As immigrant populations grow in the United States, how well prepared is the next generation to succeed in school and beyond? What was once understood for decades about first-generation children is quickly becoming outdated.
In a paper published in Children and Youth Services Review, Silver School of Social Work professor Wen-Jui Han and her colleagues examined the factors related to family environment to see how they affect children’s school readiness.
The researchers draw on the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study–Birth Cohort, the first large and nationally representative birth cohort study of children in the U.S. The study followed 10,700 children born in 2001 from birth to kindergarten, with data collected at four points throughout these years.
Han and her colleagues compared four minorities—Asian, Chinese, Latino, and Mexican—along with white children (non-Hispanic). They examined factors related to family resources (socioeconomic status and language background) and family process (parenting behaviors, parental employment, and child care arrangements). The researchers found that family language background was a key influence in expressive language and early reading, while socioeconomic status and language background helped determine students’ math performances.
All children of foreign-born parents scored lower than white children in expressive language, which includes verbal and written language. Children of foreign-born Chinese and Asians, however, often had better scores than their white peers in early reading and math. At the other end of the scale, children of foreign-born Mexicans and Latinos had significantly lower scores for early reading and math than their white peers.
Han found a decided difference between the children of foreign-born Asians, particularly Chinese, and foreign-born Mexicans. Chinese immigrants often had a high socioeconomic status (well educated with higher incomes) and had the highest English proficiency among all immigrant groups, even though only 15 percent said English was their primary language at home.
“If you can not only speak your monotone language, but also your parents are able to provide an English-speaking environment to prepare you for the start of school, that usually makes quite a big impact on your school readiness,” explains Han.
These luxuries may be something to which the children of Mexican immigrants were not exposed. In fact, just having parents who can speak English well can be beneficial for children, even if English is not spoken at home. English-speaking parents can, for example, help their children navigate the school system better.
“We are also surprised that Chinese parents have a very high likelihood to send their children to center-based care, which is most often likely to provide English-speaking environments,” says Han, “so that kind of endorses the importance of center-based care or preschool in preparing children to be ready for school.”
The study makes the important point that children of immigrants should not be compared only to white children, and that immigrants are coming from different countries than they did 50 years ago.
“Often times, when we think about how immigrant children are doing, we compare them to mainstream society,” says Han. “Immigrant children within themselves have quite a diversity.”