities and parental involvement.

Developing support for young refugee children is the responsibility of all practitioners working in early years settings. A key principle of the Early Years Foundation Stage is ensuring that all children feel included, secure and valued.

Research has indicated that refugee children are under-represented in most forms of early years provision. With more under fives than in the general population, refugees may have a greater need for early years provision. Many refugee women, who usually have responsibility for young children, may have lost family and community support networks. The Equality Act 2010 requires early years settings to tackle discrimination and any inequalities in access to services that might be experienced by refugee families.

Refugee parents often lack information about early years services or are unfamiliar with what may be provided. Frequent changes of accommodation may also mean that families are unable to become familiar with local services, or have their links with them disrupted.

Welcoming refugee parents and involving them in the life of nurseries, pre-school groups and other settings can also reduce isolation and assist integration into the local community.

Good practice

Promoting early years services
In many of the countries that refugees and asylum seekers come from, there may be little or no formal early years provision. Families may arrive in the UK with little knowledge of the range of services on offer. It may also be difficult for those with little or no English to find out about services. Parents may not be aware of, or culturally familiar with, provision such as children's centres, parent and toddler groups, play buses and toy libraries. Some children newly arrived in the UK might miss the part of the reception year in primary school because parents are not aware of the age at which children start school.

Nursery places may also be beyond the financial means of asylum seekers and other families without work. Even parent and toddler groups that make a small charge might be unaffordable for an asylum seeker family. Early years settings can help refugee families and communities become better informed about what provision exists locally. Some schools and children's centres produce translated information on services available.

Promoting equal opportunities
The Equality Act 2010 requires early years settings to ensure that young children from all ethnic groups have equal access to early years provision. Outreach activities and consultation with refugee communities is vital for addressing any under-representation of refugee children in early years settings.

Linking with school admission and induction good practice
At admission meetings in primary schools for children in key stages 1 and 2 it might be helpful to ask parents or carers if they have younger children. Information can then be provided on local early years services.

Liaison with local services
Early years providers will find it helpful to make links with health visitors and other professionals working with refugee and asylum seeker families. They may know of newly arrived families with young children who might benefit from access to early years provision.

Listening to and consulting with parents
Schools and early years providers may not understand some of the particular barriers that refugee and asylum-seeker families face, and the concerns they have about childcare. For example, research by the Refugee Council and Save the Children showed that some mothers felt uncomfortable about leaving young children in the care of adults from outside their community where no one spoke their language.

Early years practitioners can consider how they can make refugee parents feel welcome and provide opportunities for them to articulate their particular needs. A key principle of the Early Years Foundation Stage is to develop strong partnerships between parents and the early years setting. Outreach work and the skills of bilingual practitioners can be particular helpful for developing relationships with parents and communities.

Valuing children’s home languages
To acquire skills in English, young children benefit from the strong foundation in the language they speak at home. This provides them with knowledge of how a language works and will help them acquire the new language. Early years settings should encourage parents and carers to use their mother tongue while talking and playing with their children. Multilingual displays, signs and books in the early years setting will also provide positive messages that home languages are valued.

Promoting positive coping and well-being through play
Some refugee children may have missed out on play opportunities. Normal educational and play opportunities may have been unavailable in countries where there has been armed conflict and political violence, or during often prolonged and hazardous journeys to safety. In the UK, children living in temporary accommodation, such as hostels and bed and breakfast, may not have space to play.

Play can help children settle into their new environment (link to Play, leisure and extended school activities). For asylum seeking and refugee children it provides therapeutic opportunities to make sense of the world and gain confidence through positive interaction with peers and exploring their environment.

Frequently asked questions

I am concerned about the development of a refugee child. He seems very unsettled and distressed. What can I do to support him?

The Early Years Foundation Stage has an important role in ensuring that the social and emotional needs of young children are met. It should support young children to form positive relationships with their peers and with adults, as well as developing a respect for diversity.

Play can help young children settle and make sense of their experiences and feelings. Children can be encouraged to express their feelings by talking about themselves, or using art materials such as crayons, oil pastels, paints, clay and collage materials, making self-portraits. Role-play and puppetry activities can also be used to express feelings and reflect on events. Children can use puppets to communicate ideas and feelings that would be difficult to say directly.

Many traditional stories explore themes such as conflict, changes in life circumstances and bereavement. These stories can be shared in story-telling sessions. In doing this children learn about how others have responded to conflict and change. Sharing stories about loss and bereavement help children who have experienced such life events to see that they are not alone or different.

How can I get our refugee parents to be more involved in our setting?

Some refugee families may experience barriers in developing relationships with early years practitioners. This may be due to being unable to communicate in English, having come from a culture where there is no tradition or expectation of parental involvement or having to deal with the stress of change and coping with life in a new country. Some parents may also not trust those in authority and might be worried about disclosing information about the family background.

Effective welcome procedures should provide a genuine welcome to all parents. They can establish good communication and provide opportunities for parental expectations to be discussed. Parents will also be able to identify the best arrangements for ongoing contact between the early years setting and the home. Outreach practitioners, as well as those who provide support to parents, can also help in building relationships between the school or setting, and the home.

Most early years settings will also have a ‘key worker’ approach. This means that parents can access a practitioner who they know and trust. Early years practitioners with particular linguistic skills can be paired with the key worker. Many early years settings organise social events such as coffee mornings for parents who are new to the locality. This is also a time to develop links with children’s homes.

Many refugee parents support to each other. These links and friendships are often made in early years settings. Early years practitioners can introduce parents to each other, whilst respecting that some families may not wish to pursue social contact. Refugee parents can be invited to help in early years settings. They may have many skills that can be used. Parents can be asked to make labels and signs in relevant languages. Parents might also read stories or teach songs in children’s home languages.


Bill Bolloten
Tim Spafford

Key Readings and Resources