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.”