Children born to immigrant Latinas are generally born healthy, but by age 2 or 3, they tend to lag behind in basic-language and cognitive skills, a new University of California, Berkeley study shows.
“We’ve known, for the last 10 years… that Latino kids on average are beginning kindergarten with preliteracy skills that fall below middle-class White kids,” said Dr. Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy who led the study. “But we didn’t know when it emerged. The new breakthrough is that we can now identify this fall-off in cognitive growth between 9 months and 3 years of age.”
The findings, based on a nationwide tracking study of 8,114 infants born in 2001, appeared in the Maternal and Child Health Journal, and a companion report will be published this winter in the medical journal Pediatrics.
Though Latinas tend to give birth to “fat and happy babies,” meaning the children are healthy and not starting life at a disadvantage, social and cultural factors begin to take their toll on the children quickly, particularly in poorer, Mexican immigrant families, Fuller said.
By the time children are 2 or 3 years of age, researchers found they lag behind their White counterparts by up to half a year in terms of word comprehension, complexity of their sentences and working with their mothers on simple learning tasks. Children were assessed in either Spanish or English and language was not a factor in the results, Fuller said.
Family structure, particularly family size, is a key factor, Fuller said. As the ratio of young children to adults in a household increases, so does the probability of decreased cognitive skills.
“It’s probably a function of each individual child receiving less one-on-one education,” he said, “less language, less time, less playing with puzzles.”
In addition, maternal education plays a strong role. One in five Mexican-American mothers have completed college courses, compared with two-thirds of White mothers. “We use language in college situations to talk, to discuss, to think, to criticize, to give your opinion. All of that becomes part of who you are and you do that with your kids,” said Dr. Cynthia García Coll, a professor of education, psychology and pediatrics at Brown University who studies the impact of race and ethnicity on children’s development. “Middle-class and above families … we’re constantly explaining things, asking questions, asking them to make decisions,” she said. “It’s a very, very different way of communicating. That’s what’s really missing in [poor Latino] families.”
Latino mothers read with their toddlers less frequently than White, middle-class mothers, Fuller said. “When you give tasks mothers and toddlers perform together, like a bag of blocks and you ask the mother to work with the toddler to stack the blocks or put the blocks in a square, the richness of the language between the mother and the child is much weaker in Latino families.”
Several reasons for this may stem from Latino culture. Fuller’s research group includes Dr. Alice Kuo, an assistant professor in pediatrics and internal medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. Kuo found in her dissertation that “less acculturated Latino moms believed a child’s capacity to learn is fixed at birth.”
In other words, when a child is not speaking as well as another child in daycare, the mother may believe that is the way the child was made and not realize that daily experiences may influence the child’s development. Kuo also found in her work at a free clinic that “many Latino moms don’t see themselves as their child’s first teacher.”
“It’s kind of natural in Western culture and in more affluent areas to recognize that the parents are a baby’s first teacher, so to speak,” she said. “Latino moms don’t really see themselves that way. They provide wonderful homes for their children, very loving, very caring environments, but they don’t see themselves as their child’s teacher.”
García Coll said one of the keys to help reverse this trend is to focus on the mothers’ education. “We need to make mothers aware of what the importance of talking and reading very early on,” she said. “Many of these mothers are motivated to do the right thing for their kids, they just need to know how.”
In addition, Fuller emphasizes Head Start and other preschool programs. “Clearly there needs to be a larger public investment,” he said. “The early Head Start program has shown quite strong effects not only in terms of improving parenting practices but in terms of kids’ early development so I think there’s good news.”
There are signs the government is willing to support these solutions. President Barack Obama’s stimulus package funnels an additional $3 billion to Head Start preschools and Early Head Start programs, to improve the care of infants and toddlers in low-income neighborhoods. In September, the House of Representatives also passed an $8 billion bill to support states that improve programs to serve preschool-age children over the next eight years.
“This is a national set of issues,” Fuller said. “Churches can play a key role, state preschool programs start to grow around the country… it shouldn’t just be led by Washington. It should also be led by grassroots groups.”