Skip over navigation

Journal Issue: Immigrant Children Volume 21 Number 1 Spring 2011

Early Care and Education for Children in Immigrant Families
Lynn A. Karoly Gabriella C. Gonzalez

Policy Implications and Options

As researchers and policy makers focus on the use, quality, and impact of child-care and early-learning experiences before school entry, they must not ignore the situation of immigrant children. A substantial and growing share of the population, immigrant children are a diverse group that spans the full range of family socioeconomic status experienced by their native counterparts. Yet immigrant children disproportionately face stressors in early childhood such as low family income, low parental education, and lack of exposure to the English language that may affect their ability to enter school ready to learn.

To some extent, the risks that disadvantaged immigrant children face resemble those of their similarly disadvantaged native counterparts, but other factors are unique to immigrant children. Thus patterns of ECE use, quality, and impact for immigrant children are consistent with those of their native counterparts with similar demographic and socioeconomic characteristics. For example, the lower rates of use of nonparental care among immigrant infants, toddlers, and preschoolers can be at least partially explained by their higher prevalence of poverty and low parental education, among other factors. At the same time, immigrant children appear to benefit as much or potentially more than their native peers from high-quality ECE programs, perhaps because of the greater disadvantages they face on average. Thus, to improve ECE access and quality, policy makers can consider options that pertain to disadvantaged children more generally as well as those that address the issues unique to immigrant children. In the remainder of this section, we consider options using this two-pronged approach.

Policy Options for Increasing Use and Quality of ECE Programs for Disadvantaged Children
Given researchers' attention to shortfalls in ECE use and quality among disadvantaged children, policy makers are already considering, and in many cases implementing, reforms at the federal, state, and local levels.78 Immigrant children who fall into the groups targeted by these efforts stand to benefit as well. Indeed, there may already be some narrowing of the immigrant-native gap in ECE participation that might be attributable to efforts to expand participation of underrepresented groups in new or existing programs like Early Head Start, Head Start, and state prekindergarten programs.

At the federal and state levels, reform strategies planned or under way include increasing funding for subsidized ECE programs so that greater numbers of eligible children can participate; integrating federal and state funding streams to create consolidated subsidized systems that are easier for parents to navigate; raising program quality through quality rating and improvement systems that also link provider reimbursement rates to program quality; improving the quality of ECE programs and classroom staff through reforms to workforce development systems; aligning early-learning education standards with those in the elementary grades and promoting more effective transitions from preschool to kindergarten; and linking and enhancing data systems to support evaluation of the reform efforts. Of course, existing reforms can always be improved, and various prescriptions for improvement exist.79 These are all efforts that should benefit disadvantaged immigrant children, although ongoing evaluation is required to determine if the objectives of these policy reforms are realized.

In their efforts to expand access to ECE programs, some states have moved toward publicly funded universal provision, particularly for preschool programs serving four-year-olds. Immigrant children may benefit in multiple ways from this approach. Not only would all children be eligible so that affordability is no longer a concern, but barriers related to eligibility determination and the stigma of targeted programs would also be eliminated. Since universal programs are usually voluntary, immigrant children may still participate at lower rates if their parents have cultural reasons for preferring other types of care. However, the data examined earlier in this paper and other cited studies suggest that the cultural differences between immigrant and nonimmigrant families regarding use of care are less important than demographic and socioeconomic factors.

While many states aspire to universal provision, not all have the resources to do so. For the foreseeable future, most states will continue to provide both subsidized child care and preschool programs on a targeted basis. Even with targeted programs, however, alternative approaches to targeting may have differential consequences for immigrant children.80 For example, in most states, subsidized ECE programs are available to children in families who meet specific eligibility criteria regarding income and other characteristics like employment status. Programs that rely on person-based targeting include Early Head Start, Head Start, subsidized child care through TANF and CCDF, and state-funded preschool programs. Such person-based targeted approaches are associated with a number of the barriers to immigrant participation enumerated earlier, such as difficulties with the application process, fear of exposure on the part of undocumented parents, and the stigma of participating in a targeted program.

Another approach, one that is in effect in New Jersey's Abbott Districts preschool program, is to use geographic targeting. Under this approach, all children in targeted communities are eligible for the program, regardless of other family circumstances. The targeting efficiency of this approach may be particularly effective for immigrant children who are often clustered in neighborhoods with a high concentration of immigrant families.81 With geographic targeting, families need only document their residency (as they would for elementary school enrollment), and stigma is reduced because all children in the community are eligible. In the end, whether publicly funded ECE programs are universally available or limited to targeted populations, further research is needed to determine which subgroups of immigrant children could benefit the most from participation in high-quality programs and whether those subgroups are underrepresented in current programs.

Addressing the Unique Needs of Immigrant Children
Our assessment of the barriers to higher participation of immigrant children in high-quality ECE programs indicates that a number of obstacles represent unique issues faced by immigrants such as legal status, language barriers, cultural sensitivities, informational gaps, and perceptions about government services or the importance of early-learning programs. These issues can potentially be addressed through the way publicly subsidized programs are structured as well as by how providers themselves configure their programs. In many cases, the strategies we suggest below are being tried in states and communities across the country, and the knowledge base about what does and does not work is growing. A potential role for state or federal agencies in this process, or even for the research community, is the building of a centralized repository of information about those strategies that have proven effective and those that need further refinement or should be avoided.

At the institutional level, the agencies that implement or support publicly subsidized programs—federal and state departments, local education agencies, resource and referral agencies—can take steps to reduce barriers that limit the use of ECE programs by immigrant families. For example, language-accessible communication strategies can be targeted to immigrant communities to increase awareness of the programs and services available to them, the benefits of participation, and the lack of harmful consequences (such as becoming a public charge).82 Given the tendency for immigrants to rely on informal social networks to find out about programs and to navigate the application process, policies could encourage the development of formal peer-to-peer networks for immigrant parents or could engage parents that use subsidized ECE programs to share information about the process and their experiences. Such strategies may even benefit from the use of new online tools for social networking that are gaining in popularity. This approach could help to ease the confusion about available options, provide support for any required application process, and work toward diminishing the stigma or fear of negative consequences associated with using subsidized care.

Other strategies could go beyond increasing information flows and addressing misperceptions to directly change bureaucratic processes. For example, government agencies could streamline their administrative requests and paperwork necessary for low-income immigrants to receive child-care benefits. Applications can be translated into more languages than the most common immigrant languages (Spanish, Mandarin, and Vietnamese). Furthermore, to ensure that U.S. citizen children receive the child-care subsidies to which they are entitled, applications could refrain from requesting a parent's SSN and instead ask for the number of the applicant child.

A number of studies have shown that parental involvement in children's elementary and secondary education is linked to academic or behavioral success of students. Thus efforts made to improve immigrant parents' involvement with ECE programs could prove fruitful in promoting children's success and transition to elementary school. Alongside outreach efforts to encourage parents to use child-care options, efforts need to be made to communicate to immigrant parents the importance of being engaged with their children's early education progress by attending parent-teacher conferences, engaging in the process of transitioning to kindergarten, and communicating with teachers and staff. Unfortunately, rather than attributing lower levels of school participation to language or cultural barriers, ECE staff may assume that immigrant parents are not engaged in their child's development or social progress. This perception may have detrimental effects on the child's learning and development. Likewise, ECE programs can encourage more involvement by ensuring that staff are linguistically capable of communicating with parents whose second language is English.

The capacity of the existing ECE workforce to meet the specialized needs of immigrant communities is another area to target. Workforce development systems, whether in formal degree programs or ongoing professional development activities, can be enhanced to increase the cultural competency of program administrators and classroom staff so that they are knowledgeable about and can address the unique needs of immigrant families and their young children.83 Programs also need to provide training in approaches to working effectively with English learners, whether on a whole classroom basis or in one-on-one interactions. Workforce development efforts also need to target both licensed and license-exempt home-based care providers to increase training on these same issues of cultural competency and English learners. Professional networks for at-home providers offer one strategy for reaching these more isolated providers and improving the quality of care.

Providers themselves also have a role to play in how they organize their programs and reach out to immigrant families. As the population has become more diverse in general, ECE providers and the institutions that support them (such as education and training institutions and accreditation agencies) have stressed the need for programs to be more culturally competent. For example, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the premier organization that accredits child-care and early-learning programs, has an initiative to define culturally competent practices.84 Although an understanding of best practices has yet to fully emerge, programs can be responsive in many ways, from hiring teachers and staff who speak the languages of the parents or who are from the same country, to creating formal roles for parents and others to act as cultural liaisons, to honoring and respecting cultural and religious practices that may differ from those of the mainstream American society.85

Another critical element in supporting immigrant children is the implementation of curricula and other practices that support English learners. These may be formal strategies, such as the dual language immersion approach discussed earlier, as well as strategies that support the development of the English learners in a classroom or group. Here further research is needed to support program administrators and classroom staff in their efforts to identify best practices and to engage in a process of continuous improvement. Other program elements that may have particular benefit for immigrant children are approaches to supporting the transition from preschool to kindergarten.

Ultimately, it is important to recognize that high-quality child-care and early-learning programs alone will not fully close the gaps in school readiness and achievement that exist for immigrants or immigrant subgroups. While not specific to immigrant children, several studies have estimated the potential of increasing access to and the quality of ECE programs as a strategy for narrowing racial-ethnic gaps in readiness and academic achievement.86 These studies show that a modest to substantial share of existing gaps can be closed, depending on the assumptions about the effectiveness of high-quality ECE programs. These findings are likely to extend to immigrant children as well, given that readiness and achievement gaps and effectiveness of ECE programs for immigrants versus natives are comparable in magnitude to those seen across racial and ethnic groups. Yet, even the most effective programs will not overcome all of the disadvantages facing immigrant children as they prepare for school and beyond. Thus, the strategies covered in this article must be integrated with those in the other articles in this volume to provide a continuum of supports for immigrant children and youth as they transition to adulthood.