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Children's Health

This Propels Asian-American Kids to Head of Class

Reading, math tests showed little difference in innate abilities compared to whites, other minorities
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And why do Asian Americans tend to put more effort into school?

For one, the study found, they seem to have a stronger belief in the rewards of hard work: Asian Americans were more likely than their white classmates to believe a person can learn to be good at math -- and less likely to believe it's an inborn ability.

If that mindset is key, Okazaki noted, it can be fostered in all kids regardless of ethnicity. "There's nothing exclusively 'Asian' about thinking, 'I can be good at math,' " she said.

Besides that belief in effort, Hsin said the typical "optimism" of recent U.S. immigrants might play a role in Asian Americans' academic success. Much of the academic advantage is seen in Asian families who've arrived in the U.S. relatively recently. Once they've been here for a few generations, the academic edge over other ethnic groups wanes.

Hsin speculated that later-generation Asian Americans might be less optimistic about the "American dream."

But she also noted that recent immigrants from Asia actually benefit from some rich resources. When immigrant families move to ethnic neighborhoods in New York City, for example, they typically have access to community resources to help their kids do well in school -- like tutoring programs and "cram schools."

"There's a whole community support system," Hsin said.

That community aspect is important, she stressed. "This is not just a simple 'pick yourself up by the bootstraps' story," Hsin said. "Other immigrants want their children to succeed, too. But they may not have access to the same community resources."

Still, although Asian-American kids tend to do better academically, they fare worse in other areas -- namely emotional well-being. Hsin's team found that compared with their white peers, Asian-American students were less likely to say they felt good about themselves, and reported more conflicts with their parents.

"That's not surprising," Okazaki said. Past studies have found that Asian-American students report lower self-esteem and lesser well-being than whites.

But, Okazaki cautioned, it's not clear that pressure to excel at school is to blame. There is likely a complex mix of factors involved, she said.

Still, Hsin said, Asian-American kids' lower self-image could at least partly result from pressure to excel at school. "We're not saying Asian-American kids are depressed," she said. "But they may end up being less satisfied with what they do achieve."

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