What is a multicultural kindergarten?

This article is based on a resource perspective and demonstrates how thinking using such a perspective influences actions and practices in the kindergarten in terms of successful inclusion of children with an immigrant background.

Smiling kids laying in a circle on the gras looking up at the camera Photo: iStock. The inclusion work in kindergartens with children with an immigrant background is the topic of this article. Photo: iStock.

The article below has been published in its entirety in a comprehensive textbook: Utvikling, lek og læring i barnehagen (Development, playing and learning in kindergartens), revised most recently in 2018. The book provides a description of updated knowledge regarding children’s development in kindergartens. This is an abbreviated and edited web version of the article written by Hildegunn Fandrem on the importance of good meetings and high competence among the adults in kindergartens with children with an immigrant background. The whole article, with a complete list of research literature references, is available in Norwegian in the textbook (see fact box).


Early interventions are also of great importance for children and young people with an immigrant background. Many have studied and researched the language acquisition process and how important it is to ensure a good start of this process in order to facilitate schooling on equal footing with a view towards equal opportunities later on in life.

However, such early interventions cannot be limited to just language development and vocabulary. And it is not just with a view towards future academic achievements that the early interventions are important.

The Framework Plan for Kindergartens emphasises the need of all children for care and play as well as learning and formative development. In order to be able to play with other children, you must know the language. The adults' relationship with the children is also of great significance for the language, as it is important to understand each other. The question is whether or not children with an immigrant background require more care compared with other children? Or a different type of care? How may children with an immigrant background become a resource in the kindergarten?

Acculturation theory may be used to provide a better basis for understanding what is required to become a good multicultural kindergarten. The theory takes into account that other factors may be of significance for the children’s adaptation in addition to just the linguistic ones, such as what social networks the children have, the traits of these networks and why the parents decided to move to Norway.

How the adults in the kindergarten relate to the children with an immigrant background is also of significance. Acculturation theory is used to establish a more comprehensive understanding of the circumstances of these children.

Clarification of terms

Minority language children is used as a term denoting that the language that the child knows best is not the Norwegian, Sami, Swedish, Danish or English language. The term is often used in public documents concerning kindergartens and schools because the focus is on training in Norwegian and linguistic aspects.

Multicultural children is used to indicate that factors other than the language also play a role in the adaptation processes. The term may have positive connotations and indicate a resource perspective. However, the term may also be understood to indicate that the cultural factors (i.e. the nationality) are emphasised.

If the terms migration background or immigrant background are used, the emphasis is on the fact that the children and their family have moved, are refugees or have immigrated. This may entail a complex process, and the circumstances may vary greatly from one family to the next. These latter terms are used in this article.

The term multicultural kindergartens may be used about kindergartens to indicate that they have accepted the consequences of having children with various different immigrant backgrounds together with children without such a background. Simply the fact that a kindergarten has such a diversity of children, does not qualify it to be termed a multicultural kindergarten. It is the practice that matters. And this entails that it is the willingness, attitude and knowledge of the employees that make the difference. Diversity is not just about immigration, but also about individualisation and differentiation of different values and ways of living. Achieving a diversity that functions as a community requires taking into account the entire group, both those with an immigrant background and those without such a background. What opportunities are there for care, playing and learning for all children in a multicultural kindergarten?

Bilingual learning

There are at least two good reasons why it is beneficial for a child to develop and maintain knowledge of the mother tongue while it is learning the Norwegian language. The first reason is the benefit perspective, as it is beneficial for the learning of Norwegian to know the mother tongue because learning Norwegian is easier when the child speaks the mother tongue. This will entail that the child understands and is able to express that it understands a certain concept, but that it lacks the Norwegian word for this concept in its own vocabulary (for example Amir, age 4, who says that he is drawing fast water. He knows what he is drawing, but he does not know the Norwegian word for 'waterfall'). The other good reason is the educational perspective, which has to do with who you are. The language you speak will always be a part of your identity and who you consider yourself to be. By acknowledging the mother tongue, one also acknowledges the individual. It is important for the adults at the kindergarten to acknowledge and understand both of these aspects of the mother tongue while the child is learning the Norwegian language. However, in addition to the mother tongue shaping the identity, there are other aspects of the identity of a child with an immigrant background that must be determined and identified. This is where the acculturation perspective may prove helpful.

What is acculturation?

A broad definition of acculturation includes all changes that occur when people and groups with different cultural backgrounds come in contact with each other (Berry,1997). In this context, we are talking about people who move from one culture to another, who must then learn the various codes, customs and values of the new culture, something which those already living there, are socialised into naturally. Thus, acculturation is about acquiring the complexity of the language, at the same time as one is learning new skills through living in a new environment. It may also involve unlearning what you have already been socialised into. The newly arrived person is in the midst of a change process. And this may entail that special care may be needed or ensure other opportunities for providing care in the kindergarten.

Berry outlined 4 possible alternatives for the handling of this process. The relevant alternative is determined by first asking these questions:

  1. Is it important to retain aspects of the culture of origin?
  2. To what extent is the child able to adopt the new culture?

The answers to these questions provide four different alternatives for the work on helping children and families with an immigrant background become integrated into the new culture. These 4 strategies are integration, segregation, assimilation and marginalisation.

Research into school children's use of these 4 strategies shows that integration is the best alternative in terms of a fast and good adaptation to the new environment. This entails that the child retains and is acknowledged for its culture of origin at the same time as it is exposed to the new culture. Just as important as being somewhat familiar with the child's original culture, is having adults at the kindergarten who knows the individual child, its strengths and interests and what it is good at. This applies regardless of culture. Eva Gulløv (2010) shows how understanding the children's behaviour in more ways than just focusing on the linguistic and cultural aspects is important to establish a sense of belonging.  

The adults at the kindergarten must act in a professional manner and facilitate integration as a strategy; between themselves and each child, between the different children and between the adults and the parents. The adults at the kindergarten play a key role in ensuring a well-functioning process for facilitation of adaptation and sense of belonging.

What is decisive for the pedagogue's relationship with the children?

The Danish researcher Charlotte Palludan (2012) has studied and compared the kindergarten personnel's relationship with children with and without an immigrant background. She found that the interaction between the adults and children with an immigrant background is characterised by a teaching tone, while the interaction with children without an immigrant background is based on dialogue and exchange of experiences. This also applies to the kindergarten personnel's relationships with the parents (Palludan, 2012). There is no doubt that an exchange tone with dialogue as a key component entails a significantly higher degree of acknowledgement than the teaching tone. 

It is important to be aware of this fact. It may be understandable that the adults at the kindergarten consider children with an immigrant background to be less competent linguistically than children without an immigrant background. However, in her study, Gulløv (2010) found that even when such children speak the new language well, the interaction of the kindergarten personnel with the children was characterised by the same teaching tone.  Thus, the manner in which the personnel in the kindergarten relate to children with an immigrant background in terms of the premise that they are less competent, may be said to apply regardless of their linguistic skills. In spite of the teaching tone in the communication between the adults at the kindergarten and the children with an immigrant background, the awareness of closeness and care is high (Vestad, 2013). This may be because it is assumed that children with an immigrant background are particularly vulnerable, with the teaching tone intended as a 'helping' tone. It may also be envisioned that the closeness is positively associated with the development of the children's Norwegian language, which may in turn indicate that care is an important precondition for learning a new language. In combination, these three researchers (Gulløv, 2010, Palludan, 2012, Vestad 2013) show that there is a difference between children with and without an immigrant background in terms of what influences the kindergarten teachers' interaction and sense of closeness with the children. 

In light of Berry's strategies, one sees that the attitude of the personnel, the manner in which they facilitate communication and interaction with the children with an immigrant background is very decisive for their development and sense of belonging at the kindergarten, and the adaptation to the new environment. What is the effect on the immigrant children when the adults in the kindergarten express the expectation that they have to understand, at the same time as they cannot express themselves?

From a focus on language to a focus on material experiences

It is well known that language is an advantage also when children play. Negotiations about joining in the play are more acceptable than non-verbal expressions such as pushing and running. Gulløv (2010) found that children with an immigrant background may easily join in a game, but may also quickly disappear from the same game because the necessary in-depth interaction is dependent upon their language skills. She found that many children with an immigrant background participated into activities such as playing tag, climbing, drawing; i.e. bodily activities and imitations that do not require advanced linguistic elaborations. Children with an immigrant background often play games with a shorter duration than the other children. The task of the kindergarten personnel to ensure that all children are interested in each other, becomes more demanding, but is of great importance for the ability to create common experiences. It becomes important for the adults to always talk and put into words what is taking place and to use the right name for the various things instead of just saying 'it'. What are the children familiar with from earlier in terms of specifics and physical games? In terms of inclusion, it may be appropriate to focus more on such specifics than on games requiring language skills and cultural codes. Acknowledgement and recognition from the other children will create increased confidence in themselves and increased sense of belonging to the kindergarten community for children with an immigrant background.  

Care and facilitation for traumatised immigrant children

The reason why the children have moved to Norway is of significance for how the process of adaptation to the new country and kindergarten plays out (Berry, 1997). Children with a refugee background have a greater need of special care, in particular if the family has fled from a war and may have been exposed to traumatic events. Traumas are overwhelming, uncontrollable events that involve extraordinary mental stress (...) that often entails that the individual feels helpless and vulnerable (Dyregrov, 1997 pp. 11-12).

Trauma may result in the children having concentration problems and struggling with memories, at the same time as they may lack endurance when playing and have problems sitting quietly for more than short periods of time. Many things may be associated with a sense of danger, and smells and sounds may trigger fear. Traumatised children may over time, if the trauma has not been processed, develop PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). This is a serious diagnosis that may impair the children's ability to learn, as well as the children's ability to regulate feelings. The ability to establish secure relationships with others may also be impaired. Thus, it may be essential for the future prospects of children with a refugee background that the adults at the kindergarten are familiar with the symptoms of PTSD. However, it is not the task of the adults at the kindergarten to serve as therapists. But they must be aware that they are obliged to refer such children to the appropriate agencies within the public health service in Norway, as an indirect way to help the children.

General measures such as acknowledging, showing interest, being open-minded and looking for the positive aspects of the behaviour may be the type of direct help that the adults at the kindergarten can provide for children with a refugee background. This may make a huge difference for traumatised children.   

Diversity as a norm – focus on individual differences and community across cultures

Based on acculturation theory and research, the recommendations regarding appropriate care of and interaction with children with an immigrant background may be stated as follows:

  • The kindergarten teacher knows what country the child comes from and has some knowledge regarding this country.
  • The kindergarten teacher has some knowledge of the language, of the mother tongue of the child and also of the religion.
  • The kindergarten teacher is aware of the potential challenges of having an immigrant background.
  • The kindergarten teacher is aware that the language (mother tongue) confirms the identity and that it will therefore be beneficial to share a few words or terms from the different mother tongues in the kindergarten; i.e. among both adults and children, with the entire kindergarten.
  • The kindergarten teacher points out individual strengths and differences as well as differences among and traits of national/ethnic groups.
  • The kindergarten teacher knows that diversity is the norm in a multicultural kindergarten, dissimilarity is a fact, but this must be presented and expressed in a positive manner. 

From an emphasis on problems to an emphasis on resources

Too much emphasis on culture may be considered a problem-oriented attitude. This may result in putting the blame on cultural aspects in case of special incidents or different behaviour. This will easily turn into the expression of an 'us vs them' attitude. If there is a problem-oriented attitude among the kindergarten personnel, the fact of having a large number of children from other countries in the kindergarten may be used as a basis for calling it a multicultural kindergarten and considering this a problem or a major challenge. The focus is on what the children have not learned and the subsequent limitations. One may talk indignantly about the children lacking warm winter clothing! The fact that the parents do not understand this, is taken to indicate that they are intellectually deprived or have problems adapting.

With a resource-oriented perspective, however, one considers a multicultural kindergarten to have a diversity that allows for many more opportunities. Is it possible to try out some new and exciting food dishes in the kindergarten, may we learn about some new customs or understand more about different religions? Parents may be acknowledged as the important adults they are even though the kindergarten employees occasionally observe a lack of winter clothing. The emphasis must be on their contribution. Integration is the objective in a resource-oriented kindergarten.

Cultural sensitivity as an objective

We may feel uncertain when working with children and parents who are very different from ourselves. It is natural to feel unsure in unfamiliar situations. In such circumstances, it is easy to resort to an ethnocentric attitude where one's own culture clearly takes precedence. However, we must respect the others regardless of their different opinions. The best way to care for children with an immigrant background is by being culturally sensitive. This entails being open to cultures and cultural expressions from others based on a moral standard, which does not entail that everything is acceptable. Being culturally sensitive vis-à-vis the children entails that you use both your cognitive as well as your emphatic traits (Magelssen 2002), with the associated benefit that you become well acquainted with yourself and your own values, which in turn results in growth as a human being and having an even better basis for acting in a culturally sensitive manner in the future. This will make it even easier to maintain a focus on the resource perspective by looking for similarities among the differences.  

Care through good cooperation with the parents

Good care of children with an immigrant background also entails cooperating well with the parents. Bouakaz (2007) found that when pedagogues state the different obstacles to cooperation, they often point to a deficient language competence, different religion and other cultural differences. The parents, on the other hand, emphasise that they do not quite understand the system, and show a great willingness to learn. It may be a problem that they assume an inquiry from the kindergarten to indicate that there is something wrong with the children.

Examples of common problems as stated by pedagogical personnel is that it is difficult to make parents of children with an immigrant background come to parent-teacher talks and meetings or do volunteer work. In practical terms, this may be because it is not easy to find a babysitter, or maybe they work shifts/late. Not being able to speak the language fluently may be a practical as well as an emotional reason for not showing up. Lack of a network may entail that the parents do not have neither the motivation nor the confidence to show up at the kindergarten.

The communication between the kindergarten and the parents may also be handled in many other ways than through the traditional formal talks: When children are being dropped off or picked up, via websites, text messages, circulars, etc. It is important to convey to the parents that the kindergarten considers close and good cooperation to be important. What expectations they have regarding the kindergarten, or what they think the function of the kindergarten to be are two important questions that must be answered before informing them of the many routines and rules of the kindergarten. As for the children, it is also important to communicate to the parents that diversity is the standard and that it is positive to be different. Family learning is a method used in many places in cooperation with the Adult Education or the introduction courses for newly arrived adults (Aamodt and Hauge, 2008). The emphasis in this context is on the parents being important partners for both kindergartens and schools. Family learning increases the parents' awareness and knowledge of education, diversity as a resource, and identity development in general.


Maintaining a focus on both the community and the individual at the same time in a positive manner is the core message of this article. There are differences, no doubt about it. However, the manner in which the adults work in the kindergarten's environment determines whether diversity is viewed in a problem-oriented manner or in a resource perspective.  A resource perspective may be very important for the children’s sense of belonging to the kindergarten. Moving to a new and unfamiliar country is a complex process. Berry's framework emphasises this because various important factors are viewed in an overall perspective. It is not a given that the children with an immigrant background will be included or integrated into the new country simply because they go to a kindergarten. Special facilitation, attention and care from adults are a necessity to ensure a good adaptation and a good sense of belonging.

Most certainly, both the children and the parents will occasionally experience that the resources they have in the form of cultural and linguistic capital are not of the same value in new contexts in a new country. Add to this the fact that the social contexts from the home country have been lost. This entails that acknowledging how well they manage under all of these new circumstances is very important and constitute a good reason for applying the resource perspective in the kindergarten. Kindergarten teachers have a unique opportunity to make a big difference here. It is the adults in the kindergarten who must assume responsibility for establishing good relations among the children.


Text: Hildegunn Fandrem

Editing of web version: Kirsti Tveitereid



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