Who Are Asians?
Asian Approaches to Schooling and Learning
Recommendations for Head Start Staff
Build a Trusting Relationship with Children and Families
Provide Parenting Education and Home Language Support
Provide a Language-Enriched Learning Environment
Access Resources in the Community
In 1974, I immigrated from Hong Kong to the United States to attend college. I am fluent in both Mandarin and Cantonese. For more than seven years, I worked as a Program Manager and later as an Education Specialist for an Early Head Start/Head Start Program in Honolulu, Hawaii. More recently, I was a Mentor-Coach Specialist in Region IX, the Pacific area. All of my work in Head Start has included close contact with Pacific Island and Asian immigrants. Most of the Head Start staff are English only speakers. As a team, we have worked together to meet the growing needs of the increasing non-English speaking population who need Head Start services.
Asian Approaches to Schooling and Learning
Who Are Asians?
According to the most recent Program Information Report (PIR), over 11,000 Head Start children are speakers of East Asian languages, making them the second largest group of English language learners (after Spanish speakers). However, the term Asian does not lend itself to an easy definition. In fact, it is an umbrella term referring to over 20 ethnic groups from Japan, Malaysia, Laos, Vietnam, China, India, Pakistan, and other countries. These ethnic groups have different languages, child-rearing practices, and approaches to learning.
In most Asian countries, schools are formal and structured institutions. The children have limited time in free choice learning. Even very young children are expected to sit in desks. To show respect, they listen to or talk to their teachers with their heads down; they avoid eye contact. They do not ask questions (which would appear disrespectful), and they follow the teachers instructions with absolute attention.
Traditionally, Asian families have entrusted their children to the teachers and the school system. They think that it is the teachers responsibility to teach their children. The role of parents as teachers of their young childrena cornerstone of Head Startis an unfamiliar concept. At first, Asian parents may think this concept means giving rules and dos and donts such as: Sit properly in class and speak only when asked. Some parents think that learning means being able to memorize, read and write, and that playing is a waste of time. They expect teachers to give their young children daily homework.
Recommendations for Head Start Staff
I have seen first-hand how much a childs reaction to a new place, to different customs, and to changed expectations is colored by their prior experiences. When my son was three years old, we moved from Texas to Hawaii. I read books to him about moving and talked with him about what changes to expect. I thought he was well-prepared for the transition, but when he started preschool in Hawaii, he insisted on wearing his Texas cowboy boots and refused to take them off when he entered the room, which is the Hawaiian custom. This went on for several weeks. When he attended his first Hawaiian luau (feast) at his preschool, he refused to sit on the floor as is customary and insisted on sitting on a chair to eat his food. It took about a year, with lots of assurance and encouraging words, before he was able to adjust to and accept the Hawaiian way of living.
When Asian families and children enroll in Head Start, they encounter many new experiences, not unlike my own son. Not only may they be hearing English more than they ever have before, but they are now exposed to new routines, unfamiliar food and eating habits, and different expectations for appropriate behavior. What they face in the new environment can be very confusing. How can we help them adjust to Head Start? How can we respect their Asian cultures and promote their new learning? How can we help the children achieve positive outcomes?
Based on my personal and professional experience, I offer these suggestions:
Build a Trusting Relationship with Children and Families. Mutual trust opens the channel of communication and cooperation. In order to establish a trusting relationship with Asian families, the Head Start team needs to learn about the familys unique background, culture, and practices. Each ethnic group is different for example, the parenting style of a Chinese family from Hong Kong is different from the parenting style of a family from Vietnam, Taiwan, or mainland China. How can staff be informed about the diverse cultures and practices? Besides reading books and materials on a particular Asian group, one of the best ways is to have open dialogue with parents and children.
In Hawaii, the term talk story refers to informal conversation about everyday matters. It can take place at any time and in any placeduring a Head Start gathering or a home visit or during a chance meeting in the grocery store or on the bus. It is a way of making connections with people through causal dialoguing. Head Start staff use this avenue to meet with families, learn their interests, and know their needs and problems. Learning about the families and their culture shows respect and appreciation for who they are. With this information, the program staff can provide continuity as the child transitions from home to school, and can plan how to individualize the services to meet the familys unique needs.
On numerous occasions, I have witnessed the positive effects of trust-building between program staff and families. Take the case of Sonja and Sophia, three-year-old twins in Head Start in Hawaii, whose family came from mainland China and spoke Cantonese. The mother understood simple English sentences, but the children had little prior exposure to English and neither understood nor spoke the language.
At first the twins often cried in class; when teaching staff tried to comfort them, they would scream and cry louder. During outdoor playtime, the twins would stay together and watch others play. Everyone was concerned, including the mother.
The teachers, program specialists, and family support staff worked with the mother to establish a plan to ease the childrens transition. Every morning as Mom walked the twins to Head Start, she talked with them in their home language about the schools daily schedule. She explained what they were going to do and emphasized that these were going to be fun activities. She also reassured them that she would be back at the end of class to pick them up.
At school, teachers greeted them upon arrival. I taught the teachers to say some simple Chinese phrases, such as, Jao su hn (Good morning), and Nei hou ma? (How are you?). At the same time, Mom learned English phrases from the teachers to describe the classroom routine and taught them to the twins at home. Gradually, with consistent support, repeated practice, and encouragement from the program staff and from Mom, the twins adjusted to the changes. Soon, they enjoyed class activities and became active learners.
Provide Parenting Education and Home Language Support. Parenting education is a very powerful tool and a foundation of Head Start programs. Workshops or classes help parents to gain knowledge about nurturing and raising their young children. They can also create networks of parent support. Topics that are relevant to Asian parents include:
- child development milestones
- how children learn to play
- appropriate ways to discipline young children
- school policies and regulations
- learning strategies for young children
Asian parents feel more confident when they hear the information in their home languages. Because I am trilingual, I was able to assist English-speaking Head Start staff with Mandarin or Cantonese-speaking parents and children. I acted as a teachers translator during classroom orientation to help the Chinese speaking parents become familiar with their childrens daily routine and schedule. I translated documents and program notices from English to Chinese. I also translated during parent/teacher conferences and meetings with specialists.
Teachers have found creative ways to support the home language and, at the same time, involve parents in their childrens learning. At parent meetings, teachers demonstrate how to make word or number games and create concept books, such as an alphabet book, in their home language. One mother created a numeracy book featuring both English and Chinese. The games and books are displayed in the classroom and can be borrowed for at-home activities.
Provide a Language-Enriched Learning Environment. Using labels with accompanying pictures enhances learning significantly for young children. For example, the daily schedule in the classroom can indicate lunch time with the words and a picture of children eating at the table. When the signs are posted at their eye-level, children can easily refer to them, and they will feel more comfortable when they can predict what will happen next in their environment. Seeing the words and pictures also may prompt some children to verbalize and to recognize words and their meanings. All of this learning occurs at the childrens own pace.
One Head Start teacher created a multilingual book for her class, where at least four different Pacific and Asian languages were spoken by the children. To help them learn the school routine, follow directions, and develop positive self concepts, she guided a discussion about how to make the class a safe place for learning. They generated a few class rules which she wrote down; the teaching team and the children illustrated them and posted them in class. She invited parents to translate the rules into the childrens home languages. Then she put the rules together into a book format and placed it in the reading area. Throughout the day, she used paraphrases, gestures, and body language to reinforce the rules. The children would often look at the book as if to check on their understanding of what was expected of them. Indeed, her children adjusted to the school environment very quickly because of this dual support for their home language and for their learning of English.
Access Resources in the Community. As a first generation immigrant from Hong Kong to the United States, I know how important it is for immigrant children and parents to have access to materials that will teach them about their new environment. However, there were very few culturally and developmentally appropriate childrens books available for the Pacific and Asian families in Head Start. With the support of the Program Director, I applied for a community grant and formed a literacy task force to plan a Head Start resource library. For two years, we worked on purchasing high quality childrens books written in English and Asian languages and developed a lending library for teachers and parents.
We also applied for funding to hire qualified parents and community leaders to be bilingual classroom assistants. Fluent in both English and their home languages, they guided the non-English speaking preschoolers in learning experiences. The bilingual assistants also provided support to parents and helped them access resources in the community, such as ESL classes. They also assisted parents during workshops on childrens literacy and language development. In addition, they assisted teachers during parent/teacher conferences.
One out of five individuals in the United States speaks a language other than English at home. Many speak Asian languages. Are we prepared to nurture Asian families in our Head Start programs and help them to become contributing members of our society? Do we know about their cultures? Do we incorporate their diversity into our programs? Do we provide support in the form of parenting education and language-rich learning environments? If the answers to these questions are YES, then our Head Start programs are meeting the unique needs of Asian families.
Young children can acquire a second language if exposed to it in meaningful experiences. They become increasingly fluent in a second language as they have opportunities to speak it with a variety of individuals on many different topics and for a range of reasons (California Department of Education 1998; Quiñones-Eatman 2001).
Excerpt from Phillip C. Gonzales, Becoming Bilingual: First and Second Language Acquisition
Anita Yuen Wah Choy is an independent Education Services consultant for Region IX in Honolulu, HI. T: 808-371-5612; E: email@example.com