Bridging the communication gap in early childhood education for ethnic minorities in Hong Kong

Bridging the communication gap in early childhood education for ethnic minorities in Hong Kong

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As a teacher, Atika wants to help other people with diverse backgrounds like herself to make their mark in society.
Photo: The Education University of Hong Kong

Teaching young children can be one of the most fulfilling jobs in the world, but also one of the most challenging. In Hong Kong, where 92 per cent of the population is ethnic Chinese, children from an ethnic minority (EM) who attend local schools are taught Chinese and English. 

The playground language may be Cantonese, so for young children from South Asian backgrounds, who don’t speak English or Chinese at home, kindergarten can be a confusing place. However, there are now programmes to help teachers offer support in the classroom, such as the Diploma in Early Childhood Education D(ECE) (Supporting Learning and Teaching for non-Chinese Speaking Children) at The Education University of Hong Kong (EdUHK). 

Atika Khan recently completed the programme and learned a great deal during her time as a student and a teacher-in-training. Born in Hong Kong and raised here by Pakistani parents, she speaks Urdu, Hindi, English and Cantonese. She attended local schools with multicultural student bodies and, in general, found her teachers to be caring and understanding. 

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When in Form 3, she had one teacher who was especially supportive, taking the time to talk and learn about her interests. This inspired Atika to work harder and decide to become a teacher herself one day. 

“Ethnic minority children may have been born in Hong Kong, but have no early exposure to Cantonese or English,” she says. “So, when they enter K1, they lack the language skills to communicate with the teachers and with other students.” 

“Also, local teachers have different cultural backgrounds, which can make it difficult for them to understand the emotional needs of ethnic minority students. And some EM parents only want their children to learn English. Now, though, as a teacher, I help them to understand the importance of learning Chinese as well.”

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The D(ECE) programme, which emphasises skills in English and Cantonese, while taking into account the teaching assistant’s mother tongue, means graduates can help bridge the communication gap between children, teachers and parents. That makes for better understanding within the school environment, as well as between school and home.

Atika recalls meeting a particular student while doing her practicum work. She used to visit a kindergarten once or twice a week where one Pakistani girl would often cry as if in pain. By taking the time to get to know the girl a bit better and find out what was wrong, Atika learned that the girl’s mother was in the hospital and was badly missed. After identifying the reason for such distress, Atika spoke to the girl’s father, who then did more to explain the situation to his daughter. 

The D(ECE) was Atika’s initial step into teaching and she found the experience to be very rewarding. She is full of praise for her instructors and the general level of support given, noting that any issues which arose during the programme were discussed and resolved. One teacher, Serena Fung, who is also the practicum coordinator, confirms that supporting and communicating with students is a priority.  

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At this point, Atika wants to help other people with backgrounds like hers to make their mark in society. 

“This course is all about teaching kids from diverse backgrounds to arrive at the same learning outcome,” she says. “It also provides a brand-new experience for local teachers when collaborating with a mission-driven group of teaching assistants.” 

One day, she plans to be “a kindergarten teacher who inspires children – where everyone is equally accepted and respected in the classroom.”

Edited by Richard James Havis

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