Dina Khalil and her family left behind political turmoil in Egypt when they moved to Los Angeles in 2010.
Khalil and her husband tried to find housing and jobs - and figure out how things worked in their new country -with their two toddlers in tow. Khalil only spoke Arabic.
New friends began suggesting she put her children into daycare or Head Start, but the idea was utterly baffling to Khalil. In Egypt, family members are the primary caregivers for young children, she said.
“If I go to work [in Cairo], I bring my daughter or my son to my sister; I bring my son to my mother,” she said. For her, the early years are a time to teach love, culture and language and daycare can’t do this like family can.
But what to do in a new country when there is no family to help out? It’s a dilemma facing more families nationwide. One quarter of all young children in the U.S. live in a family where at least one parent was born overseas, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
It's a challenge facing many advocacy organizations that work with immigrants: how to convince parents that early education in an institutional setting will be positive for their child.
In Khalil's case, she did ultimately send her son to preschool - a unique program that allowed her to be in class with him. He's now in first grade. She liked it so much, she recently enrolled her one-year-old in the family literacy program.
But a recent report from the Migration Policy Institute found children of recently arrived immigrants are being left out of the nation’s expanding early education system.
It found language barriers make it hard for parents to understand preschool or childcare center's rules or procedures. Immigrant parents are also less likely to question a teacher or school director if they don't like a certain aspect of how things are run.
“These are all enormous barriers that are often insurmountable for the parents that we’re concerned with," said Maki Park, the study's author.
She said staff at preschool centers often struggle with cultural barriers as well.
Cultural misunderstandings can cause immigrant parents to simply withdraw a child from preschool, according to Carrie Rothstein-Fisch, professor at Cal State Northridge and director of the graduate program in early childhood education.
Rothstein-Fisch studies the effect of culture in daycare and preschools settings.
In one preschool, an immigrant girl tried to join another little boy who was busy playing blocks. She began playing with the pieces he wasn’t using, and he hit her. The teacher scolded the girl for not asking the boy first if she could also play.
The girl’s mother happened to see the incident and was baffled at the teacher’s response, said Rothstein-Fisch. At home, the children don't “own” the toys. In their culture, everything belongs to everyone.
“So her knee-jerk reaction was, ‘This teacher hates my child, I’m pulling her out of school,’ ” Rothstein-Fisch said.
It’s largely a clash between the “individualistic” culture that predominates in American child rearing and preschools, Rothstein-Fisch said, and the more “collectivist” upbringing that some other cultures practice.
To help early childhood educators with these cultural issues, Rothstein-Fisch runs a training program called “bridging cultures project." She shows teachers how to engage diverse families and encourages them to invite parents into the classroom.
She said schools should bring “families in right from the start to feel like this is their community, this is the family’s classroom as well."