Mixed Nation

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The Culture Shock of Pre-school

Have you ever worked with pre-school kids? I recently had an opportunity to be a teacher’s aide at a pre-school and it was one of the most insightful experiences into the development of not only cross-cultural skills among kids, but also the culture shock of school that children experience for the very first time in their life.

I was present for one boy’s first day of pre-school and when this boy, with an over-sized Superman backpack, realized that his mother was dropping him off at this unfamiliar place, he started bawling, holding tight to his mother’s leg, begging her to take him with her. When the mother finally was able to pull away and leave, he began crying and yelling even harder, pounding the door as he asked the teacher to open it. Part of me found this scene hilarious because I knew he would be ok here, but it also broke my heart to witness such intense emotion overwhelm this precious little boy to the point of such a fearful and tear-filled tantrum!

The process of calming him down, reassuring him his mom would be back soon, and distracting him with various educational toys made me think about just how shocking the experience of first going to school truly must be. I mean, I doubt that any of us really remember our first days of pre-school, but that doesn’t mean that it feels any less shocking at that age. Think about it: every single thing you have learned about life so far is contained in the protective bubble of your home and then one day- all of a sudden- you are transplanted into a strange place with kids and adults you have never seen in your life before, your only lifeline to your reality is walking out the door and you have no idea when they will be back for you. Yeah, pretty scary indeed!

This is the culture shock of pre-school: new authority figures, new rules, new people, new things. It took a few days for the little boy to stop crying during his drop-off time, and even then, there were some moments in the following weeks when the unfamiliarity of it all would overwhelm him and he would start crying again.

This experience also made me empathetic about the anxiety parents must feel. Luckily, most pre-schools are staffed by caring, compassionate adults who are sincerely dedicated to nurturing the healthy development of children. But the unfortunate reality is that this is not always the case. So, it falls on the parent to discern between the usual culture shock cries of their kid versus the cries of a kid who is not getting the proper care and treatment. Add to this context, the unfamiliarity immigrant parents feel with the American educational system as a whole and this becomes a culture shock experience not only for the child, but for the parent as well.

Although as teenagers and adults, we are so far removed from the culture shock that pre-schoolers feel, I hope this article helps us remember to be compassionate about how we interact with kids. After all, it is these childhood experiences that play such a crucial role in shaping one’s attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviors.

Kaira Portillo

Kaira Portillo-Espinoza was born and raised in San Francisco, CA. She is grateful for having grown up around such a wide spectrum of diversity, which makes the Bay Area the unique place it is. Her first published book, Poems About This Roller-Coaster Ride Called Life, is a collection of poems she wrote throughout high school and college and explores issues of injustice, resistance, sexuality, and empowerment.