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Esther Cepeda: Demolishing stereotypes of minority students

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Esther Cepeda
November 2, 2013

CHICAGO -- Meditate on this routinely ignored fact: Not all minority children are disadvantaged or at risk.

 Despite all the terrible statistics you hear and read about the seemingly insurmountable obstacles minority and immigrant children must overcome, these kids are not hopeless.

 They deserve better than to be assumed lost causes to poverty, discrimination and other limitations. Now there's research to prove it.

 According to a study conducted by the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD), substantive indicators of success are regularly overlooked in research and discussions about minority kids and their life prospects.

 In SRCD's recently published social policy report, “Positive Development of Minority Children,” lead author Natasha J. Cabrera and the society's Ethnic and Racial Issues Committee note:

“Although the development and well-being of ethnic and racial minority children have received sustained attention over the past few decades from policymakers, researchers, and practitioners, these efforts have contributed to a body of knowledge that, while rigorous and insightful, has often been deficit-oriented, emphasizing the negative effects of inadequate economic and social resources and an elevated rate of behavior problems, decreased social competence and lower rates of school success among these children.

 “A primary focus on adversity has had the unintended consequence of eclipsing the strengths or assets that minority families possess to raise healthy children.”

 As I've written before, these ubiquitous pessimistic narratives of minority children create what Pedro Noguera, author of “The Trouble With Black Boys … and Other Reflections on Race, Equity, and the Future of Public Education,” describes as “Pobrecito Syndrome.” This is when well-meaning people lower their expectations as a form of sympathy for students who are poor, minority or don't have native English speakers at home.

 Yet despite many real life challenges, minority students have unique repositories of strengths that are rarely taken into account in discussions of natural aptitudes, academic assets or adaptability.

 Hispanic and African-American children often bear the brunt of academic discipline in schools. But as the report details: “Several investigators have found that many low-income ethnic minority children exhibit relatively high levels of self-regulation compared to other children … [and] are also likely to be socially competent (i.e., able to cooperate and get along with others), which also promotes school readiness.”

 There are also the many studies showing that low-income minority children tend to show deficits in language abilities and vocabulary, mainly as a function of the economic hardship experienced by their families.

 Less publicized is that even low-income African-American preschoolers often possess oral narrative skills that may promote later success in reading achievement.

 “A review of the literature revealed that African-American children produce narratives of higher quality and have greater narrative comprehension than white children,” the report shows, with “similar findings … reported for bilingual children. For instance, bilingual children are reported to have enhanced executive control in nonverbal tasks requiring conflict resolution as compared to monolingual children.”

 Lastly, there are strengths stemming from a strong family culture or ethnic identity, which is commonly assumed—often incorrectly—to be inferior, fragmented or overshadowed by the financial pressures of poverty.

 Both security in their own racial and ethnic identity and a strong sense of family obligation is positively correlated with students who exhibit fewer behavior problems. These students also often report reduced substance abuse and are more socially competent, the authors say.

 Emilie Smith, the head of SRCD's Ethnic and Racial Issues Committee, told me it's imperative to jump-start widespread acknowledgment of minority student strengths.

 “There have been a few pretty famous longitudinal studies of minorities, but they are usually about the smaller proportions of them who have large issues and challenges to development,” Smith said.

 “So often we're comparing low-income minority children to the middle class majority, and we start sending these mixed messages that don't let us disentangle the influence of poverty from the experience of being a minority.

 “There is this growing body of minority and immigrant children growing up in families that are not poor, and they're not delinquent, not at-risk. We need to know more about them and the best ways to study and understand them.”

 Immigrant and minority children do not have to be forever associated with struggle and underachievement. It's time to start focusing on their strengths—and help build on them.

 Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.



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