The condition of migrant children
The lexical use of migrant children in CHILD-UP stands for children with a migrant background, including children who are newcomers, long-term EU residents, refugee children, unaccompanied children, children living with their families or foster families and children living in hotspots and reception centres.
Vulnerability, intersectionality and participation.
Migration is seen as both a risk and an opportunity for children. On the one hand, migration is a disruption in a child’s life and the demands of integration complicate the life of children, who must learn a new language and adjust to new cultural expectations. On the other hand, migration may lead to a better life and better educational systems compared with children’s country of origin.
The concern over cultural differences contributes to defining migrant children’s lives, as the general feeling about migration in a community affects children’s sense of belonging and identity. Migrant children’s marginalisation is frequently enhanced by local communities and national policies insisting on Western models of cultural and social life. Migrant children are thus frequently seen as a vulnerable group, in need of protection. While this approach aims to support and aid migrant children, it also obscures their successful adjustment and contributions to the host society. CHILD-UP is based on the conception that the definition of all migrant children as a vulnerable group in need of protection conceals two important aspects of their condition:
- The importance of intersectionality. Intersectionality means understanding human life as conditioned by the interaction of a variety of social and cultural factors, such as ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, geography, age, ability and status. This interaction is shaped by various and connected systems, such as education, law, politics, economy, religion and the media. These systems create privileges for some human beings and restrict the rights and opportunities of others.
- Migrant children’s contributions to the host society and to their own integration. While intersectionality is important, children are not determined by social and cultural constraints. Children are also actors in present social processes. Children’s participation in social processes is primarily important for policies and social interventions. The United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child includes important rights to protection, education and participation. CHILD-UP is based on the concept that promoting migrant children’s active participation is extremely important for their integration.
Agency, hybrid identities and gender
Most studies on children’s participation stress the importance of children’s agency. Agency is a specific form of participation, based on the choices of action that are available to children in terms of promoting change in social contexts. The concept of agency can be developed in two directions.
First, the concept of agency works in conjunction with non-essentialist theories, denying the existence of permanent membership of cultural groups and conceiving cultural identity as a contingent product of social negotiation in both public discourse and interaction. Cultural and ethnic diversity is conceived as social construction, which can be changed through migrant children’s agency. Negotiations can produce hybrid identities, i.e. loose, unstable manifestations of cultural identities, and integration can be seen as hybrid integration. Second, CHILD-UP assumes that children are gendered agents. Research on the intersection of gender identity and cultural identifications may show how boys and girls in different socio-cultural conditions express themselves. The gender perspective can highlight how migration processes affect men and women differently, in terms of migration patterns, labour opportunities, division of care duties and participation in public spheres. Expectations of girls and boys often differ, creating barriers and possibilities in terms of children’s participation in different spheres of life, as in the way that adults control girls’ and boys’ behaviours differently. CHILD-UP combines an agency-based perspective with a gender approach. Gender is conceived as a social construction, enhancing expectations, values, identities, roles and relationships. Through social relations, children negotiate a gendered order, however under the influence of a gendered structure. Adult-child interactions are particularly important in this process. On the one hand, they can empower children and support their agency in negotiating meaning, actions, and power. On the other hand, they can reinforce gender stereotypes and roles, also leading to gendered forms of exploitation and abuse.
Education and agency
Levels and forms of children’s participation and identity construction depend on the type of socio-cultural context of children’s lives. Socio-cultural contexts can determine two types of problems for the exercise of children’s agency.
In socio-cultural contexts where hierarchical arrangements and strong obligations towards the collective prevail, children’s agency is interpreted as autonomous acceptance of adults’ authority and as a way of cooperating in the reproduction of the social order . When children accept the existing socio-cultural orientations, their exercise of agency does not include the availability of choices of action. Availability of choices of actions may be particularly low for refugees and unaccompanied children. An important question is if, in these cases, the right of participation is guaranteed to children.
In the mainstream discourse on education, children are considered incompetent in constructing and accessing knowledge. Such mainstream discourse is strengthened in the case of children with migrant backgrounds, when difficulties in using language and in socialisation may emerge: the condition of disadvantage is frequently the main feature of the identity of these children. Teacher-student relations are among the most important factors in the unsuccessful educational experience of migrant children. CHILD-UP identifies the problems in the ways in which school is proposed as an acculturative context for migrant children. Teachers’ expectations and attitudes can have an important impact on migrant children. CHILD-UP aims to analyse the combination of a perspective on education and teaching, on the one hand, with a perspective on children’s agency and hybrid identities on the other.
Agency, social protection and communities
Migrant children show tendencies towards lower educational performance and are more likely to leave school early than children with a native background: however, these tendencies largely depend on socio-economic disadvantage. Poverty creates social barriers and enhances the likelihood of a fragmented and intolerant society. Integration is based on the intersection of factors such as employment, housing, education and health. Against this background, migrant children’s integration is conditioned by the national policies of social protection, as an agenda for reducing vulnerability, increasing wellbeing, and managing the risk of low-income households and communities.
Social protection has an important impact on the integration of migrant children in the education system, as they suffer for economic difficulties and problems in understanding language and cultural presuppositions. Social protection, however, may focus primarily on vulnerability: therefore, children’s agency can be considered a secondary factor. The degree to which social protection of migrant children can be effectively combined with promotion of migrant children’s agency is an open issue.
Interventions for and with Migrant Children
CHILD-UP recognises that education can improve the potential of children’s agency and their ability to act in order to change the social conditions of their lives, both in schools and communities where they live. CHILD-UP aims to analyse the types of intervention that can improve the potential of agency and enhance the hybrid identities of migrant children.
Dialogic practices in schools
Bottom-up processes can change the position of educators and enhance expectations of children’s agency in negotiating the meaning of identity. These processes can take a dialogic form, which is based on the positive value of active and fair participation, perspective taking, and empowerment of expressions. It enables the equal treatment of different perspectives, opening the floor to all kinds of diversity in the form of personal trajectories, thus also opening the floor to personalised production of hybrid identities. CHILD-UP aims to analyse dialogic forms in schools, through:
- Practices enhancing second language learning. Linguistic diversity strongly affects the learning and social life of migrant children, therefore participation and integration of migrant children who do not know their second language is a main concern in schools. However, second language teaching is not always and everywhere effective. CHILD-UP aims to analyse if second language learning is based on dialogic methods improving children’s agency and hybrid identities.
- Practices of intercultural education. CHILD-UP aims to analyse effective dialogic practices of intercultural education, which means observing if this education enhances fluid and malleable hybrid identities as contingently constructed in communication, leading to intercultural sensitivity and intercultural learning.
- Practices of language and intercultural mediation. CHILD-UP aims to analyse if and in which ways the first languages can be maintained among migrant children. In most European contexts, language and intercultural mediation is considered a culturally sensitive activity which can ensure the achievement of multilingualism. Through language mediation, migrants’ agency can be enhanced, thus language mediation can create the conditions for cross-cultural adaptation.
- Practices of dialogic facilitation of interaction. CHILD-UP aims to analyse how facilitation is achieved though different ways of supporting children’s agency, encouraging their personal expressions and involving them in decision-making.
The analysis of dialogic practices highlights the importance of actions that can enhance children’s agency. They show that enhancing migrant children’s agency in schools means enhancing children’s authority in accessing and producing knowledge. Dialogic methods in education systems can enhance more general conditions of children’s active participation in changing their social context.