Helping children develop their American and native cultural identities together.

NAEYC Themes, Part 3: 10 Ways to Develop Meaningful Relationships with the Parents and Families of Dual-Language Learning Children

Posted by bububooks on December 28, 2009

Another theme that presented itself throughout various sessions at this year’s annual National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) conference the need for developing and maintaining a relationship with the parents and families of non-native English speakers.  You might think this concept is rather obvious; however, several barriers exist to prevent this relationship from blooming.


Oftentimes, there is a perception that these parents lack interest in their child’s education and growth.  However, this perception can often be misguided.  In many cultures outside the United States, teachers are revered and getting involved in the classroom is seen as interfering with the teacher’s expert intentions and processes.  Therefore, parents try to stay out of the way of their children’s teachers.  You see that as lack of interest and involvement; they see it as respect.

Also, the notion of family involvement differs for social classes.  Just because a parent is not at a bake sale doesn’t mean they are not involved in their child’s education.  Work may prevent them from attending; however, they may still be reviewing their child’s homework every night.

Immigrant families also face unique needs than other families in America.  Not only may there be a language and culture barrier, but also family tensions can exist as each member adjusts and adapts to their new life in America.  Their identities as a member of a group before may have now changed to one of an outsider—an “alien”.  Perhaps they were a leader in their hometown and now they are a laborer trying to climb the socio-economic ladder.  Further, they may have to rely on their children as their English improves more quickly, which degrades their role as provider in the family.  These adjustments can cause tension in the family that may prevent as much involvement as they’d like in their child’s education.  Think about the time you studied abroad in college.  Imagine moving there by yourself, without the school’s help, without your host family there to meet you at the airport.  Imagine trying to figure everything out on your own, in a foreign country with a language you thought you could speak. Imagine doing so with your family there too, all looking to you for guidance.  Do you think you could have done it? Perhaps, but with a whole lot of stress involved, too!

For instance, what do the following symbols mean to you (assuming you don’t speak Chinese)? 优, 良, 中, 可,  差。If your child brought home these symbols on their report card, would you know what they mean?  One presenter at NAEYC told a story of how a Chinese father was disappointed in his daughter because she brought home a grade of “S” (for Satisfactory).  He thought grades went in order from A all the way down to Z—because it does seem that way since it starts off A, B, C, D…—and so S seemed pretty bad.  We must remember that nearly everything may be unfamiliar to immigrant families!

The Importance of Developing this Relationship with the Family

The school or childcare center is a key location in cultural transition.  This place may often be the first place children are exposed to cultures other than their own (this goes for all children).  It may be the first place a child realizes he is “different.”  Further, it is the place that will help prepare him to succeed in America.   If there is not enough language support for her to learn, she will associate school as something that doesn’t do anything for her.

Parent involvement is a critical component in a child’s success in school and in society.  We must do what we can to remember that inability to communicate does not mean a person is incapable or uneducated.  In fact, new legal immigrants are as well educated as native-born citizens, on average.  We must discover and overcome whatever may be preventing a relationship with the parents and families and work to ensure they and their children can get the most out of their experience within the American education system.

Immigrant families come to the US for a variety of reasons.  They range from political (refugees facing violence or persecution in their home country) to economic to socio-cultural (i.e. female activists in a Muslim country) to educational.  The fact that they have arrived (remember the difficulty of such an action by thinking back to your study abroad days) shows that they can set a goal and achieve it.  Also, remember that bilingualism is a gift we should not throw away!

What to Do

Remove your preconceptions as I have tried to do here by pointing out examples like studying abroad and different grading systems.  Think about why the families in your center have come to the US.  They may not be willing or able to share right away, but just consider what the possibilities may be.  Think about the type of life they may have led before moving here. Remember, they’ve already demonstrated their ability and willingness to set a goal and achieve it.  Try to find out where the children are coming from.  Get to know their families and culture, patterns of interaction and emotional expression.  Learn from parents and others from the child’s home about their culture.  The children can be the connectors (just remember not to rely on them for translation).  Family support has shown to be crucial in a successful transition.  Remember, it may not just be the parents involved.  Some cultures involve the whole family in child rearing.  You may need to talk to an aunt or a grandmother, etc.

You’ll want to communicate to the parents that they need to speak their home language in rich context and with complex words.  Otherwise, their child’s home language and overall cognitive abilities may be stunted. Remember, learning to read and speak transcends language.  It’s okay—and recommended—that parents maintain their home language.  Thus, collaborate with parents on the importance of developing their child’s verbal skills and thinking in their home language.  Finally, use community collaborators, i.e. parents, community visitors, administrators, consultants and therapists, to help bridge the cultural and language gap between you, your staff and the parents.

85% of teachers in America are white, female and middle class.  Yet, 1 in 5 children in the US are from immigrant families.  On top of that, 25% of the US population is children.  Teachers (everyone) use their own cultural lens to define individual children.  It is almost certain a cultural and language divide will exist!

10 Ways to Develop a Relationship with Parents and Family Members

As discussed in NAEYC themes, Part 2, staff members should model acceptance, respect of and interest in the child’s home culture.  You should first start there and then work to include family members.  Following are some specific tactics other centers have used successfully or that researchers recommend.

1)   Get the parents and children to read together in the classroom.  One center called this “Cuddle up and read”.  During drop-off time, parents sit with their children and read a story in their home language.  Thus, keep books in their home language available in your center.

2)   Schedule readings where family members come in and read a story from their home country to the class. It’s okay if it’s not in English, children will grasp the story if it’s simple enough.  Take a picture of the event and post it in the classroom with other photos of events.

3)   Involve parents and other teachers in selecting literature.  One center shared a story where a child had become withdrawn because she did not see herself as pretty—none of the “pretty” characters in their storybooks looked like her.  Then they read a story in which the main character was the same ethnicity as the child.  The definition of “pretty” changed for all the girls to include other ethnicities.  This child re-engaged and the others wanted to look like this new character also.  A parent had given this book to the center.

Including such books also helps the other parents to understand what’s going on. For example, one center had an autistic child who brushed his skin as part of his “sensory diet”.  When a parent asks their child what they did in school that day, they’ll surely be confused with the child replies, “we helped so-and-so brush.” Parent: ”You mean you helped him brush his hair?” Child: “no, his skin.” The parent may begin to wonder what you are teaching their child! But if the child brings home a book on autistic children, the parents will learn that brushing skin is a therapeutic protocol for autistic children. Such books can help other parents to also model respect and acceptance of others.

4)   Here are some preparatory things teachers have done to foster parent involvement:

  1. Attend ESL conferences at local universities
  2. Participate in community activities celebrating linguistic and cultural diversity
  3. Network with other teachers
  4. Attend intercultural workshops & family/school partnership workshops
  5. Participate in multicultural leadership and heritage language workshops
  6. Participate in international travel to visit schools in other countries

5)   Develop intentional strategies and set goals for engaging the families.

6)   Understand you have a multi-faceted role as a good listener, a mediator between cultures, a source of information for community resources, a facilitator of a supportive classroom, a teacher and an advocate.

7)   Learn about home cultures through local organizations, societies and international offices and student organizations at your university.  Start by searching the internet, too!  Don’t let it be overwhelming, even knowing a little bit will go a long way toward developing a relationship with the parents.

8)   Visit the child’s home and neighborhood.  Observe and talk to them in class to learn more.

9)   Present seminars explaining the school system (with translation services). NEVER rely on the child to translate. It places unnecessary responsibility on their shoulders.  If you can’t afford a professional translator, tap into the foreign language department at your local university. Provide translated handouts.

10) Actively invite parents to meetings and events.  Meet with them regularly and with translation services provided.  Remember, their notions of involvement may differ from yours.  You cannot develop a relationship with them without meeting them.

I know this may seem like a lot to do.  Just remember that as with all children, it is important for you to develop a relationship with the parents.  For non-native speaking English parents, this will require a little more work on your part, but the impact will be immeasurable!

Thank you for reading this far.  Check out below for the sources of this blog:

1. Using standards-based curriculum to support language and literacy development for English-language learners.

Presented by:
Min-hua Chen, Education Specialist, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education;
Vicky Milstein, Principal of Early Education, Brookline Public Schools;
Min-Jen Wu Taylor, Pre-K Teacher, Brookline Public Schools;
James StClair, Kindergarten Teacher, Cambridge Public Schools;
Sandra Christison, Kindergarten Teacher, Boston Public Schools.

They haven’t posted their slides yet, but if they do, it will show up when you click here.

2. The role of play in cultural transition: When the culture of the home differs from the mainstream culture of the school

Presented by:
Leah Adams, Eastern Michigan University
Mary E. Earick, Plymouth State University

They haven’t posted their slides yet, but if they do, it will show up when you click here.

3. Home Language or English?  Implementing program policies and teaching strategies that meet the needs of dual-language learners

Presented by:
John Gunnarson, Napa Valley College.

Click here for his handout.

4. Multicultural programs: Enriching families, supporting children

Presented by:
Rosene Johnson, Michigan State University.

She hasn’t posted her slides yet, but if she does, it will show up when you click here.

5. Taking the pulse of the policies and programs that matter to Latino children and families

Presented by:
Luis A. Hernandez, Training and Technical Assistance Services—Western Kentucky University

He hasn’t posted his slides yet, but if he does, it will show up when you click here.

6. Working with families who have recently immigrated: What teachers need to know and be able to do

Presented by:
Eun Kyeong Cho, University of New Hampshire

She hasn’t posted her slides yet, but if she does, it will show up when you click here.

7. A multicultural show and tell: Exploring children’s literature through culturally responsive teaching

Presented by:
Sherri Weber, Canisius College
Susan G. Popplewell, University of Central Oklahoma

They haven’t posted their slides yet, but if they do, it will show up when you click here.

8. Igoa, Cristina. The Inner World of the Immigrant Child. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1995.

9. Hernandez, Reyna. Transforming Early Learning: Education Equity for Young Latinos. Latino Policy Forum, March 2009.

Upcoming Blogs under the NAEYC Annual Conference Theme:
Part 4:  Common Theme #3:  Communication strategies
Part 5:  Common Theme #4:  Support the home language and culture
Part 6:  Research, Facts and Things to Know about Dual Language Learners

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