Studies Find Latino Toddlers Lag White Children in Cognitive Skills

Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times, October 20, 2009

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. {snip}

“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.

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[Editor’s Note: “The Health and Cognitive Growth of Latino Toddlers: At Risk or Immigrant Paradox?” by Bruce Fuller et al., can be read here.]

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