What are My Choices? Facilitating Meaningful Conversations with Families of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students during the Disabilities Referral Process

A woman talking to two men and a child at a table.

This article written for Colorín Colorado suggests some ways to communicate productively with diverse families during the special education referral process and emphasizes family and student assets and strengths rather than deficits.

Video bonus: See Lynn, Dr. Alba Ortiz, and Dr. Debbie Zacarian discuss the importance of including ELL families in the special education referral process in the videos below.

Family conferences are a required event when students are being considered for increased levels of academic support in Response to Intervention (RTI) and Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). The ability to frame communication in productive ways, therefore, is especially important when educators are attempting to determine how best to connect with and support culturally and linguistically diverse students who may have learning differences, especially those who may require an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 Plan.

If the goal is to engage in meaningful communication with families about their children’s education, educators’ communication choices may reveal preconceived or even faulty notions about the families’ experience, knowledge, and ability to support their children’s education. As you prepare for your family conference, consider how the communication choices you make might either impede or support the goal of making meaningful communication a reality.

How might my beliefs about families impact communication during meetings?

To paraphrase the essayist Anais Nin, it’s important to make communication choices that allow us to see families as they are, not in terms of who we are – that is, we should be careful about viewing families in terms of the cultural practices that shape our own daily lives or viewing them in terms of generalized assumptions about how “people from this group act.” Are families viewed in terms of deficits or based on the assets that they bring and might contribute?

Here’s how deficit thinking and assets-based thinking about families compares:

Deficit Thinking about Families

Top-down communication places the school as the expert issuing instruction and information without acknowledging the contribution of family.

If we look at families using a deficit lens, we assume that they need to be “fixed” and/or taught to be better parents. This approach frames the student’s learning differences as inconveniences and problematizes both the individual student and the family, with implied subtexts such as, “If only this child were better behaved or tried harder, this child wouldn’t have learning challenges at school” or “If only this family did a better job at home, this child would be better prepared for school.” Using this lens, conferences become a vehicle for communicating how the school will be fixing student and family deficits. In the table below, we show examples of communication using this lens which can create an atmosphere of debate.

Communication in such cases is often one-way, from the school to the family, and can come across as patronizing to the family. How much do we truly accomplish when we talk AT families, rather than WITH them?

Asset-Based Views about Families

Collaborative communication places the school and the family on equal ground acknowledging the valuable contributions of both parties.

If we look at families as a resource, we recognize that families not only possess knowledge about their children, but also that they can support their children’s learning. Through this lens, conferences are seen as opportunities to learn more about the strengths and resources each child brings from home and assumes that families can contribute to their children’s education and enrich school communities. Trained interpreters can also provide valuable assistance in helping educators choose culturally-appropriate ways to communicate with families who speak a language other than English.

By approaching family conferences as an opportunity for dialogue, educators can learn more about student strengths, parent concerns and hopes, and obtain more information to connect with the linguistic and cultural resources each student brings to school.  When educators and families work together to create a collaborate plan of action, students are likely to receive more accurately-targeted support both at school and at home. In the table below, we show examples of communication using this lens which can open the doorway to dialogue.

What communication choices might I make during meetings?

It is important to take time to evaluate how you communicate with families during school meetings. One concrete step that avoids perpetuating stereotypes is to embed opportunities for dialogue throughout meetings with families—that is, to provide time and space during the conference to seek out information that provides a window into each student’s unique strengths interests, aspirations, and experiences.

The thinking map below offers examples of three types of communication commonly used in conferences with families. Communication with families often begins with a description of school processes. From there, moving left to right, the educator can decide whether to frame follow-up topics in the conversation as debate or as dialogue.

It shows what a family conference might sound like if you begin with a description and then, as the meeting facilitator, choose whether to guide the conversation either toward debate or toward dialogue.

Begin with a Descriptionand then...Choose DebateorDialogue

[Describes the intervention process]

Our school has additional support staff available to help students when it seems like they might need additional help with [subject area or skill]. To be able to use these services, we need to meet with you to obtain your permission.


[Defends assumption as truth and leaves no space for questions or differences in opinion]

Based on the data we’ve collected at school, our school team has decided to refer your child for [a specific intervention]. We need to have you sign the approval form.


[Reveals assumptions as basis for reevaluation]

At school, we keep seeing [this specific] pattern in your child’s school work. As part of the process we will use, we would like to ask you questions about what you see at home and allow you to consider different options. Have you noticed this at home? One option is to provide additional services to help your child. How would you feel about this?

[Describes what interventions have been tried]

An instructional aide has been working with your child two days a week as additional support for this skill. Your child is still not demonstrating an understanding.


[Winning is the goal]

I’ve shown your child the correct way to do this skill. Please have him practice this skill at home. We need you to do more to support your child at home.



[Building understanding is the goal]

We’ve been learning how to [concept or skill]. Your child seems to be having difficulty with it. Has your child expressed frustration with this to you? If I provide you with some activities to do at home, do you think that would help?


[Describes possible outcomes]

We are using a research based approach to teaching this [subject area or skill]. This means we are [describe approach].



[Wholehearted investment in one’s beliefs]

I have been teaching [subject area or skill] for 10 years. This is the best way to teach this subject matter. Your child needs to learn how to listen and learn like other students.



[Suspending one’s beliefs]

Research indicates there is a wide range of normal development. Is there a way your child learns best so we can try a different approach?

If I provide you with some activities to do at home, do you think that would help?


[Describes behavior in the classroom]

Teachers often need to re-explain the directions to your child.



[Countering a position; belittling, no focus on feelings]

Your child doesn’t listen well to directions or chooses to interpret the task in his own way. We frequently have to re-explain tasks to your child or give warnings. This takes time away from other students.



[Real concern for other person; not offending]

Your child is imaginative and sometimes has a difficult time following instructions for tasks. Are there things you do at home to help him/her remember the steps to complete things or tasks? What do you suggest we try?


[Describes support services offered]

I provide additional support to your child. Your child is also working with an instructional aide three days a week in a small group.


[Oppositional; attempt to provide other side wrong]

I’m doing so much for your child already each day. I don’t have time to do more. There are other children in the class too.


[Collaborative; seeking common understanding]

Are there types of support that you have seen in the past that have worked well with your child? When you’re at home, what does he like to learn and talk about?

[Describes the decision-making process]

The data shows your child meets the requirements for services. By signing this form, you agree to the services we told you about today.



Our decision is final. You can accept the services we’ve offered today or, if not, we will note in our files that you refused our offer.



Today we talked about several options. I completely understand if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed and need time to think about this, or time to speak to someone else for advice. Is it okay if I call you in a day or two to see if you have questions or made a decision?

Debate vs. Dialogue adapted from Berman, S. (n.d.): http://history.furman.edu/benson/hst321/DialogVsDebate.pdf and used as part of a facilitator training curriculum developed by InterFaith Works of Central New York.


Final Thoughts

It has been our experience that families benefit from clear descriptions of school processes and respectful dialogue. As meeting facilitators, educators play a central role in guiding the direction in which the meeting conversation develops. We hope this short essay helps you consider some of the facilitation options that are at your disposal to foster meaningful communication with families.

More video from these experts:

About the Authors

Lynn Shafer Willner is an ELD Standards and Accessibility Researcher on the WIDA Standards Team. Previously, she taught ESOL at Bailey’s Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences in the Fairfax County (VA) Public Schools. She developed and researched state EL accommodations guidelines while working at The George Washington University and then led the development of the ELPA21 ELP Standards while working at WestEd.

Mira Monroe is an Accessibility Specialist on the WIDA Assessment Team. Previously, she taught Special Education in several Colorado school districts and worked on the Colorado Department of Education Assessment Team as the Special Education Consultant.

Lorena Mancilla is a Standards Framework Specialist on the WIDA Standards Team. She currently serves as the lead developer of family engagement initiatives at WIDA and is completing her PhD in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research focuses on family engagement practices that address students’ language learning and development.


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