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February 1, 2016
Vol. 73
No. 5

Getting to Know ELLs' Families

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EquityEngagement
In September 2015, 5-year-old Sophie Cruz slipped past security as Pope Francis rode through the streets of Washington, D.C. Sophie, a U.S. citizen who is the child of undocumented immigrants, passed along a letter expressing her fear that she would be separated from her parents if they were deported.
Sophie's situation illuminates the risks parents will take to seek a better life for their children, as well as the tremendous impact those risk-filled decisions can have on children. It's important for teachers to consider how the fears of kids like Sophie and the experiences of young people who've survived a journey to a new country might affect their day-to-day experience and learning at school. And it's important to consider how we might connect with their families.
Sophie's story offers some context for thinking about building relationships with families of English language learners (ELLs). A common barrier to creating a strong relationship with these families is the misperception that, because many parents of ELLs don't attend conferences or school events, they lack interest in their children's education. Often, the opposite is true—parents are so deeply committed to their children's education that they've traveled to a new country, at great risk, to offer their children better schooling and a better future.
However, the demonstration of that commitment doesn't always fit neatly into the "parent involvement" structures available in public schools. Parents and relatives who work multiple jobs, care for small children, have limited access to transportation, and come from countries where concepts of parent participation differ considerably from those prevalent in the United States are unlikely to fulfill our traditional expectations for parent involvement. In addition, parents who come from countries where schools are considered government buildings may be reluctant to visit the school—this is especially true of undocumented families or those living in areas where anti-immigrant sentiment runs high.
The most important step an educator can take to overcome barriers like these, tap into the commitment to education many immigrant families hold, and forge relationships with ELLs' families is to get to know each family and its story. This can be a long process, filled with trial and error, but it's worth the effort. ELL families are an invaluable source of wisdom regarding their children. Getting to know each family might save time in the long run and make your job a little (or a lot) easier throughout the year.
Here are eight ways to build relationships based on trust and respect with students' families.

Be a Creative Communicator

Without doubt, one of the greatest challenges school staff and ELL family members face in building relationships is the complex question of how to communicate. Various factors—including language differences and mismatched schedules—can make or break communication. Although U.S. schools are required by federal law to provide information on topics like ELL identification and special education in a language parents will understand, each school also needs a system to handle informal, ongoing communication between teachers and parents. Good ways to do this include
  • Finding out whether parents prefer communication through phone, e-mail, or text message.
  • Using bilingual interpreters or parent liaisons to help translate classroom signs and labels, activities students take home, and parent newsletters—or to help during parent meetings or open houses.
  • Training parents or community volunteers to interpret key communications to parents.
Also check on district resources for interpretation, such as a language line you can call to have a conference call with a parent.
It's best to avoid having students translate, especially for their parents. This task can be stressful, and students might know school-related vocabulary only in English. When kids translate in school-family communication, they may learn private information. They might also take liberties, as in the case of a student who told his parents that F was for "¡Fantástico!" (Robertson, 2007).
Also avoid relying on translation websites. Although such websites and apps have improved in recent years, they remain inaccurate and imprecise. In a pinch, this tool might help you with a word or phrase, but such translations are not foolproof. A language may have varying dialects, vocabularies, and expressions (think of the British expression queuing versus the American waiting in line), which can lead to unhelpful confusion.

Think Outside the Box for Ways to Meet

Finding ways to meet with a student's family members may take creativity and flexibility. Start by asking parents what would be most convenient for them. My colleague Susan Lafond held parent-teacher conferences at the food court where many of her students' parents worked; Becky Corr scheduled a manicure at the nail salon where a student's father worked to discuss the student's college options. Some schools hold events in local community centers or churches near families' homes. Schools might collaborate with apartment complex managers to provide space to meet.
Home visits are another good option, and you might learn essential things by going to a student's home. One teacher learned on a home visit that her "Russian" student was actually Ukrainian.
Yet finding a setting that works for your non-English-speaking families may not mean leaving the school building. One teacher whose students were mostly Latino and from immigrant families found that hosting a group conference for all parents in her class, followed by brief individual conferences as necessary, was so successful that she saw 100 percent of parents within three days (Rothstein-Fisch & Trumbull, 2008). These parents felt more comfortable in a group setting than in an individual conference, and they learned from one another's questions. The teacher didn't need to repeat the same information over and over. Her one- on-one time with parents was more efficient and focused on the issues most related to their children.

Make the Family Comfortable

It's important to build trust with families as you get to know them. You may have a chance to learn more about their experiences if you speak with them during registration or a parent conference, where you can ask a few gentle questions to find out how comfortable the family is sharing information. Or it might take more time before they're ready to speak with you. Parents may feel more comfortable sharing information with an interpreter present.
In many cases, families will welcome the chance to share information that they feel is important to their child's well-being—it may be the first time they've been asked to offer their input. However, they also may be quite fearful about sharing any information about their background. If your questions make the family uncomfortable, move to a different topic.

Look for Clues About What Brought the Family Here

The question of how a particular student's family came to the United States might be complex, and many families, especially fairly recent arrivals, might be afraid to talk about it. They might have told their children not to talk about how they came here. Asking a lot of questions is probably not the best way to start; instead, look for clues about the family's experiences.
Students and their family members might have recently emigrated from their country of origin; recently arrived from a place other than their home country (such as a refugee camp); moved often between countries or moved frequently within the United States (for example, if they're migrant farm workers); or be in the country without immigration documents. All family members might have been born here but be first-generation Americans who still identify with a home country. Finding out these details will give you clues about a family's socioeconomic situation, level of stability at home, and previous traumas, which are important because the reasons a student's family emigrated can affect that student's emotions and attitudes at school.
If you need more information, start by asking other professionals who may have some background on the family, such as a liaison at a refugee resettlement office. If a parent shares sensitive information with you, particularly regarding immigration status, reassure the family that the information will remain confidential and that all children living in the United States have the right to attend U.S. public schools. 

Get a Sense of the Home Situation

Some important things you might learn about your student's family and home life over time include the following:
  • With whom does the student live?
  • Is there a family member at home who speaks English and can serve as a primary point of contact?
  • Does the student have family members who live far away?
  • Does the student have home responsibilities—such as caring for younger siblings—or a paying job?
  • Is the student expected to fulfill certain expectations tied to culture or religion, such as marrying at a young age?
  • Are there any other stressors affecting the family?
It's not necessary to ask a student or family these questions directly, but keep your eyes and ears open for situations that might be placing extra strain on the family. Good clues to these situations may come from students themselves during conversations or activities.
Some families may understandably be reluctant to share too much information about their personal lives, particularly if they can't discuss it in English. With time, however, and as they understand that your primary aim is to support their child's learning, they might feel more comfortable sharing, with help from an interpreter.

Invite Parents to Share Information About Their Child

Another effective strategy is to simply ask parents to tell you more about their children, either in person or through a letter. If you have interpreters available, the conversation or letter can be in the parent's home language.
Albuquerque teacher Clara Gonzales-Espinoza asks parents to write her a letter at the beginning of each school year telling her about their child's personality, interests, and strengths. Not only does she begin establishing a relationship with parents on a positive note, but she also gathers information that might help her better understand and respond to this student in the classroom, such as knowledge about a student's illness or a recent divorce.
Although some parents of ELLs aren't literate in either English or their primary language, Clara hasn't found this to be an obstacle. Typically, a number of parents write lengthy, moving letters filled with details relevant to the classroom. Consider the last paragraph of a letter from an American Indian mother:
[My daughter] wants to be an art teacher. Last year in her school, her art teacher chose her drawings and they are on display. Her drawings are at the Indian gallery museums at the state fairgrounds. She loves to dance. She's very shy around people, but she's the most fun girl when you get to know her. She can get easily irritated by noise or by others. … Her interests are learning. She loves school. She is a fast learner, but doesn't like taking risks. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with my daughter.
Clara also shares the story of a father who was the least proficient in English of all of her parents but managed to write a short letter in English about his child. He clearly wanted to support his daughter's success in any way he could.

Let Parents Share Interests and Talents

Find ways for parents to share their interests and skills. Although there may be interesting opportunities based on such familiar touch points as culture and food, don't limit your ELL parents to the role of cultural ambassadors. Perhaps a student's parent has skills to enhance a project or class materials. Visiting parents might offer support to other students in the classroom, particularly if they share a language.
Think outside the box in terms of scheduling to give parents opportunities to contribute to your classroom and volunteer meaningfully. Parents might enjoy opportunities to learn about one another at a back-to-school night or other family event. They might together come up with ideas that help the class. Keep in mind that extra procedures like background checks might deter immigrant families from volunteering.

Share Successes!

Look for opportunities to share success stories (even small ones) with parents, such as in your class newsletter. Highlight students or families who've overcome the kinds of obstacles your families face. Educator Maricela Rincon in New Mexico calls a different parent every day to share something positive about his or her child. Some tell her, "This is the first time I've had a positive phone call about my child" (Flannery, 2010).
Christine Rowland posts pictures of graduates from her high school who've gone on to college. Students are inevitably drawn to the pictures to learn about their fellow students and how they reached their goals.
Getting to know your ELL families may be painstaking and require adjustments to your routine—but it benefits everyone involved. Giving families a chance to share their stories and support their children in their own way gives them the confidence they need to help their children thrive.

Resources for Getting to Know Families

  • Making Your First ELL Home Visit: A Guide for Classroom Teachers by Gisela Ernst-Slavit and Michele Mason. This online article gives suggestions for planning a home visit with an ELL family.
  • Strategy: Parent Letters. In this video interview, Clara Gonzales-Espinoza discusses her strategy of having each parent write a letter describing their child.
  • Lessons Learned from Immigrant Families by Young-Chan Han. This article by an educator who leads outreach with immigrant families in Maryland draws from her experiences key lessons about how schools can best serve such families.
  • A Guide for Engaging ELL Families: Twenty Strategies for School Leaders by Lydia Breiseth with Kristina Robertson and Susan Lafond. This guide offers ideas to help school leaders build home-school partnerships.
References

Flannery, M. E. (2010, January). Welcoming ELL parents into the classroom. NEA Today. Retrieved from www.nea.org/home/37022.htm

Robertson, K. (2007). Tips for successful parent-teacher conferences with bilingual families. Colorín Colorado. Retrieved from www.colorincolorado.org/article/tips-successful-parent-teacher-conferences-bilingual-families

Rothstein-Fisch, C., & Trumbull, E. (2008). Managing diverse classrooms: How to build on students' cultural strengths. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

End Notes

Schools aren't responsible for determining the legal immigration status of families they serve—only that families live within the school district.

Lydia Breiseth is manager of Colorín Colorado, a free online bilingual service that provides information for educators and families of English language learners. Based at WETA, a Washington, D.C.-based public broadcasting station, the service is funded by the American Federation of Teachers and the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs.

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