Blog: Latino Ed Beat

A Snapshot of Early Social Skills for Latino Children

Back in May, Education Week reported on a University of California-Berkeley study showing that a majority of Latino children enter kindergarten with the same social skills as middle-class white children. Researchers found a strong correlation between the level of social skills children brought with them starting kindergarten and the gains they made in math skills during their kindergarten year.

I was thinking about this study Sunday afternoon when my friend–we’ll call him Luis, since he’s only five years old and might not want to find himself on the Internet later in life–and three of his older siblings came over to play in my backyard. Luis just started kindergarten in August. On paper, he’s entering with a potential drawback: He didn’t attend any preschool program, which research shows gives children who enter with less exposure to academics a stronger boost. I heard from one of his siblings that his mom didn’t want to send her last baby to school any sooner than she had to. (For the record, I never went to preschool. I was kind of a shy child so perhaps my mother didn’t want to send me any sooner than she had to, either.)

At the same time, Luis is a poster child for the study’s findings. He’s the youngest of six in his Mexican-immigrant family and has plenty of social skills. When we meet on the street, I’ve rarely see him without a smile on his face. On Sunday, he and my two-year-old son had a fine time kicking a ball around the yard. Based on Luis’ studied observation of the bugs in my composter, my guess is he’s also pretty good at staying on task, at least when he wants to. He even let my son look at his bugs with just a little prodding from his big sister.

I’ve rarely had a chance to watch Luis in more formal classroom-type activities, though we have occasionally read books together on my front porch steps. (I remember he liked the green frog in Oso Pardo Oso Pardo/Brown Bear Brown Bear when we read it a while back. I sent the book home with Luis but have no idea whether anyone reads it with him.) Yesterday he dug a few grubs out of the compost and put them in a plastic cup. I asked him to count them and he got as far as three, then stopped. I looked inside and there were more like five or six. I suspect if we had been speaking Spanish he might have gone farther, but I don’t know.

Though our neighborhood is poor, our local elementary school is rated above district averages for academic performance. I’m hopeful Luis will be able to take the social skills he brings to kindergarten and put them to work deepening his academics. Thanks to his older siblings, he also comes to kindergarten with a fairly strong command of English, a useful assist in a school district where the norm is transitional bilingual education–in general, three years of decreasing Spanish-language support before exiting.

I’d love to see reporting that puts this study in context. The Education Week article notes that Latino children of Mexican heritage were more likely to possess high social skills than Puerto Rican children, but it doesn’t directly explain why. I’d like to see the possible reasons for such differences explored in some stories. Based on my neighborhood, my guess is that factors like single parents versus two-parent families–especially two-parent families with a stay-at-home mom, like Luis’ family–play a big role. Here on my block, despite our troubles with foreclosures and gang activity, day-to-day life bears key resemblances to my own 1970s suburban upbringing, most notably because there are a fair number of stay-at-home moms among the Mexican families. They keep an eye on their children after school and network among themselves for everything from Tupperware sales to school recommendations. And most of their little children have a nurturing adult around consistently, which we know is crucial for young children’s social and intellectual development. (Yes, there are one or two obviously troubled families on our block, but as far as I can see most of the families seem to be raising their children with an appropriate mix of love and limits.)

I’d also like to see how kindergarteners like Luis fare in different schools to see how well the schools support young Latino kids and build on the assets they bring.