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Preschools aren't doing enough to support bilingual kids, study finds

When Karla Medina Gomez's two oldest children, Gianna and Nicholas, began pre-K they only knew Spanish. At that time, Medina Gomez only spoke to her children in Spanish while at home in Newark, New Jersey, one of the most culturally diverse cities in the Garden State.

So when Medina Gomez enrolled them in preschool, she worried they may face challenges learning in an English-only environment. But that wasn't the case at Ironbound Early Learning Center—the siblings, now 13 and 12 years old, respectively, received an inclusive and accessible education. Within the first four months, they were able to speak both Spanish and English fluently. According to a study out of the University of Oregon, adding a second language like that helps kids have more control over behavior and attention span.

"All paperwork, all communications, even [items] in the classroom, everything is labeled in three languages," Medina Gomez tells Motherly. "Here, specifically in Newark, the support system is great in the preschool setting."

Medina Gomez's children are among the nearly 1 in 3 kids in the United States raised in families that speak a language other than English at home. In education speak, those kids are considered dual language learners. But the mom of four's situation is more of the exception than the rule. Despite the documented benefits of bilingualism for children, many kids aren't getting the support they need to succeed in multiple language settings.

Research shows that, while most state-funded preschool programs do have some dual language learning policies in place, the majority of those programs are still ill-equipped to meet the needs of bilingual children.

That's because more than half of all 60 public preschool programs across the country fail to report the home language of children, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER)'s annual "State of Preschool" report, released this week. And without that information, states can't allocate the proper resources needed to develop and implement effective dual language curriculum and practices, the report's writers say.

"We are continually striving to close achievement gaps, including those between children who speak a language other than English at home and children who speak only English," says Ellen Frede, the institute's senior co-director. "We know the earlier we start with high-quality education programs, the better."

The nationwide survey, which gives a comprehensive look into the current state of the U.S. preschool system, found that only 26 public programs in 24 states—including California, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico and Texas, which all have high percentage of dual language learners in their populations—collect data on children's home language. On average, dual language students in those states accounted for 29% of preschoolers enrolled in public programs; nationwide, about 23% of all preschool-aged children are dual language learners, the report found.

What's more: Three of the states that don't report on home language—Arizona, Florida and New York—also have some of the highest number of preschool-aged children living in non-English speaking households, according to the NIEER report. By not soliciting that data, those states have no quantifiable clue as to how many young bilingual students they're serving in their state-funded preschool programs. And that puts those kids at a disadvantage when it comes to development and academic achievement, experts say.

"We know that dual language learners are a group that makes the largest gains from attending high-quality preschool," says NIEER Senior Co-director Steven Barnett. "At the same time, they're at elevated risk of school failure."

Academic outcomes are, in part, driven by language proficiency. Research shows that, on average, dual language learners, start school with lower English literacy skills than their native English speaking counterparts. It takes dual language students four to seven years to become proficient enough in English that they see classroom success, according to the Center for Public Education.

To that end, a 2012 Early Childhood Research Quarterly study found that dual language students who were able to speak English well enough by the end of first grade fared better academically than those who weren't. "For all children, the preschool years are a critical time for language development," Barnett says.

That's why, experts say, it's critical for states to invest in dual language initiatives, starting with collecting data on how many non-native speaking preschoolers are in their state-funded programs. Not only that, but more states, even the ones that do report n home language, need to enact policies supporting dual language learners in and outside of the classroom.

More than 30 states have some type of policy in place related to serving dual language, according to the NIEER report. But only one—Maine—has implemented all nine recommended policy requirements, including providing materials in the language spoken by their parents. And, despite research showing that qualified teachers are vital to providing high-quality education, only six—California, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Texas—mandate that staff have training or qualifications necessary to work with dual language learners and their families, the report found.

And that's a shame, Medina Gomez says. She knows that if it weren't for the dedicated, trained staff at Ironbound, Giana and Nicholas wouldn't be as academically successful as they are today. "How are you going to [ask] a child to jump two steps, make a circle [or] build a block, if you tell them in English and they don't understand you?" she tells Motherly. "How would they know? How could you possibly measure where the child's at?"

Luckily there are things parents can do to help their kids succeed no matter what the situation may be at school. Medina Gomez suggests that parents read, sing, and talk to their children as often as possible, no matter what the language.

She does recognize, though, that some parents may be hesitant because they don't speak a second language well, or at all. But Medina Gomez says that, in the end, that doesn't matter. "Expose them to language," she tells Motherly. "That's what's important right now."

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