Doucet and Tudge
in their children’s educational endeavors (Phenice, Martinez, & Grant, 1986), teachers’ preexisting biases could set them up to engage parents less as partners in facilitating the transition to school.
The problem is not only that teachers might perceive children of color as academically unprepared. As researchers have reported, kindergarten teachers are more interested in chil- dren’s social skills and self-reliance than in the academic knowledge with which they enter the kindergarten classroom (Heaviside & Farris, 1993; Lin, Lawrence, & Gorrell, 2003; Rimm-Kaufman et al., 2000). Social competence has been identified as an important char- acteristic of readiness for school (Carlton & Winsler, 1999), a successful transition to school (Huffman, Mehlinger, & Kerivan, 2000), and school achievement (Foulks & Morrow, 1989). Yet, teachers’ perceptions of children’s social skills are far from objective (Entwisle, Alexander, Pallas, & Cadigan, 1988). Mendez, McDermott, and Fantuzzo (2002) noted that perceptions of social competence can be impacted by a range of factors, including tem- perament, gender, race/ethnicity, and class. For example, in a comparison of teacher ratings of children’s social competence using ECLS-K data, Idzelis (2005) found that teachers were more likely to rate immigrant children from African countries (as well as African American children of nonimmigrant origin) as having poorer social skills compared with other chil- dren in the sample. Variations in assessments of competence also emerge when comparing teacher versus parental evaluations of children (Gray, Clancy, & King, 1981).
A related risk is that of miscommunication and misunderstanding with teachers who are not familiar with the social interaction styles of children of color and their parents (Lareau, 1987, 2002; Lareau & Horvat, 1999; Tharp & Gallimore, 1988; Willis, 1992; Wilson & Banks, 1994). A clear example of this is the different ways in which White and African American adults ask questions of children (Delpit, 1995; Heath, 1983). Specifically, White adults tend to give children directions by asking questions (e.g., “Brian, would you like to tell us about your project?”) and to ask questions to which they already know the answer (e.g., “What color are my glasses?”), whereas African American adults tend to com- municate requests to children directly (“James, it is your turn to tell us about your project.”) and ask children questions to which they do not know the answer (“What color is your sofa at home?”).
Similarly, Tharp (1989) reported on variations in communication style among Navajo, Hawaiian, and Anglo children and teachers. Among the Navajo people, a long period of si- lence after a person has asked a question is a sign that the listener is reflecting on the ques- tion and giving the speaker time to say all that needs to be said. White teachers, used to immediate responses from White children, could mistakenly assume that silence on the part of Navajo children is a sign of indifference or ignorance. For Hawaiian children, on the other hand, overlapping conversations are a common part of everyday communication, and White teachers unfamiliar with this “talk-story” style of conversation could mistake per- fectly acceptable “interruptions” of other children as rudeness.
Gaps in communication also can arise when parents are not native speakers of English. Apprehension about navigating an unfamiliar educational system, insecurity that something may be “lost in translation” (Hoffman, 1989), and, for some, reliance on children to serve as translators can all engender a sense of powerlessness among parents (Doucet, 2005; Pérez Carreón et al., 2005; Trueba, 2004). Unfortunately, these parents’ hesitation to contact or engage their children’s teachers in conversations about the children’s progress (or lack thereof) may be misinterpreted as lack of interest on the part of teachers (Doucet, 2002a).