If you are a school leader who is new to working with English language learners (ELLs) and their families, you have an exciting and unique opportunity before you! Such students and families bring a wealth of diverse perspectives, resources, experiences, cultures, and strengths to your school community. As a school leader, you and your leadership team have a significant role in providing an environment where all ELLs and their families feel welcome and a sense of belonging.
Here are several strategies and practices to support your partnerships with ELL families. They have been drawn from our work with administrators at the school and district level, ELL specialists, family liaisons, community partners, and researchers. We have embedded recommended videos and resources throughout the article, and we also offer a list of priority strategies and reflection questions at the conclusion of this piece. We hope you will bookmark this article and return to it as you become more familiar with the various aspects of this work.
Special thanks to Dr. Debbie Zacarian for her contributions to this article.
Communicating with Families
1. Ensure that families have the information they need in their home language.
Families have a legal right to information in their home language, and your district has a legal obligation to provide all families with the language support needed to get that information. (You can learn more about exploring your district's language access options in this related article.)
This is especially critical because many ELL families may not be familiar with the routines and practices used in American public schools. As a result, you may need to think carefully about how to communicate with families and foster a school environment and climate that welcomes families as partners in new ways.
Here are some priority first steps, according to Zacarian & Haynes (2012) and Zacarian, Calderón, & Gottlieb (2021):
1. Seek the language support needed to help families:
- Enroll their child in school and complete the forms required under federal regulation and by your school or district.
- Learn about the school's schedule, including the start and end time, calendar, holidays, what to do in the event of weather and other school closings, and how any changes or updates will be communicated. (This is essential given how fluid the situation with COVID-19 continues to be.)
- Learn about their child's classes, how to track their child's progress, and how to access technology devices, platforms, and internet connections.
- Sign up for any school updates or family portals (keeping in mind that other forms of communication may be preferred, as noted below).
- Share information about their child's prior schooling (e.g., the start and end time of school, any interruptions to their child’s schooling, and other information that will give you a feel for the child's prior learning experiences).
- Share information about how they were involved in their child's prior school or would have liked to be involved.
- Ask their questions and share concerns.
2. Provide families with a tour of the school to help familiarize them with their child’s new learning environment. For example, some schools have created welcoming videos that introduce families and children to their classrooms and school. These often include families and students as part of the school's welcome message.
3. Provide families with information about topics such as:
- how the school is supporting students' well-being
- school meals
- after- and out-of-school activities
- how families are engaged in your school.
A note on immigration
School leaders should ensure that the entire staff understands that all students have a right to a free public K-12 education regardless of immigration status. Staff should never ask students or families any questions related to their immigration status, and front office staff should be clear on which documents are appropriate to request for registration.
- Making Students and Families Feel Welcome
- Engaging ELL Families: 20 Strategies for School Leaders
- How to Support Immigrant Students and Families: Strategies for Schools and Early Childhood Programs
Video: Language access for multilingual families
What does appropriate language access mean for multilingual families? Dr. Jennifer Love, Supervisor of Language Access for Prince George's County Schools in Maryland, shares an overview of this important topic.
2. Find out how (and when) families prefer to communicate.
Sometimes, communicating with multilingual families requires trying new tools and strategies. It's important not to assume that families don't want to engage if you don't hear from them at the beginning. Many ELL families may not use email regularly, and they may be working multiple jobs or shifts in workplaces that have strict rules about phone use.
- Find out how and when families prefer to communicate.
- Consider trying tech tools such as texting apps, translation apps, and Facebook groups or pages.
- Help families learn how to update their emergency contact information.
- Consider reaching out to families' employers to facilitate communication or participation in school events if needed.
Why emergency contact information matters
It is critical to help multilingual families update their emergency contact information. Providing translated contact forms and regular reminders to update contact information are some ways schools can support this effort.
This has been especially important during the pandemic. However, it is important for school leaders to also understand that families may be navigating multiple immigration issues as well and that having a known point of contact available can make a significant difference for what happens to a child if a caregiver is detained or even deported during the school day. To learn more about how schools can support immigrant families, see our in-depth guide on this topic.
- Communicating Important Information with ELL Families: Strategies for Success
- How to Use Technology to Engage Multilingual Families
- Communicating with ELL Families: 10 Strategies for Schools
Video: Partnering with families in the service industry
Juliana Urtubey, the 2021 National Teacher of the Year, talks about the importance of flexibility and good communication when partnering with her students' families in Las Vegas.
Meet the Administrator
These video interviews feature leaders who have extensive ELL experience in their schools and districts.
3. Build relationships with students and families.
When asked, school leaders with extensive ELL experience always come back to the same advice: build relationships. You can do this through the following:
- Look for ways to help families feel welcome, such as posting signs in families’ languages, hanging flags from their home countries, and inviting them to share cultural artifacts for display.
- Ask families about their questions and concerns.
- Provide families with information and opportunities to connect with the school and each other. Potential activities for this purpose include family picnics, coffee with the principal, and before-, during-, and after-school events.
- Keep in mind that virtual events may be easier to access (either live or after the event), especially if families would otherwise have to work or look for child care and transportation.
- Go on some home visits with interpreters so you can meet families in their community.
- Look for ways to start building a culture in which everyone has a role to play in making all families feel welcome. This is a practical approach as well as a welcoming one — if your ELL population is growing, more and more staff will be interacting with ELL families. The more comfortable staff and families feel together, the smoother that transition will be.
- Provide staff with the resources they need to:
- create a positive climate in their classroom
- prevent and address bullying
- create a safe space for all students regardless of culture, language, religion, or immigration status
- encourage hands-on learning (which can give ELLs some early successes) through activities such as art, robotics, Legos ®, and gardening.
- 8 Strategies to Build Relationships with ELLs in Any Environment
- Strengthening Partnerships with ELL Families: 15 Strategies for Success
Video: A warm welcome for immigrant families in the front office
Norieah Ahmed, the Child Accounting Secretary at Salina Elementary School in Dearborn, MI, talks about her role in welcoming newcomer immigrant families to the school from the moment they walk in the door.
4. Celebrate students' and families' strengths.
ELLs are often viewed through a deficit lens and defined by the skill they are still learning — mastering English. This perception often overshadows students' intelligence and talent and it can also impact whether students are offered the opportunity to participate in gifted or advanced programs. In order to reframe this narrative, it's important to learn how to get to know students' and families' strengths, skills, and values.
Video: The gifts that ELLs bring to our schools
Principal Nathaniel Provencio talks about some of the gifts that ELLs bring to schools, including multilingualism and emotional intelligence.
5. Learn more about your unique population of ELs and their families.
Serving Afghan refugee families
If your school is welcoming new refugee families from Afghanistan, please see the following:
Familiarize yourself with information about your ELLs, such as their countries of origin, languages spoken, and amount of time in this country. It's important during this process to do a lot of listening and keep an open mind. Rather than asking students and families direct questions, however, start with the following:
- ask cultural liaisons, ESL/bilingual staff, and community partners to help you to learn about the ELL community
- find out what is working and what you can learn from past successes or challenges.
If this is a new EL community at your school:
- talk with other school leaders, family liaisons, and community partners who serve the same community
- invite a family liaison or member of the community to share cultural considerations with the staff around communication, educational practices in families' home countries, and gender roles.
As you build stronger relationships with students and families, you will learn more about their past experiences and which topics they feel comfortable discussing.
Video: Partnering with Indigenous families
Dr. Karen Woodson shares some valuable lessons she learned about partnering with families from Guatemala who speak indigenous languages.
6. Learn about ELLs' prior experiences.
Some English learners have had prior schooling and literacy learning experiences that are similar to that of their English fluent peers, while others have not. In addition, some have experienced the same epic amount of childhood adversity as their peers including abuse, neglect, and household challenges, while others have experienced civil strife and natural disasters in their home countries, significant interruptions to their education, living in chronic fear of deportation, being unaccompanied minors, and more.
The more you understand about your students' prior experiences, challenges, and resilience in meeting these challenges, the more effective your partnerships with students and families will be within your school community.
- Using a Strengths-Based Approach with ELs: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress
Video: When loud noises in school cause post-traumatic stress
Principal Susan Stanley talks about the impact of loud noises on young children who have come from war-torn regions of their home countries, and how the staff addresses their post-traumatic stress.
7. Learn about the cultural norms related to education in your students' home countries.
Keep in mind that many ELLs and their families come from collectivist cultures and favor harmony and relationships over individualism. In general, students and families from countries other than the United States and Western Europe represent this cultural "way of being." Students from this type of culture work best when they can form a relationship with the group as they are. They are "we" rather than "I" oriented. These factors are urgently important for all teachers and administrators to know (Zacarian & Haynes, 2012).
At the same time, 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 ask any questions of the teacher. Take some time to learn what these interactions are like in your students' countries of origin, how they may be impacting families' engagement with the school, and how they relate to your expectations for families.
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.
8. Identify community partners.
Community partners can provide invaluable support in your work with ELLs, not only for cultural and social connections but for creative ideas on how to address important issues or challenges that families are facing around health care, housing, and immigration. Community partners can also increase families' access to tutoring, enrichment programs, ESL and GED classes, and other opportunities in your region.
Video: How community schools work
Principal Mark Gaither explains the community school strategy and how to start building partnerships from the ground up.
9. Provide families with health and safety information in their languages.
Schools have been a critical source of public health information for families during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ensure that families have information in their home languages about:
- COVID-19 and variant updates
- safety practices such as masking, social distancing, and the benefits of outdoor activities
- how to access vaccines and any related updates to vaccines
- what they should do if a child has symptoms of COVID-19.
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
- 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.
10. Learn more about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on EL/immigrant families.
It’s important to understand how the pandemic has impacted your families. Find out from family liaisons, other school leaders, and community partners what you can about the pandemic’s toll on your families and what kinds of supports might be available locally to increase support. It's also critical to ensure that families have culturally appropriate information about social-emotional supports at the school.
- How COVID-19 Is Impacting ELL and Immigrant Families
- "Mental health comes first": A Principal Shares Her Priorities During COVID-19
Video: Social-emotional support for immigrant students during COVID-19
Nathaniel Provencio (featured above and now speaking as an Associate Superintendent) talks about the impact of COVID-19 on his district's immigrant families, as well as the importance of social-emotional support for students during this time.
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.
You may feel as though you are starting from scratch, but there are quite a number of resources already at your disposal — including the resources your own students, families, and staff themselves bring.
Take a deep breath. Remember that, as a school leader, you can have a significant impact on creating a school where ELLs succeed. It may seem hard to believe, but it won’t be long before you will be the one on the other end of the line providing advice to the next leader calling with questions about their ELLs. Bon voyage!
- What are your major takeaways from this article?
- Who is one person you can contact to start gathering more information?
- What is an idea you can put into practice this week? Next month? By the end of this school year?
- What is a topic you would like to learn more about after reading this article?