By Tanya Krien
Vice President, Early Childhood Education
Last month, I was honored to serve as a panelist for the Roundtable Discussion, “Children in Migration and Access to Services in NYC: Obstacles and Solutions Towards a More Inclusive and Cohesive Society,” sponsored by the NGO Committee on Migration, Subcommittee on Children in Migration. This event brought together experts and practitioners working to address the challenges migrants face with access to resources and education in NYC, especially for children and their families.
As Vice President of Early Childhood Education at The Child Center of NY, I oversee six Early Head Start and Head Start programs. These programs serve children under the age of 5 who are from low-income families and face other barriers to school success. While the children in our programs face incredible challenges, they start out with as much promise as any child. Year after year, our extensive data and firsthand experience show that with the right support, these children can and do flourish.
Of course, what constitutes the “right support” changes with the times, as everything does. It is up to us to evolve and ensure we are meeting the needs of today’s children and families.
Right now, we are seeing an influx of children from immigrant families who are living in homeless shelters. Additionally, more children than ever before are presenting with special needs.
During the panel discussion, I spoke about the experience of migrant children once they arrive here, what services are helpful, which services are lacking, and how we are—and should be—responding to their needs so that they can begin school ready to learn and begin life ready to thrive.
Here is what the right support for young children from migrant families looks like today in New York City.
More 1:1 attention. When children at such a tender age are continually displaced, their ability to form relationships is affected. They are not sure what to expect day to day, and this negatively impacts their ability to form secure relationships with their teachers and age-appropriate relationships with their classmates.
Immigrating to a new country—usually following and involving severe trauma—causes a lack of continuity on its own. That sense of instability is exacerbated by living in the shelter system, especially in light of a new rule that migrant families can stay in a shelter for only 60 days; they can reapply, but then they can be placed anywhere in the five boroughs. This means a child in our Head Start program in Corona, Queens, might be moved to a shelter in the Bronx and start all over again with new teachers, new children, new routines, and a lack of the kind of continuity that contributes to a child feeling safe and secure—that is, if they can even find a school that will enroll them.
We also see disruptive behaviors in the classroom as a result of children being overstimulated and unused to the structured environment. In a shelter, you have minimal toys and books, to say the least. Here, you have a plethora. Children who are unused to such an array want to see and do everything at one time, often without knowing the basics of how to play with toys or what a book is for. It may be difficult for them to transition from one activity to another. Sometimes they don’t have the language to say, “I want to play with this toy,” and it comes out as biting or hitting. With several children in each classroom fitting this description, the old paradigm of one teacher and one assistant in a classroom of 15 to 18 children is insufficient.
That is why we sought funding for a senior engagement specialist* who is a licensed social worker to provide mental health consultation and support to our Head Start staff, children, and families. This role is vital in classroom operations as well as in offering guidance to teachers and parents. For example, imagine a child who fits the description above: they are playing with a toy and are having a hard time transitioning to circle time. The senior engagement specialist might choose to give a task (sense of responsibility) to this child—for example, saying to the child, “Can you carry this book over to Ms. X for her to read?” This helps in the moment, and it provides teachers a model for future reference.
At the same time all this is going on, we are seeing a dramatic increase in children with special needs, such as learning disabilities and lack of language development. This applies not only to migrant children, but also American-born children who grew up during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, 10 to 15 percent of children in our classrooms had special needs. Since the pandemic, that number is expected to rise to about 40 percent once formal evaluations are conducted. Although our teachers are trained in teaching children with special needs, the demand right now is more than they can possibly meet.
Mental health support. Just the very experience of immigrating is a trauma in itself; on top of that, families also have the trauma of whatever circumstances prompted them to leave their home country, from extreme violence to extreme poverty. Accessible and affordable mental health care, offered in the language they speak and delivered by clinicians who share lived experiences with families, must be a part of any solution.
Estephanie, a mom of one of our Early Head Start students, spoke beautifully about this at the roundtable. Estephanie and her husband immigrated here from Chile. Shortly after they arrived, Estephanie discovered she was pregnant, and the basement apartment they rented was flooded. Thankfully, Estephanie found our Early Head Start program for her son. True to The Child Center’s commitment to serve the whole child and entire family, a family worker at our program earned Estephanie’s trust and assessed the family for additional needs. The family worker talked to Stephanie about mental health services, and the family is now enrolled in The Child Center’s Early Childhood Mental Health program. These services—early childhood education and mental health—work together to give Stephanie’s son the academic and emotional bright start that Estephanie and her husband came to this country to give him—and which all children deserve. Equally important, Estephanie and her husband are getting the support they need, too.
Physical health services. Children are coming to our programs without the typical vaccinations and often with significant health problems, particularly dental issues. Our teachers, family workers, nurse-practitioner—whoever most connects to the family—are trained to recognize these issues and refer them to needed services in a way that respects families. The result is that almost all our families get the care they need, as you can see in our latest Head Start annual report.
Building relationships and trust. This was one of main points I spoke about during the panel discussion: Building relationships with families is the foundation on which all other progress is built. Families listen to us when we suggest mental health services or a visit to the dentist because our team is made up of credible messengers: people who share lived experiences with our clients and are embedded in the community. We build relationships with families from day one, and we never stop. This is important also because parents and other primary caregivers are children’s first and most important teacher. We want parents to be engaged in their children’s education so they can support their academic journeys long after their last day in our programs—and that engagement starts with relationships.
In her keynote speech, Dr. Najat Maalla M’jid, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Violence Against Children, noted that we have an obligation to protect the rights of children, and this right supersedes all other issues. This must be the underlying principle behind all policies and programs that serve children who migrate with their families to our city. They have the same rights as any other child—and, it’s important to remember, just as much potential, too.