Hmong kids lack early learning help

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University of Minnesota professor Zha Blong Xiong has conducted a groundbreaking research study on school readiness among Hmong children entering kindergarten.

The Hmong Early Childhood Education Needs Assessment found that language barriers and limited parental education are two leading challenges for many Hmong parents and their children.

Roughly 60 percent of the 303 study participants had less than high school education, and were unemployed. Forty percent said they spoke no English, and 59 percent of parents said they primarily speak Hmong at home to their children.

It was co-authored with Jesse Kao Lee, the Hmong Project coordinator with the nonprofit group Ready 4 K.

“We need to help some parents better understand the link between their own literacy and parenting,” says Xiong. “Learning is not limited to the classroom education, it is something that a parent and child can do together, and should do together before a child enters kindergarten. We found that Hmong parents who participated in this study greatly value education and its opportunities, but many aren’t aware of how to provide the quality early learning experiences that their children deserve.”

The study suggests that the number of years parents live in the United States along with a higher level of education attained, correlates into more involvement with their child’s literacy.

The group least involved in American culture generally was older Hmong raised outside the United States, where there is a limited understanding of child development or early learning. These parents believe education begins in, and is limited to the classroom.

The study also found 80 percent of Hmong young children are cared for at home during the day. But according to Xiong, children need experiences with multiple learning environments outside the home because it is known to facilitate success in school. In addition, parents should have more access to adult education that could enhance bicultural parenting skills.

Some recommendations offered in the report include:

New immigrants and those with limited high school education should have better access to English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.

ESL classes should also introduce parents and other family members to pre-kindergarten curricula and provide take-home activities designed for parent and child.

Employers should provide incentives for employees with limited high school education to take advantage of ESL or other parental education classes.

Xiong immigrated to Minnesota in 1982 with his family. He entered school in ninth grade and struggled to learn English and adapt to his new homeland.

But Xiong had a drive to learn and succeed, powered by the dreams of his parents. He graduated from Hastings High School, and graduated from Winona State University with honors. He was the first member of his family to earn a bachelor’s degree from a major university. He worked for the University of Minnesota Extension Service in Dakota County developing programs for Asian families.

Xiong later enrolled at University of Minnesota, and in 2000 became the first Hmong person in the nation to earn a doctoral degree in family social sciences and the first Hmong professor in the state of Iowa when Iowa State University hired him. When he returned to Minnesota in the fall of 2003, he became the first Hmong full-time professor in the history of the University of Minnesota.

He is also the first Hmong person to hold a tenure-track position in a major U.S. research university.

“I have a personal passion to help students like me be successful,” he says. “I came as an immigrant when I was 15. I didn’t have a good handle on English and the culture. … That presented a lot of difficulties for me. In my undergraduate studies, I did very well but I felt I could have been much better if I had more assistance and role models.”

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