Whenever we ask veteran educators of English language learners (ELLs) the secret to their success, the answer is almost always the same: Build relationships with students and their families.
Relationships establish trust and improve communication. They help us better understand students’ strengths and needs, which is especially important for ELLs. If you’re new to working with English language learners, you may wonder how to partner with families who come from other countries and speak different languages.
Here are six ideas to help you get started. As you read, look for one or two small steps that you might try with families this year.
1. Create a welcoming space for families.
Imagine what it’s like for immigrant families to enter your school or classroom. Do families see something familiar to them, like signs in their language or objects from their culture? Are books available in their home language? Small gestures can go a long way toward saying, “You are welcome here. We want your child to thrive.”
Strategies for creating welcoming spaces:
- Make your classroom walls family-friendly. Start by hanging a bilingual welcome sign. Put up maps from students’ home countries and photos that reflect the students in your class. To make sure the images are authentic and relatable, check with colleagues who share those same cultures. Or ask your students to help pick the images.
- Learn a new word or phrase in a family’s home language that may help students and their families feel welcome in your classroom.
- Share ideas and collaborate with your administrator about schoolwide practices that help families of ELLs and immigrant students feel welcome.
- Step into their shoes for a moment. Take a look at this school form in Arabic to get a sense of what it’s like to be presented with information in a language you can’t read.
2. Get to know your students.
Getting to know English language learners will give you essential information about them. If you suspect a student learns and thinks differently, you’ll especially want a complete picture of the student. To navigate the special education process with families, you’ll need their trust. This may be easier to earn if you’ve developed a caring relationship with their child.
Strategies for getting to know your students:
- Look for informal opportunities to spend time together, like during lunch.
- Learn about students’ strengths, talents, and interests. Ask students to complete a questionnaire about their interests. If they can’t complete it by themselves in English, try to find a classmate or a bilingual staff member to help. Or they can cut out pictures from magazines to make collages about themselves.
- Start to collect the 10 pieces of information you need to learn about your English language learners.
- Talk with colleagues who already have relationships with your students, such as bilingual staff, ESL teachers, counselors, or teachers from previous years. Ask them what they know about students’ culture, language, academics, and social-emotional learning. Discuss students’ strengths and needs, particularly around learning and thinking differences.
3. Build relationships with families.
Developing a partnership with your students’ families may take some creativity and flexibility on your part, but it’s well worth it. Families of English language learners can bring great skills, talents, and strengths to your school. They’re likely to have deep reserves of strength, resilience, and resourcefulness. But these resources might go unnoticed if no one is looking for them.
Families who are new to this country may have many questions about education. They may wonder about topics like class schedules, events, celebrations, and homework. And when it comes to special services, families may not understand what special education is or does. They may want information about referrals, testing, identification, support, and their rights and roles. By building a relationship early, you can help families feel more comfortable talking about these topics.
Strategies for building relationships with families:
- Rather than waiting for families to come to you, go to where they are. Find out if there are times families are already coming to the school, like before or after school. Make a point to connect with them at those times for informal chats to share positive updates.
- Find out about families’ skills and hobbies. Consider that many immigrant families have worked in prestigious careers in their home countries.
- Avoid asking direct, personal questions, which may make families uncomfortable. Instead, ask open-ended questions. You could ask about a favorite food, community activity, or how their experience with the school is going so far.
- To improve communication, give families plenty of ways — in-person conversations, emails, notes — to ask questions and share concerns. Some families may choose not to discuss much at all. As you get to know families better, others may share important insights about issues facing their community.
- Keep your eyes and ears open in the classroom and around the school. Learn from colleagues who already know the families.
I have yet to meet a family that is uninterested in the well-being of their child. —Juliana Urtubey, 2019–2020 Understood Mentor Teacher Fellow and 2021 National Teacher of the Year
4. Check your assumptions.
Immigrant families might not always take part in traditional school activities. But don’t assume they’re uninterested in their child’s education.
Immigrant families have often made tremendous sacrifices to give their kids a better future. They may have endured hardship, danger, and family separation. They often continue to face difficult conditions once in this country.
At the same time, immigrant families may come from countries with different expectations of the family’s role in education. For example, in many Latin American countries, families see the teacher as an authority figure and sole provider of academics.
The concept of a “school-family partnership” may be new to some immigrant families. They may not know about parent-teacher conferences and may avoid them if they think they or their child might be in trouble. This is especially true if they’ve experienced a traumatic event like family separation.
Strategies for checking assumptions:
- Ask families to describe the role they played in their child’s schooling in their home country. This may open a rich discussion about the differences between your cultures.
- When explaining the “school-family partnership” in the United States, don’t list off strict requirements. Instead, focus on how your school welcomes family input.
- To better understand family expectations, ask about their dreams for their child’s future. For example, Albuquerque teacher Clara Gonzales-Espinoza invites her students' families to write her a letter. She asks them to share their hopes for their child, as well as details about their child’s personality, interests, and strengths. The letter starts off the year on a positive note and yields important insights about the family, too.
5. Get to know your language resources.
Schools are legally obligated to share information in a language that families understand. Keep in mind that if families have lower levels of literacy, written documents (even translated ones) won’t be as useful as personal conversations.
If families of English language learners are also navigating the special education process, you’ll need even more support in place. Families need to understand technical details to take part in all conversations and decisions. They also need to understand their rights, the implications of the special education process, and how the school can support their child.
Strategies for getting to know language resources:
- Families need access to easy-to-read, jargon-free documents in their home language. Check with your school or district to find out what documents have already been translated and what service you could use for new documents. Your ESL colleagues may also be a valuable source of information about this topic.
- See if you have access to a bilingual interpreter, family liaison, or paraprofessional (at the school or district level) to help with communication.
- Find out if you can access a language hotline for interpreters.
- If you have concerns about families’ access to information, reach out to your school’s administrators with questions and ideas.
These communication strategies are all preferable to relying on students as translators. When a student serves as a translator, you put them in an uncomfortable position. You expose them to confidential information and increase the chances of miscommunication. The student may not have the language to interpret everything. (There is also the possibility that the meaning might “change” along the way, as in the case of a teacher whose student told a parent that “F” was for “Fantástico.”)
6. Think outside the box.
Families may be working multiple jobs at all hours and may not have opportunities to communicate while they are working. They may also be struggling with childcare, transportation, or meeting basic needs. So if families can’t attend school events, try something different.
Immigrant families may also be living with great levels of uncertainty about immigration policies. They may be anxious about entering the school building, providing identification and personal information, or signing documents.
Developing sensitivity around these topics can help you think of new ways to partner with families. Here are some ideas that have been successful in other schools.
Strategies for thinking outside the box:
- Ask families when and where they would like to attend events.
- Create events that families can help plan and that take into account certain work shifts.
- Consider options such as meetings at a family’s home, a house of worship, or a public place.
- Try group parent-teacher conferences. At these meetings, parents and caregivers hear the same general information. Then they meet with teachers for short, private conferences. Families can learn from each other’s questions and may feel more comfortable in a group (especially if they come from a culture that has a group-minded orientation, as opposed to a more individual orientation like the United States).
- Learn more from How to Support Immigrant Students and Families: Strategies for Schools and Early Childhood Programs.
Partnering with English language learners and their families is not always easy, but it’s worth the effort. Often, these families are underserved and underestimated as schools learn how to best meet their needs. Your efforts, no matter how big or small, can have a tremendous impact. And before you know it, you’ll see yourself as an advocate for all of your students and their families.
About the author
About the author
Lydia Breiseth, Colorín Colorado is the director of Colorín Colorado, the leading website for educators and families of English language learners.
Claudia Rinaldi, PhD is the Joan Weiler Arnow ’49 Professor at Lasell University, where she serves as chair of the education program.