Our increasingly multi-cultural societies are a real blessing for early years professionals. The opportunity to introduce young children to a host of different cultures and family backgrounds enhances children's learning and understanding of the world around them. That said, with many settings caring for children where English is not spoken at home, delivering outstanding care for these children who speak English as an additional language (EAL) presents some particular challenges.
Here we share our 10 top tips for supporting EAL children in your setting...
All great early years practice is built on strong partnership working between professionals in a childcare setting, and a child's parents and wider family at home. This is even more important when working with EAL children. Parents are able to share insights from home which an early years professional can use to make their setting feel more familiar to a new EAL child, as well as enable a joined-up approach to supporting a child's learning of English. We published a whole article in our "Positive Parental Partnerships" series on the subject of working with parents who don't speak in English - check it out here.
Children coming from families where English is not spoken are much more likely to have a name which is unfamiliar to early years professionals. People pronouncing a child's name incorrectly will massively add to feelings of alienation and anxiety an EAL child may be feeling your setting, so proactive steps to avoid this are a must. Again, working with parents is crucial to clarifying the perfect way to say a child's name in the first place. It is then important to do what ever you need to in order to make sure you, your colleagues, and the other children in your setting say a child's name right. Consider making a poster which displays a tricky name with the way it sounds, rather than the way its spelt for staff to see in the staff room.
It is vital that a child's lack of English does not inhibit their wider development. A classic example would be a child who is confidently using the toilet themselves at home reverting to having accidents when they join an early years setting because they can't communicate their toiletting needs effectively. All early years settings should have a list of words which key workers need to know in a child's primary language, and key workers should work with parents during the settling process to make sure they know (and can pronounce!) these words. This list is likely to include:
Before getting into best practice tips for supporting children in learning English, it's important to that a child's lack of English informs all aspects of your practice for as long as it lasts. EAL children will have to rely on non-verbal communication, regardless of their age, and this can significantly impact their behaviour. A young child who is non-verbal will communicate physically by grabbing, pushing or even getting frustrated. An older child who can not communicate with their peers or those caring for them may revert to these communication behaviours. Such behaviour in an older child can easily be mistaken as "bad behaviour" - keeping EAL at the forefront of your mind will help you respond more appropriately.
Singing is a wonderful tool for supporting children as they learn any new language. The combination of rhythm, different pitch and physical actions can help to scaffold children's language development. Particularly good practice will use singing in both directions. As well as using classic English songs to support EAL children, try to introduce some traditional songs from other languages to your setting so that children learn at least a little of their peers' primary languages.
One of the many joys of working in early years is being able to observe the caring, loving and generous nature of children at this exciting age. Consider asking a child who speaks English as their primary language to "buddy up" with a new EAL child joining the community. This might involve the "buddy" making sure that their new friend goes with them when it's time to wash hands, sit up for snack, go to the carpet for circle time etc, asking the "buddy" to play with their EAL friend if they are looking left out of activities and generally providing a reliable and caring source of support. A fellow child is automatically at an EAL child's level (both physically and developmentally) and this can be a great way to support a child learning English at more of the small opportunities which you may miss.
Remember that the development of speech begins with the development of listening; this is equally true for babies learning their first words as for older children learning a second language. Try to make sure that every activity is a valuable listening opportunity for your EAL children:
This may sound like a bizarre suggetion; support children who don't speak English by teaching them a third different language?! In fact, spending a bit of time each week teaching all of the children in your setting a new language has some clear positives, especially for EAL children. Getting your English speaking children to experience the process of learning a new language provides them insight into their EAL peers' daily experience, enhancing empathy and understanding. Teaching children a new language which is unfamiliar to all of them also gives your EAL children the chance to develop a new skill at the same rate as their peers, boosting their self-confidence and inclusion in the setting.
If you are part of the management of your setting, it is important to keep an eye on your community of children as a whole, rather than thinking about EAL children in isolation. Many local communities develop substantial groups of families who all speak the same, alternative language and this in turn can lead to early years settings having sizeable minorities of children speaking this non-English language. Spotting these patterns can help inform decisions about the whole setting which can help these children. For example, if you spot that 10% of your children all speak Polish as their first langauge, you might make a proactive decision to recruit a fluent Polish speaker to your staff team. This doesn't mean that all Polish children need to have a Polish key worker! On the contrary, EAL children will likely benefit from a native English speaker as a key worker. But, having a single member of staff in the team who can communicate fluently with a sizeable minority of children, and their families, will likely make many of these top tips easier to execute.
Delivering outstanding care to EAL children is tough, so don't feel bad about seeking help! Make enquiries with your local early years advisory team to see if there are translation services you can access. Talk to parents to see if there are community hubs in their principle language who you might be able to partner with. Look into purchasing copies of your favourite stories in multiple languages. The most important thing for children learning English as an additional language is that they are given the time, care and gentle encouragement they need.