Schools’ Resources Important for Helping Children of Immigrant Families Succeed in the Classroom

November 10, 2008 @ 5:00 am

For Immediate Release

November 10, 2008

New York, NY — Children of immigrants who enter school with low math and reading skills have a better chance of catching up with their peers if they attend a school with high-performing students, well-supported teachers and services such as English-as-a-second-language (ESL) programs according to a new study by Dr. Wen-jui Han of the Columbia University School of Social Work.

Previous studies discovered the importance of family resources in children’s academic performance. Now, Han’s study, which appears in the November issue of Developmental Psychology published by the American Psychological Association, shows that the school environment is just as important for immigrant children, especially those children lacking resources at home.

Many children from immigrant families attend public schools with inadequate teaching materials, crowded classrooms, and a generally low-performing student body. The majority of these students come into school with reading, writing and math disadvantages. Schools with lower concentrations of minority students, better-performing students school-wide and ESL programs for both students and their parents offer a chance for these children to close the gap in reading and math achievement scores among their peers.

Han studied 14,000 children from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey-Kindergarten Cohort to determine school’s role in shaping the academic performance of children of immigrants compared with native-born non-Hispanic white children. The children were tracked from kindergarten through the third grade.

The immigrant students and families studied were from Latin American countries, Spanish-speaking Caribbean countries and Asian countries and represented about 12 percent of all the children and families in the study. Of this group, 66 percent were from Latin American countries with half coming from Mexico. Native-born non-Hispanic white children made up more than half of the total sample.

Factors examined to determine their influence on academic performance included school resources (types of schools, percentage of poor or minority students, availability of ESL programs and services to students and parents), average student academic performance, and support provided to teachers and school safety.  Parents’ educational expectations, participation in school events and home learning activities were also examined.

According to the study, children of immigrants who attended schools with good resources improved their reading and math scores faster than their native-born white peers, narrowing their initial score gap and sometimes surpassing their peers by third grade. This was especially true for children from Mexican and Cuban families. Children from Central American families improved their math scores while children of immigrants from Asian countries (except Vietnam/Thailand/Cambodia/Laos) showed decline in their reading scores during the years between kindergarten and third grade. Children from East Asian and Indian families narrowed the reading gap slightly with their native-born white peers, although children from most Asian regions had higher reading and math scores from kindergarten to third grade.

“Children of Asian immigrants usually have stronger family influences that help them in school,” explained Han. “They aren’t as affected by the school factors as the other immigrant children from Latin American and Southeast Asian countries. Furthermore, those children from Thailand, Cambodia or Laos are from families with high poverty rates, which set them apart from other children of immigrants from Asia and show why, in part, children from Vietnam/Thailand/Cambodia/Laos responded more to school environments.”

The results of the study show the importance of school resources for students’ academic progress, especially ESL services and programs for immigrant families. These services include having translators available for parent-teacher conferences, providing translations of written communications, using outreach workers to help families to enroll children, and making home visits. “Children’s academic performance is likely to be stabilized after the third grade,” said Han. “Success in the third grade is a good indicator of future school success so this is a crucial time period to make changes and offer resources.”

Dr. Han’s research was funded by the Foundation for Child Development Young Scholars program. To view the full text of the article in PDF format, click here. To interview Dr. Han, please contact Jeannie Hii at 212-851-2327 or

Article: “The Academic Trajectories of Children of Immigrants and Their School Environments,” Wen-Jui Han, PhD, Columbia University; Developmental Psychology, Vol. 44, No. 6.


About the American Psychological Association
The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world’s largest association of psychologists. APA’s membership includes more than 148,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.