Applied Psychology OPUS

A Cultural Examination of the Predictive Relation Between Latino Parental Engagement and Children’s School Readiness

Amanda Rohr

In the United States immigrant children represent the fastest growing part of the population; therefore, their education is critical for society’s economic future (Magnuson, Lahaie, & Waldfoge, 2006). Yet, there is a lack of research about the education of immigrant children and in particular, during the preschool years (De Feyter & Winsler, 2009). Contemporary research shows that the preschool years (i.e., ages 3 – 5) is a critical developmental period because there is a significant growth in various domains associated with children’s later school performance, such as language and literacy, executive functioning, and socio-emotional skills (McWayne, Cheung, Wright, & Hahs-Vaughn, 2012; Welsh, Nix, Clancy, Bierman, & Nelson, 2010). These developmental domains have been labeled as preschool school readiness skills, which collectively have been shown to predict later academic success (Hoover-Dempsey et al., 2001; Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler, 2005).

Within school readiness literature, research has identified various protective factors for a child’s academic trajectory. One of the main factors researched is parental engagement, which describes how families participate and support their children’s education (Barnard, 2004; McWayne, Melzi, Schick, Kennedy, & Mundt, 2013). In previous literature parental engagement was referred to as “parental involvement”, a construct that was measured based upon the school’s opinion via teacher-rating reports, and consequently, these measures failed to acknowledge the influence of external factors. “Parental involvement” assumes one-dimensional linearity without considering how parents’ experiences and resources can frame the reason for their amount of involvement.  For this reason, contemporary literature uses more precise terminology by referring to this construct as parental engagement, which recognizes that it is both an active process shaped by circumstances and an outcome (Barton, Drake, Perez, St. Louis, & George, 2004; Carreon, Drake, & Barton, 2005).

Hoover-Dempsey and Sandler’s (1995) model of parental involvement alluded to this concept of parental engagement when it explained, across five levels, why parents choose to be involved, how this choice can be influenced at any time, as well as how this choice affects a child’s school readiness (Fan & Chen, 2001; Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler, 1995). Taken together, their model reflected parental involvement as a process, instead of only an action indicative of parents’ love and commitment (Barton, Drake, Perez, St. Louis & George, 2004). Furthermore in the highest level, five (i.e., an outcome) their model suggests the protective power of parental engagement in relation to a child’s academic outcome (Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler, 1995).

With regards to children’s school readiness, parental engagement as a predictive factor has been subdivided into two categories: School-based and home-based engagement (McWayne et al., 2013). School-based engagement includes organized activities that encourage the parent’s presence in the child’s school, such as parent-teacher conferences and attending school events (Hill & Taylor, 2004; Waanders, Mendez, & Downer, 2007). Research has further categorized school-based engagement as either teacher-initiated (e.g., parent-teacher conferences) or parent-initiated engagement (e.g., attending school events). Whereas home-based engagement includes academic activities that parents participate in with their children at home, such as helping with homework (Hill, 2001; Downer & Mendez, 2010). This distinction between home-based and school-based engagement demonstrates that parental engagement is complex and multidimensional (Fan & Chen, 2001).

Previous research failed to accurately measure the complexity of parental engagement. The majority of parental involvement literature stems from a white, middle class sample and uses a uniform definition of parents (De Gaetano, 2007). Research neglected to study parental involvement from different cultural standpoints, which lead to inaccurate generalizations; such as Latino caregivers provide an inadequate learning environment for their child (De Gaetano, 2007; Greenburg, 2012; Lopéz, Scribner, & Mahitivanichcha, 2001). That being said, there is scant research using culturally-valid measures on Latino parental engagement (McWayne et al., 2013). This literature becomes scarcer when focusing on within-group variability of immigration status. Therefore, this literature review will aim to understand the relation between Latino parental engagement and children’s school readiness. More specifically, it will contribute to closing this research gap by exploring the following research question: What are the cultural and immigration related factors that influence the relation between Latino parental engagement and children’s school readiness?

Parental Engagement and School Readiness

Research suggests a positive impact of parental involvement on children’s school readiness skills, and in turn their later academic achievement (Fan & Chen, 2001). This positive influence is especially significant for low-income ethnic minority children, as these children are at the greatest risk for educational failure (Jeynes, 2003; Jeynes, 2005). In particular, findings indicate parent-initiated school-based engagement is a high protective factor of children’s overall academic outcomes (Hill, 2001). Home-based engagement has been shown to have an equally significant impact, notably on preschoolers’ school readiness skills, which will contribute to their later academic success by developing attention, motivation, and task persistence techniques (Fantuzzo, McWayne, Perry, & Childs, 2004; McWayne et al., 2004). Although literature acknowledges the distinction between school-based and home-based engagement, parental engagement’s facets are not typically analyzed separately (Fan & Chen, 2001; Waanders et al., 2007). When a meta-analysis of these simplified parental engagement studies was conducted its’ findings contributed to a detrimental misunderstanding that Latino parents were not concerned with their child’s education (Jeynes, 2003). That being said to start with, as a minority, Latinos were severely underrepresented because few studies examined specifically their involvement (Jeynes, 2003). Moreover, the previous studies included focused on exploring primarily school-based engagement. Consequently, Jeynes (2003) found that when comparing parental involvement of different ethnicities, a hierarchy developed with Latino parents being overall the least engaged.

The Latino Perspective

Contemporary research, using culturally valid measures, suggests that Latino parents’ engagement emerges differently than previous understandings of parental roles in education, consisting of more home-based engagement, contrary to the scope of school personnel’s traditional gauges of parental engagement (e.g., volunteering) (Lopéz, et al., 2001). Therefore, the initial findings perhaps mean that Latino parents have less contact with the school (Wong & Hughes, 2006), rather than that they are not engaged at all. The discrepancy between Latino school-based and home-based engagement has largely been due to cultural differences (De Gaetano, 2007). For instance, within the Latino culture, there is a popular belief that the teacher is held responsible for the child’s education while at school (Greenburg, 2012). Especially if the parents have a limited understanding of the curriculum due to a language barrier, the teacher can be viewed as the expert and as a result, the parents do not raise further questions (Carreon, Drake, & Barton, 2005; Hill & Taylor, 2004). Latino home-based engagement derives from their definition for education, educación, which is a mistaken cognate that is not solely measured by academic success (Farver, Xu, Eppe, & Lonigan, 2006). A child’s educación is reflective of whether the child is raised well (e.g., cooperative and respectful of adults), as well as their academic competence (Farver et al., 2006). Current findings reflect this distinction and suggest that Latino parents’ home-based involvement includes a more diverse set of activities including teaching cultural values, emotional awareness and social skills (Farver et al., 2006; McWayne et al., 2004; Lopéz et al., 2001). Taken together these findings using representative measures demonstrate that Latino parental engagement is culturally specific and manifests itself as a higher amount of home-based engagement (McWayne et al., 2013; Orozco, 2008). Viewing parental engagement as a one-dimensional construct has contributed to a damaging stereotype that Latino parents choose to be uninvolved in their child’s education and in turn, it developed into explanation for their children’s low academic success (Guerrero et al., 2012; Jeynes, 2003).

During the preschool years, research demonstrates that Latino children’s inadequate school readiness skills can be detected as early as age two (Guerrero et al., 2012). This disparity continues throughout the rest of their school years, with Latinos students’ scores being consistently lower in a variety of subjects (e.g., reading, writing, and math) (Pyle, Bates, Greif, & Furlong, 2005), reflecting the predictive power of preschool school readiness skills. Although their cognitive scores are lower, Latino children succeed with regard to socio-emotional skills, demonstrating higher levels in this domain than other ethnicities when they enter kindergarten (De Feyter & Winsler, 2009). Those findings are indicative of how Latinos’ cultural understanding of education manifests itself in their inclusion of social emotional skills in home-based involvement (De Feyter & Winsler, 2009). Collectively these findings indicate that both stereotypes about Latino parents and students abilities are conclusions from a narrow lens, excluding the possibilities of how culture can influence the conceptual understanding of both engagement and school readiness.

The Immigrants’ Perspective

Along with the obstacles that face Latino parents in becoming engaged with their children’s education, Latino immigrant parents have to acclimate to an entirely different culture. As an immigrant, acculturation has been shown to challenge their conceptual understanding of established systems, social networks, language, and identity, among other ideas (Jimenez-Castellanos & Gonzalez, 2012). These challenges contribute to assimilation, which affects parents’ level of involvement and their children’s academic success. In other words, the rate at which caregivers assimilate into mainstream society, is associated with their child’s experience within the school system, and in turn, their academic outcomes (Carreon et al., 2005).
For all immigrant children to compete academically, it is crucial that their first step is enrolling in preschool since it is the standard for their non-immigrant peers (Chiswick & DebBurman, 2006). Preschool provides a setting that helps the assimilation process through the exposure of the dominant cultures’ basic language skills. These initial linguistic gains are determinants of an immigrant child’s academic trajectory as later on, students are required to pass English screening tests as a measure of their intelligence (Magnuson et al., 2006). With this requirement, American culture implies that assimilation is essential to succeed within the established system (Carreon et al., 2005; Jimenez-Castellanos & Gonzalez, 2012). Yet even with conformity, immigrant children will never be viewed as a native member. Instead they are viewed as an outsider, which results in stereotypes developing and perpetuating an anti-immigrant culture (Carreon et al., 2005).

As an immigrant living in a seemingly anti-immigrant culture, a positive attitude towards education can serve as an advantage, especially when compared to non-immigrants (De Feyter & Winsler, 2009). When immigrant parents’ mindsets are optimistic, it is reflective of their families’ desire for their children to have a more promising life, including academic opportunities (Carreon et al., 2005; De Feyter & Winsler, 2009). Academics are often highly valued within a recently immigrated family, creating a solid support system that motivates their children (Carreon et al., 2005; De Feyter & Winsler, 2009). This advantage becomes particularly apparent when compared with non-immigrant minorities, who deal with similar obstacles but do not share their optimistic outlook. Research reports that as an immigrant child assimilates into the dominant culture (i.e., American culture), the children’s academic motivation begins to decline. Literature hypothesizes that this is perhaps due to increased peer discrimination (De Feyter & Winsler, 2009; Greenburg, 2012). When applied to Latino immigrants, these findings shows that as they assimilate into our society, there is a critical need to understand their family struggles and how that affects parental engagement in their child’s education.
 
Conclusion

Research has established a protective relation between parental engagement and children’s school readiness, especially during the preschool years (Barnard, 2004). Both home-based and school-based engagement plays an important role, and therefore should be examined separately (Fan & Chen, 2001). Initially a uniform interpretation of parental engagement caused a misconception about Latino parents, which became perpetuated due to the utilization of culturally inaccurate measures (McWayne et al., 2013). Once Latino parental engagement was analyzed through a proper cultural lens, the relation’s dynamic changed. Their involvement was understood as different than the dominant culture, including more home-based activities and it was not accepted as an explanation for Latino children’s gap in school readiness skills (Guerrero et al., 2012; Farver et al., 2006). Therefore, Latinos were no longer viewed as incompetent parents and a stereotype was dispelled. Taken together, these findings are a prime example of a stereotype about a minority that was concluded from a limited cultural lens.

Similar to the struggles Latino parents face with regard to parental engagement, there are barriers for parental engagement for immigrants, as well. Both Latinos and immigrants are faced with being categorized by the dominant society into stereotypes (Jimenez-Castellanos & Gonzalez, 2012; Lopez et al., 2012). Few studies examine specifically the Latino immigrant perspective. When exploring how the relation between parental engagement and children’s school readiness is affected by immigration factors, research demonstrates that immigrant parents’ attitudes towards education have an impact (De Feyter & Winsler, 2009). If it is a positive mentality, these parents tend to motivate their children because education is seen as the path towards a more promising future (De Feyter & Winsler, 2009). Then immigrant children adopt their parents’ mindsets by showing increased motivation, compared to non-immigrant peers (De Feyter & Winsler, 2009). When applied to Latino parents, these findings suggest that being a recent Latino immigrant has advantages (e.g., motivational mindset) and their children are more likely to succeed than non-immigrant Latinos (De Feyter & Winsler, 2009). This proposes that having a minority status and being a recent immigrant in a seemingly anti-immigrant culture, cultivates a sense a higher sense of self-efficacy. Altogether, these findings demonstrate that both cultural and immigration related factors influence the relation between Latino parental engagement and children’s school readiness.

Limitations and Future Directions

One limitation found within literature and this literature review, is that participants were examined under the homogenous definition of “Latinos” (Greenburg, 2012). There are more than twenty-two different countries within the “Latino” ethnicity, so future research should consider examining more cultural and ethnic diversity within this population (Greenburg, 2012). By examining immigrant related factors, it was an attempt to explore a portion of the within-group variability in Latinos. However, this choice can also be considered a limitation and in that case, a reflection of current research on immigrant populations. There is a common tendency to classify participants into a dichotomous category (i.e., immigrant or non-immigrant), which can lead to false conclusions about a particular cultural group. Immigrant families are diverse. Each household has unique experiences navigating the educational system due to differences of language, religion, and culture (De Feyter & Winsler, 2009). Therefore, future research should use more culturally-valid measures developed from quantitative data analysis to examine these cultures individually to ensure the participants are correctly represented (Greenburg, 2012). In addition to examining the cultures individually, there is a critical need to particularly examine the Latino immigrant’s perspective. Considering that one in four children are being raised in an immigrant family and Latinos are now the fastest-growing student group, the intersection of the Latino immigrant identity should be further researched in regard to parental engagement and children’s school readiness, so that future research can more effectively help these children achieve their academic potential (De Feyter & Winsler, 2009; Greenburg, 2012).

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