By: Sophia Han, Jinhee Kim, Sohyun Meacham, and Su-Jeong Wee

Sophia Han is an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum, Instruction, and Learning at the University of South Florida. Jinhee Kim is an associate professor in the Department of Elementary and Early Childhood Education at Kennesaw State University, Georgia. Sohyun Meacham is an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Northern Iowa. Su-Jeong Wee is an assistant professor in the Department of Child and Family Studies at California State University, Los Angeles. Together, they are the authors of Supporting Korean American Children in Early Childhood Education: Perspectives from Mother-Educators.

May is Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month. It was first celebrated in 1979 at the beginning of May as Asian Pacific Heritage Week under President Jimmy Carter. In 1992, under President George H. W. Bush, it was designated as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. The annual celebration honors the historical and cultural contributions and accomplishments of individuals and groups of AANHPI descent in the United States.

Despite its commendable intentions, AANHPI Heritage Month often goes unrecognized and uncelebrated in U.S. schools due to its frequent overshadowing by busy end-of-school events in May. Consequently, few Americans know that May is designated as AANHPI Heritage Month even more than thirty years after its establishment. Moreover, although Asian Americans are currently the fastest-growing population group in the United States, according to the most recent data from the Pew Research Center, many early childhood educators still have limited understanding of AANHPI children and families. Prevailing societal images remain stereotypical, with AANHPI people often being perceived as the model minority, perpetual foreigners, and invisible outsiders.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this phenomenon, resulting in targeted discrimination, negative portrayals, violence, and anti-Asian hate crimes that threaten AANHPI communities. While the entire AANHPI community has been devastated, parents of families with young children have been uniquely challenged as they had to not only navigate and make sense of the issues themselves, but also to help their young children cope with the complex and often unexplainable trauma they were witnessing and/or experiencing.

We are Asian American scholars of early childhood education, and the Atlanta shooting on March 16, 2021 served as a wake-up call for us. We were distraught and frustrated by the minimal attention our children received from their schools and teachers. Since then, we, four Korean American mother-educator-researchers, have courageously engaged in multiple projects to raise awareness, break stereotypes, and bring much-needed nuance to the discourse about AANHPI communities, specifically about Korean American children and their families. In doing so, we are particularly proud that we were able to bring to the forefront our own epistemology and methodology of Suda (수다). Suda, a culturally sustaining and critical qualitative research approach, is a uniquely situated cultural practice among Koreans and Korean Americans. It allowed us to engage in deeply dialogic, non-hierarchical, open-ended, and empathetic storytelling and listening, eventually to make sense of, validate, and legitimatize our and our children’s lived experiences.

In an effort to inform early childhood teachers and teacher educators about advocating for and working more responsively with Korean American children and families to address stereotypes, prejudice, lack of visibility, and instances of racism and microaggression, we will share our vivid experiences on two specific topics. Additionally, we will offer suggestions and implications for creating a broader alliance among early childhood professionals for other AANHPI children and their families.

First, like any other AANHPI family, Korean American families bring beliefs, values, and practices to their parenting—some of which align easily with mainstream American parenting, and others of which differ starkly. We have experienced cultural dissonance when promoting our children’s social and emotional development. For instance, as Korean American families, we tried to teach them to be humble, but worried about potential negative perceptions of their self-identity by others. We also tried to emphasize harmonious mingling with others, but worried that their friendly nature might make them vulnerable to mistreatment. We essentially carried the emotional burden for our children to be not misunderstood or mistreated in shifting sociocultural environments and expectations.

To help alleviate these Korean American families’ concerns, we suggest schools and teachers engage in self-reflections (e.g., When you teach social and emotional lessons in your class, have you wondered if they might not apply to all children? What efforts have you made to make them more culturally sensitive?), and practice conversation openers (e.g., In what situations have you felt misunderstood? What social and emotional skills are significant for your family and why?). These invite families to share their parenting beliefs and practices.

Second, we spent a considerable amount of time and effort on topics related to our children’s names and naming practices. We all shared our wishes for our children’s names to reflect both Korean and American heritage to embrace both their past and current sociocultural contexts. We were, however, highly concerned about potential name-based discrimination and biases they could encounter due to foreign-sounding names. The most sought-after solution to this tension was giving our children first and middle names, each embracing a different cultural heritage. Meanwhile, our children were aware of having more than one name, typically in different social settings, and embraced fluid (trans)naming practices.

We suggest a few concrete pedagogical considerations to support teachers and young children in expanding their understanding of diverse names and naming practices, including those of Korean Americans. One idea is to plan a name study project with all—not just Korean American children and their families. They can be encouraged to work collaboratively (e.g., Does your child have any other names? What does your child’s name mean?). Another suggestion is to carefully rethink the “Preferred Name” practice often used in U.S. schools. Although offering individual choices appears unharmful, it can inadvertently send a message to children and families with ethnically different names to consider choosing a different name for others’ convenience because their original names are too hard for teachers and peers to pronounce.

It is imperative to reiterate that the AANHPI community has never been and will never be monolithic. The community not only represents more than 20 countries of origin, but also reflects uniquely distinct histories, cultures, languages, and characteristics in each of those communities. In this blog, we focused on Korean American children and families given our own heritage; however, our experiences cannot be generalized to all Korean American communities. Additionally, and ultimately, by sharing our lived experiences and perspectives, we hope that more conversations and interdisciplinary collaborations in early childhood education, both within and outside AANHPI communities, will follow.

We sincerely hope that May 2024 can mark a new beginning for many early childhood educators to consider AANHPI-related and/or inspired practices. We certainly do not endorse a tokenistic approach of considering AANHPI children and families only during the AANHPI Heritage Month in May. Nonetheless, AANHPI children and families have been marginalized and minoritized for too long, and it is about time for early childhood professionals to authentically engage with and advocate for them.

Supporting Korean American Children in Early Childhood Education

Perspectives from Mother-Educators

Sophia Han, Jinhee Kim, Sohyun Meacham, and Su-Jeong Wee