Supporting Latinx Families in Special Education Decisions - ASCD
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December 1, 2019

Supporting Latinx Families in Special Education Decisions

When an English learner is evaluated for a disability, educators must take time to engage families in the process.

Equity
Social Emotional Learning
School Culture
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Credit: Credit: Jeffrey Isaac Greenberg 2 / Alamy Stock Photo

Carlos excelled in math. He was a polite, hardworking student who loved playing soccer. But Carlos struggled with reading and writing; in 4th grade, he was reading at a pre-primer level, and he was eventually referred for special education services.

There were other difficulties in Carlos's life. He was born in the United States, but his parents had been born in Honduras, and in 2017—the year Carlos was in 4th grade—the Trump administration threatened to eliminate the Temporary Protected Status visa for people from Honduras. 1 Because Carlos's family had already experienced family separation due to deportation, they were understandably nervous and hesitant to engage with the school.

The school psychologist sent notifications to Carlos's parents about upcoming meetings to discuss his academic needs. When his family didn't come to these meetings, she assumed they were uninterested in participating in Carlos's education. This was not the case.

Carlos (a pseudonym) is a former student at Crestwood Elementary School in Las Vegas, where I am a special educator. I became aware that Carlos's access to receiving special education services was delayed because of a miscommunication with his family, who didn't understand the technical, wordy letter they received in the mail. I intervened because I've yet to meet a family that is uninterested in the well-being of their child. I'd seen this kind of situation before and knew I could help.

I also got involved because I know that students who are bilingual, simultaneously learning two languages, or developing English capacities are at risk of being under- or over-represented for special education services. Most school systems aren't fully equipped to gauge the complexities of multilayered identities, such as first- or second-generation English language learners who may also have learning disabilities.

Becoming Carlos's teacher and his parents' partner confirmed for me that collaborative school-family relationships are not optional. They are the necessary root of providing a just education for all students. Our relationships with students and their families boldly communicate to families that, as educators, we're unwilling to be part of a system that makes them feel unwanted. It can start with one conversation.

I may have been sensitive to some of the issues Carlos was facing because I'm also from a Latinx family. In some ways, my story is similar to Carlos's; in other ways, quite different. I was born in Bogotá, Colombia, the daughter of a human rights lawyer (my mother) and a musician (my father). My family moved to the United States when I was five. My story is unusual because of the access I had to mobility and education (not always common in the Latinx narrative). My father was born in the United States, which gave my sisters and I dual citizenship upon birth.

Unlike many first-generation students, I was able to maintain my cultural and linguistic identities. But it wasn't easy in school, where my language and culture weren't valued. Like everyone in my family, I go by my middle name—Juliana. Yet throughout school, teachers automatically called me by my first name—Laura—with an English pronunciation. This made me feel like I was a whole other person at school, and as if the real me didn't fully belong. My parents asked the schools I attended if they could participate in my education by teaching courses in Spanish and music (which they eventually did)—but they weren't necessarily invited.

My experiences as a student have allowed me, as a teacher, to navigate both worlds—those of school systems and first-generation Latinx families. What I've experienced helps me understand the unnamed reasons for many education disparities, including access to special education services.

To work successfully with Latinx families to ensure students receive the right supports, including disability services when appropriate, it's important to begin from a place of empathy. We must seek to better understand Latinx families. Within the diverse Latinx community, each person experiences the United States differently—in terms of access to learning English, job and financial security, housing, work visas, and citizenship pathways. Each of these factors makes our families unique and layered.

Educators need to understand that in many Latin American countries, a parent's roles and responsibilities in education differ greatly from what's expected in the United States. A study by Zarate 2 indicated that Latinx parents hold themselves responsible for parental involvement in "life participation" and academics—but often interpret how they support academic objectives very differently. They generally believe that monitoring their children's lives and providing moral guidance will result in good classroom behavior, which in turn allows for greater academic learning opportunities.

Zarate found in looking at involvement of Latino parents in one school, that the "parental involvement expectations expressed by the [school] … contrasted with Latino parents' perceptions of parental involvement" (p. 11). For example, in Spanish-speaking cultures, when someone is kind, polite, and well-behaved, we say "es muy educado" (they are very educated). If a child is "educado," then many Latinx people would conclude their family has contributed and participated in the education process. But an English-speaking teacher lacking cultural awareness might perceive that the same family isn't "doing enough" to help the child succeed in school, even though he is well-behaved. This mutual cultural gap can significantly impact the education of Latinx students.

In other words, our definitions are often culturally guided. Certainly, we can extend our definitions when we're in situations involving people from multiple cultural backgrounds. But to do so, we must build relationships that allow for the individual to be seen before misconceptions form.

It's also vital to remember that many first-generation Latinx families endure arduous conditions in the United States. Most families migrating from Latin America do so at a heavy cost—one they're willing to endure because they value education and basic opportunities not available in their home countries. Some also flee because of imminent danger and are therefore willing to endure a perilous journey. We, as educators, are receiving these families' children; in a way, we are their reason for migrating. We have the power to nurture the dream of education they seek—and to do so in a way that welcomes their child's multiple identities.

Supporting Families Through a Special Education Evaluation

Just as parental support can be defined differently, cultural groups hold various perceptions of the word disability. While I don't want to overgeneralize, parents from many Latin American countries might perceive this word as referring to a visible disability or medical condition; they may be perplexed or resistant when it's suggested their child has a disability. As educators, our role is to understand how the family defines disability, then join with that family to co-construct a definition of disability that fits the situation and needs of their child—a definition focused on the child's strengths and potential.

Educators must meet families where they are without judgment, prepared to respect and support them. Latinx families (and all families, for that matter) must first believe you respect them and care about their child. To highlight ways to show respect and care to a family during the steps of a typical special education evaluation process, I'll explain how I supported Carlos and his family throughout this journey.

Respect from the First Contact

Respecting parents' knowledge—and their time—is part of offering support. Reminding families that you value their knowledge about their offspring demonstrates your commitment to making the child's education responsive to his full identity. I kept this in mind when I approached Carlos's family after learning about the delay with his special education services. I first called and reintroduced myself, reminding them that I'd gotten to know Carlos—his personality and interests—because he was in my weekly Garden Club. I then asked the family about their preferences on meeting times and types. Did they feel comfortable coming to the school, or would they prefer a phone conference? Would they like to talk to me informally before the formal special education evaluation meeting, so we could get to know each other better and I could explain the process of evaluating a child's need for special education services?

Because of the time I invested in relationship building, Carlos's family granted me their trust. They took me up on my offer to meet with them. When we met, their love and dedication to their child was abundantly clear.

When a school has determined that academic and/or behavioral interventions within the general education setting haven't addressed a student's needs, the school typically moves forward with an evaluation for eligibility for special education services under one of 13 categories. The school must get informed written consent from the parents or guardians for this evaluation. After the evaluation, schools must also get parental consent before designing a student's individualized education program (IEP).

I've encountered many families who feel uncomfortable with and perhaps do not fully understand the process. Yet they give consent. Perhaps they feel pressured, or perhaps it's difficult for them to express their need for time to process before deciding. Are school teams truly achieving consent if we don't first have a trusting, knowledgeable, and collaborative relationship? Many Latinx families, particularly parents and caregivers who have had limited access to formal schooling, may defer to what the teacher thinks is best, even for important decisions. But this does not signify full engagement in the decision. The school needs to assess the power dynamics of the situation and create space for families to feel their knowledge will be respected by school staff.

Carlos's family expressed a distrust of signing paperwork without fully understanding it beforehand. My previous work with families facing deportations made me familiar with this apprehension. Families who have faced deportation may also have experienced militarized borders and detention centers; they've often been pressured to sign papers to move along the deportation process.

I explained to Carlos's family their right to confidentiality, and that our school wasn't allowed to disclose private information to any organization, not even the police or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, without a warrant. I then worked to better understand how his family perceived the idea of disability. His father was uncomfortable with the term for Carlos because Carlos didn't have a visible disability and was well-behaved. I explained that learning disabilities aren't visible and typically people who have learning and thinking differences have average or above average intellectual abilities.

Once we had a co-constructed definition of Carlos's strengths and needs, we discussed the special education evaluation process. I explained that without an evaluation, the team (which included Carlos's family) couldn't make a determination of eligibility. Without eligibility, the school couldn't provide the individualized special education services Carlos needed. Carlos's father consented to the evaluation with a deeper understanding of the process—and as a valued member of the team.

Helping Parents Be Informed and Heard

As we supported Carlos's family through the referral, the initial team meeting to determine eligibility to receive services, and the initial IEP meeting, I knew it was key that they understood what was happening—and their right to speak up. Before each meeting, I called Carlos's parents and explained exactly what the upcoming meeting would be about. I told them that at any point they could stop to ask questions, schedule meeting extensions if they weren't ready to make a decision, or withhold consent. Carlos's father became a team member who voiced opinions and questions.

The Outcome for Carlos

Eventually, Carlos was identified as having a Specific Learning Disability and began receiving services to meet his needs in reading and writing—within a small group and in his general education classroom. Although I only worked with Carlos on his reading for a few months before he transitioned to middle school, he made terrific gains—most importantly in believing that he could be a good reader. We began by learning one-syllable words and left off learning how to read prefixes and suffixes in three- and four-syllable words. Carlos was always capable; he just needed additional, research-based support, as well as sensitivity from teachers about certain aspects of his culture and the trauma he had experienced.

Just as Carlos's initial IEP was wrapping up, his family confided that they were unsure how they would respond if their protected-visa status was eliminated. As of this writing, the termination of Temporary Protected Status for Honduras is on hold pending a court case. If the protected status for Hondurans in the United States is terminated, Carlos's family will have to make difficult decisions. They will most likely prioritize Carlos and his siblings' education—which may mean living in the United States without work visas, which would make their day-to-day life more difficult.

Replacing Barriers with Opportunities

For many families like Carlos's, the friction between a system that expects them to engage with their child's education in "typical" ways and their own fears of deportation or discrimination is a barrier that keeps them from fully participating in schools. This is true for English learners who don't have defined disabilities as much as for those who do. So how can schools design systems that replace barriers with opportunities?

  1. Confront Inequity: To provide a just education and have healthy school-family-community partnerships, educators must become aware of—and commit to addressing—inequities in their personal and professional lives, including biases. We must address the ways we've allowed communities of color and/or people with disabilities to be marginalized, including in school routines and in procedures such as scheduling, dress code enforcement, and access to higher-level courses. 3

  2. Change Unfair Policies: Understand that certain school and social policies, such as those that criminalize the Latinx community, harm communities of color and people with disabilities. Educators cannot afford to be silent or complacent. Building relationships with families that belong to these communities, making them feel comfortable, heard, and supported is part of countering racist and xenophobic polices. Begin to change the world by adjusting the culture in your school.

  3. Shift the "Normalcy" Paradigm: Educators have to be prepared to shift the paradigm in which education and society operates, recognizing that our notion of "normal" in education is often a reflection of faulty assumptions based on privilege and ableism. Yes, we need to be honest and objective if a disability affects a child's ability to learn and thrive. But let's do so without communicating implicit ideas of normativity. Help all students know they are not "ab-normal" or "sub-categorical".

  4. Adopt an Asset-Minded Approach: Welcoming language differences is at the heart of inclusive schools. Of course, all teachers can't be fluent in Spanish, but we should be fluent in recognizing the strengths that diverse families bring to the table.

  5. Advocate for PD: Many teachers have little training in how to work with students or families from cultural, linguistic, or racial backgrounds different from their own. We must advocate for professional development that offers such training—and also take that learning into our own hands.

As we affirm the reality that children, families, and communities of color are inherently capable and ready to participate in school-based learning, actions like those discussed here can help us design educational spaces that value and celebrate the whole child, family, and community—from every culture a school serves. For children with disabilities and others, we can build culturally and linguistically appropriate bridges. Those bridges are us—educators.

End Notes

1 Temporary Protected Status visas are granted to people from certain countries facing ongoing armed conflict, environmental disasters, and other serious situations.

2 Zarate, M. E. (2007). "Understanding Latino Parental Involvement in Education: Perceptions, Expectations, and Recommendations." Los Angeles, CA: The Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, University of Southern California.

3 Lewis, A. E., & Diamond, J. B. (2015). Despite the best intentions: How racial inequality thrives in good schools. New York: Oxford University Press.

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