Jóhanna Einarsdottir Iceland
Photo: Kristinn Ingvarsson

Schools must wake up to our multicultural reality

Currently children with a foreign background are more likely to experience exclusion and rejection in preschool and first year of primary school.

Iceland is quite rapidly becoming a more diverse society due to an increase in immigration. Consequently, educating children with a foreign background has become a growing challenge for Iceland’s early childhood educators. Jóhanna Einarsdóttir, professor at the University of Iceland, has headed an Islandic study focusing on children with a diverse linguistic and cultural background. What challenges are they facing? And what can the school community do to integrate them better? Jóhanna and her team argues that understanding children’s belonging is crucial for inclusion, and that belonging must become a part of the school’s curriculum.

The research Jóhanna and her team is performing is a Nordic collaboration and a part of the NordForsk funded research project Politics of Belonging: Promoting children's inclusion in educational settings across borders.

How to understand inclusion and exclusion?

Understanding if a child from a diverse background is experiencing exclusion or not, is not straightforward. It can be challenging for young children to communicate how they feel and express their own well-being. Therefore, Johanna and her team developed, in collaboration with the other countries participating in the Politics of Belonging project, child friendly methods to reveal to what degree children were experiencing exclusion or belonging.

"We looked at belonging from the perspectives of both children, parents, and educators", says Professor Einarsdóttir.

The Icelandic team developed a method where they actively used photos to reveal to what extent children was feeling belonging or not.

"We used computer tablets. Among other activities, the children took the researchers on walks around the preschool taking pictures. Later they explained the pictures to the researchers. This was used as a foundation for our data. Furthermore, the photos were used as a springboard for discussions around their feeling of belonging in their preschool settings", explains Einarsdóttir.

When exploring the parents’ perspective, the group applied interviews, and they interviewed a group of immigrant parents individually and repeated that four times during a period of one year.

"From the time when the children were in preschool and their first year in primary school. We also used pictures to stimulate our conversations with the parents. The parents took pictures of their children in different situations and the pictures worked as an incentive for our dialogue."

Additionally, the group also worked and collaborated with educators, and as a result the team could look at belonging from three different perspectives.

"Two preschool teachers and two primary school teachers joined in during the project. When covering these three perspectives we could get a clearer picture on how the children were experiencing belonging, as well as parents’ and educators’ perspectives", explains Einarsdóttir.

Foreign children at a disadvantage

Soon the researchers had a focus on the children’s social relationships. Their data and findings demonstrated it is a vital part of a child’s sense of belonging.

"Naturally, From the perspective of the children, friendship and being a member of the peer group is important part of belonging in preschool", says Einarsdóttir.

However, children with foreign background were less likely to experience belonging in the preschool community. The cause is probably language related and acted as a barrier when playing and interacting with the other children.

"Yes, our data clearly shows this. Another finding was the importance of language and that belonging is clearly linked to understanding the majority language of the society. Children that did not understand the majority language got less opportunities to play with the other children and participate in general. Therefore, they were more likely to experience exclusion and rejection at preschool. We saw this in all our data from the children to the educators to the parents", says Einarsdóttir.

Moreover, parents with foreign backgrounds recognized this situation and were more likely to worry about their children’s inclusion at school.

"Many of the parents were worried about their children going to preschool and school in a new country. They wanted them to fit in and feel comfortable and they mainly focused on how the children could adapt to school. They also felt a need to support their children so they could feel more included and experience belonging."

Schools were not expected to adapt

Another important finding was that children with foreign background were expected to adapt to the preschool practices and not the other way around.

"This was of course not unexpected and both educators and the parents took this for granted", admits Einarsdóttir.

The schools did not seem to take into consideration the competences and the knowledge the children were bringing with them. They were simply expected to adapt to the school, this attitude was especially true for the primary school.

"Yes, and the school resources were used to helping them adapt. We noticed that the educators often took children’s belonging for granted. For example, they expected the children to learn the majority language without much assistance. Like it should happen automatically", says Einarsdóttir.

In all areas the children were more or less expected to adapt: The social relationships, the language, and the customs.

"In Iceland we have an inclusive education policy called “Education for all”. And educators are aware of it. However, schools do not seem to be ready to adapt to include everyone. Children must adapt to the school".

One of our big challenges

Like most of Europe, all the Nordic countries are becoming more and more multicultural and the groups of children we get into our schools are more diverse.

"We must acknowledge this multicultural society. Remember, we are not only trying to meet every child’s educational need, but also trying to support the children so they feel at home at school. That is belonging! Feeling a part of your group, your community and having good friends. I think we have a bigger challenge on our hands today compared to previous generations because of all the children from diverse backgrounds", argues Einarsdóttir.

Policy makers must act

The Icelandic study also sheds light on the importance of the connection between policy and practice.

"I think our study really reveals how important belonging is when it comes to inclusion. We need conscious policy makers who provide a policy framework for children’s belonging, but that is not enough, the policy needs to be reflected in practice", explains Einarsdóttir.

In Iceland, the ministry of education has recently published a policy document draft that focuses on children with diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

"Belonging plays a big part in this policy document. This is a good first step! However, what we need now is to focus on is the educators. They need further opportunities of professional development with a focus on belonging and multicultural education. Remember, it is one thing to have a policy document and another thing is to get belonging into the educators plans and practice", argues Einarsdóttir.


Siri Bjarnar. Photo: NordForsk

Siri Jørgensen Bjarnar

Chief Operating Officer