Through social media and my business, Early Years Story Box, I had the pleasure of speaking to an early years professional who really gave me food for thought and made me question if we could possibly be doing more to support children who speak English as an additional language.
As you may or may not know, I have created a range of storybooks called the Memory Box Collection. These books are given to children by nurseries, childminders and primary schools as welcome/leavers’ gifts and on special occasions like birthdays, Christmas and Easter. There are also books in the collection that teach children about cultural festivals such as Chinese New Year and it is was these storybooks that caught the attention of Kuen-Wah Cheung. He commented on one of my Facebook posts and questioned whether settings could do more to teach children about different cultures throughout the year, rather than just solely focusing on these festivals. His comment intrigued me and after commenting back and forth a few times, I asked if he would be interested in chatting about this in more detail and to my delight he said yes.
Kuen-Wah is of Chinese heritage and grew up in Brighton in the 80s. His parents spoke very little English so when Kuen-Wah went to school, he too struggled with the language and had many times when he felt very alone and isolated. Each year, Chinese New Year would be highlighted and celebrated in his setting, but to Kuen-Wah this triggered ambivalent emotions because he felt that the only time people showed interest in him was once a year when he was ‘relevant’. He did, however, say that it was better to be acknowledged once a year than not at all!
I’m a big believer that when we know better, we do better, so when Kuen-Wah brought this to my attention, I wanted to find out more. He said that growing up he really struggled to have a sense of belonging.
His family were Chinese, didn’t speak much English and very much lived by the Chinese culture. However, he lived in Brighton, surrounded by a majority of people who looked and acted nothing like anything familiar to him. He didn’t belong in China, because Britain was his home. However, he didn’t feel like he fit in where he lived because almost everything around him was nothing he could relate to. The food he ate at home was different to school. He looked different to almost everyone else he knew. His family followed different customs that didn’t translate to British life and on a whole, he struggled to find his place and to feel settled.
There were also times throughout his life when Kuen-Wah experienced racism and negative comments about how he looked. Teachers generally tried to deal with this by instilling the message that we are all the same. However, this in itself was a conflict because in reality, Kuen-Wah was very different to almost everyone around him. He later realised that by not acknowledging his differences, this actually perpetuated his lack of confidence. It also made him want to be like everyone else so that he could fit in, and rather than embracing and celebrating his uniqueness, he shied away from it and felt even less in touch with who he was.
As the conversation went on, I really tried to put myself in the shoes of Kuen-Wah as a child and could see how lonely and confusing it would have been. As teachers and practitioners, we always come from a place of love and care. However, it is hard to fully comprehend a situation like this when it is so far removed from our own life and reality. As much as we all make a conscious effort to be inclusive, our conversation did make me wonder if there was more that we could do to help children of different cultures and ethnicities to feel more of a sense of belonging and acceptance.
Kuen-Wah spoke fondly about a lady in his school who took the time to learn a few key words and phrases in Cantonese. He said that this simple gesture made him feel really special and had a huge impact on him because it broke the language barrier down a fraction. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t always respond to Kuen-Wah once he had replied. Just the fact that she had said something in his native tongue was enough for him to feel more of a connection to her and his environment.
Now, I’m not saying that we should learn a different language for every child in our setting. However, how amazing would it be if each practitioner had a laminated sheet for each language spoken with key words and phrases?! These words would be written phonetically so that they were easy to read/say and then throughout the day they could be used to create a deeper connection and to bridge the gap between the two cultures.
Here’s a list of some phrases that could be included:
- How are you?
- Do you need the toilet?
- Are you ok?
- Are you happy/sad/angry?
- Can I help you?
- Are you hungry?
- Mummy/Daddy is coming back soon
- What do you want to play with?
- Do you want a hug?
- Show me
This could also be good for parental involvement and links to home because you could ask children’s families for help with how to say certain phrases. You could also ask them about their culture and then think of ways to incorporate this into your daily topics. For example, if you are focusing on healthy eating, maybe include foods that these children eat at home too, rather than just British food.
I do believe that teaching children about cultural festivals is important, which is why I added an Eid, Diwali and Chinese New Year book to my collection (and plan on adding more). However, my conversation with Kuen-Wah has really made me think about other things that we can do on a daily basis to not only include different cultures and customs in our teachings, but to also help children to feel more of a sense of belonging.
If we can try our best to look at the world through these children’s eyes and limitations, we will see ways that we can support them to feel more included and accepted. One of my favourite quotes is ‘Be the person you needed as a child’. If you were a child who was in completely unfamiliar territory surrounded by people who spoke and acted in a way that you didn’t truly understand, what would help you to feel safe and secure? If we answer this question, I think we will be able to think of lots of little ways to make a big difference in these children’s lives.
Kuen-Wah has now been an Early Years Practitioner for 12 years and has used his own childhood experiences as a catalyst to make a difference to the children in his care. Knowing the impact that it had on his own life, he has taken the time to learn some basics in other languages such as Russian, Hungarian and KPK Pashto and has gone above and beyond to connect with every individual child he encounters. Life is full of lessons. Some stem from our own experiences and some stem from the experiences of others. Kuen-Wah is a shining example of someone who has used his pain and turned it into a positive. It may not have been the easiest road for him, but it has made him the practitioner that he is today and that truly is a positive outcome.
Stacey Kelly is a former teacher, a parent to 2 beautiful babies and the founder of Early Years Story Box, which is a subscription website providing children’s storybooks and early years resources. She is passionate about building children’s imagination, creativity and self-belief and about creating awareness of the impact that the Early Years have on a child’s future. Stacey loves her role as a writer, illustrator and public speaker and believes in the power of personal development. She is also on a mission to empower children to live a life full of happiness and fulfilment, which is why she launched the #ThankYouOaky Gratitude Movement.
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