Partnering with Newcomer Families

Strategies for working across language and cultural differences to make families feel at home in new schools

April 26, 2018
Illustration of a quilt with diverse patches

When a student comes to school with limited English skills, or arrives midyear from another country, she’s not the only one who’s feeling out of place. Her parents or other caregivers at home are no doubt feeling disoriented as well, having overcome formidable challenges to get to the United States — or feeling lost or intimidated trying to navigate a new community. Teachers, too, may find it difficult, even uncomfortable, to partner across extreme language and cultural barriers.

But with the population of foreign-born children in the United States increasing rapidly, schools must be prepared to bridge these gaps. By 2050, 30 percent of children in America will have at least one foreign-born parent, even as the number of white teachers working near their hometown remains quite high. For educators, communicating across unfamiliar differences is an essential part of the job — and connecting with families is more important than ever.

The Importance of Partnerships — (Especially) Despite Differences

Even with the best of intentions, teachers may have real fears around connecting with newcomer families. How do you ensure that parents are comfortable helping with math homework if you don’t speak the same language? How can you co-create behavioral supports when you’re unfamiliar with how the family handles discipline at home? How should you include a family in class celebrations when you’re unsure of their daily customs or dietary restrictions?

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When teachers and families partner, children excel: Attendance and grades go up, discipline challenges go down, and high school graduation rates improve. And these relationships are especially important for immigrant students.

Teachers should embrace the opportunity to learn more about newcomer families’ languages, religions, countries of origin, and living circumstances, notes Sarah Dryden-Peterson, who works to understand the educational needs of refugees around the world. Immigrant parents who were educated in another country may have a different concept of how school should work, and they are often learning about U.S society (including structures of race and racism) for the first time. And recent immigrant families may struggle with other issues, like arduous commutes to school and limited familiarity with a district's customs or traditions.

But these challenges shouldn’t deter educators. When teachers and families partner, children excel: Attendance and grades go up, discipline challenges go down, and high school graduation rates improve. And these partnerships are especially important for immigrant students.

Families can help teachers understand the “funds of knowledge” their children bring into the classroom, says Dryden-Peterson, allowing teachers to highlight the assets of immigrant children, rather than focusing on what they lack. Families can benefit as well, as schools can often connect them with much-needed supports related to housing, health care, and food.

Communicating Across Language Barriers

  • Language should not prevent family/teacher partnerships. Having a translator is essential — and required by federal law, says Karen L. Mapp, an expert and researcher on family engagement. Schools are legally obligated to communicate all necessary information in a way that families can understand.
  • If schools don’t already have a translator on hand, teachers can reach out to community organizations with connections to diverse populations, who may be willing to serve as translators, suggests Ilene Carver, a veteran teacher and author, along with Mapp and Jessica Lander, of Powerful Partnerships: A Teacher’s Guide to Engaging Families in Student Success.
  • Learning a few key phrases in the family’s home language can also go a long way. Starting off a phone call with “Hello, I’m your daughter’s fourth-grade teacher. How are you?” in the family’s native language demonstrates to a family that their child’s teacher really cares.
  • Teachers can text families using translator apps. Lander uses this strategy often, chatting with her students’ parents in over 30 languages about their children’s homework and behavior.
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Communicating Across Language Barriers
  • Find a translator
  • Learn key phrases in the family’s home language
  • Use translating apps to text families

Partnering Amid Cultural Differences

A recent study from Dryden-Peterson on the experiences of black African immigrant students in the U.S. shares insight on what helps teachers learn about and bridge differences. Comparing two districts’ approach to family engagement, Dryden-Peterson found that family-school connections were most successful when teachers “focused their interactions with families on something they knew transcended cultural differences: care of children.” Engagement focusing on the children’s growth was more successful than engagement based on discipline, too. When parents were encouraged to participate in school events focused on academics and sought after in discussions about their children’s learning and behavior, their children performed better than average and had nearly perfect attendance.

These relationships were also made easier when schools helped provide families with resources, such as food, recycled clothes, and toys, so that parents could devote more of their energy to their children’s education. Research from the Center on the Developing Child supports this notion, showing that streamlining social services can reduce stress in low-income families, helping them become more responsive caregivers.

On a more personal level, taking the time to actively empathize with families and their experiences can be helpful, says educational psychologist Hunter Gehlbach. Although it might be difficult for many teachers to really visualize and feel what refugee families have been through, “it is often these especially challenging social perspective taking tasks where it is most important to try to take the other side’s perspective,” Gehlbach says. Even just signaling to families that you are trying to take their perspective “could start the interactions out on the right foot.”

More broadly, educators should keep a positive outlook on families. “If you start out with a mindset that there’s going to be some sort of problem or challenge, or you view cultural diversity as a deficit versus an asset, then that will shape the way you approach families,” says Mapp. Teachers can ask how families support their children's learning at home, which can show families that teachers value their role. In surveys, phone calls, or conferences, they can even inquire about families’ cultural backgrounds: “What are some of your wonderful cultural traditions that we should be celebrating or paying attention? Is there anything else that we should be aware of — holidays you don’t celebrate? We want to make sure we honor and value you.”

Finally, schools can celebrate those differences by inviting families to share their traditions in class. Carver has created a “family story curriculum” in which students interview their parents about where they are from, when they came to this city, how they traveled here, and what values are important to them. Students then present their findings to the class alongside their family. Says Carver, “These family gatherings enrich and deepen our understanding of the multiracial, multiethnic community in the classroom, for the children and adults alike.”

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Partnering Amid Cultural Differences
  • Focus on your mutual care for children and desire to help them grow
  • Ensure families have access to basic resources
  • Work on actively empathizing with families
  • View differences as assets
  • Invite families to share their histories in class

Illustration: Wilhelmina Peragine

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Schools serve as a key point of welcome for immigrant and refugee children in America, but politics and changing demographics are complicating how we assist these newcomers. In a special series, we look at the strategies and practices that best support newcomer students and their families. Read more in Welcoming Newcomers.

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