“Speak English!” That’s the reception Angelina Fregoso received from one parent when she was overheard speaking Spanish to a child in her care. This was a story she recently shared with a gathering of providers who had come to hear how they could better support a bilingual environment for Spanish-speaking children.
Angelina was part of a dual county event that brought together (virtually) childcare providers and families. The two Nebraska counties, Madison and Dakota, took steps on Saturday, April 24, toward creating a more equitable early childhood care and education environment where providers and Spanish-speaking families could engage in a mutual journey of discovery.
“Supporting Spanish Speakers in Early Childhood” was comprised of back-to-back Zoom sessions, one in English and one in Spanish, to inspire conversations about the bilingual experience in childcare. The event offered providers insight into Latinx cultures and invited Spanish-speaking families to better understand the requirements of the American educational system and to engage actively with the providers who care for their children.
The event was the brainchild of Abagail Gustad, who knows what it’s like to need extended help from Nebraska’s early childhood care and education system. After receiving her associate’s degree in early childhood education, Gustad worked for some time in the ECCE system before taking an 11-year hiatus. But when her daughter was born and needed the assistance of the Early Development Network, Gustad realized that there was more she could do with her training than teach. Gustad became an Advocate for in-home support with Healthy Families and later joined Nebraska Children’s Rooted in Relationships as a Trainer of Trainers.
In her position as Early Childhood Community Coordinator (ECCC) for Dakota County, Gustad received community well-being funds for bilingual support in her area and immediately knew she wanted to “dive in with a project.” She gathered three providers in her community who had bilingual staff and asked them where to begin.
Gustad said that “They really felt there needs to be some cultural inclusion training.” She describes the difficulty of an atmosphere where Spanish-speaking children enter childcare and “Come into an environment where there’s nothing that reminds them of their culture.” This creates a barrier for children and their families.
She joined forces with Amanda Smith, the ECCC for Madison County, who is raising two bilingual children. She immediately saw the value for her county where there are no Spanish-speaking providers but lots of families who need bilingual support.
Smith sees the value of the event as not only for families, but also for the providers who educate bilingual children. As she puts it, we gave “So many important opportunities to providers.” They not only learned valuable information that helped them better connect with Spanish-speaking families, but they also received free materials and a credit hour of continuing education.
Angelina, a trainer who has been a translator, aide, a Parents Interacting with Infants (PIWI) facilitator, and an educator, offered both audiences the perspective of a lived bilingual experience. Fregoso shared her experience as a woman who didn’t learn English until she was 30. She described the “strange environment” for children, some of whom come to America with no parents and who find no cultural markers of their own lived experience. She uses the example of her son to illustrate just how alienating this can be: “There was no Spanish anywhere; he didn’t even know how to ask to go to the bathroom.”
As she put it, “People don’t try to understand, and when they don’t, you give up.” Not something you want when a child is just entering the world of schooling.
Providers were encouraged to learn some Spanish words and had the opportunity to receive toys connected to Latinx cultures, as well as hear stories of what it means to engage with a system that isn’t designed to speak to the Spanish experience.
Abagail noted that Angelina did a “Great job of encouraging providers to try non-native words, telling them that if the kids laughed, then laugh with them.”
Angelina added that “Kids love to teach you, too.” Providers were particularly interested in the practice of labeling common items around the care environment in both English and Spanish. Angelina explained this as a valuable exercise that could be mirrored at home so that families can join the bilingual process with their children.
Families who attended were also excited for the multicultural toys, particularly sets of food that spoke to Spanish-speaking cultures. Angelina said that such cultural markers make the otherwise strange environment seem more familiar.
“They see things that look like grandma’s house,” she added. Families also had the opportunity to hear from someone who had been on both sides of the experience, who offered more about the methods of preparing their children for the American educational system, and how they could use provider input to help them work at home with their children and support their children’s progress in a care environment.
The response from both audiences was overwhelmingly positive. Abagail responded enthusiastically, “It went great. There was a good response,” while Angelina said of parental engagement, “Lots of people were excited.”
Gustad saw the event as a soft-opening to start a conversation about cultural inclusion. “There already seems to be a ripple effect. Attendees came from both Madison and Dakota Counties, but there was also a representative from Douglas County who took notice and attended.
Erika Felt, an in-home childcare educator, who attended from Douglas, saw the potential of expanding the program to her county.
“I think that Omaha area providers will benefit from the training greatly, even if they don’t expect to have bilingual children in their care. Having the features in place benefits English-speaking children, just as much as Spanish speaking, just in different ways. The training will allow them to feel more comfortable marketing to an expanded demographic as well.”
Shelina Williams, the Early Childhood Community Coordinator for the County, seemed to agree, adding, “I am so excited about bringing this training to Douglas County.” In addition, Abagail has begun conversations with a south Sioux City pastor who is reaching out to congregation members who are parents of young children, or who care for kids so that they can do a Spanish version of the training for non-licensed care providers.
Abagail would ultimately like to see the program build and spread to other counties in the state. Her dream is that the event would blossom into a greater sense of multiculturalism, where we can hold conversations about the richness of cultural diversity and share cultural knowledge from both the provider’s perspective and those living it.