may have varying dialects, vocabularies, and expressions (think of the
British expression queuing versus the
American waiting in line), which can
lead to unhelpful confusion.
Think Outside the Box
for Ways to Meet
Finding ways to meet with a student’s
family members may take creativity
and flexibility. Start by asking parents
what would be most convenient for
them. My colleague Susan Lafond
held parent-teacher conferences at
the food court where many of her
students’ parents worked; Becky Corr
scheduled a manicure at the nail salon
where a student’s father worked to
discuss the student’s college options.
Some schools hold events in local
community centers or churches near
families’ homes. Schools might collaborate with apartment complex managers to provide space to meet.
Home visits are another good
option, and you might learn essential
things by going to a student’s home.
One teacher learned on a home visit
that her “Russian” student was actually
Yet finding a setting that works for
your non-English-speaking families
may not mean leaving the school
building. One teacher whose students
were mostly Latino and from immi-
grant families found that hosting a
group conference for all parents in
her class, followed by brief individual
conferences as necessary, was so
successful that she saw 100 percent of
parents within three days (Rothstein-
Fisch & Trumbull, 2008). These
parents felt more comfortable in a
group setting than in an individual
conference, and they learned from one
another’s questions. The teacher didn’t
need to repeat the same information
over and over. Her one-on-one time
with parents was more efficient and
focused on the issues most related to
Make the Family Comfortable
It’s important to build trust with
families as you get to know them.
You may have a chance to learn more
about their experiences if you speak
with them during registration or a
parent conference, where you can ask
a few gentle questions to find out how
comfortable the family is sharing information. Or it might take more time
before they’re ready to speak with you.
Parents may feel more comfortable
sharing information with an interpreter present.
In many cases, families will welcome
the chance to share information that
they feel is important to their child’s
well-being—it may be the first time
they’ve been asked to offer their input.
However, they also may be quite
fearful about sharing any information
about their background. If your questions make the family uncomfortable,
move to a different topic.
Look for Clues About What
Brought the Family Here
The question of how a particular stu-
dent’s family came to the United States
might be complex, and many families,
especially fairly recent arrivals, might
be afraid to talk about it. They might
have told their children not to talk
about how they came here. Asking a
lot of questions is probably not the
best way to start; instead, look for
clues about the family’s experiences.
Students and their family members
might have recently emigrated from
their country of origin; recently
arrived from a place other than their
home country (such as a refugee
camp); moved often between countries
or moved frequently within the United
States (for example, if they’re migrant
farm workers); or be in the country
without immigration documents. All
family members might have been born
here but be first-generation Americans
who still identify with a home country.
Finding out these details will give you
clues about a family’s socioeconomic
situation, level of stability at home,
and previous traumas, which are
important because the reasons a student’s family emigrated can affect that
student’s emotions and attitudes at
If you need more information, start
by asking other professionals who
may have some background on the
family, such as a liaison at a refugee
resettlement office. If a parent shares
sensitive information with you, particularly regarding immigration status,
reassure the family that the information will remain confidential and
that all children living in the United
States have the right to attend U.S.
public schools. 1
Get a Sense of the
Some important things you might
learn about your student’s family
and home life over time include the
n With whom does the student live?
n Is there a family member at home
who speaks English and can serve as a
primary point of contact?
Parents who come from countries where schools
are considered government buildings may be
reluctant to visit the school in person.