Have faith in the child

UEF Bulletin 2016

Finnish mothers believe that their children will do well in school on their own. Mothers of children with immigrant backgrounds, on the other hand, believe that their children will do well in school – with their help.


This is a finding of class teacher Riitta Sikiö’s almost completed PhD thesis. Her doctoral dissertation focuses on how children with immigrant backgrounds learn to read and write Finnish. With immigration increasing, her research is more topical than ever.

“The one thing that the children with immigrant backgrounds who participated in my study have in common is that their native language is something other than Finnish. Otherwise, their backgrounds are extremely diverse.”

The first two sub-studies of Sikiö’s PhD thesis are already completed. She says that her research has given plenty of tools for her own work as a teacher.

In the first sub-study, Sikiö analysed how children with immigrant backgrounds learned to read and write Finnish in years 1 and 2 in comparison to their Finnish peers. She found that although the reading skills of Finnish children were better than those of children with immigrant backgrounds, the gap wasn’t that big.

“This is probably explained by the fact that in Finnish, each letter of the alphabet has its own phoneme. Although children with immigrant backgrounds have to work harder to learn to read, there are no silent phonemes in the Finnish language, and this makes the process easier.”

Sikiö initially thought that the children’s good performance was explained by parental support. Her second sub-study, however, yielded surprising results.

The second sub-study analysed the beliefs of mothers of year 4 children with immigrant backgrounds and mothers of year 4 Finnish children regarding their children’s abilities to learn to read and write.

“There were differences between them: mothers of Finnish children believed in their children’s abilities to learn to read on their own, whereas mothers of children with immigrant backgrounds believed in external intervention.”

These differences were also visible in the mothers’ behaviour. Mothers of Finnish children were confident that their children were doing well in school “unless otherwise stated”.

“This reflects the great trust that Finns have in their education system. The thinking is that the child will be looked after in school and, should any problems arise, the teacher will inform the parents.”

Mothers of children with immigrant backgrounds, on the other hand, believed that the child will do well in school if they themselves help and teach the child. The results, however, prove the contrary.

“The more the child was helped and supported at home, the weaker the performance. This can be partly explained by the immigrant mothers’ limited proficiency in Finnish.”

According to Sikiö, the results can be used in discussions between parents, teachers and immigrant children in parent-teacher conferences, for example.

“For the child, the best thing would be just to say ‘you can do it, go for it!’ A warm attitude and encouragement will get you far, also in school.”

Text Nina Venhe Photo Varpu Heiskanen