Education

Discrimination begins early and immigrant preschoolers notice, report says

FILE: Dina Khalil's youngest daughters are enrolled in Shenandoah Elementary's Family Literacy program and state preschool. Khalil felt like an outsider at the school until she was welcomed into the Family Literacy classroom.
FILE: Dina Khalil's youngest daughters are enrolled in Shenandoah Elementary's Family Literacy program and state preschool. Khalil felt like an outsider at the school until she was welcomed into the Family Literacy classroom.
Deepa Fernandes / KPCC

Listen to story

00:55
Download this story 0.0MB

Preschoolers from immigrant families can face discrimination from teachers, administrators, even other children who are not immigrants, according to a new report from the Migration Policy Institute

"Personal discrimination may be direct like racist comments or drawing attention to a child’s personal appearance," said report author, Jennifer Adair, a professor at the University of Texas.

Indirect discrimination also occurs, she said, "like questions about why their parents don’t speak English or being asked to be the janitor or cleaner in a game instead of the princess or policeman."

Adair has been studying issues in preschool, kindergarten and first-grade classrooms in Texas and California. She has researched discriminatory attitudes toward young children from immigrant families in classrooms.

"Young children often have to deal with hurtful comments singling out certain aspects of their identities on their own," Adair said. They are not yet able to articulate or describe subtle forms of discrimination that have hurt them, she said.

"How young children are treated in early schooling affects later behavior and academic performance," Adair said. "If young children hear negative messages from school, they may be less able to achieve academic success and economic mobility."

Witnesses to discrimination

It's not just what children themselves experience, the report points out. Many children can also witness discriminatory treatment of their parents by teachers or school administrators, according to the study.

She said teachers may make derogatory comments or act in ways that are patronizing to immigrant parents. Examples that Adair gives include teachers commenting about a parent's accent or home-language. A child may watch as their parent is repeatedly ignored by a teacher or in the school office, she said.

"Unfortunately, some teachers and administrators mistakenly believe that when parents are not fluent in English or do not understand the U.S. school system, then they have nothing to offer their child in terms of education or schooling," Adair said.

The consequence of such experiences in the school system can lead to parents who are less involved in their child's learning.

"This is particularly unfortunate for immigrant parents of young children because it is precisely in the early grades of school that parents are usually the most involved and thought of as a partner with the teacher," Adair said.

Culture of Low Expectations

The report also highlights another form of discrimination that Adair said she has witnessed in California classrooms: a culture of low expectations.  She said this might be "the most damaging" form of discrimination.

"Schooling for children of immigrants often begins by being labeled as not knowing something, not knowing English, not being ready for school — labels that are immediately negative and categorizing children as deficient," she said.

These low expectations can lead to uninspired learning environments characterized by lots of repetition and structured tasks. Adair said some immigrant kids in California are not given the dynamic early learning experiences that other kids may get.

"Young children of immigrants suffer inappropriate amounts of time repeating after the teacher, completing assigned tasks," she said.

Rote learning that doesn’t engage students leads to a loss of interest in school, and the consequences of that can be dire, according to Adair.

The report offers solutions for school districts and teachers. Engaging immigrant families and embracing and celebrating home cultures, different languages and customs can help small children build bridges between home and school.

There is also a need for investment, the report states, in "creative education strategies for schools...to offer children of immigrants dynamic, sophisticated learning experiences."

Adair said inspiring young children to ask questions and explore is critical to their future desire to learn. "For so long, we focused on access [to preschool] and now I think we have to think about what we actually offer them when they’re there," she said.