The American Psychological Association recently published a special section highlighting research on Latino children and educational performance in the journal Developmental Psychology. It found that Latino children, despite growing up in poverty, started kindergarten with strong social and classroom skills. These skills make children better learners. However, those good qualities tended to erode during their middle school years. Bruce Fuller, professor of Education and Public Policy at UC Berkeley, who co-edited the section, shared the findings with New America Media. Fuller said steps can be taken to prevent the loss of social skills, particularly through culturally sensitive teachers and strong parental advocacy.
What is the most important aspect of your findings?
It defeats the myth that poor parents raise poorly-prepared kids for schools. We discovered Latino children began school with lots of enthusiasm and social agility inside the classrooms, even though some of them showed weaker cognitive and language skills. Enthusiasm helps children learn at a rapid rate. In fact, social skills contribute to cognitive learning. Lots of Latino kids accelerate in mathematics even in kindergarten learning.
What accounts for Latino kid's strong social skills?
In general, Latino kids grow up in very warm and supportive households. The vast majority of Latino homes, especially immigrant households, is headed by two parents and there are often grandparents around [who] help raise young children. Kids are taught to respect other family members and there is a very strong sense of cooperation to advance the interest of the family, which gives young kids strong cooperative skills in terms of how they play with siblings and how they contribute to housework. These are all useful social skills that translate to doing well in classrooms and being able to work with fellow kindergarteners.
What causes these good qualities in Latino children to erode?
It seems to be a combination of negative peer pressure and teachers who have low expectations on kids of color. For those Latino families who cannot afford to leave poor neighborhoods, there are negative peer influences as soon as middle school, such as young gangs emerging and friends whose parents do not value education. Secondly, in some poor neighbors, we often have a concentration of uninspiring teachers or teachers who think brown kids are not going to college anyways, so they do not have high expectations on their performance in the classroom.
How can we prevent it from happening?
I think the heated debates over school reform are important because we need to get inspiring teachers into the poorest communities. It will have direct impacts on whether Latino kids continue to be engaged in schools. Under the seniority rules, the most experienced teachers often go to whiter suburban schools. Moreover, we need teachers that are culturally sensitive to Latino children and their families. You still hear teachers saying, “Maria is so quiet, I don’t know what she is thinking”, or “Jose never speaks up and never asks questions.”
These might be cultural norms that kids are learning in homes, and they do not necessarily fit in middle-class classrooms. Teachers need to be more knowledgeable in these cultural variations as they form relationships with these kids in the classrooms. From a policy standpoint, we need to recruit more bilingual teachers and sustain teachers that have cross-cultural interests and sensitivity.
Also, Latino parents need to become strong advocates for their own kids. In Mexico and other countries, parents see teachers as wise and all knowing professionals. When they come to the U.S., they do not really stand up or challenge teachers who are deadheads or uninspiring. It is important for parents to become much stronger advocates for their youngsters. We need to enrich the teaching force, as well as organizing our parents to be more vocal.
Does income level make a difference in children's classroom skills?
The Latino community is a widely diverse community in the United States, just like Asian Americans or others. Overall, Latino children start school with social skills comparable to white middle-class kids, but we also find Latino kids coming from very poor households. Those [living] below the poverty line show weaker social skills and language development. So, at the bottom end of the Latino community in terms of family income, we find that income and social class pull down social skills and the cognitive development of their kids. For example, kids from Puerto Rican heritage households tend to show more development risks that are quite similar to African American kids. It may be because more Puerto Rican kids are raised in single parent households or raised by mothers with lower education level, but we do see certain Latino subgroups resemble very poor black households.
Should there be more resources channeled to middle school to prevent those losses?
We have to figure out how middle school years can be more motivating for kids of color. Some research shows that those years are when kids look around the American society and see whites getting ahead but not kids of color. They start to make judgments about whether the society is being fair to kids that look like them. I think we have to provide middle school youth with positive role models to make them feel that they can get ahead.
There are studies that found kids from South American countries tend to do better in school than kids with a Puerto Rican background. I suspect that has something to do with the Puerto Rican experience in America. Lots of Puerto Rican families are trapped in poverty generation after generation, while other subgroups like South Americans, even lots of Mexican heritage kids, see their uncles getting ahead or aunts becoming school teachers, which translated to them as “if I stay engaged in school, I also can get ahead.”