Highly Social Mexican-American Kindergartners Weak in Other Areas

Latino kids often enter kindergarten as ideal learners, curious and eager to learn and exibiting buen comportamiento — or good behavior — skills, but they also often arrive with weaker oral and cognitive abilities.

A new study finds that starting out weaker in speaking and thinking increases their changes of falling behind faster. Kids who can't read very well by third grade have a higher likelihood of not earning a high school diploma.

Over a three-year span, researchers tracked 4,700 children ages 2-5 who had not yet entered kindergarten. About two-thirds were of Mexican heritage and lived in families from lower socioeconomic strata.

The study, "Early Growth of Mexican-American Children: Lagging in Preliteracy Skills but Not Social Development," suggests that Latino cultural strengths, such as growing up in warm and supportive households steeped with familismo — the sense of pride, belonging, and obligation a person feels to his or her family — and cariño, or care and affection, help these children develop robust social and classroom skills that can help them thrive academically.

On the positive side, parents, especially immigrants, instill in their young behaviors that are welcomed in the classroom. The kids respect their elders, willingly share toys or ice cream (or even a bed) with siblings, and exude a sense of caring for the well-being of the entire family.

The findings support earlier studies that show immigrant children demonstrate healthy social behaviors rivaling those of white middle-class peers. But the analysis also indicates that Latino children also enter school with weaker preliteracy skills.

"These findings illuminate the empirical fact that economic poverty doesn't necessarily lead to poor parenting," said coauthor Bruce Fuller, a University of California (Berkeley) education professor and director of the Policy Analysis for California Education.

"They respect authority," Fuller noted, "and while that may be controversial in some education circles, that patience and respect [Latino children show] for how teachers organize the tasks is important" early in their education.

Nonetheless, the study also showed that Latino mothers engaged less with their children in cognitive facilitation, oral language, and preliteracy activities at home. Without that interaction, children typically entered school about eight months behind their white counterparts in oral and cognitive abilities.

For instance, the study found that only 50 percent of Latino youngsters had a parent or guardian read to them once a week or less. In white households, 86 percent had adults read to them at least that frequently.

Cognitive and social skills were lower among children from larger families, "placing children raised in poor or Spanish-speaking homes within a large household at greater risks of delays," the authors stated.

Fewer years of schooling among Mexican mothers, not fully seeing the long-term benefit of reading to children, and often juggling more younger kids at home contribute to Latinos' weak preliteracy skills.

"It's a double-edged sword," Fuller said, adding that some Mexican mothers, particularly those who are below the poverty line, also may not have strong written literacy skills themselves.

"Many may not have print materials at home," he said. "On the other hand, the same mom exhibits cariñosa qualities — she's very caring and affectionate."

As the nation grows increasingly diverse, educational success among minority groups has become increasingly important. Currently, one in five children in the U.S. is Latino, with the number expected to reach one in three by 2030.

Dora Torres-Morón, language and literacy executive director for the Dallas Independent School District, said that improving school readiness and narrowing the childhood literacy gap between Latino and lower-income students requires true collaboration between teachers, policymakers, parents, and educators.

In her majority-Latino school district, she said, children often arrive with weak vocabulary skills, even in their native language.

Building a child's facility with words is one strategy educators advocate. "But are they understanding those vocabulary words and using them in complex sentences that show they understand those words?" That's key, she said.

Torres-Morón encourages parents to interact with their children by asking questions and reading to them. Even a parent with lower-educational skills can engage a child by explaining what's happening in their immediate surroundings or in pictures in storybooks.

Addressing pre- and early-childhood literacy among the country's largest ethnic group is critical in closing the high school dropout rate, Jason Resendez, a director with LULAC National Educational Service Centers, told The Next America.

Without reading proficiently by the third grade, a child is more likely to fail to graduate from high school on time, he said, citing an Annie E. Casey Foundation study.