Guide for Engaging ELL Families: 20 Strategies for School Leaders

Encouraging and Sustaining ELL Parent Engagement

How can schools (and school leaders) "think outside the box" when it comes to the family engagement of ELLs? What has worked for other schools? These strategies appear in Engaging ELL Families: Twenty Strategies for School Leaders.

The following strategies offer tips for thinking creatively about how to engage families around topics or activities that are important to them and their children.

Supporting immigrant families

For related ideas, see the following:

10. Look for ways that ELL parents can help with children's schoolwork

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A. What you need to know

ELL parents may feel intimidated by or unprepared to help with homework or other schoolwork, especially if they have limited educational or English skills (Zarate, 9). You can help them understand their important role in supporting their child's success, however, with a few simple suggestions. (Related video: Reaching out to families, Kevin Eberle)

B. Reflection

What kinds of support do you expect your parents to give their children in terms of schoolwork? What kinds of resources and educational background (and language skills) do parents need in order to give their children that help? What are other ways parents can help?

C. Strategies

Encourage parents to:

  • Provide a place where children can do their homework
  • Check that homework is completed each night
  • Ask their children to tell them about what they learned each day
  • Keep in regular contact with a teacher or staff member about their child's progress
  • Ask teachers about any questions that arise
  • Learn more about homework help programs through before-/after-school programs and the public library
  • Read and tell stories in their native language.

D. Example

  • Marty Izaguirre is an ELL teacher in Okatie, South Carolina. Her elementary school holds Family Literacy Nights, which take place after school every other month and provide working parents with an opportunity to read to their children in both English and Spanish. Once parents come in, they find read-aloud circles (where teachers read books aloud to a small group), as well as areas where they can go and read with their child separately. The variety of activities provided to the parents allows them to join in an activity in which they feel comfortable. Adults and children are allowed time and space to read together. The school also provides an opportunity for parents and children to create their own special bookmark as they enjoy some refreshments. The events offer parents an opportunity to meet other parents, show their children the importance of reading, and learn how to support literacy development at home (Izaguirre, 2006).

11. Look for ways that ELL parents can participate and volunteer

A. What you need to know

There are a number of ways to include parents in the school community and to bring them together with other families at the school. This might include school visits, volunteering, or activities that draw upon their skills and hobbies.

B. Reflection

How likely are ELL parents at your school to sign up for events or volunteer? Do they know about all of the opportunities at the school? Are there certain events or places in the school where your active parents tend to gather? Do you know what skills and talents they might have to offer?

C. Strategies

  • Invite parents to visit the school and their child's classroom regularly (Houk, 66).
  • Invite parents to speak with their child's class about their native country, a hobby, or their job.
  • Encourage teachers to have an inviting activity ready for visiting parents.
  • Encourage parents to volunteer in the classroom, main office, lunchroom, or library; during events or field trips; or in a student club or after-school program (Meyers, 45). (Keep in mind that volunteering may include simple things like preparing items for an activity — such as cutting out shapes and organizing supplies.)
  • Find out what your parents' skills and hobbies are, and look for ways to draw on their talents.
  • Find ways to bring ELL and non-ELL families together through student performances, a student cultures night, storytelling, workshops, and exhibits (Meyers, 46). Your families might just realize that they have more in common than you — and they — originally thought!

D. Examples

  • Indiana teacher Miriam Soto-Pressley invites the parents of her ELLs into her classroom during reading time. The parents follow along with their children and they learn about read-alouds and how to interact with text. This helps them work with their children at home to increase reading comprehension.
  • A group of Latino parents at a preschool center in Florida who frequently sat outside in the sun waiting for their children each afternoon built a parent gazebo for the center, as well as a butterfly garden (Alvarado, 2010).
  • Following the arrival of a new group of students from El Salvador and Puerto Rico to a school in Massachusetts, a group of teachers decided to organize a school play that would be performed in Spanish. They distributed bilingual flyers to tell parents about auditions and asked parents to help with costumes and refreshments (based on earlier conversations they had had with the parents). On opening night, the auditorium was filled, and the school held multiple performances to accommodate parents' different work schedules. Word soon spread around the community about the play, and the students were invited to perform at other schools. By the final performance, more parent volunteers were participating in the school community than at any other time in the school's history (Zacarian, 119).

12. Think outside the box about parent engagement

A. What you need to know

One of the most important steps in engaging ELL parents is to realize that they may be coming from a very different cultural perspective when it comes to the educational system and their role in their child's education (Houk, 60). This may be due, in part, to:

  • Deep respect for teachers: Many ELLs come from cultures which revere teaching and where the teachers are considered the experts, not the parents. As a result, parents may be reluctant to ask questions so as not to question the teacher's authority, or they may assume that the schools don't want them to "interfere" in their child's education. Upon arrival in the U.S., newcomer parents may wonder why they are suddenly a school partner, and why in fact the school is asking the parent to do the teacher's job. As Betty Alford and Mary Catherine Niño note in Leading Academic Achievement for English Language Learners: A Guide for Principals, you wouldn't expect a doctor to ask the parents which medical procedure they would recommend for their child (80), and ELL parents may feel the same way about what their school is asking them to do.
  • Education vs. educación: These parents are likely to see an entirely different role for themselves in their child's education (Hori, 40). For Latino families, the idea of educación focuses on a child's personal and moral development, which has an important impact on the child's academic development. The authors of Understanding Latino Parental Involvement in Education: Perceptions, Expectations, and Recommendations note that, when asked, "(Latino) parents believed that monitoring their children's lives and providing moral guidance resulted in good classroom behavior, which in turn allowed for greater academic learning opportunities (9)."
  • The group vs. the individual: It's also important to keep in mind that many cultures outside of the U.S. are oriented more towards the group (the family, the class, the society, etc.) than the individual. In their book Managing Diverse Classrooms: How to Build on Students' Cultural Strengths, Carrie Rothstein-Fisch and Elise Trumbull explore this concept as it relates to the Latino ideas of educación:
    One's social behavior in a group (such as the family or the classroom) is of paramount concern; being a respectful contributor to group well-being rather than focusing on one's own achievement is highly valued. So when immigrant Latino parents come for a parent-teacher conference, their first question is likely to be "¿Cómo se porta mi hijo/hija?" ("How is my son/daughter behaving?"). A teacher may find it difficult to stifle her consternation after hearing the same question from 25 or 30 sets of parents, believing that all the parents care about is their child's behavior, when the teacher's goal is to discuss the child's academic progress (13-14).

Nevertheless, what looks like a lack of interest to the teacher actually reflects a deep interest on the part of the parent in the child's personal development and how this will affect the child's ability to be successful in the classroom.

B. Reflection

Make a list of five things you hope or expect that "involved" parents will do at your school. What do parents need to know in order to participate in these events? What challenges might ELL parents face in participating in these events?

C. Strategies

Form small focus groups with ELL parents and an interpreter. Ask the parents:

  • How they define their role in their child's education
  • What their concerns, priorities, and hopes are regarding their child
  • What kinds of events they would be interested in attending
  • The obstacles that discourage them from participating and changes that would help
  • Events where being part of a larger group might make them feel more comfortable.

D. Example

  • Carrie Rothstein-Fisch and Elise Trumbull share the example of a teacher who redesigned her parent-teacher conferences into group conferences for her Latino parents. She divided children by ability levels and met with the parents of children in similar levels at the same time. She also offered both English and Spanish groups. She explained report card formats, grading, her expectations for students, and what parents could do to help. Parents then had the opportunity for a personal consultation after the group discussion. One of the key benefits was that parents' questions helped each other as they felt confident to speak up in a less threatening environment. She saw all twenty-eight parents in three days (62).

13. Consider alternative schedules, locations, and kinds of events

A. What you need to know

Sometimes, when families can't come to the school, the school has to go to the families. Meeting families in other settings such as community centers or churches can provide an informal way to start building a relationship, especially if ELL parents feel shy or nervous about going to the school. In addition, going into the community indicates a strong level of commitment on the part of the school to the families (Alford & Niño, 86). You might also try planning parent or family events around the schedules of the families, especially if they are working a couple of jobs or shifts.

B. Reflection

Do you experience low attendance at family events held at school? Have you ever held any school events in the community? Were they successful? Why or why not?

C. Strategies

  • Visit your students' neighborhoods. Find out where families are congregating and who local community leaders are that can connect you with parents.
  • Collaborate with apartment complex managers to make a recreation room available for families.
  • Plan events in the community and put them on the school calendar before the school year starts, setting aside funds, such as Title I or Title III grants, to provide support for the events.
  • Consider giving parents a few different options for meeting times based on teacher availability.
  • Consider contacting parents' employers about parent schedules or holding conferences closer to parents' workplaces.
  • Don't limit yourself to meetings. Ask your families what kinds of events they would find enjoyable, beneficial, and convenient.
  • Consider group parent-teacher conferences. Families may feel more comfortable in a group, and it can be an efficient option -- you provide the key information once, and then can have brief conversations with individual parents.

D. Examples

  • In Philadelphia, a preschool held a parent meeting in the afternoon for parents who worked in the food service industry in the evening. More than twenty parents (mostly fathers) came to the meeting (Alvarado, 2010) to discuss their children's preschool program.
  • In Oregon, parent liaison Ma'Lena Wirth wrote a letter to her parents' employers, sharing her goals for building a stronger partnership with the families and explaining that most parents couldn't attend conferences due to their work schedule. As a result, the employer agreed to give parents time off for school events if the events started after the employer's busy season.
  • In New York, Susan Lafond held parent-teacher-translator conferences at the food court where her students' parents worked so that parents could take turns coming to meet with her.
  • In Colorado, Becky Corr made an appointment at the salon where her student's father worked with him specifically to talk about the student's college application.
  • In California, a group of teachers organized a meeting for the school's Hmong and Cambodian parents (whose people had been farmers for many generations), in which they would discuss the creation of a new school garden. The teachers were disappointed when just a few parents attended the meeting, and they took that as a sign that there was little interest in the garden. On garden day, however, eighty family members arrived with hoes and dug up the garden in a single day. As one of the parents said, "We don't do meetings. We do gardens" (Ferlazzo, 45).

14. Look for the successes

A. What you need to know

Encourage your staff to look for all of the different ways, big and small, that ELLs' families (including parents, siblings, grandparents, and other relatives) support their children's well-being and education. For example, different relatives may be involved in taking the children to school and picking them up, providing child care, or making sure that they are getting fed and getting a good night's sleep. While we expect all families to manage these responsibilities, ELL families may be going to extraordinary lengths to meet their children's basic needs. In addition, older ELLs have a lot of responsibilities in their family, including working, taking care of siblings, and translating for their parents. What looks like laziness, irresponsibility, or absenteeism may in fact be the result of a lot of responsibility at home.

Some of the successes and strengths of ELL students and families may include:

  • Commitment to the family's well-being
  • High expectations for children
  • Making education a priority
  • Respect for the teacher
  • Good attendance and behavior
  • Well-developed cooperation skills
  • A strong sense of responsibility one's self and others
  • Resourcefulness

Note: ELLs' parents might be largely absent from the picture, whether it's because of difficult work schedules or a family separation (or worse) that happened before moving to this country.

B. Reflection

What is a typical day like for your ELL students? Does that differ from the typical day of your other students? Where are they sleeping? Who is taking care of them? How do they get to school every day? What do they do after school? What challenges are they facing in their daily lives?

C. Strategies

  • Learn what you can about your ELLs' routines (which will vary tremendously), including the responsibilities they have in their families. Share what you learn with your staff (observing confidentiality rules) and encourage your staff to look for all of the ways, big and small, that ELLs' families and extended families are supporting their children's well-being and education.
  • Find out whether these responsibilities are taking a toll on students' school work or health, and if so, brainstorm some ideas with staff members about possible solutions.

D. Examples

  • Susan Lafond notes that her elementary ESL teachers had students whose families brought them to the restaurant or family store where they worked so the children wouldn't be home alone. The kids helped out on the phone or register and did homework until the parents closed for the evening, which was often 9:00 PM or later.
  • Kristina Robertson remembers a 3rd-grade student named Lisbeth. Lisbeth was very conscientious and came to school with neat clothing, clean and braided hair, and notebooks and pencils ready to go. When the staff did home visits, they were welcomed graciously by Lisbeth's parents to their home. In the apartment for a family with four children, the only furniture consisted of two chairs, a kitchen table, and a mattress. The parents spoke about the importance of their children's education and explained that every night they had their children do their homework at that kitchen table even though the parents didn't understand English. The teachers, who had been unaware of the family's limited circumstances, were incredibly moved by what they saw and developed a new appreciation for the parents' commitment to their children's education.
  • Kristina also shares the experience of a 2nd-grade student who was missing school frequently. Kristina soon discovered that she was helping her mom (a single mom) babysit her younger siblings since they didn't have regular childcare. The staff met with the mom and helped her find resources to provide affordable childcare support.
  • Finally, Kristina remembers her high school students who attended school from 7:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.., and then worked from 4:00 p.m. until midnight. All of their money supported their relatives here and in their home country, so they never had extra money (or time) for special activities. Homework was a struggle, but in Kristina's eyes, her colleagues' attitudes were the most difficult challenges to overcome. Once teachers discovered why the students were coming to class so tired and how hard they were working, however, they worked to modify assignments and help the students.



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