The findings highlight the necessity of early intervention such as Head Start, researchers say.

Poor immigrant Latinas have healthy babies, but by age 2 or 3, their toddlers begin to lag behind white middle-class children in vocabulary, listening and problem-solving skills, according to two studies released Tuesday.

Researchers call it the "immigrant paradox": Pregnant Latino women smoke and drink less than pregnant white and African American women, Latino newborns have lower infant mortality rates, and the cognitive skill of infants 9 to 15 months are about equal for white and Latino children.

But by the time they are toddlers, Latino children trail their white counterparts by up to six months in understanding words, speaking in more complex sentences and performing such simple tasks as assembling puzzles.

The findings from researchers at UC Berkeley, UCLA and the University of Pittsburgh are based on a nationwide tracking study of more than 8,000 children born in 2001 and are being published in the Maternal and Child Health Journal and the medical journal Pediatrics.

Past studies have documented disparities between Latino children and their white peers in kindergarten and persistent achievement gaps in later grades. The new findings pinpoint the beginnings of those gaps at an earlier age than previously thought. They also highlight the urgency of early intervention — children in preschool programs such as Head Start may already be at a disadvantage, researchers said.

"Cognitive skills and language during toddler years are a strong predictor of who will do well in kindergarten and early elementary grades," said study co-author Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley. "These early lags in learning need to be addressed in a sensitive and respectful fashion, but they need to be addressed early on."

Fuller and his colleagues attribute part of the paradox to larger Latino families, which could result in individual children receiving less attention from their parents. A bigger issue, researchers say, is that poor Latino mothers tend to be less educated than women in other groups. Studies have found that undereducated parents read fewer books and share fewer stories with their children, which is fundamental for later literacy skills.

"Maternal education is the best predictor," said Eugene Garcia, a professor of education at Arizona State University, who reviewed the new studies but is not connected with them. "If moms are educated pretty well, their kids are going to be pretty well educated."

Many Latino families don't view themselves as their children's first teachers, assigning that role to schools, said study co-author Alice Kuo, a UCLA assistant professor of pediatrics.

The irony, she said, is that these families are seeking a better education for their children, but pressures to work and assimilate may hinder that goal.

The studies come at a time when early education is an increasing focus of public policy makers. President Obama has moved to provide $2.1 billion in stimulus funds for Head Start and Early Head Start and $8 billion for state early learning grants.

Norma Elizabeth Ochoa, a Whittier mother, said she hopes that such funding can expand programs such as Abriendo Puertas, a parent-training program run by the nonprofit group Families in Schools that she attended earlier this year. The classes helped her and husband, Octavio, with their children, Octavio Jr., 10 and Diego, 3.

Ochoa said she cut her work hours to spend more time with her sons. She has learned to pay more attention to their needs and now has tools to help Diego develop learning skills. The effort has paid off.

"My goal is to give them a good education, encourage them for college and make a difference in their future," she said.


Source: Los Angeles Times –