Helpful Tips for Welcoming Immigrant Families to School

Group of kinds facing the caera in school classroom

According to data compiled by the Pew Research Center, the number of immigrant families in the United States has been rising steadily since a quota program that restricted immigration was altered in the 1960s. From that point on, millions of people from around the world migrated to America, and today, more than 1 in 8 residents is an immigrant—the highest percentage in more than a century. In terms of the education system, this means that more students than ever have parents who are immigrants, with sources such as the Migration Policy Institute asserting that nearly 25 percent of all children under age 18 fit this description. This begs an important question: What can schools do to extend a welcoming hand to these families?


Get to know the families near you

At the risk of stating the obvious, immigrants are not a monolith. On the contrary, people come to this country with an incredible array of life experiences, native languages, and cultural traditions. Indeed, a 2016 article in Kappan magazine argued that immigrant families have needs and interests as diverse as their backgrounds, with co-authors Jennifer Love and Young-chan Han going on to note that these individuals' “prior educational experiences” are bound to be similarly varied.

Love and Han, who both work in Maryland as family engagement specialists, offered this advice: “To support immigrant families in acclimating to a new school community and to help them become valued partners with the school, educators first must understand who these families are, their needs, and how schools can bridge the linguistic and cultural gaps between homes and schools.” In their experience, typical parental involvement strategies simply won’t work when it comes to building strong networks with immigrant communities. For one thing, parents who went to school in another country may believe that it is in their child’s best interest to remain in the background (and, consequently, out of the way of a teacher’s expertise).


Intervention, interference, or lack of awareness?

A 2018 article in Penn Today—an online journal connected to the University of Pennsylvania—delved deeper into the idea that immigrants may have a different way of supporting their children’s education. In the piece, sociologist Phoebe Ho contended that many teachers view “immigrant and minority parents as less involved in their children’s education” without fully realizing that often, “outside the U.S., school is school and that’s the teachers’ realm, and home is home and that’s the parent’s realm.” Of course, this is by no means a recent revelation; in 1996, Dr. Pam McCollum covered this very topic for the Intercultural Development Research Association’s winter newsletter, acknowledging that while “educators in the United States tend to believe that parents should ideally be interventionists in their children’s learning,” many immigrants “come from cultures where the proper role of a concerned parent is non-­interventionist in nature.”

McCollum also pointed out that immigrant families often have a “basic lack of understanding of the U.S. educational system” in general, as well as what she termed the country's “socially constructed” forms of expected parental involvement. A more recent document from the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition addressed the same idea through the lens of schools eager to optimize interactions with parents originally from Mexico. According to the coalition, these parents may need direct instruction to help them effectively navigate their children’s schools in the U.S., which can vary as widely as those in Mexico. With the aim of improving communication and cooperation between school and home, the document guides school staff through the different expectations and circumstances that Mexican-born parents may carry with them.

A way forward

Love and Han, who penned the Kappan article, recommended a specific strategy called the “Stages of Immigrant Family Involvement”—a method designed to provide explicit guidance to school and community leaders who would like to work more closely with this population. Following this strategy, school leaders should initially identify the stage associated with each immigrant family. According to Love and Han, immigrant families often start as “Cultural Survivors” whose most pressing issue is that of “meeting their families’ basic needs.” This may be thought of as a “new-to-country” stage, where parents are preoccupied with adapting to life in the U.S. while trying to work and support their household. During this period, teachers and support staff can expect parents to be unable to devote much extra time to their child’s schooling.

From this point, many immigrant parents move into the “Cultural Learners” phase. Here, they are often more comfortable with how schools operate in the U.S., especially if they have had access to “trained interpreters and translated documents,” as well as engagement opportunities presented in their native language. Next comes the “Cultural Connectors” stage, where immigrant parents may act as helpful bridge-builders between schools and other immigrant families. Finally, there is the “Cultural Leaders” stage, where immigrant parents are ready to step up and advocate on behalf of themselves, their children, and their wider community. Again, access to opportunity through specialized trainings and programs is important here in order to help parents “sharpen their leadership skills.”

The framework provided by Love and Han could make it easier for school staff to first understand where immigrant families are coming from—both literally and figuratively—and then help them acclimate to U.S. schools. With statistics showing that many of today's students come from immigrant families, getting a handle on how to create a welcoming and culturally responsive environment that fosters more engagement in school should be a top priority for educators and administrators.

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