By JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr.
Published: October 21, 2009
HOUSTON — The children of Hispanic immigrants tend to be born healthy and start life on an intellectual par with other American children, but by the age of 2 they begin to lag in linguistic and cognitive skills, a new study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, shows.
The study highlights a paradox that has bedeviled educators and Hispanic families for some time. By and large, mothers from Latin American countries take care of their health during their pregnancies and give birth to robust children, but those children fall behind their peers in mental development by the time they reach grade school, and the gap tends to widen as they get older.
The new Berkeley study suggests the shortfall may start even before the children enter preschool, supporting calls in Washington to spend more on programs that coach parents to stimulate their children with books, drills and games earlier in their lives.
“Our results show a very significant gap even at age 3,” said Bruce Fuller, one of the study’s authors and a professor of education at Berkeley. “If we don’t attack this disparity early on, these kids are headed quickly for a pretty dismal future in elementary school.”
Professor Fuller said blacks and poor whites also lagged behind the curve, suggesting that poverty remained a factor in predicting how well a young mind develops. But the drop-off in the cognitive scores of Hispanic toddlers, especially those from Mexican backgrounds, was steeper than for other groups and could not be explained by economic status alone, he said.
One possible explanation is that a high percentage of Mexican and Latin American immigrant mothers have less formal schooling than the average American mother, white or black, the study’s authors said. These mothers also tend to have more children than middle-class American families, which means the toddlers get less one-on-one attention from their parents.
“The reading activities, educational games and performing the ABCs for Grandma — so often witnessed in middle-class homes — are less consistently seen in poor Latino households,” Professor Fuller said.
The study is based on data collected on 8,114 infants born in 2001 and tracked through the first two years of life by the National Center for Education Statistics. The findings will be published this week in Maternal and Child Health Journal, and a companion report will appear this fall in the medical journal Pediatrics.
The analysis showed that at 9 to 15 months, Hispanic and white children performed equally on tests of basic cognitive skills, like understanding their mother’s speech and using words and gestures. But from 24 to 36 months, the Hispanic children fell about six months behind their white peers on measures like word comprehension, more complex speech and working with their mothers on simple tasks.
The study comes as the Obama administration has been pushing for more money to help prepare infants and toddlers for school. In September, the House passed an initiative that would channel $8 billion over eight years to states with plans to improve programs serving young children.
In addition, the economic stimulus package included $3 billion for Head Start preschools and for the Early Head Start program, which helps young parents stimulate their children’s mental development.
Eugene Garcia, an education professor at Arizona State University, said the Berkeley-led study confirmed findings by others that the children of Hispanic immigrants, for reasons that remain unclear, tend to fall behind white students by as much as a grade level by the third grade.
“It seems like what might be the most helpful with Latino kids is early intervention,” Dr. Garcia said.
Carmen Rodriguez, the director of the Columbia University Head Start in New York City, said there was a waiting list of parents, most of them Hispanic, who want to take Early Head Start classes with their children.
Dr. Rodriguez said the study’s findings might reflect a surge in interest in early childhood education on the part of middle-class Americans, rather than any deficiency in the immigrant homes.
“Any low-income toddler is disadvantaged if they don’t get this kind of stimulation,” she said.