Settlement is a complex process that follows change and leads to new beginnings. It is a time of flux and uncertainty that is usually associated with adults, sometimes with families, but less often with individual children.
Instead of focusing on children and working with parents, people frequently assume that the needs of newcomer children can be met through programs and services directed solely to parents. However, parents may not be fully able to help their children for reasons that include their own settlement issues, busy work schedules, and a lack of language and other skills necessary to function in their new environment.
In addition, children’s settlement needs may not be fully addressed because of beliefs that children easily “bounce back” from adversity, or that children are the responsibility of parents without rights that are separate from those of their parents.
Recognizing Children’s Unique Settlement Experiences
Providing settlement support to newcomer children affirms their right to be considered as individuals as well as integral members of their families. It reflects the uniqueness of their experience which is different from both their parents and siblings, and from children born into the host culture. Recognizing their individual experiences makes it more likely that they will settle successfully.
While it is true that children experience the host culture at a younger age than their parents, failing to fully recognize their status as newcomers is a disservice to the complexity of their situations. Their experiences are complicated by both the general upheaval of their lives and the likelihood that many have experienced early stress and trauma. Newcomer children have a range of needs relating to factors such as cultural practices, mental and emotional health issues, family relationships, and coping and social awareness.
Young newcomers need care and attention from adults with specific knowledge and awareness of the issues they face. It is often difficult to determine whether a child is exhibiting signs of temporary adjustment behaviour associated with settlement. Adults working with young children need to be aware of these effects, know how to recognize symptoms and respond in meaningful ways.
For researchers, identifying and addressing the needs of children is made more difficult by the fact that much data is available only for people age 15 and older. At the same time, children born elsewhere may not be regarded as “first” generation newcomers, but considered either second generation or as members of the 1.5 generation.
Working with Change, Culture, and Children
Settlement is a process of transition that may be said to have three phases: an ending (leaving home and letting go), a neutral zone (an “in-between-time” of uncertainty or settlement), and a new beginning (readiness to becoming involved in new situations and taking on a new identity). Each of these phases occurs over time and is experienced differently by each newcomer, including each child. Moreover, the changes that occur over the transition period involve much more than simple differences in behaviour; they reflect shifts in world views and the adoption of new identities and cultural practices.
Since culture may be considered “what people do,” these changes relate to all aspects of daily life. For example, in early learning programs or primary grades, when children are expected to eat on their own, using a knife, fork and spoon (cutlery that might be considered mainstream), a child who has been spoon-fed at home will be required to both learn new skills and make a major life change. What is primarily important in this situation, however, is not the change in observed behaviour, but the change in the way children feel about themselves and the way they relate to their families and the broader world.
This relationship can be illustrated with an image of culture as an iceberg, where the smaller visible portion above the surface represents the observed practices or open culture, and the larger, invisible portion below the water is the underlying significance of behaviour or the hidden culture. When young children face changes and parents are informed and consulted, a balance can be achieved. Children and parents can be helped to settle in ways that support positive intergenerational understanding. For example, new ways might be used at school and in the community, while traditional practices are preserved at home.
Strengthening Children and Their Futures
Helping children gain general knowledge of their new environment, communicate with others and build relationships not only makes it more likely that they will be ready to enter and succeed at school, but also gives them the skills to build social capital and contribute in positive ways to society throughout their lives. Attention to the settlement needs of children at any age prepares them for positive outcomes later in life.
About the Blog Author
Judith A. Colbert, PhD, is a writer, researcher and training specialist. She is principal author of Canada’s National LINC Childminding Requirements and, more recently, the Care for Newcomer Children Requirements. She is also the author of two books: Welcoming Newcomer Children (2010) and Child Health Across Cultures (2014). As an early care and education consultant with an international perspective, her goal is to build bridges between research and practice, mainstream and newcomer experiences.