A recent study conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, and UCLA revealed that Mexican American toddlers lagged behind their white, non-Latino counterparts in both language and cognitive skills before entering kindergarten.
The study, published in December in the Maternal Child Health Journal, tracked a sample of 4,700 children born in 2001 for over a three-year period, finding that Mexican American toddlers, ages 2 to 3, displayed language and cognitive skills nearly eight months behind those of their non-Latino, white peers.
This gap, persisting through ages 4 and 5, revealed that by the time Mexican American children entered school, they were already behind.
This is not entirely surprising, says Bruce Fuller, a professor and sociologist at UC Berkeley and the co-author of the study.
“Well, we’ve known for a long time that many, not all, but many Latino kids are not doing very well in elementary school,” Fuller told NPR’s Maria Hinojosa during an interview for Latino USA that aired on January 4th. “There’s been a lot of national talk around achievement gaps and the driving question is ‘Well, when did those gaps appear?’”
While Latino youngsters, says Fuller, are no different in basic intelligence or in mental capacity in comparison to their middle-class, non-Latino, white counterparts, the reason they fall behind in basic cognitive skills related to preliteracy and reading skills comes from the lack of exposure to complex oral language and reading materials at home – both in English and Spanish.
Moreover, and while researchers found that nearly half of the Mexican American and other Latino children who participated in the study were read to once a week or less; only 14 percent of white parents read to their children that infrequently.
And low-levels of maternal education and the number of children in the household are to blame, says Fuller.
Thirty-seven percent of Mexican American families used in the study lived below the federal poverty line, compared to 10 percent of white families. Spanish was also the primary language spoken in three-fifths of the Mexican American families’ homes, and 54 percent of the mothers were natives of Mexico.
But researchers caution teachers, pediatricians and other health care providers not to “assume social-emotional delays.” By ages 4 and 5, Fuller says, the children already display strong social skills, making them cooperative and engaging in a classroom setting, and therefore helping to propel them into higher levels of math learning in the first few years of school.
“At the same time, these same mothers, we find are very nurturing; they have low levels of maternal depression and high levels of mental health and are quite ‘cariñoso,’” or affectionate, according to Fuller.
“And this leads to very strong social skills,” he says.
Furthermore, because one in five children in the United States today is Latino and by 2030, that number will be reduced to one in three, these findings could prove effective for educators seeking methods of intervention on both the language and cognitive fronts.
By Being Latino Contruibutor, Vanessa A. Alvarez