Immigrant Parents' Perceptions of School Environment and Children's Mental Health and Behavior

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    Immigrant Parents Perceptions of SchoolEnvironment and Childrens Mental Healthand BehaviorHAYLEY A. HAMILTON, PhDa LYSANDRA MARSHALL, MAb JOANNA A. RUMMENS, PhDc HAILE FENTA, PhDd LAURA SIMICH, PhDe

    ABSTRACTBACKGROUND: Research has increasingly identied the perception of school environment as an inuential factor inchildrens lives. There has been sparse research attention, however, on the potential importance of parents perceptions ofschool environment on child adjustment. This study examined the relationship between parents perceptions of schoolenvironment and childrens emotional and behavioral problems.

    METHODS: Data were derived from the New Canadian Children and Youth Study, a study of the children (aged 4-6 and 11-13)of immigrant parents. Analyses focused on a subsample of Mainland Chinese, Hong Kong Chinese, and Filipino immigrants in alarge metropolitan area.

    RESULTS: Parental perception of school environment was negatively associated with physical aggression in children even aftercontrolling for child age and gender, parental characteristics, family functioning, and aspects of acculturation. In contrast,parental perception was not signicantly related to symptoms of emotional distress in children. There were some ethnicdifferences in perception of school environment.

    CONCLUSIONS: Parental perception of school environment is important to the well-being of the children of immigrantparents, and reinforces the relevance of initiatives to improve the dynamics between parents and schools.

    Keywords: school environment; immigrants; mental health; behavior problems; parents.

    Citation: Hamilton HA, Marshall L, Rummens JA, Fenta H, Simich L. Immigrant parents perceptions of school environmentand childrens mental health and behavior. J Sch Health. 2011; 81: 313-319.

    Received on February 17, 2010Accepted on July 19, 2010

    Much research on school environment has focusedon childrens perceptions of school environment,with particular emphasis on its relationship withacademic outcomes1-3 and child adjustment.1,4-7

    There has been sparse research attention to thepotential importance of parents perceptions ofschool environment on child adjustment. Broaderresearch indicating a relationship between caring andhealthy school environments and mental health,8,9

    aAssistant Professor, University of Toronto, and Research Scientist, (, Centre for Addiction &Mental Health, 455 Spadina Ave., Street 300, Toronto, ONM5S2G8, Canada.bSenior Lecturer, (, Departmant of Sociology&Criminology, University of theWest of EnglandFrenchayCampus, Coldharbour Lane, Bristol BS161QY,UK.cAssistant Professor, University of Toronto, andResearch Scientist, (, Community Health Systems ResourceGroup, TheHospital for Sick Children, 555University Ave., Toronto, ONM5G1X8, Canada.dAssistant Professor, Universityof Toronto, and (, ResearchDevelopment Consultant, OntarioHIVTreatmentNetwork, 1300YongeStreet, Suite600, Toronto, ONM4T1X3, Canada.eAssistant Professor, University of Toronto, and Afliate Scientist, (, Centre for Addiction & Mental Health, 455 Spadina Ave., Street 300, Toronto, ON M5S2G8, Canada.

    Address correspondence to: HayleyA. Hamilton, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto, andResearchScientist, (, Centre for Addiction&MentalHealth, 455SpadinaAve., Street 300, Toronto, ONM5S2G8, Canada.

    however, suggests that negative parental perceptionof schools may impair childrens mental health. Thereis also research linking parental involvement in theirchildrens schools and positive parental perceptionsof the school environment.10-14 Parental involvementhas been found to be positively associated with mentalhealth.15

    Parental perception of school environment may beof particular importance to immigrants because schools

    Journal of School Health June 2011, Vol. 81, No. 6 2011, American School Health Association 313

  • are such an important aspect of family adaptation.Many family-school challenges have the potential tobe enhanced among immigrants because of factorsrelated to acculturation. Research suggests that eth-nic minority parents and immigrant parents are lessinvolved in schools.10,16 Among parents in general,negative perceptions of their childrens school mayoriginate from several factors, including a feeling thatthey are not welcome in the school and that involve-ment in school activities would be unappreciated.17

    For immigrant parents, such negative perceptions maynot only be enhanced, but may also be an additionalsource of stress because of concerns about their chil-drens adaptation and their unfamiliarity with thenorms of an educational system that is new to them.For example, Carreons18 study of immigrant par-ents interactions with their childrens schools foundfeelings of exclusion from activities within schools,a sense that immigrant parents contributions werenot valued, and communication difficulties with officestaff.

    Several factors related to acculturation may con-tribute to immigrant parents perceptions of their chil-drens school environment. Language, for example,may impact the level of parent-school contact and thequality of parent-teacher relationships. The length oftime since immigration may be important as recentimmigrants may have more difficulty adapting to newschool cultures and practices especially when normsgoverning parent-teacher relationships and expecta-tions of students are very different from those in theircountry of origin. A case in point is Wangs19 observa-tion that in China, parents are focused and assertive inthe creation of opportunities to interact with teachersand schools, whereas immigrant Chinese parents inthe United States are relatively passive with regard tocontacts with schools and school personnel. Anotherfactor that may contribute to immigrant parents per-ceptions of school environment is the extent to whichparents are informed about school requirements andevents, the overall progress of students, and schoolpractices that signify respect for questions and sug-gestions from parents.20 In addition, parents may havedifferent ideas of what constitutes positive school envi-ronment, which might not match those of school per-sonnel. Immigrant parents ideas may originate in theirhome country thus influencing their perceptions ofthe school. Teachers who are unaware of the potentialinfluence of cultural dynamics on parental involve-ment may regard immigrant parents as apatheticwith regard to their childrens education.21 Such neg-ative beliefs by teachers could contribute to furtherdistancing by immigrant parents.22 Immigrant parentsperceptions of school environment may also reflectperceptions of the larger society and be a window intothe level of acculturative stress being experienced withrespect to schools, family, and other factors.

    The objective of this study is to examine the rela-tionship between immigrant parents perceptions ofschool environment and child emotional and behav-ioral problems. In doing so, we aim to expand theresearch literature on perception of school envi-ronment by focusing on parentsrather than chil-drensperceptions. A focus on child emotional andbehavioral problems in immigrant families, whichhave been understudied with respect to school envi-ronment, will also add to the existing literature. Giventhe nature of this study, we also incorporate charac-teristics of the families that may affect child health,such as family functioning23-25 and level of emotionaldistress in parents.26,27 Given our earlier argumentthat factors related to acculturation or adaptation mayinfluence school perception, we also consider selectfactors related to adaptation.


    SubjectsThis study is based on a subset of data from the

    first cycle of the New Canadian Children and YouthStudy (NCCYS), a study of children of immigrants inCanada.28 The survey covered a wide range of immi-gration and settlement experiences related to family,school, work, and peers, as well as health and behav-ior outcomes. Children of the NCCYS were either bornoutside of Canada or into families in which at least oneparent had immigrated to Canada within the 10-yearperiod before entry into this study. Children belongedto 1 of 2 age cohorts at the time of the first survey:4-6 or 11-13 years of age. Interviews were conductedin the respondents language of choice with the par-ent designated as the most knowledgeable about thechild (the birth mother in about 85% of cases) andwith children 11-13 years of age. Data on 4-6-year-oldchildren were based entirely on parental report. Thefirst cycle of interviews occurred over a 2-year period(2002-2004).28 This study of parental perception ofschool environment focuses on a subsample of HongKong Chinese, Filipino, and Mainland Chinese in theGreater Toronto Area (n = 533). The inclusion of these3 groups in the larger study was based on analyses ofCitizenship and Immigration Canadas 1999 data onimmigrant landings. Analyses had indicated that these3 ethnic groups represented the largest group of immi-grants to enter Canada during the 10 years before thisstudy.28 The Greater Toronto Area has the highestproportion of foreign-born residents in Canada.29 Fur-ther details of this study design are available in Beiseret al.28

    InstrumentsChild Emotional Distress. This measure was based

    on parental responses to 8 questionnaire itemsderived from those used to form an Emotional

    314 Journal of School Health June 2011, Vol. 81, No. 6 2011, American School Health Association

  • Disorder/Anxiety Scale within the National Longitu-dinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY)30 andthose used within the Ontario Child Health Study(OCHS).31 The 8 items were seems to be unhappy,sad, or depressed; not as happy as other children; toofearful or nervous; worried; cries a lot; appears mis-erable, unhappy, tearful, or distressed; nervous, high-strung, or tense; and has trouble enjoying him/herself.Responses of (1) never or not true, (2) sometimes orsomewhat true, or (3) often or very true were averagedto form the index. Internal consistency was adequate(Cronbachs alpha = 0.75).

    Child Physical Aggression. This measure was con-structed using parental responses to 6 items derivedfrom the NLSCY,30 with earlier origins in theOCHS31,32 and the Montreal Longitudinal Survey.33

    The 6 items were gets into many fights; is angered orfights when accidentally hurt by someone; physicallyattacks people; threatens people; is cruel, bullies, or ismean to others; and kicks, bites, hits other children.Responses of (1) never or not true, (2) sometimes orsomewhat true, or (3) often or very true were aver-aged to form the measure. Internal consistency wasadequate (Cronbachs alpha = 0.75).

    Parental Perception of School Environment. Thismeasure was based on 6 items: getting good gradesis very important at this school; most children in thisschool enjoy being there; parents are made to feel wel-come in this school; children are very proud of theirschool; this school offers parents opportunities to beinvolved in school activities; and children are safe inthis school. Principal components factor analysis withvarimax rotation indicated that the 6 items loadedon a single factor. Response choices ranged from 1(strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). Responses wereaveraged across items to form an index where higherscores reflect more positive perceptions of school envi-ronment. The measure had good internal consistency(Cronbachs alpha = 0.74).

    Family Dysfunction. This measure was based on asubscale of 12 items adapted from those developedby researchers at Chedoke-McMaster Hospital31 andfrom those used in the NLSCY.30 The 12 items werefamily willing to compromise when making plans;family members support each other in crises; familymembers cannot share feelings of sadness; all familymembers are accepted regardless of their character;family members express feelings to each other; lots ofbad feelings in family; family members feel acceptedfor what they are; decision-making a family problem;family able to decide on how to solve problems; familymembers do not get along well together; family mem-bers confide in each other; and drinking is a source oftension/disagreement in the family. Response choicesranged from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).Item responses were reverse coded as necessary suchthat higher scores indicate greater family dysfunction.

    Responses were averaged across items to create adysfunction score. Internal consistency was adequate(Cronbachs alpha of 0.73).

    Parental Depression. Depressive symptoms in par-ents were assessed using a 16-item index measure.The items were developed to assess depressive symp-toms within Laotians, Cambodians, Vietnamese, andChinese, and incorporate both universal or neutral(etic) and culturally oriented (emic) items.34,35 Theparent respondent was asked to indicate the extent towhich he or she experienced the following symptomsover the past week: feeling unhappy; feeling sad; feel-ing discouraged; felt low and hopeless; felt remorseful;had more trouble concentrating than normal; thoughtsseemed mixed-up; loss of appetite; food seems taste-less and hard to swallow; suffered from poor digestion;spells of dizziness; shortness of breath; feeling sickly;feeling tired all the time; feeling weak all over; andhead feeling heavy. Response choices were (1) rarelyor none of the time, (2) some or a little of the time,(3) occasionally or a moderate amount of time, and(4) most or all of the time. Responses were averagedto form the index score. A test of internal consistencyindicated an adequate Cronbachs alpha of 0.89.

    Immigration and Ethnicity Variables. The measureyears since immigration reflects the number of years theparents have lived in Canada. It was constructed bysubtracting the year of survey interview from the yearof immigration. English fluency was based on parentsassessment of their own ability to speak English beforeimmigration. A binary variable was created to repre-sent those who reported speaking English fluently (1)and those who reported being less than fluent (0). Rela-tive living conditions was a 3-category measure reflectingparental response to a question that asked whethertheir living conditions became worse (1), better (2),or stayed about the same (3) after moving from theirprevious country of residence. Ethnicity of parent wasa 3-category measure representing Mainland Chinese,Hong Kong Chinese, and Filipino.

    Additional controls were also included in analyses.Sex of child was measured as female (1) or male (0). Ageof child was a 2-category measure with age group 4-6coded as 1 and 11-13 coded as 0. Parental education wasmeasured as parents highest level of education beforeimmigration. For purposes of this analysis, educationwas constructed as a binary measure representing lessthan bachelors degree (1) and bachelors degree orhigher (0). Household income was based on parentsestimate of the total gross income of all householdmembers. Income was constructed as a binary mea-sure representing less than $25,000 (1) and $25,000or greater (0).

    Data AnalysisAnalyses were conducted using ordinary least

    squares regression within Stata 9.0.36 Analyses

    Journal of School Health June 2011, Vol. 81, No. 6 2011, American School Health Association 315

  • included sample weights that were constructed accord-ing to population estimates (defined by age, ethnicity,and gender) for census subdivisions in which respon-dents lived. Population estimates were derived fromthe 2001 Canadian Census. Analyses were based onlog and square root transformations of emotional dis-tress and physical aggression, respectively, to accountfor skewed distribution. Missing cases represented lessthan 1% for education, English fluency, emotionaldistress, and physical aggression; 1.4% for relative liv-ing conditions; 1.7% for family dysfunction; 4.3% forincome; and 6.2% for school environment. Other vari-ables had complete data. Additional analyses whereinmissing cases were handled through multiple impu-tation within Stata yielded results that were substan-tively similar to the results presented here involvinglistwise deletion.


    Descriptives are outlined in Table 1. The sampleconsisted of approximately 48% females and 52%males. Among the children, 59% were of the youngerage cohort (aged 4-6), 39% were in households withlower incomes (less than $25,000), 48% were livingin households reported to be better off than beforeimmigrating, and approximately 22% of children hadparents that spoke English fluently. The parents hadbeen in Canada 4.9 years on average.

    The results of multiple regression analyses areprovided in Tables 2 and 3. The first model foreach outcome shows the results of the outcomeregressed on perception of school, with controls forage, sex, income, parental education and depres-sive symptoms, and family dysfunction. The secondmodel reflects additional adjustments for ethnicity

    Table 1. Weighted Means and Percentages

    Mean/Percent SD

    School environment 3.94 0.47Childgender (female) 47.7% Age4-6 cohort 58.6% Income

  • Table 3. Physical Aggression Regressed on SchoolEnvironment

    Model 1 Model 2

    School environment .026 (.009) .021 (.009)Childgender (female) .019 (.008) .018 (.008)Income

  • school environment, but school structure (eg, physicalor organizational) and administrative or managementpractices are examples of other aspects of school envi-ronment. In addition, this study did not incorporateneighborhood or school contextual measures. Finally,the sample was restricted to specific Asian populationsand therefore the association between parental per-ception and child emotional and behavioral problemsmay differ for other population groups.

    ConclusionInformation about immigrant childrens health is

    critical for policies and programs in schools and withinsettlement and health services. The findings of thisstudy suggest that aspects of child behavior and emo-tional health may be more within the purview ofschool environments, via the parents interactions andperceptions, than we might assume. Identifying thecritical relationship between parents and schools offersan opportunity to strengthen social supports that helpparents adapt and in turn to promote child emotionalhealth and behavior. Enhancing school, settlement,and public health initiatives and increasing collabora-tion would appear to be desirable policy directions.


    The findings suggest that immigrant parents per-ceptions of their childrens school environment is a sig-nificant component in the school-home dynamic thatmay influence aspects of child emotional health andbehavior. This suggests a need to develop or improveinitiatives for the newest immigrant parents with chil-dren in schools. Such initiatives could involve outreachto immigrant parents with the goal of enhancingthe well-being of children. Initiatives may focus onestablishing open lines of communication with newimmigrant parents so that their needs and concerns canbe addressed. Such communication would facilitateimprovements in parents relationships with teach-ers, principals, and other school personnel, and in thelonger term encourage the involvement of immigrantparents in school activities. Given that characteris-tics of immigrant parents and the extent to whichthey are informed of school activities might also influ-ence perception20 and that their beliefs about whatconstitutes positive school environment might differfrom those of school personnel,16 establishing greateropportunities for communication and the develop-ment of positive relationships may be particularlyimportant for child emotional and behavioral health.

    Human Subjects Approval StatementThe Research Ethics Boards at the University of

    Toronto and the Centre for Addiction and MentalHealth in Toronto, Ontario, Canada approved the pro-tocols for this study.


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