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School Readiness for Immigrant Children

ISSUE No. 9 • FALL ’17
School Readiness for Immigrant and Refugee Children
Story by Jennifer Marangos & Artwork by Lisk Feng

With Chinese and Dominican families among the fastest-growing immigrant groups in the Lehigh Valley (Pa.), two Lehigh researchers are studying the “school readiness” beliefs of immigrant parents in those populations in hopes of helping them to better prepare their children for the American school system.  

“Families often immigrate to provide enhanced opportunities for their children,” said Brook Sawyer, the Frank Hook Assistant Professor of Teaching, Learning and Technology, who is conducting the study with Peggy Kong, assistant professor of Comparative and International Education. 

“Yet, children’s achievement may be unintentionally compromised because of language barriers and differences in expectations between families and schools,” Sawyer said. “It is our hope that findings from this study can be used to develop culturally informed interventions that will supplement what families and schools do to facilitate a stronger alignment between family and school practices.”

Kong and Sawyer have been awarded a $6,000 faculty research grant to conduct the study. They are being supported in their research by graduate students fluent in Spanish or Chinese who are helping to recruit families and collect data. The graduate students also will help with data analysis and dissemination of the information through conferences and publications.

The growth of Chinese and Dominican immigrant communities in the Lehigh Valley mirrors a larger trend across the United States, in which Asian and Latino families are among the fastest-growing populations. 

Kong said that immigrant families bring with them diverse perspectives on the early childhood years and what skills their children will need to begin formal schooling.

“Immigrant families are unfamiliar with American school procedures and culture and find it challenging to navigate, resulting in possible gaps in children’s academic preparation and misunderstandings between families and schools,” she said. “Developing interventions that incorporate immigrant family cultural norms and expectations along with valuing cultural knowledge should result in optimal participation of immigrants and better educational outcomes for immigrant children and families.” 

School-readiness studies that focus on immigrant families are rare, the researchers said. Those studies that do exist typically treat immigrants as a homogeneous group.

“We have elected to focus on Chinese and Dominican immigrant parents rather than the broader categories of Asian or Latino families in order to develop a more nuanced understanding of the beliefs and practices of families from specific countries of origin that reflect the Lehigh Valley,” Sawyer said. 

This more nuanced understanding will also be useful for early childhood providers who have limited knowledge of Dominicans or Chinese families, Kong added. Plus, it may be exciting for teachers and staff to see diversity within Asian and Latino groups in their school community.

Sawyer said that she and Kong teamed up for this research since they are both part of the College of Education’s Early Development and Education initiative. Sawyer’s background is early childhood education, while Kong’s scholarship focuses on supporting both parents and early childhood educators as agents of change for their children’s learning and development. 

“We came together because we both observed disconnects between school expectations of school readiness and family beliefs and practices of school readiness,” Kong said. “This project blends Brook’s expertise working with dual-language and low-income families on early childhood skills and interventions with my expertise working with diverse families to build partnerships with schools.”  ′

“Developing interventions that incorporate immigrant family cultural norms and expectations along with valuing cultural knowledge should result in optimal participation of immigrants and better educational outcomes for immigrant children and families.”

Peggy Kong, Professor of Comparative and International Education