More than the A- B-Cs and 1-2-3s: The Importance of Family Cultural Socialization and Ethnic Identity Development for Children of Immigrants’ Early School Success
Children of immigrants1 are a rapidly growing subset of the US population. Today, one in five school children are from immigrant families, while approximately 25% of the US population under the age of 10 is first or second-generation youth (Hernandez, Denton, Macartney, this volume). Moreover, children of immigrants come from families of increasingly diverse ethnic, linguistic, and socioeconomic backgrounds (see Hernandez et al., this volume). With this diversification of our nation’s population and schools also have come mixed academic achievement patterns and outcomes by immigrant generation, ethnicity, and acculturation. For example, some immigrants appear to be doing worse in school (in achievement as well as academic attitudes and behaviors) as they acculturate to the US. Alternately stated, it is often the most recent arrivals and the first generation of immigrants who fare best across a broad array of education outcomes (Fuligni, 1997; Crosnoe, 2005b; Kao, 2004; Crosnoe & Lopez-Gonzalez, 2005; Conger, Schwartz, & Stiefel, 2003; Pong, Hao, & Gardner, 2005; Portes & Rumbaut, 2001). Because acculturation typically comes with an increase in family wealth, education opportunities, and social capital, these counterintuitive patterns are puzzling, referred to by some researchers as an “immigrant paradox” in education (see Patton, Yang, Marks, & García Coll, in preparation). Further, these achievement patterns appear to vary somewhat by ethnicity. There is strong evidence of the paradox for some Asian groups, who typically exhibit overall high academic achievement, with mixed findings among Latinos depending on type of academic outcome (Crosnoe, 2005a; Fuligni, 1997; Glick & Hohmann-Marriott, 2007; Han, 2006; Hao & Bonstead-Bruns, 1998; Pong, 2003). In addition, achievement patterns change throughout development from childhood to adolescence where achievement gaps and school-related problems are most pronounced (Alspaugh, 1998; Gutman & Midgley, 2000; Seidman, Allen, Aber, Mitchell, & Feinman, 1994). But understanding achievement is only one component of understanding immigrant children’s academic success. In their work with adolescents, Bankston and Zhou have pointed out that there is often a distinction for immigrant youth between “doing well versus being well” in school, emphasizing the importance of looking beyond grades to
understand immigrant youth’s school adjustment (2002). Psychological studies independent of research on academic achievement have shown that children and adolescents in immigrant families have higher levels of depression, angst, and alienation, as well as lower amounts of self-reported positive well-being and locus of control than children in native families (e.g. Bankston & Zhou, 2002; Kao, 1999; Portes & Rumbaut, 2001). As such, psychological aspects of children’s experiences in school are increasingly recognized as an important component of immigrant youth school adjustment. Although research examining education and psychological adaptation to school among young children of immigrants has been sparse compared to research on adolescence or adulthood, it is generally accepted that the education trajectories of childhood lay the foundation for students’ future successes (Stipek, 2005; Entwisle, Alexander, Pallas, & Cadigan, 1987). These early education processes are therefore particularly important to examine among immigrant groups who not only exhibit increased risk for academic problems as acculturation proceeds, but also must make their transitions into the US education system across home-school cultural contexts that may differ dramatically (Delgado-Gaitan & Trueba, 1991; García Coll & Marks, in press; SuárezOrozco & Suárez-Orozco, 1995, 2001; Suárez-Orozco, Suárez-Orozco, & Todrava, 2008). In addition, the complexities of political, social, and economic situations among the US’s immigrant student populations challenge our understanding of how best to serve families as they acculturate; for instance, immigrant families are more likely to live in poverty, and are less likely to seek health and education services than nonimmigrant families (see Takanishi, 2004). Increasingly, across many states and cities in this nation, immigrant families are seen as a source of economic demand leading to resource depletions. Yet as this fastest-growing subset of the US population enters school at increasingly high rates, evidence-based approaches for understanding and supporting positive immigrant youth school adjustment are sorely needed. How best to support the early academic attainment of these children is therefore a complex question that demands our consideration. A fundamental question therefore is: what is it about the acculturation process in the US that might put immigrant children at risk for unhealthy school adjustment and poor academic success? Numerous studies have documented the strong motivation and commitment immigrant families have for promoting their children’s education (Fuligni, 1997; Glick & White, 2004; Kao & Tienda, 1995; Hao & Bonstead-Burns, 1998). It is therefore not likely that the decline in achievement across acculturation is due to a lack of family values in children’s education. Although research has yet to establish the mechanisms by which settings such as families, schools, and peers may promote or hinder the immigrant paradox in education, clues from research of family cultural socialization processes may provide a basis for exploration of this important topic. For example, recent research findings demonstrate that as families acculturate to the US, children’s attitudes toward school become less aligned with parents’ (Fuligni, 1997; Goyette & Xie, 1999; Rosenbaum & Rochford, 2008; Suárez-Orozco & SuárezOrozco, 2001). Other research highlights the bi-directionality of parent educational expectations and children’s academic performance, whereby Latino immigrant parents’ education beliefs are influenced both by their original cultural beliefs, and by their children’s experiences in elementary school (Goldenberg, Gallimore, Reese, & Garnier, 2001). Further, children of immigrants in the elementary school years are not only
forming their identities as students, but also as members of ethnic and racial social groups; how these early student-ethnic identity processes align (or do not align) may have strong implications for children’s future academic success and psychological wellbeing. Unfortunately, the processes of family cultural socialization and early ethnicidentity development among children of immigrants are rarely studied with respect to school adjustment prior to adolescence. These topics are addressed in the current chapter in hopes of drawing out new avenues for early-childhood education research and identifying points of education intervention on behalf of immigrant children and their families. In this chapter, we review theoretical perspectives and research related to immigrant families’ cultural socialization regarding their children’s educations, focusing on some of the unique developmental experiences of children of immigrants as they adjust to their early years in school. In doing so, we wish to highlight the importance of understanding the family immigration context as well as cultural beliefs and practices for supporting children’s transitions to school. Next, we make use of research on emerging ethnic identity development and early peer social processes to highlight the necessity of establishing positive student-ethnic identities early on in schooling for later academic success. Lastly, we consider how schools and teachers may support immigrant children and their families with these psychological adjustments to school in early childhood.