1. Introduction

The number of refugees and forced migrants arriving in Europe has increased dramatically in recent years due to ongoing conflicts and instability, with many of these refugees and migrants increasingly being children under the age of five who have been exposed to violence, trauma, and disruptions in their education and development throughout their journey. Upon their arrival in Europe, refugee and forced migrant families with children under the age of five, much like any other families, immediately start seeking avenues for ensuring quality education for their young children. Early childhood education (ECE) not only plays a pivotal role in laying the foundation for lifelong learning but also serves as a powerful tool for integration and the successful adaptation of refugee children into their new host societies (Jalbout & Bullard 2021; Stevens et al., 2023). Despite its importance, there remains a noticeable scarcity of research addressing the unique challenges and opportunities surrounding ECE for refugee children in Europe. In scoping all existing research on education for and about refugee and migrants in Europe published between January 2015 and June 2023, the Hub for Education for Refugees in Europe (HERE) project found that only 6% of included studies focused on ECE. This blog aims to examine the existing research on ECE in Europe to uncover the existing challenges and opportunities that affect ECE for refugee and migrant children in Europe. This blog also underscores why more research is urgently needed to understand the needs, circumstances, and experiences of refugee and forced migrant children and families accessing ECE services. The blog then concludes with making the case for further investments in ECE research and programming for refugee and forced migrant communities.

2. Current Landscape of Refugees in Europe

Refugee and Forced Migrant Children in Europe (Ages 0 – 4)

Source: UNHCR Refugee Data Finder

According to statistics from the UNHCR (2023), over 1.2 million refugees and forced migrants in Europe are children below the age of five between 2001 and 2022, with the gender breakdown being equal between girls and boys. These numbers reflect a dramatic increase compared to prior years, with the number of refugee and forced migrant children below the age of five in Europe in 2001 being below 50,000. The ongoing conflict in Syria in particular has driven an influx of refugees into Europe, with Syrian children under the age of five estimated to comprise nearly 70% of the number of refugee and forced migrant children under the age of five in Europe since 2019. The conflict in Ukraine has also contributed to the number of refugee and forced migrant children under the age of five in Europe, with nearly 15% of them being Ukrainian children, including those internally displaced in Ukraine and those forcibly displaced to other European countries. Children under the age of five from Afghanistan and Iraq each number around 3%. This sudden demographic shift has put intense pressure on European ECE systems which can best be addressed through more research and development as well as targeted public investment into strengthening those systems.

3. Research on Early Childhood Education for Refugees

Resources in HERE Knowledge Base by education level (Jan 2015 – Jun 2023)

Source: HERE Knowledge Base

Among 815 collected studies on refugee education from January 2015 to June 2023 in the HERE Knowledge Base, merely 51 studies centred on ECE, making ECE the least studied educational level in research on education for refugees and forced migrants in Europe. We, then, organised the 51 studies according to different categories in order to identify what countries they covered, what themes they studied, what methods they used, and what education types they focused on. In terms of countries, the top five countries covered were Germany (17), Türkiye (12), Greece (6), Sweden (6), and Italy (5). In terms of themes, the top five themes studied were caregivers (30), teachers and educational staff (23), gender (17), access and participation (14), and mental health and psychosocial well-being (14). In terms of methods, the top five methods used were interviews (17), surveys and questionnaires (11), experimental and quasi-experimental studies (9), case studies (4), observations (4), and randomised control trials (4). Lastly, in terms of education types, the top five education types focused on were language and literacy education (17), formal education (8), mathematics and numeracy education (5), non-formal education (2), and special education (2).

4. Early Childhood Education for Refugees: Challenges and Opportunities

Despite the limited research available on ECE in Europe, the studies on ECE included in the HERE Knowledge base offer insight into the range of challenges and opportunities that affect ECE for refugee and migrant children in Europe:

  • Access to Quality Early Childhood Education Programmes: Ensuring access to quality ECE programmes for refugees and forced migrants is a pressing concern. Eligibility and enrolment barriers for refugee families can hinder children’s access to ECE services, limiting their educational opportunities (Vindrola et al., 2023; Baghdasaryan et al., 2023). For example, the constraints on the daily lives of young refugee children living in collective housing further underscore the necessity of creating high-quality ECE programmes that can provide a stable and nurturing environment in the face of challenging circumstances (Donnelly, 2019; Wihstutz, 2020). Beyond access, the availability of quality ECE programmes for refugees and forced migrants is another major restriction. The lack of trauma-informed care in many ECE programmes hinders the ability to address the emotional and psychological needs of young learners who may have experienced significant trauma (Busch et al., 2018; Busch et al., 2023; Jalbout & Bullard 2021; Park et al., 2018).
  • Caregiver-Teacher Communication and Collaboration: Effective communication and collaboration between caregivers, teachers, and educational systems are pivotal for the success of ECE initiatives for refugees. Language barriers and difficulties in communicating with refugee caregivers can hinder meaningful engagement and partnership between educators and families (Busch et al., 2018; Ragnarsdóttir, 2021). For example, one study in Norway identified challenges affecting collaborative use of educational e-services between caregivers and ECE teachers, emphasising the need for improving those communication channels to cater to refugee and forced migrant caregivers’ circumstances (Thangavel et al., 2017). Additionally, transforming ECE teachers’ understanding of refugee family engagement is essential to foster strong relationships and enhance caregiver-teacher cooperation (Karsli-Calamak et al., 2020; Park et al., 2018). Lastly, efforts to strengthen relationships between ECE services and immigrant families can bridge cultural divides and ensure that children receive comprehensive support (Gambaro et al., 2021; Park et al., 2018; Silva et al., 2020).
  • Early Childhood Education Teacher Training and Competencies: Equipping ECE educators with the necessary skills and competencies to support refugee children is imperative. Building competencies of ECE teachers working with refugee children ensures that educators can provide tailored guidance and care (Busch et al., 2023; Fröhlich-Gildhoff et al., 2017). For example, one study in Greece showed that targeted training of ECE teachers to support refugee children’s integration in schools addresses the challenges that arise from cultural and educational differences (Androusou & Iakovou, 2020). Moreover, the uncertainty faced by ECE centres in responding to an influx of refugee children highlights the need for comprehensive training programmes that empower educators to address diverse needs effectively (Busch et al., 2023; Donnelly, 2019; Park et al., 2018). Lastly, challenges faced by ECE educators working with children in collective housing and accommodation underscore the importance of specialised training to navigate complex environments and provide appropriate support (Donnelly, 2019; Wihstutz, 2020).
  • Child Socio-Emotional Development and Well-being: Promoting the social, emotional, and developmental well-being of refugee children is a central concern in ECE efforts, as supporting social skill development in refugee children is vital for their successful integration and interaction with peers. Addressing the complex psychosocial and socio-emotional needs of preschoolers with refugee backgrounds requires specialised approaches that acknowledge their unique experiences (Busch et al., 2018; Busch et al., 2023; Erdemir, 2022a; Jalbout & Bullard 2021). Recent studies on Ukrainian refugee children forcibly displaced to other European countries underscored the importance of recognising cultural and religious sensitivities in developing effective ECE programmes (Vindrola et al., 2023; Baghdasaryan et al., 2023). Additionally, understanding how socio-ecological factors help mediate or moderate the building of social skills and resilience of refugee children can further elaborate the development of ECE strategies that foster refugee children’s holistic growth (Donnelly, 2019; Erdemir, 2022b; Kuru et al., 2023).

5. The Case for Investment in Early Childhood Education for Refugees

There is definitely a powerful economic case for increasing public investment into ECE programmes targeted towards refugee and forced migrant children (Heckman, 2006). First, cognitive and non-cognitive skills are important skills to gain as part of human development. Studies have shown that programming efforts to improve those skills for the early years tend to maximize the ability for learning those skills in comparison to programming efforts to improve those skills for adults in later years (Heckman, 2008; Shonkoff, 2011). Second, ECE programmes have long-term effects on lifelong learning and development from early years to adult years, showing improved cognitive abilities, higher educational attainment, increased employment, and better socio-economic outcomes (Heckman & Karapakula, 2019a). In fact, the benefits of investing in ECE have been proven to extend to future generations in other disadvantaged populations (Heckman & Karapakula, 2019b), hinting that ECE may aid in preventing refugee and forced migrant families from falling into cycles of disadvantage and toxic stress (Shonkoff et al., 2012). Lastly, economic impact studies have shown a high return on investment for every amount spent on ECE programs, thereby further supporting the efficacy of early interventions (Heckman & Karapakula, 2019a; Heckman & Karapakula, 2019b; Heckman et al., 2010). All in all, focusing public funds on ECE programmes for refugee and forced migrant children is a rare opportunity to advance both social justice and economic prosperity for future generations in Europe.

About the HERE Knowledge Base

The HERE Knowledge Base includes hundreds of academic and non-academic resources on refugee education from across Europe. The knowledge base is fully searchable, and links are provided to source materials.

Note on contributor

Yousef Khalifa Aleghfeli is a research fellow (associate) at the Hub for Education for Refugees in Europe (HERE) at the University of Nottingham and a DPhil Candidate at the Department of Education at the University of Oxford (ORCID: 0000-0002-4854-8169). Yousef manages the curation of the HERE Knowledge Base.

Suggested citation

Aleghfeli, Yousef Khalifa. (2023, August 15). HERE’S what we know about early childhood education for refugees in Europe. Hub for Education for Refugees in Europe. https://hubhere.org/heres-what-we-know-about-early-childhood-education-for-refugees-in-europe


Resources from HERE Knowledge Base

Additional resources

  • Heckman, J. J. (2006). Skill formation and the economics of investing in disadvantaged children. Science, 312(5782), 1900-1902. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1128898
  • Heckman, J. J. (2008). Schools, skills, and synapses. Economic inquiry, 46(3), 289-324. https://doi.org/10.3386/w14064
  • Heckman, J. J., Moon, S. H., Pinto, R., Savelyev, P. A., & Yavitz, A. (2010). The rate of return to the HighScope Perry Preschool Program. Journal of public Economics, 94(1-2), 114-128. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpubeco.2009.11.001
  • Heckman, J. J., & Karapakula, G. (2019a). The Perry Preschoolers at late midlife: A study in design-specific inference (No. w25888). National Bureau of Economic Research. https://doi.org/10.3386/w25888
  • Heckman, J. J., & Karapakula, G. (2019b). Intergenerational and intragenerational externalities of the Perry Preschool Project (No. w25889). National Bureau of Economic Research. https://doi.org/10.3386/w25889
  • Shonkoff, J. P. (2011). Protecting brains, not simply stimulating minds. Science, 333(6045), 982-983. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1206014
  • Shonkoff, J. P., Garner, A. S., Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, Committee on Early Childhood, Adoption, and Dependent Care, and Section on Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, Siegel, B. S., Dobbins, M. I., Earls, M. F., … & Wood, D. L. (2012). The lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic stress. Pediatrics, 129(1), e232-e246. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2011-2663
  • Stevens, K. E., Siraj, I., & Kong, K. (2023). A critical review of the research evidence on early childhood education and care in refugee contexts in low-and middle-income countries. International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy, 17(1), 7. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40723-023-00109-4
  • United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2023). UNHCR’s Refugee Population Statistics Database. https://www.unhcr.org/refugee-statistics