Imagine a room filled with prekindergarten-age children from countries all over the world. Without speaking the same language and having little or no understanding of other cultures, these youngsters busily play together with each other and their American counterparts as if they’ve known one another forever.
It’s a real-life scenario that happens everyday at the Child Study Center, thanks to an innovative program that exists for the children of Hampton Roads, including the children of Old Dominion’s international students as well as other foreign-born youngsters who have moved to the area.
Name almost any country – Thailand, Saudi Arabia, China, Egypt – and chances are at least one child from that part of the globe has taken part in the program, which helps these youngsters learn a new language and a new culture.
Children ages 3-5 come together each weekday on campus for the half-day program run by child development educators Carol DeRolf and Carole Brady. Together, they have more than 40 years of teaching experience.
The program consists of three-hour sessions offered either in the morning or afternoon, with 16 youngsters in each class.
“Many of the international students hear about the program through other international students,” said DeRolf, a veteran Child Study Center teacher of 25 years. “Many parents are involved in graduate and doctoral degree programs at Old Dominion.”
Each semester, DeRolf and Brady are inundated with applications from parents who want to enroll their child. Many international parents come to the center in hopes that their child can learn to become more social, but also because they want him or her to learn to speak English. While most of the fathers speak English on a daily basis, many mothers do not, Brady said. And, at home, most international families speak their native tongue.
“He learns to speak English better and he can now understand television a lot better,” said Montri Karnjanadecha, an electrical engineering graduate student from Thailand and father of 4-year-old Gont.
Another parent, Ehab Elsaadawy, a graduate student in aerospace engineering from Egypt, enrolled his daughter, Norhan, in the program two years ago to prepare her for kindergarten. “It provides her with social time and gets her used to other kids,” he said. “This is the best place for her to pick up English.”
For some of the youngsters, however, the expectation of learning a new language comes as quite a shock. To ease the transition, the teachers sometimes provide each new child with a “picture ring,” on which hangs a series of flashcards – all pictures of things they may need – that they can attach to their belt. If a child needs to use the bathroom or get a drink of water, he can simply point to the appropriate picture.
This method is used only during the first few weeks, however, explained DeRolf. Once a child is able to use some English and say the words, the flashcards are put away.
This cultural transition, particularly at such a young age, isn’t always easy, Brady acknowledges. “It is hard to comfort a child when he or she can’t speak English.”
She recalls a Taiwanese girl who was so traumatized by her new classroom environment that her mother arranged for other Taiwanese adults to accompany the girl to the center each day to translate for her. After three weeks, she was more at ease with her surroundings and no longer needed the translators.
To effectively reach out to the youngsters in their charge, the program’s teachers also have to make adjustments by learning about cultural differences.
“Having international children has also made us evaluate our teaching methods,” explained DeRolf. “We needed to use more visuals so that the children can see, touch and hear about subjects in order to learn.”
Within this melting pot of the world’s cultures and languages, every day brings new lessons in respect for diversity.
“I like the way (my daughter) and I get a chance to deal with diversity,” said Elsaadawy. “We both learn things about other cultures that we may not ever find elsewhere.”
American parents appreciate the diversity, as well. “The international mix makes the program so great,” said Kim Norton, the mother of 5-year-old Ann Grace, who cries if she has to miss a day of school. “The children learn a lot of information and have lots of fun doing it.”
The program’s thematic units have focused on topics such as oceans and seashores, animals of Virginia and Colonial Williamsburg. “Imagine our delight in teaching Colonial America to an Egyptian!” exclaimed Brady.
One of the program’s practicum teachers is from Mexico, so she was able to introduce her culture into the classroom as well. “I think these young children are learning more about geography in these classrooms than anywhere else in Hampton Roads,” said Brady.
During a typical three-hour session, the children play games that involve counting, matching or the alphabet. They even work on a computer. Then they gather in a circle to talk about a particular subject that they will study for the week. Later, the children have some outdoor playtime and a snack before they return for a final session with the teacher, in which they review what they did that day and have a story.
Brady and DeRolf, who are assisted in the classroom by graduate students working toward their master’s degrees in education, agree that everyone involved in the program benefits in some way. As a result, the program has become yet another feather in the cap for the Child Study Center.
“The teachers are really wonderful and the transition for these children is amazingly successful,” said Katharine Kersey, longtime chair of the university’s early childhood, speech language pathology and special education department.(Misti Goodson also contributed to this story)