A Portrait of Young Children in Memphis

Recently I had the rare pleasure of meeting families enrolling their children for kindergarten at the beautiful Robert R. Church elementary school. I asked a kindergarten teacher what I could do to be helpful (beyond trying not to get underfoot). “Well,” she asked, do you speak Fulah?” This caught me by surprise.

For a while now, I’ve been talking with groups across Shelby County about “The Class of 2025.” Working with publicly available data-sets, and making some simple projections based on current trends, this talk is designed to link the early childhood experiences of the 15,000 or so children born in Shelby County in 2006 to our best understanding of how ready these children will be for kindergarten this fall, and then projecting forward from these earliest developmental experiences to speculate on expected patterns of academic achievement and lifetime outcomes for this group. What percent of the class would we expect to graduate from high school (in 2025)? What percent will avoid risky teen-age behaviors? How many will enroll in college? What percent will find and hold a living wage job?

So here’s the confession: in spite of pretending to be an expert on this exact group of children, I had no idea that a growing number of families with young children in Memphis are recent west-African immigrants who speak Fulah at home. I also had no idea that there are children entering kindergarten in Memphis this fall coming from families that speak Arabic, Chinese, French, Nepali, Somali, Spanish and Swahili at home.

The growing racial and ethnic diversity of young children in Memphis reflects national trends. Research by the Urban Institute, the National Center for Children in Poverty, and Child Trends tells us a bit more about the new face of young children in the United States. This research tells us that most of these children are U.S. citizens living in first-generation immigrant families. In almost all of these families, at least one parent works full-time, yet these young children are much more likely to live in poverty and much less likely to have access to social supports like food assistance or health insurance than their neighbors in native-born families.

A recent investigation by Harvard education professor Hirokazu Yoshikawa suggests that growing up in an immigrant family can pose special challenges to young children. “Greater hardship among parents, both economic and psychological,” Professor Yoshikawa writes, “can harm children’s learning by lowering parents’ active engagement with their children, the quantity or quality of their language or their warmth and responsiveness.” The significance of these differences in early childhood experiences can be profound: even by two years of age, new immigrant children showed significantly lower levels of language and cognitive development than children of native-born parents.

Poor cognitive development can lead to lower school performance, which, in turn, can lead to higher dropout rates, an undertrained work force and lower economic productivity. In Professor Yoshikawa’s words: “Ignoring these children has costs for society.”