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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Building on Robust Social Skills: The Cultural Assets of Young Mexican American Children

Margaret Bridges

Margaret Bridges, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist at UC Berkeley.

This post stems from New Journalism on Latino Children, translating new research for activists, journalists and policy analysts. The project is based at the Institute of Human Development at UC Berkeley, in collaboration with the Education Writers Association and the Latino Policy Forum, and funded largely by the McCormick Foundation.

Assumptions vs. Evidence

Can you imagine our surprise when we realized we had it wrong? Scholars have long assumed that "disadvantaged" children were -- well, disadvantaged, and inevitably would have real behavior problems and difficulties in their relationships. Yet, in spite of economic hardship, with almost two-fifths of the nation's Mexican American kids falling below the poverty line, many were starting school with remarkable social agility and emotional maturity. In fact, we could detect no differences in social competence between these young children and those from European American families, except for Mexican-heritage children from the poorest families.

These results corroborate other recent studies: Mexican American kindergartners display robust cooperative skills, respect adults, and eagerly participate in classroom tasks, whether their behavior is judged by parents or teachers. What do such results mean for educators and reform advocates who have come to equate economic poverty with a panoply of "risk factors" and poor parenting?

Indeed, early gaps in oral language and preliteracy skills do widen early in life for Latino offspring. Our Berkeley-based team continues to track a national sample of 4,700 young children, including many of Mexican heritage. We recently published results with UCLA medical school colleagues showing that by about age four, Mexican American children were, on average, six to seven months behind their European American peers on cognitive and preliteracy skills (Guerrero et al., 2012). The infamous "achievement gap" actually opens up long before these young children enter kindergarten. This makes for a tough entry into the academic demands of kindergarten. What was going on?

Bien Educado

Our study and others document the disadvantage experienced by many low-income Mexican American children. On average, their families are larger and characterized by lower levels of maternal education and employment, and higher levels of maternal depression compared to the families of their European American peers. Of particular interest, there is much less storybook reading, and there are fewer explicit learning activities taking place at home. But that only tells part of this story.

Mexican American parents generally are very involved in their children's lives and supportive of their well-being. Mexican American mothers report experiencing lower levels of household conflict compared to other racial or ethnic groups, and tend to be warm and responsive with their young children. Simultaneously, these mothers tend to have high expectations for their children in terms of their respectful, well-mannered behavior (bien educado) -- which, in combination, appear to nurture their children's strong social-emotional skills.

Their mothers aren't the only ones who think these skills are important. Economists and popular analysts, like New York Times' Paul Tough, are talking about the "grit and character" that is fundamental to success in schools and later in jobs. What have been called "soft skills" are coming up again and again as essential to getting ahead in life. And many Mexican American children have these skills and may have another advantage: not only are they socially dexterous, but also many are bilingual and bicultural in an increasingly diverse country and global economy.

Promoting Stronger Outcomes

These findings point to the need to understand young Mexican American children -- and all young children -- within a complex web of influences and outcomes, disadvantages and advantages. We had mistakenly assumed that the disadvantages faced by some Latino children play out in the same way across their cognitive and social-emotional skills. Instead, discovering the robust social-emotional strengths of Mexican American children points to powerful cultural assets from which teachers, and all of us interested in promoting children's well-being, can scaffold to promote stronger outcomes in other areas. Here are some specific suggestions:

  • When children are quiet, do not assume they understand. With the common cultural emphasis on respect, many children may think that asking questions of their teacher is disrespectful. Use their strong social-emotional skills to engage them in dialog that will help you understand what they are thinking and "getting."
  • Capitalize on children's social-emotional strengths to connect with them. Establishing warm, caring relationships with young children is a particularly important starting point for their learning.
  • If possible, facilitate learning by using children's home language. This shows them respect, and develops their vocabulary and concepts in their first language, boosting their cognitive skills and learning in English. Best of all, the communication promotes your emotional connection with children.
  • Familiarize yourself with the families and communities that have raised your students. Learning more about their many assets involves learning about their families, language, culture, history and community. The more you know and understand, the more likely you are to teach your young students effectively.
  • Recognize the strong foundation that your children's families have built. Families are a great resource and often want to be involved. Connect with them and include them in activities that support their developing a repertoire of learning interactions with their children. For example, loan them books (in the home language or picture books) that they can read or talk about with their children.

In the comments section below, please share your experiences about these or similar situations in your own classroom.

This post was co-authored by Bruce Fuller, Professor of Education and Public Policy at the University of California - Berkeley and Director of the UC Educational Evaluation Center. For additional stories and fresh findings, go to latinoedbeat.org

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