There are many reasons why families may not come to school for school programs and conferences about their children. As I discussed in my August 2021 blog, “5 Ways to Support the Families of Multilingual Learners as School Opens,” families may not have transportation to and from the school or babysitting for younger siblings. They may feel embarrassed by their lack of English or for being unable to read the notices that come home. They may not be able to leave their work to attend conferences. Here are four more steps that schools can take to engage the families of their multilingual learners (MLLs):
1. Increase Attendance at School Functions
When family members of MLLs do not come to school meetings or activities, teachers and administrators should not assume that they are not interested in their children’s education. Here are some ways that you can overcome hurdles that affect such attendance that families might be facing:
- Issue an oral invitation in the home language of families of MLLs to come to school for a meeting or activity. Remember that there may be families who can not read notices that are translated into their home language. Phone messages in the home language may be more effective than written messages.
- Set up a phone tree that ensures that families of newly enrolled MLLs receive a phone call from a member of their community who welcomes them and clarifies information about the school.
- Find ways to provide transportation and childcare so that families can come to school more easily.
- If necessary, set hours for conferences or meetings that will allow families to come to a meeting before school starts or in the evening (around work hours).
- Consider holding conferences in community centers or other locations near where the families of your MLLs live.
2. Encourage Families to Participate in Their Child’s Education
Getting families engaged in school activities can be a way to help them to support their child’s education. In order for this to happen, we first need to find ways to make the families of newcomers feel comfortable in our schools so that we can collaborate with them to support their education of their children. Encourage families to
- volunteer to work in the school library and the ESL classroom; with after-school programs; on PTA bake sales; and during field days, multicultural fairs, class parties, and field trips.
- come into the school on a regular basis. Engage them in school projects that positively affect their child’s education, such as science fairs, literacy projects, and math activities.
- share information with their child’s class about their home culture. Newcomers feel very proud when they see their family members working around the school or coming in to share their culture.
3. Learn About Families
There are important things that schools need to know about the families of MLLs:
- If the student is a newcomer, who do they live with? What is the child’s relationship to the people living in the same place?
- Which adults are responsible for the child? Who will be home when the child finishes school? Who is allowed to pick them up from school?
- Is there a family member at home who speaks English and can serve as a primary point of contact?
- Does the student have home responsibilities, such as taking care of siblings or holding down a job?
4. Know What Stressors a Family May Be Experiencing
I’ve had personal experiences where families of MLLs didn’t let my school know about stressors that they were experiencing, which made it difficult to support them. I have been able, however, to support families that I had a strong relationship with. Here is a story about the Yang family:
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attack of the World Trade Center, a priest from a local parish came to my school to tell me that he found Mrs. Yang and her children wandering around the church on the evening after the attack. I knew the priest because many of the families of my MLLs went to his church. He told me that he talked to Mrs. Yang, but her English was very limited.
Seung, a fourth-grade student of mine and one of the children in the Yang family, told the priest that her father hadn’t come home after the attack on the World Trade Center and they didn’t know what to do. As it turned out, Mr. Yang worked in the World Trade Center and was missing. The school hadn’t known anything had happened because Seung hadn’t missed any school and Mrs. Yang didn’t inform us that he was missing.
I knew the family well as I had worked with them for 3 years. I also knew other Korean families in the community that I could contact to provide support for the Yang family. I felt comfortable going to their house to talk to Mrs. Yang and ask her what the school could do to support her family. Our school nurse, social worker, and psychologist offered to provide services to the family.
When talking to the family, I discovered that Mr. Yang was the manager of a Korean company in the World Trade Center and he was the only one from the company that died that day. He’d ushered his employees down the stairs until they met with fire fighters who were coming up the stairs. Mr. Yang then raced back up the stairs to get important documents from his office. He never made it out. Every year I watch the reading of the names of those who perished until his name is read.
Some families are understandably reluctant to share too much information with the school. However, when schools build relationships with families over time and those families know that the school is interested in supporting their children’s education and well being, they are more willing to share and engage.
Many teachers have told me that they have a better relationship with families because of distance learning during the pandemic. They had more conversations with family members because there was always someone home.
Because of the pandemic it is very hard to maintain a relationship with the families of our ELLS.