5 Ways to Support the Families of Multilingual Learners When School Opens

As schools reopen around the United States, teachers and administrators need to consider how to how to support the families of multilingual learners (MLLs) with information for them in their home language. (I prefer to use the term families rather than parents because many MLLs are not in the United States with their parents. The term family can include both parents and extended family members and friends.)

Many families do not share the cultural norms of the school community. They may not speak English, and some are not literate in their first language and can’t read documents that the school translates for them. School districts are making a real effort to engage families of MLLs in the education of their students. It must be remembered that engagement is not a one-way street. It is a two-way conversation where families are given input into the education of their children. This is not to say, however, that schools shouldn’t inform families about the routines and practices of the school. They need to be prepared to answer questions and concerns from families about their routines and procedures. We need to look at these procedures through the eyes of families and students who don’t understand them. The following routines and procedures should be communicated to families of MLLs in a language that they understand.

1. Enrollment Procedures

Enrollment procedures includes what papers parents need to bring to school when enrolling their children in school. These documents include proof of address, immunization records, and birth certificate. The purpose of the birth certificate is to determine the child’s actual age. If a birth certificate is not available, parents may show a hospital or doctor’s certificate, an affidavit from a parent, an adoption record, or an entry into a family bible. Many families are reluctant to provide birth certificates because they are afraid that it might lead to questions about their immigration status. Families of MLLs need to know that schools may not ask about immigration status and that they need not provide a social security number for their children to enroll in school.

2. Understanding the School Schedule

When MLLs are registered in schools, their families need to be informed from the beginning of the school year about what days school will be opened and what days there are scheduled closures. They also need to be told how to access information about emergency closings. The following routines can be communicated with translated written messages or by a phone call from someone who speaks the language of the family.

  • Scheduled dates when school will be closed for holidays or professional development for teachers
  • Scheduled early dismissals
  • Emergency late openings. In many schools these are weather related and not anticipated in advance. An example would be that in some districts across the United States, school openings are delayed because it is too cold to wait at a school bus stop in the early hours of the morning.
  • Emergency school closures due to weather-related reasons. I’ve heard so many accounts of students coming to school in snowstorms or in freezing weather because they didn’t know how to access information about school closures.

3. Procedures for Absences and Late Arrivals

Families need to know what the school’s procedures are if a student is late for school or if the student is going to be absent or is returning to school after an absence. Schools may want to provide a model letter that families need to send to the school for an excused absence.

4. Transportation to and From School

Families need to know what options are available for transportation to and from school. If busing is available, information about where the bus picks up students and at what time is crucial information that needs to be communicated to the families in their first language. I worked in a school district where parents usually dropped children off in the morning and picked them up in the afternoon. We had very complicated rules about how this was done. Families of MLLs were informed of these rules in a notice that was translated into their home language.

5. Fire Drills, Evacuation, and Lockdown Procedures

The families of MLLs should also know about fire, evacuation, and lockdowns drills commonly held in schools across the country. This should be communicated when the family is registering children for school because any drills are planned for the very first month of school. The noise from the fire alarm can be very frightening to new MLLs if they don’t know what a fire drill is. Consider how an alarm sounds to children who have come from war-torn areas of the world.

A school building may also be evacuated if it becomes unsafe because of a gas leak, lack of electricity, flooding, or other natural disasters. Lockdown drills are held so that students can practice procedures designed to give them ways to protect themselves against a threat, such as an armed intruder.

We can help the families of MLLs support their child’s transition to in-person learning this fall by not taking for granted that they know about some of the routines and procedures that can occur during the first weeks of school. Next month, I will continue to talk about how we can support families whose children are new to the U.S. school experience.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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