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Blong Xiong.

Social sciences professor Zha Blong Xiong

Hmong parents and children lack support for early learning

First of its kind report examines language barrier and limited parental education

By Bob San

Published on November 4, 2005

When University of Minnesota professor Zha Blong Xiong was asked to conduct a groundbreaking research study (see PDF at the bottom of this article) on school readiness among Hmong children entering kindergarten, he had a hunch the study would find that kids are not very well prepared.

As an assistant professor in social science in the General College with an expertise in immigrant families, adolescent adjustment, and parent education, Xiong has done extensive research on immigrant families. In addition, as a Hmong immigrant himself, Xiong knows firsthand what it's like to enter school for the first time not knowing the language.

So he wasn't surprised by the results of the study, Hmong Early Childhood Education Needs Assessment, which he co-authored with Jesse Kao Lee, the Hmong Project coordinator with the nonprofit group Ready 4 K.

Language barriers and limited parental education are two leading challenges for many Hmong parents and their children. Roughly 60 percent of the participants in the study have less than a high school education, and are unemployed. Forty percent of the total participants said they cannot speak English at all, and 59 percent of parents interviewed said they primarily speak Hmong at home to their children.

Based on data gathered from interviews with 303 Hmong parents, the study shows that many Hmong children entering kindergarten are not fully ready to learn. Language barriers and limited parental education are two leading challenges for many Hmong parents and their children.

Minnesota has the second largest Hmong population in the United States, and yet little formalized research has been conducted within this diverse community, according to Xiong.

"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."

A key finding in the report 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.

Roughly 60 percent of the participants in the study have less than a high school education, and are unemployed. This group is the least involved in American culture. Parents within this percentage are generally older and raised in areas outside of 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.

Xiong entered school in ninth grade and struggled to learn English and adapt to his new homeland. "It was very, very difficult adjusting to the environment," he says. "It seemed at the time impossible to manage."

Forty percent of the total participants said they cannot speak English at all, and 59 percent of parents interviewed said they primarily speak Hmong at home to their children. Furthermore, the home is where 80 percent of Hmong young children are cared for during the day. This is likely due to the parents' inability to afford outside means of childcare or availability of family members to provide care.

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 with limited English proficiency should have more access to adult education that could help enhance their bicultural parenting skills.

Some recommendations offered in the report include:

Xiong knows the hardships these Hmong families are facing because he and his family went through similar struggles when they immigrated to Minnesota in 1982. Xiong entered school in ninth grade and struggled to learn English and adapt to his new homeland.

"It was very, very difficult adjusting to the environment," he says. "It seemed at the time impossible to manage."

But Xiong had a drive to learn and succeed, powered by the dreams of his parents that he and his siblings obtain a higher education. He graduated from Hastings High School and attended Winona State University. Four years later, he graduated with honors and became 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 in the University of Minnesota's family social science master's and doctoral program and in 2000, Xiong 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.

Xiong has used his academic training to conduct research projects that benefit the Hmong and Southeast Asian communities. But beyond the research and teaching, Xiong's main goal is to help Hmong family and youth succeed and serve as a resource and role model for the Hmong community.

"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."

Now, Xiong wants to reach back and help others. "I want it to be different for these students," he says. "I want to show them that if I could thrive, they can do it too. They can follow my path."

Hmong Early Childhood Education Needs Assessment (PDF 424 KB)