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Exploring special education for English language learners and their families


Many students and families face challenges throughout the special education process. But English language learners (ELLs) and their families face specific barriers. And these barriers dramatically impact their education journeys and their access to services that support learning and thinking differences like ADHD and dyslexia

As families and children settle back into school routines, all students are dealing with changes in pandemic protocols, pressures of “catching up” academically, and the stress of global conflict. But ELLs also face day-to-day challenges related to cultural and language differences at school. Parent-teacher collaboration is a powerful tool in helping these children thrive — but according to the Understood and UnidosUS 2021 Back to School Study, nearly 50 percent of Hispanic/Latino parents don’t know how to start conversations with educators about learning challenges they see in their children.

Earlier this year at SXSW EDU,, UnidosUS, and Juliana Urtubey, NBCT, an expert and the Council of Chief State School Officers 2021 National Teacher of the Year, dug into the barriers that Latino families face — and what educators must keep in mind when guiding these students and families through special education. According to Urtubey, it’s crucial for educators to understand that there are many cultural understandings around disabilities. This can be a barrier that impacts educational experiences for ELLs and their families. 

“Different cultures may have different perceptions, definitions, and expectations about disabilities. For example, people in many Latin American countries use the term disabilities to mean a visible disability. So when a parent hears their child is struggling with reading, a learning difference like dyslexia may not seem like an obvious disability,” Urtubey said. “It’s critical for educators to talk with English as a second language teachers, family liaisons, or interpreters to understand different families’ perspectives of disabilities. This will help them build trusting and close relationships with the student’s family and co-construct meaning around the child’s strengths and needs.”

Jose Rodriguez, director of parent and community engagement at UnidosUS, also shared that cultural differences often lead to misalignment in parents’ and the school’s expectations of one another.

“Many Latino parents feel their primary responsibility is ensuring their children attend school, and that teachers’ responsibility is ensuring their child succeeds academically,” Rodriguez said. “In reality, teachers need support from families to build on classroom learning at home, especially with students who learn and think differently. Aligning on family and school expectations early in the IEP process will create more understanding, consistency, and support for the child and all of their caregivers.”

Other barriers, like mutual language gaps and immigration considerations, are also prevalent for ELLs and their families during the IEP process. This is especially true for recent immigrants.’s associate director of thought leadership, Brittney Newcomer, emphasized that families learning about special education services need access to jargon-free documents in their home language. According to the Back to School Study, nearly half (44 percent) of Hispanic/Latino parents struggle to find Spanish-language resources on learning and thinking differences. 

Urtubey, Rodriguez, and Newcomer shared a range of recommendations to help foster parent-teacher collaboration, including:

  • Creating opportunities for Latino families to participate in the school community regardless of language

  • Celebrating students’ strengths and “linguistic giftedness,” as Urtubey puts it

  • Ensuring that educators create welcoming environments

  • Making sure that families feel comfortable, heard, and valued during the IEP process so that they’re truly granting the school consent 

But their number one recommendation for all? Approaching ELLs and their families with empathy. 

Empathy begins with all of us learning more about each other’s lives and experiences. Start by listening to real perspectives and stories of immigrant families on this episode of The Opportunity Gap, an podcast. And check out the resources below for more insight on the nuanced approaches that schools and educators must take to effectively support ELLs and Latino families. 

Together, we can shape the world for difference.

Resources for educators

Resources for families 

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