ELLs in Early Childhood Education: Recruiting Immigrant Families

"When I approach a child, he inspires in me two sentiments; tenderness for what he is, and respect for what he may become."

— Louis Pasteur

Recently I had a conversation with the director of an early childhood program in a large urban school district. She expressed concern that there were three early childhood sites designated specifically to meet the needs of low-income students in the community, and that even though many local immigrant families qualified for enrollment, they didn't send their children to the school. She asked for my opinion on how the department and sites could better recruit immigrant families and enroll more English language learners (ELLs) who would benefit greatly from the program.

It occurred to me that although the benefits of preschool programs are well documented, particularly for ELLs, there are additional issues that must be taken into consideration in order to effectively recruit and meet the needs of immigrant families in early childhood education centers. These issues range from socioeconomic status and program access to culture and language.

Preparing ELLs for Success

Learn how to support ELLs' language and literacy development in preschool.

This article provides a brief overview of the some of the reasons why fewer than expected immigrant families are enrolling their children in preschool, and offers some tips for recruiting and supporting immigrant families in an early childhood education setting.

It must be noted that much of the research done on early childhood education and ELLs has focused on Hispanic families, since their children represent a significant majority of ELLs; however, many of the trends and challenges that affect Hispanic families affect other immigrant communities and students as well. The research that has thus far focused on ELLs of Hispanic origin can serve as a useful model for educators working with ELLs and immigrant families from all backgrounds.

Why is early childhood education so important for ELLs?

The ELL student population in the U.S. has grown dramatically in recent years, and is expected to continue that growth in upcoming decades. This means that the demand on educators and policymakers to create and sustain high-quality, effective preschool programs for ELLs will also continue to grow in communities around the country (Garcia and Gonzales, 2006).

These demographic shifts don't only affect preschools, however. The children who are now in preschool will soon move through the U.S. school system, and their ability to succeed in elementary, middle, and high school may in part depend on how effective their preschool programs were. Once these children become adults, they will find themselves playing an important role in and contributing to the U.S. society — politically, socially, culturally, and economically — and education will be one of the keys necessary for those former preschoolers to realize their full potential.

Even for children who speak English, a lack of access to early childhood education makes it hard for them to catch up in later years because they are always chasing a "moving target" as their peers continue to build on the academic knowledge they gained in preschool. For children who don't speak English, though, the gap is particularly hard to overcome, as evidenced by disparities in reading and math scores (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2005, as cited in Laosa & Ainsworth, 2007) as well as lower graduation rates among Hispanics when compared with their peers of other ethnic backgrounds.

The good news, however, is that for those Hispanic children who do have access to early childhood education, the benefits are as strong as those for children of other backgrounds, and in some cases, are even stronger. According to Laosa & Ainsworth (2007),

"(W)hen afforded the opportunity to access high-quality preschool education, children of Hispanic descent make significant gains in learning and development, including areas such as vocabulary and letter knowledge that are strongly predictive of later reading success…Increasing participation in high-quality programs is one effective public policy to address problems common among Hispanic youth." (p.10)

Quality pre-school programs that take into account the unique needs of ELLs provide a valuable opportunity to increase literacy skills and to build an educational foundation in order to reduce the gap that can start in kindergarten and continue through high school and into adulthood.


Preschool Enrollment Obstacles

The question, then, is how to get more ELL children enrolled in preschool programs? First, it is important to take a closer look at why many disadvantaged families of ELLs who may qualify for preschool programs may not enroll their children, even when they have a positive attitude towards early childhood education and would be willing to send their children to preschool (National Household Education Survey, 2005, as cited in Barnett & Yarosz, 2007).

When looking at preschool enrollment numbers of Hispanic children, for example, the lower numbers have often been interpreted as a lack of interest or even a "reluctance" on the part of Hispanic parents for their children to participate in early childhood education programs (Garcia and Gonzales, 2006). That perception doesn't reflect reality, however.

In 2006, the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute conducted a Latino public opinion survey of 1,000 Hispanic families in 10 states across the country about pre-kindergarten programs. The study found that:

  • Ninety-five percent of the respondents thought that attending pre-kindergarten gives children an advantage in school over children who did not attend pre-kindergarten
  • More than 96% of respondents said they would enroll their children in a free, voluntary pre-kindergarten program if it were available to them (Valencia, Pérez & Echeveste and Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, 2006).

So if the interest and recognition of value of early childhood education is so high among Hispanic parents, why are preschool enrollment numbers lower for Hispanic children compared with white and African-American children of the same age?

When asked for reasons they didn't enroll their children, participants in the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute study provided a number of reasons, including that they didn't know about the programs, they couldn't afford them, and because they didn't have the documents the program required (Valencia et al., 2006).

Numerous other researchers, too, have studied and documented the reasons why immigrant families who are interested in preschool education for their children don't enroll them. These include socioeconomic reasons, lack of access to quality programs and to information about programs, language and communication challenges, and different cultural expectations. Understanding these reasons can be an important step in increasing student enrollment in local early childhood education programs.

Socioeconomic factors

A number of socioeconomic and demographic factors have been shown to correlate with low rates of preschool enrollment and subsequent low academic achievement. These factors include:

  • family income
  • a mother's level of education
  • parents' employment status (Matthews & Ewen, 2006)

For example, when the mother does not work outside the home, the family is less likely to look for a preschool arrangement (National Household Education Survey, 2001, as cited in Matthews & Ewen, 2006). Immigrants are also more likely to work in low-wage jobs with irregular schedules, making regular child care or program attendance difficult (Presser, 2003, as cited in Matthews & Ewen, 2006).

These factors can affect preschool participation in complex and significant ways for immigrant families whose socioeconomic and legal status may be in flux.

Lack of access to quality programs

Another factor affecting enrollment rates of immigrants in early childhood education programs is access to effective, affordable programs. The following complications can make a participation in an early childhood education program very difficult for many immigrant families:

  • No early affordable childhood education program is available in the community
  • A publicly funded program is available, but due to limited funding, it can't reach the entire target population it intends to serve (Laosa & Ainsworth, p. 9)
  • A publicly funded program is available, but is not effective due to class size, a lack of preparation on the part of the teachers, and/or high teacher-to-child ratios (Garcia & Gonzalez, 2006, p. 10)

As a result, even if early childhood programs are targeting immigrant families, it does not guarantee that those families will enroll their children, and if the families do enroll, the children aren't guaranteed to gain the benefits from their early childhood education experience that they need if the program isn't effective.

Language and communication challenges

Language barriers not only affect children's success in preschool and later grades, but also parents' awareness of early childhood education programs in their neighborhood. Parents won't necessarily know about programs in their neighborhood if the school hasn't made an effort to reach them in their own language (Garcia & Gonzalez, 2006). Good communication in a common language is necessary for both sides of the school-family partnership to be effective partners, because language plays a part in all aspects of the relationship, including:

  • recruiting families and informing parents about the program
  • enrollment procedures such as filling out paperwork
  • developing a positive, working relationship between parents and teachers (Garcia & Gonzalez, 2006)

Without access to communication in their language, parents won't learn about the programs that are available, and teachers won't be able to involve and engage parents in important issues related to their children.

Different cultural expectations

A wide range of cultural issues may also play a part in a family's decisions about preschool enrollment, whether the family is a new immigrant family or a family that has been in the U.S. for a longer time but is new to the early childhood education system of this country. Here are some points to remember:

Many parents may have had limited opportunities to attend primary school in their native country, and may not be aware of the importance and availability of preschool in the U.S.

Parents must focus on finding and maintaining stable housing and employment situations, enrolling older children in school, and attending various appointments (government, medical, financial, etc). The energy required to meet this demanding schedule may influence the families' decision as to whether or not to send a child to preschool.

For example, in some cultures, the mother may be the primary caretaker of the children, and is seen as responsible for the early childhood education of the children. This education could include character building, religious teaching, reinforcing cultural beliefs and appropriate behavior, or academic work. As a result, parents and teachers may have different, culturally-based definitions of early childhood education and parental involvement. (To learn more about a group of Latino parents' perspective on parental involvement, read "Understanding Latino Parental Involvement in Education" published by the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute.)

Immigrant parents may feel more inclined to send their child to a preschool where the staff speaks the home language and where there is evidence that the child's culture is included in the school environment and learning. If the parents do not have this connection they may not feel as trusting of the source of education and also be reluctant to entrust the preschool with the responsibility of educating their child.

  1. Immigrants come from many countries with a variety of educational systems and experiences.
  2. Immigrants and low-income parents often struggle with meeting day-to-day needs of their families.
  3. Early childhood education may mean different things in different cultures.
  4. The cultural relevance of the preschool curriculum and how the language and culture of students is integrated into the program may influence parents' decisions.

Every immigrant family is different. Even if a group of families has come from the same country or speaks the same language, the preschool programs need to reflect the diversity of their students and families. Educators and administrators who are interested in recruiting ELL preschool students can increase their own understanding of the families they are serving by spending time getting to know the families in the communities, discovering their needs, and developing the relationships necessary to provide support for families as they make the decision to send their child to preschool. The tips below provide some specific ideas for getting started.

Tips to Recruit Immigrant Families / Families of ELLs

The best way to recruit immigrant families is to take the time to learn about their needs and their cultures so that you can develop a trusting relationship. The following ideas all relate to building communication strategies that work for the families you are serving, and taking time to interact and get to know your potential students. Get bilingual staff and parent volunteers involved in these outreach efforts so that parents will feel more comfortable and will be able to ask questions.

Show your interest in meeting the needs of the families you are trying to target by learning more about their community, their culture, their educational experiences and expectations, and obstacles or challenges that may be preventing families from enrolling their children in your program. Is it a question of increasing publicity about the program in different languages? Affordability? Transportation and location? Program model and language of instruction? Differing ideas about early education? Even if you can't make major changes to address all of these challenges at once, getting to know your families well will allow you to make smaller changes that can make a big difference, and look plan strategically for bigger changes in the future.

Immigrant families often rely on these agencies for advice and referrals to resources. Invite the leaders of the community agency to visit your program and ask them for advice on how you can make the program more beneficial to their population. These leaders may also be a source of invaluable background information on the community they serve.

Offer information to parents describing the educational programs, language-learning models, or elements that focus on preserving students' culture at your school. Translate basic program information into as many languages as your center serves, if possible, so that parents can take the information home and review or share it as needed.

Find out how the local immigrant community gets their news. Many immigrant communities have radio stations or TV shows that broadcast news and advertisements in their native language. Even large Spanish-language networks such as Telemundo or Univision have many small affiliates throughout the country with a local newscast or community calendar. There may also be an ethnic newspaper such as the "Asian Times" that would target the immigrant audience more effectively. Mainstream techniques are rarely effective with immigrant populations, since they are not used to receiving information through flyers and general advertisements — especially if it's in a language they don't understand.

If immigrant parents and children come to the center and begin to feel comfortable in the environment and gain an understanding of what the program can offer their child, they will be more likely to enroll in the program. One idea is to have regular Open House sessions, and set aside a couple hours during the day when parents and children can join in the activities to see what it is like.

When I meet immigrant families who are choosing a school in my district and I ask them how they chose the school, they invariably answer that a cousin or friend has children at that school and recommended the program. You could ask the immigrant parents in your program if they would be willing to speak with a group of potential families and describe how the program has benefited their child. If your program has a fee, perhaps you could offer tuition reduction to parents who recruit new students.

  • Make sure that your preschool program is prepared to meet the needs of immigrant students and families.
  • Make a connection with local community agencies that serve specific immigrant populations.
  • Make program information available in target languages.
  • Advertise in the families' home languages.
  • Have regular "open houses" or play dates.
  • The most effective recruiters you have are immigrant parents who are already in the program.

Tips for Supporting Immigrant Families Once They Enroll

New immigrant families who have been through a lot of upheaval may still be trying to adjust to life in the U.S., and as a result, their children might need some extra support. Families who have lived in the U.S. for a long time may be enrolling their children in a preschool program for the first time, and may be very nervous or uncertain of how to proceed. Here are a few ideas that may help ease the transition into a formal academic program.

You can also set learning goals so you know you are meeting the expectations of the parents regarding their child's learning. This is also a good time to go over the expectations for calling in when their child is sick or won't be attending. Communication in the parent's first language is crucial; ask an interpreter to join the conversation if necessary. Give the family a phone number of a person they can talk to in their first language if they have any concerns as the year progresses.

Many of these children will be away from their mother and other family members who make up their safe community for the first time. They are at a school without that family and perhaps in an environment where they don't understand the language. This can be emotionally exhausting. If the child cries a lot when the mother is dropping them off, develop a strategy to ease the transition depending on the needs of the child. Comfort the mother as well since this is often stressful for her because she doesn't like to see her child suffer and may not be sure this is the best idea for her child.

Make sure the child knows about the quiet area so they can go there whenever they feel overwhelmed. You may need to allow for this even when you expect whole class participation, for example, to come together and hear a story. For an immigrant child who is overwhelmed by the language, the idea of sitting still to hear a story they don't understand may make them want to visit the quiet area instead. As the child gets more comfortable with the center, routine, and language, he will begin to spend less and less time there.

Remember that students may be coming from a different culture where different behaviors are expected. For example, some cultures eat with their hands, so students may not be familiar with silverware and how to use it. Some cultures see lots of activity as a sign of intelligence and the child may not understand why they are asked to sit quietly, and may not know how to do it effectively. Over time you will begin to see the cultural differences more clearly, and will know how to assist students with their adjustment to school.

Young children may benefit from having a "buddy." Whether this person is a specific teacher or another student who speaks the same language, make it clear that the student can go to that person anytime he feels anxious or need guidance.

  • Have a meeting with the parents in order to discuss any questions or concerns they might have as their child starts at the school.
  • Recognize that a new student may have a lot of fear during their first days at the school.
  • Make check-in times during the day and allow for children to have some down time in a quiet area.
  • Be very clear about behavior expectations and model correct behavior.
  • A smile goes a long way towards providing comfort and in the first days and weeks of a child's preschool experience.

By actively engaging the parents in your community and establishing a relationship based on trust, respect, and common goals for the students, you will have a better chance of attracting the families you have the potential to serve to your program, and getting their children on track to a bright and successful future.

Head Start: Parent, Family, and Community Engagement

Many links to Head Start publications on a variety of topics such as infant nutrition, certificates of appreciation for parents, children's mental health, and developmental assessments. Many of the publications are downloadable and translated into Spanish.

Resources for Dual Language Learners

This Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness Center website from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers articles, tip sheets and other resources you can use to meet the needs of diverse populations and promote dual language learning, including information about Head Start and ELLs.

Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development

The NCCC provides national leadership and contributes to the body of knowledge on cultural and linguistic competency within systems and organizations. Major emphasis is placed on translating evidence into policy and practice for programs and personnel concerned with health and mental health care delivery, administration, education and advocacy.

Mi Escuelita

Mi Escuelita is a Texas-based early childhood program dedicated to teaching English and early learning skills to at-risk children of all cultures to help them prepare for a successful school experience.

PBS: A Place of Our Own

A Place of Our Own is the companion Web site to the daily Californian television series "A Place of Our Own" (and "Los Niños en Su Casa" in Spanish). The Web site, along with the TV series and an outreach program, are directed toward child care providers and share ways to help children to acquire developmental skills, language, and literacy. On the Web site, information and episode resources are organized by key topics, such as Brain Development and Health & Safety.

Reading Rockets: Information on Preschool and Child Care

Information about effective preschool programs, what parents should look for in a preschool or child care setting, and early child education.

Pre-K Now

This archived website offers resources for Pre-K advocates, policymakers, business and community leaders, educators, and family.

Pre-K Now Article: Pre-K and Latinos*

"Pre-K and Latinos: The Foundation for America's Future."

Center for Law and Social Policy: Report on Early Education and Immigrant Families*

"Reaching All Children? Understanding Early Care and Education Participation Among Immigrant Families."

NIEER: ELL Resources

This section of the National Institute for Early Education Research website offers many research articles on early education and ELL students. The site also has reviews of preschool programs that have demonstrated success with ELL students.

NIEER: Research Policy Brief on Preschool*

"Who Goes to Preschool and Why Does It Matter?"

NIEER: Research Policy Brief on School Preparation*

"Is Public Pre-K Preparing Hispanic Children to Succeed in School?"

Reach Out and Read

A program designed to encourage reading in families and increase children's exposure to literature. Doctors and nurses are trained to read with parents and children at check-ups and then books are given to the family. Lists local programs and information on literacy resources.

Emergency and Community Health Outreach

Multilingual resources on health and safety resources, languages include English, Hmong, Somali, Spanish, Vietnamese and Cambodian.


* To view this file, you'll need a copy of Acrobat Reader. Most computers already have it installed. If yours does not, you can download it now.


Barnett, W.S. & Yarosz, D.J. "Who Goes to Preschool and Why Does it Matter?" National Institute for Early childhood education Research Policy Brief. Revised 2007. Retrieved 7/30/08 from http://nieer.org/resources/policybriefs/13.pdf

Garcia, E.E. & Gonzales, D.M. "Pre-K and Latinos: The Foundation for America's Future." Pre-K Now Research Series. July 2006. Retrieved 7/24/08 from http://www.preknow.org/documents/Pre-KandLatinos_July2006.pdf

Laosa, L.M. & Ainsworth, P. "Is Public Pre-K Preparing Hispanic Children to Succeed in School?" National Institute for Early childhood education Research Policy Brief. 2007. Retrieved 7/24/08 from http://nieer.org/resources/policybriefs/13.pdf

Matthews, H., & Ewen, D. "Reaching All Children? Understanding Early Care and Education Participation Among Immigrant Families." Center for Law and Social Policy. March 2006. Retrieved 7/24/08 from http://www.clasp.org/publications/child_care_immigrant.pdf

Valencia, Pérez & Echeveste and Tomás Rivera Policy Institute. "Latino Public Opinion Survey of Pre-Kindergarten Programs: Knowledge, Preferences, and Public Support." Conducted for Pre-K Now. April 2006. Retrieved 7/24/08 from http://www.trpi.org/PDFs/pre_k_now.pdf

Zarate, M. E. "Understanding Latino Parental Involvement in Education: Perceptions, Expectations, and Recommendations." Published by The Tomás Rivera Policy Institute. September 2007. Retrieved 7/24/08 from http://www.trpi.org/PDFs/TW%20REPORT.pdf


For those educators, policymakers, and researchers interested in policy or program information, the researchers cited in this article offer a number of recommendations regarding eligibility requirements, parent outreach, working with bilingual staff, different language models, professional development, community support, and research initiatives. Please see the reports below for those recommendations.


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