Strengthening Partnerships with ELL Families: 15 Strategies for Success

Mother looking at laptop with son

Learn how schools can build off the successes and lessons they have learned on how to partner and engage with multilingual families in their community.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided numerous reminders of how crucial school-family partnerships are. For many schools, their partnerships with families of English language learners (ELLs) are stronger than ever as they use new tools and strategies for outreach and communication.

Here are some ideas we have compiled from our advisors and audience to build effective, lasting partnerships with multilingual families. Special thanks to the following contributors to this article:

  • Kristina Robertson, EL Administrator (Roseville Public Schools, MN)
  • Becky Corr, EL Educator & Language, Culture, and Equity Team Lead (Douglas County Schools, CO)
  • Debbie Zacarian, EL Researcher and Author

Keeping Families Informed

1. Ensure that families have current information about COVID-19 and the Delta variant.

Make sure families have up-to-date information about COVID-19, including:

  • health updates about the Delta variant
  • safety practices such as masking, social distancing, and the benefits of outdoor activities
  • how to access vaccines for themselves or their children
  • any related updates to vaccines
  • what they should do if a child has symptoms of COVID-19.

For ideas on how to support multilingual health outreach to families, see some examples from Brockton, MA below.

Questions about masks and vaccines

Many families may be getting multiple messages related to masking; the ongoing changes around mask policies at local and state levels may also cause some confusion. Ensure that families not only have the most accurate information about mask policies but that they understand the reasons for masking indoors, how to wear masks safely, and what kinds of masks are best. Families may also continue turning to schools for their questions about COVID-19 vaccines, especially as younger children become eligible to be vaccinated.

2. Ensure that families have all the updates they need about school schedules and their child's instruction.

Families have a legal right to receive information in their home language from the school. It is imperative to ensure that all families have current information about:

  • school schedules
  • changes to the school schedule or calendar and/or school closures (and how those will be communicated to families)
  • their child's schedule and classes
  • how to track their child's progress
  • how to access technology devices, platforms, and internet connections
  • special services such as ESL, special education, or gifted programs
  • school safety measures
  • transportation
  • registration for school meals.

3. Include bilingual cultural liaisons as an integral part of family outreach.

Bilingual, bicultural liaisons bring invaluable insider knowledge and perspectives about multilingual students and families. They often have earned the trust of families in the district and prove to be a valuable source of information and support for families — an investment that pays for itself many times over. Liaisons will also have important insights on how best to engage with multilingual families and should be brought into key decision-making conversations early. Kristina notes, "It's critical to send every family communication to liaisons because they need to know what information families are receiving and how to answer questions accurately."

4. Ensure that families and educators are familiar with language support options.

In order to facilitate better communication across languages, it is important for everyone to know what the options are for translation and interpretation. These options may include district interpreters and/or a language hotline. Some districts are also sending brief updates through texting translation apps such as Talking Points. (Keep in mind that these are best for short messages and not for official documents or meetings that need to be translated, such as IEP meetings.)

Staff and families alike need information about these resources. Providing an overview of how to get language support in families' home languages is a helpful first step in encouraging better communication.

For additional information, see this summary of interpreting/translation resources, as well as our related article on best practices for collaborating with interpreters. You can also see examples of how Douglas County, CO has compiled its multilingual resources in this county-wide guide.

 

Video: Language access for multilingual families

What does appropriate language access mean for multilingual families? Dr. Jennifer Love shares her perspectives on this important question.

5. Encourage families to ask questions early and often.

In order to provide more opportunities for families to ask their questions and share their concerns:

  • Let families know that their questions are welcome and important to have answered.
  • Ensure that cultural liaisons and interpreters are available at meetings.
  • Leave time in parent meetings for Q&A, whether you are with a group or with a single family member.
  • End meetings with questions such as: Is there anything that you would like to discuss that we have not yet discussed?
  • Follow up with cultural liaisons to find out if there are other concerns or questions that have not been addressed.

Becky writes, "Coffee chats are a great way to do this in a small group as well. Liaisons sometimes host coffee chats that are smaller where parents might feel more comfortable asking questions." Becky also shares this helpful vignette from a school district in Colorado that is using coffee chats to engage families.

Creating a two-way dialogue

The more informed school staff and leaders are about families' questions and concerns, the more effectively the school can address them. Schools can do this by creating multiple pathways for communication and feedback. In addition, some families may not wish to ask their questions publicly, especially if those questions relate to issues such as bias, discrimination, or immigration. This is another way in which cultural liaisons can play a pivotal role in facilitating communication.

For example, in the video below, Principal Victor Tam addresses anti-Asian bullying and violence — a significant concern among Asian American communities as schools reopen.

Video: How school leaders can respond to anti-Asian bullying and violence

Principal Victor Tam urges school leaders to consider how the rise in anti-AAPI violence during COVID-19 impacts their students and families — and how to respond as a leader in the community.

What Worked (and What Didn't)

6. Build on your successes.

Throughout the pandemic, schools and families have learned many lessons about how to collaborate. Celebrate successes and build from them to create more successes! Start a conversation with colleagues to discuss the strengths and successes experienced.

Here are some suggested questions to support this dialogue:

  • What are the most valuable lessons that we've learned in partnering with families?
  • What modes of communication have been the most helpful for partnering with families?
  • What are some of the specific successes that we've had?
  • How might we build on what we've learned to strengthen our partnerships with families?
  • Whom might we contact to strengthen our partnerships (such as other families, community partners, family community members, and school-based colleagues)?
  • Are there any colleagues we should celebrate for their work with ELLs?

 

 

7. Talk about what needs strengthening and why.

It helps to get the conversation started on a positive note; however, it's just as important to acknowledge what needs strengthening and revising. Perhaps the school tried a platform that didn't work well for families, or not enough information was available in their home languages to support technology at home. Here are some questions to guide your discussion:

  • What are some of the key lessons learned?
  • How can we build from the lessons we learned to build successful partnerships with families?
  • What is an area of growth in our ELL family partnerships or engagement?
  • What are our priorities?

Kristina adds, "What do we need to start, stop, or do more of to ensure effective communication and strong partnerships with multilingual families? We do not want to revert to two conferences each year for check-ins. We also don't want to lose urgency when everyone is back in person. Figure out what you'll commit to and keep checking your progress."

8. Ask families for their input on what worked...or didn't.

It's also important to gain input from families. Consider holding small focus groups, collaborating with family liaisons, and continuing to use online platforms for family meetings. Many families got used to these kinds of meetings and can attend more easily with better linguistic access. Kristina recommends using focus groups instead of surveys. She writes, "We have cultural liaisons call and ask the questions or do a focus group, which works well. Not to mention that all parents are 'surveyed out.'"

9. Consider new tools you might try.

Many schools used new tools during remote learning that can continue to provide value. Some successful ideas that we have heard about include the following — you can read more about these ideas in How to Use Technology to Engage Multilingual Families:

  • Translation texting apps: Apps like Talking Points are greatly helpful for quick, informal check-ins. These can make a huge difference in keeping the lines of communication open.
  • Family meetings on Facebook and Zoom: Many schools have found that holding virtual meetings has increased family engagement because it removes the challenges of transportation and child care. If recordings are posted, families can also access the archive at their convenience.
  • Interpreter cards: These cards display a bilingual message saying "I need an interpreter" in English and the family's language. In some districts, the phone number of a language line is also printed on the card. You can see some examples on this Minnesota state website.
  • Videos in the families' languages: Videos that can be posted and shared are greatly helpful for their child’s education and building engaged family-school partnerships. These videos can include information from the school or teacher that families need to know.

A note on privacy

Families may have questions and concerns about privacy when using technology. Please take a look at these privacy and security considerations for ELLs and immigrant families if you are considering using any of the above tools.

 

Building Strong Partnerships

10. Build relationships with families.

Look for ways to connect with families and build relationships. Find out their interests and talents. The stronger the relationship is in the early stages, the easier it is to address challenges during the year. This also increases your chances of learning what students have been through during the pandemic so far without asking direct personal questions.

Debbie shares the following list of family questions from Beyond Crises: Overcoming linguistic and cultural inequities in communities, schools and classrooms, a book she co-wrote with Margarita Calderón and Margo Gottlieb:

1. What makes your child special?

2. What are your child's hopes and dreams? What are activities/interests that they look forward to doing in and outside of school?

3. What are some things you enjoy about your child?

4. What are some special talents and skills you would like me to know about your child?

5. What are things you enjoy doing as a family? What is something you have done together during COVID-19?

6. We want our in-person, remote and hybrid learning spaces to be a welcoming place for you and your child. What would make the experience of being involved with your child's school experiences more enjoyable?

7. What special talents or interests would you consider sharing with the students in your child's class or with other students' families?

8. What are your hopes and dreams for your child's education and future?

Video: Using parent letters

Teacher Clara Gonzales-Espinoza also uses a similar strategy in her parent letter at the beginning of each year.

11. Brainstorm a list of students' and families' strengths.

Even though many educators and families will feel a strong sense of urgency about this coming year, it’s important not to lose sight of students and family strengths, as well as some of the benefits that students may have experienced during remote learning (such as increased exposure to their home language and culture).

One way to highlight these strengths is to make discussion of student and family strengths a regular part of meetings and conversations related to ELL students, whether those are between two colleagues or among larger groups of staff (including teachers who don't currently teach ELLs). Take a moment to ask colleagues to share a success story, even if it's a small detail. This drumbeat of focusing on strengths can help positively impact the culture of the school.

It's important to note that the kinds of strengths we notice, identify, and value are often influenced by our culture. Be sure to engage families and cultural liaisons in conversations about what they consider strengths in their culture. Kristina adds, "There are many culture-based strengths educators can leverage in their work with families. These might include strong interdependence to support each other and each other's children, strong belief in education, and pride in their child's achievement."

A note on cultural perspectives

In addition, how families and schools interact in other cultures may be quite different than in the U.S. For example, a teacher may be so revered that a family would not think to take initiative to ask any questions of the teacher. Take some time to learn what these interactions are like, how they may be impacting families' engagement with the school, and how they relate to what the school is expecting of families. You can see more in the following resources:

Video: Our parents value education and their children's teachers

ELD Specialist Diana Alqadhi explains how the fact that teachers are held in high esteem in Yemeni culture helps strengthen family partnerships at her middle school.

Social-Emotional Support

12. Look for ways to make social-emotional support culturally responsive.

Focus on culturally responsive ways to support students' social and emotional (SEL) growth and development by:

  • pulling a team of counselors, family liaisons, and family members together to discuss priority topics
  • asking how these topics might be addressed in a culturally relevant/sensitive way
  • asking the team to share any special considerations or nuances that the school should know
  • inviting family members to share their ideas on topics that might be addressed
  • finding resources and strategies that families can also use at home.

In addition, it's important to keep all families up to date on the kinds of topics, lessons, and skills that will be discussed in your school or district's SEL efforts. Kristina notes, "Federal ESSER funds are available to address pandemic recovery needs. Many districts have invested in additional mental health services, chemical dependency counseling, and bilingual liaisons."

13. Ensure that families understand how the school is supporting students' social-emotional well-being.

It's important for all families to have information about the school's social-emotional supports. For multilingual families, however, it is even more important to ensure that information about these efforts and supports are translated accurately in culturally sensitive ways. For example, focusing on wellness is often a more positive and inviting entry into these topics. Our common use of terms like "mental health" or "social-emotional health" should be explained and translated with care. Kristina notes, "If these terms/program names are not defined or are translated poorly, it could make it sound like a child has major psychological issues, or a parent could interpret the child's anxiety as a poor reflection of their parenting."

Make sure that families know:

  • what supports or initiatives are available and what they entail
  • which programs or supports are available to all students (for example, in a classroom setting) or which are individual services
  • how to contact family-school liaisons, outreach workers, and other designated personnel who work with families
  • resources for addressing stress, anxiety, trauma, or abuse at school or in the community.

 

14. Talk with families about the transition back to school.

Ask families to share questions, concerns, and ideas about helping their child transition to school. You may wish to invite a guest speaker (such as a community service partner) to talk about important topics such as:

  • talking with children about their feelings and questions
  • addressing their anxiety
  • preparing for separation fears
  • setting up a new routine
  • tips for staying calm, expressing feelings, and dealing with stress
  • being honest about uncertainty and challenges
  • when to seek help from a doctor or counselor.

Related resources

You can see more ideas in How to Support Your Child’s Social-Emotional Health: 8 Tips for Families. This article is available in English and Spanish, with additional languages coming soon.

15. Help families connect with each other.

Families can benefit from connecting with each other to share questions, concerns, and ideas. Many families have robust networks amongst themselves, so before you try to connect families, find out if they already are connected and how you might tap into these networks!

Talk with families about what might work for their schedule and location. Some may wish to have regular video chats with each other, while others may wish to have a place to post questions at their convenience such as a texting group. You may also wish to see if a parent volunteer can coordinate this.

Closing Thoughts

This year will be filled with new opportunities and new challenges. The good news is that we are much better prepared to meet those challenges than we were at the beginning of the pandemic. Through strong school-family partnerships, schools will continue to find ways to navigate these uncharted waters and do their best on behalf of all students and families in the school community.

Discussion Questions

1. What are some reflection questions mentioned in the article that you might discuss with your team?

2. What is an idea from the article you would like to try?

3. How can focusing on student and family strengths change the culture in your school setting?

4. What are your big takeaways from the article?

 

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