Connecting With Diverse Families Right from the Start

5 strategies to improve engagement with families of English-language learners.

By Karen N. Nemeth
September 2015, Volume 39, Issue 1

Parent engagement is a positive force in elementary schools, but reaching out to families who speak different languages is not always easy. The heart of truly successful parent engagement is a commitment to connect with each and every family. These strategies for working with families of English-language learners (ELLs) will help you get your school year off to a great start with lasting benefits.

1. First impressions are lasting impressions. A welcoming environment is a positive first step to building relationships with diverse families. Multiple languages on signs, posters, and the school website help parents get the message that diversity is considered an asset. Give multilingual classroom materials a prominent place in displays. Provide training for every member of your staff so every encounter with families will be respectful and welcoming. Post lots of images and videos about school procedures and activities on your website so families get to know the school and feel that their need for information is being met.

2. Make a fresh start. Families who are new to English may also be new to American school traditions. Parents who attended school in other countries may not know what to expect from parent-teacher conferences or invitations to visit or volunteer at school. Make a fresh start by assuming all families need specific information and support to get involved.


3. Facilitate communication. It is good to find interpreters for meetings, but real communication starts before the meeting and goes much deeper than translations alone. Begin the year with brief, positive notes home or a quick phone call—keeping it simple so ELL families can understand. Sharing a picture of a child enjoying school is a sure way to build a bond with parents. Invite some more experienced bilingual parents to serve as diversity ambassadors. They can serve as peer supporters and help new families understand about school events, communications, and procedures.

4. Say less. School personnel sometimes lament that it is hard to get all of the school documents translated into needed languages. The way to make this more manageable is to just say less. If you take a look at how many words on paper are being sent home to families, it’s no wonder that families with limited literacy skills or different languages can’t respond. If you reduce the content to the bare minimum, it will be easier for you to arrange for translations and easier for families to understand when translations are not available. Use visuals like icons or photos and choose simple sentences to get the points across. Color code forms. For example: blue always means something needs to be filled in and returned; green is always an announcement of an event for families; yellow is always used to share important information about school schedule or policies, and so on. Facebook, Twitter, and text messages all can play a role when reaching out to diverse families.

5. Individual time. Back to School night can be overwhelming and parent-teacher conferences may be stressful. Building positive relationships with diverse families depends on spending time with them in other ways. If parent-teacher conference is the first opportunity to interact with ELL parents, awkwardness is bound to happen. Familiarity is the remedy. The more familiar the parents are with school routines and activities, the better they will understand feedback during the meeting. The more familiar the teacher is with the family, the better he or she will understand their interaction style. Find a time that works for each family and open the school or classroom doors to welcome families as individuals who are vital partners in the educational process, no matter what language they speak!

Karen N. Nemeth is a national expert, author, speaker, and advocate on early learning in first and second languages.

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