Beyond Translation: Connecting with Parents of ELLs

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It’s so easy to say that schools need to forge stronger ties with their students’ parents. However, the reality of doing that can certainly be a challenge, particularly when working with the parents of English language learners (ELLs). Often, the parents of ELL students face similar, if not more pronounced, challenges communicating in English as the students themselves. These significant language barriers can certainly make connecting with parents difficult. Often, addressing parents’ language needs becomes a primary target for schools in order to increase parents’ access to the school. Translating materials and providing interpreters at parent/teacher conferences are indeed helpful and provide parents with an important entry point to participating in their child’s education, but bridging the language gap is really just the first step to connecting with these parents.

The more complex and challenging hurdles schools encounter when trying to strengthen ties with the parents of ELLs are often tied to crossing cultural barriers. Schools are often confronted with deeply held beliefs by parents about many of the following:

  • Religious/cultural/familial obligations requiring students to return to their birth countries
  • Beliefs about appropriate gender roles for parents within the school and community
  • Beliefs about differentiating schooling opportunities for boys and girls
  • Religious/cultural/familial obligations requiring students to learn additional content outside of the public school system that can compete for students’ time and energy (e.g., native language school, religious school, etc.)

These cultural values may directly conflict with the values of leaders and teachers in your school. Despite this, it is important for us to try to navigate these tensions in the name of better serving our students.

One of the top reasons we often fail to connect with the parents of ELLs is because of issues surrounding trust—both teachers’ trust of parents and parents’ trust of teachers. Fortunately, there are a number of steps schools can take to work to build trust and rapport with parents. As much as we may want parents to take the initiative to get involved on their own accord, it is often up to educators to take the first (and sometime second and third) step. Parents of ELLs, many of whom are new immigrants to the United States, may possess little cultural fluency regarding the American school system and may consequently be unfamiliar with the expectation for parents to be actively involved in their children’s education (Stanton-Salazar, 2001). Researchers have found that immigrant parents care deeply about their children’s education (Chavkin & González, 1995; Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 2001). However, the challenges posed by cultural differences may lead to obstacles that make it more difficult for them parents to engage in schools.

There are ways to strengthen connections with parents and build trust despite these challenges, but it may take thinking outside the box to do so. Below we offer several specific ways schools might work to better connect with the parents of ELL students, highlighting two ideas in particular: Establishing routine events and organizing home visits.

Establish Routine Events for Parents and Families
Schools often do a great job of hosting special events for parents such as parent-teacher conferences, student performances, and awards assemblies, but these are typically one-time events that do not occur regularly. Scheduling a routine event for parents can really help draw parents into the school for several reasons. First, the consistency of a regular event allows parents to begin to feel comfortable with being present at the school because they know what to expect. Second, if an event is routine, word gets out that it is taking place regularly, momentum builds, and more parents attend over time.

A routine event for parents need not be overly complex—in fact, it is often the case that simpler is better. One of the most clever routine events we have seen a school offer for parents in an elementary school is to invite parents and younger siblings not yet in school to attend a simple cold breakfast at the school every Friday morning. Parents went through the breakfast line with their kids and the cafeteria staff simply kept track of how many students were eating breakfast for Title I counts and how many parents were eating breakfast, which was paid for out of the principal’s discretionary funds. During this time, parents got to see their children interact with their teachers and teachers were given a chance to share good news or concerns about students with parents, all over a bowl of cereal.

Organize Home Visits
Sometimes in order to establish initial ties with parents, it is important to go to them—literally. Home visits can seem daunting at first, but they are an exceptionally powerful means of connecting with parents because they convey to parents that teachers are truly invested in their children. There are several steps that can be taken to help make a home visit successful. First, have something positive to tell parents about their child. For example, bring a recent example of good work the student completed so that you can share it with his/her parents. Second, take the opportunity to encourage parent involvement by bringing a specific tool or task parents can use to work with their children. Third, leave parents with your contact information and encourage them to get in touch with you. As a teacher, one of the authors, Madeline, created magnets with her phone number and email address to hand out during home visits so that parents would have her contact information readily accessible at all times. She has heard from former students that these magnets remain on refrigerators to this day, a decade after she taught them!

It is important to note that if teachers are uncomfortable doing home visits alone, they can certainly go as a pair or trio. For example, teachers in different grade levels who teach siblings might opt to go together or a teacher might go with an interpreter. Note that it is not a good idea to travel as a large group when doing home visits, as this can be intimidating to parents.

Other Ideas for Connecting with Parents
In addition, here are a number of other ideas to better connect with parents of ELL students.

  • Organize classroom observations for parents: This establishes a shared understanding about educational goals.
  • Present research to inform parents: This creates objective discussion and dismisses a negative parent vs. school mentality.
  • Provide transportation to school events: Parents may not have the socioeconomic means to attend functions despite having the desire.
  • Survey parents: Information collected on a variety of topics will help you address their specific needs.
  • Recruit parents to work within the school: This creates a sense of ownership and shared responsibility.
  • Provide parents with avenues to learn English.
  • Assist parents in meeting basic needs for their students such as helping them find clothing for their children (Delgado-Gaitan, 2001; Meyers & Rodriguez, 2006; Mathis, 2013; Morillo-Campbell, 2006).

We encourage you to generate your own ideas to strengthen connections with parents of ELL students to implement within your district. As you do so, keep in mind the following main points:
• Support traditional parent involvement programs that are culturally relevant and linguistically appropriate.
• Support non-traditional parent involvement programs that reflect reciprocal involvement from parents and the school.
• Support professional development and other efforts around teachers building cultural knowledge and understanding, as well as best practices for community outreach.
• Support community-based education programs that inform parents about school values/expectations/life-skills to help them become advocates for their children (Arias & Morillo-Campbell, 2008).

No single answer exists for connecting to people from different backgrounds and cultures. But being open, kind, helpful, trustworthy, and consistent can help create a successful environment for joining forces with parents (Bryk & Schneider, 2002). We look forward to hearing from you about your successes and challenges as you work to build connections with the parents of ELLs!

Until the next issue,
Madeline Mavrogordato & Jennifer Paul

References

Arias, M. B. & Morillo-Campbell, M. (2008). Promoting ELL Parental Involvement:
Challenges in Contested Times, Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice, Retrieved from http://www.greatlakescenter.org/docs/Policy_Briefs/Arias_ELL.pdf.

Bryk, A. & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools: A core resource for improvement.
New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Chavkin, N. F., & González, D. L. (1995). Forging partnerships between Mexican American parents and the schools. ERIC Clearinghouse.

Delgado-Gaitan, C. (2001). The power of community: Mobilizing for family and schooling.
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Mathis, W. (2013). Research Based Options for Education Policymaking, English
Language Learners and Parent Involvement, University of Colorado Boulder, Retrieved from http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/pb-options-7-ellparents.pdf.

Meyers, M. & Rodriguez, R.C. (2006). How do we integrate parents of English
language learners and community members into our program/school? In E. Hamayan & R. Freeman Field (Eds.), English Language Learners at School: A Guide for Administrators (137-139), Philadelphia: Caslon Publishing.

Morillo-Campbell, M. (2006). Examining school, family and community partnerships
among Hispanic parents: An Ethnography of Transformation. Dissertation Abstracts International: A, 6705). (UMI No. 3219727).

Stanton-Salazar, R. D. (2001). Manufacturing hope and despair: The school and kin support networks of U.S.-Mexican youth. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Suárez-Orozco, C., Suarez-Orozco, M., & Todorova, I. (2008). Learning in a new land: Immigrant students in American society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.