Written by Heer Shaikh, program success manager, and Rebecca Honig, chief content & curriculum officer
Edited by Maren Madalyn
“Sahteen” (صحتين) means “double health.” It’s one of the many unique cultural learnings I squirreled away when studying Arabic as a kid. There’s no equivalent for sahteen in English or any of the other languages that were part of my life growing up in Pakistan.
Many of the students we serve at ParentPowered live in a multicultural realm like I did. They speak English at school and communicate in a different language at home. For me, I spoke two languages outside of the classroom: Urdu with my friends and Sindhi at home.
But language is only one of the complexities in a multicultural experience. Arabic-speaking families wish each other sahteen in a gesture not only of blessing but also of enjoyment for a meal – and they express this both both before and after eating. Like the word sahteen itself, this is a unique custom important to these communities. Culture goes beyond language – it is the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the music we listen to, and so much more.
For schools, understanding cultural and family diversity in their community is a key requirement culturally responsive family engagement. Family culture informs what a caregiver, parent, or guardian believes they can and should do for their child’s education. And educators know that equitable family engagement has a positive impact on student success.
It’s no surprise then that culturally responsive communication is a key first step to building trust among families, their children’s schools, and their community. But for family and community engagement to truly benefit students, organizations need to think bigger than multilingual communication.
Ultimately, it’s about building a strong partnership with your families. Just as with any healthy relationship between two people, trust is a must for a successful partnership between groups. And a responsive relationship that respects cultural differences lays the foundation to build just that.
The power of culturally responsive family engagement
Today, the phrase ‘culturally responsive’ and others like it are used across multiple sectors and contexts. So it’s important to align on what exactly it means to be ‘culturally responsive’ and what it looks like in action.
Let’s start in the classroom. The think tank New America defines ‘culturally responsive teaching’ as “schooling that promotes student engagement, learning, and achievement by centering their knowledge, cultural backgrounds, and everyday experiences in the classroom.” EdWeek expands on this definition in their thorough explanation of what culturally responsive teaching looks like in practice, its history, and common misconceptions about its principles.
Moving beyond the classroom, the Intercultural Development Research Association defined seven elements in school communities that create a culturally responsive atmosphere with parents. These principles of culturally responsive engagement are also found in community organizations that work with families. In their video Culturally Responsive Engagement and Partnership, the Child Welfare Capacity Building Collaborative underscores the differences between ‘cultural humility’ and ‘cultural competence’ in action – and the value of applying both when engaging entire communities home to an array of family types and cultures.
Across these definitions and examples of culturally responsive engagement, there is one common thread: all cultural backgrounds are centered and celebrated equally. Whether it’s in classrooms or community organizations, family involvement efforts must welcome all cultures to establish the trust needed to support students.
Building the path to partnership
It’s clear that there is a connection between culturally responsive engagement and building strong relationships with families, especially in diverse or multilingual communities. But how do school districts and community organizations actually start this connection?
At its core, the path to family partnership reflects similar steps to building a new relationship between two people. From first impressions to ongoing improvement, schools that put each of these phases into practice can better encourage all families to participate in their community.
Across these definitions and examples of culturally responsive engagement, there is one common thread: all cultural backgrounds are centered and celebrated equally.
1. Set the tone from the start
The moment a parent steps foot on campus or receives school communications for the first time, the relationship begins. School leaders that invest resources into creating a welcoming space set themselves up for success and can begin building trust right away with families.
Examine your current practices
A great place to start is by auditing your existing family engagement methods. Finding ways to expand representation in your current strategies gives you a head start on building more culturally-aware relationships with families. Here are a few questions to guide your reflections:
- Whose stories are represented in our curriculum?
- Which voices are missing from our family communications? Are we presenting materials in culturally sensitive ways?
- Have we oriented parents to the school experience: transportation options, school calendar, when/why/how to call the school office, etc?
- Have we established multilingual family engagement methods? For example, is all school experience information available in families’ home language?
Prepare for first impressions
Then, take the time up front to learn about your families’ traditions, cultural norms, and languages – and incorporate them into your school culture. For example, school leaders can provide staff with professional development to help them observe and respect these norms in parent exchanges.
Interpreters are another fantastic resource for any first-time meeting between schools and families. Making your first impression accessible in the family’s home language sends a powerful message about the kind of culture you want to build at school. The Cultural Orientation Resource Exchange offers a guide for working with interpreters that can help schools meet state and federal laws requiring language assistance for families. There are also a number of resources available providing on-demand interpreters, such as Interprenet, LanguageLine, and more.
Other welcoming, first-time engagement ideas include:
- Greeting families on campus with signs in their native languages
- Highlighting books in your curriculum that celebrate cultures found in your community
- Sending school documents to families translated into multiple languages
- Adding photos or visual examples of the cultural diversity in your community to school materials
No matter which strategies you use to create a great first impression for families, make sure they are trauma-informed. We recommend using the protective factors framework for guiding family engagement planning through a trauma-informed lens.
All of these efforts impact family involvement and their sense of belonging in the school community. Further, they help schools signal to families that their community is safe for all backgrounds and cultures. And safety is essential in developing a trusting and long-lasting relationship.
2. Create opportunities to listen and learn
Now that your door is open to families, it’s time to build momentum by creating opportunities to listen and learn from them. As a family becomes more comfortable engaging with school, how can staff better collaborate and learn from that family how to best support their student?
Ongoing communication is key to strengthening families’ trust in the school community. When trust increases, communication, too, becomes more open between school and home as families share more openly with teachers. This creates a positive feedback loop centered on addressing the needs of students at school and at home.
Encourage school staff to reflect the student’s identity in communications with parents, guardians, and caretakers. Listening to families’ input helps staff get a sense of how a child may best thrive in the classroom. It also brings clarity to staff about that child’s sense of safety on campus.
A few questions that teachers or school staff can ask family members are:
- What things help your child learn and feel comfortable?
- What might make it harder for your child to learn?
- What are ways we might be able to tell if your child is feeling worried or anxious?
- What things comfort your child when they feel worry or anxiety?
Questions like these give families space to share important knowledge about their students’ needs. The also tells families that the school community is invested in both the child’s academic learning and their emotional wellbeing. Both aspects are crucial to enable student success in the classroom and at home.
And remember to plan for multilingual family engagement here as well. Translate these questions and similar communication with families into their home languages, and make sure you have the tools or resources to translate parent responses as well.
3. Keep the partnership going
At this point, the relationship between school and family is firmly established. Now it is important for your school to maintain that family’s trust and keep the partnership going! How will school staff use what they learn from families to both support students? When and where will your school sustain family engagement? What activities create more opportunities for families to connect?
Strategically planned family events and touchpoints throughout the year encourage families to continue engaging with school. Family workshops, in-school volunteering opportunities, communications folders, parent council meetings, on-campus performances – these are some common ways that schools can keep the partnership alive and continue reinforcing a positive communication feedback loop. In some states, school leaders go a step further with programs like ELL parent advisory councils. These are uniquely designed to engage multilingual families in support of students that speak a different native language than English.
Remember, every family is unique. No matter what activities you create or communications for families you put together, it is important to recognize that each family’s participation will vary. By diversifying your offerings and accounting for both family needs and cultural norms, you can overcome challenges that affect family involvement. This gives everyone the chance to feel and be successful within the school-family partnership.
4. Expand the community beyond the classroom
So far, we’ve shared the importance of the first three phases of partnership building: a great first impression, building momentum, and maintaining trust. At this point, it’s time to “meet each other’s friends” and expand the shared community beyond the classroom.
Consider which community agencies or programs outside your school may benefit families in your school community. Are there specific resources that can support families to meet basic needs at home? Where can families enjoy fun activities with their students that also bolster learning?
ParentPowered works closely with many community organizations, and we’ve learned a lot from these partnerships about how to connect families to the right supports. Take a look at our recent blog post Connecting Families to Resources to get inspired with ways to help families get what they need beyond school. You can also watch our webinar with the organization Volunteers in Medicine about how they support immigrant families for school success.
In some cases, these community resources may help schools address the challenges of family involvement by supporting families at home. Whether schools directly engage in these opportunities or simply make families aware of them, everyone benefits when families can easily find and access the right resources at the right time.
5. Reflect and Revise
This last step to building connections with families is really an ongoing practice rather than a one-time event. Taking time as a community to reflect on your school-family partnerships is necessary to improve them.
You can use the questions below to started on evaluating the success of your current family engagement practices:
- Is this method working? How do we know when it is working? What examples show this strategy is helping families?
- How does the approach feel for school staff? For families?
- Are families getting what they need from school? Why or why not?
- What new opportunities are there to help families and students thrive?
School leaders have a plethora of information available to assess how well these partnerships are going and find new ways for sustaining family engagement. But the most crucial data will come from your families – so how do schools ensure families’ voices are included?
The most effective way is by creating both formal and informal opportunities to ask for feedback throughout the year. After-school hallway meetings, parent-teacher conferences, and family feedback surveys are just a few examples of methods that staff can use to hear from families. Further, these are trust-building opportunities to deepen the partnership. By inviting families to share their perspectives, this again reinforces the positive feedback loop between home and school.
Looking for ways to strengthen home-school connections in your organization? We’ve compiled more resources in our research round-up.
Culturally responsive engagement benefits everyone
This pathway for partnership can help your organization strengthen family and community engagement while cultivating a sense of belonging that celebrates family diversity. By creating a trusting partnership between schools and families, schools set up a crucial support system for their students’ learning and wellbeing. When implemented thoughtfully and regularly evaluated for improvement, culturally responsive family engagement benefits everyone.
About the authors
Heer Shaikh is the Program Success Manager for Distance Learning at ParentPowered. She began her career designing a mobile public education program for the government in Pakistan and teaching in underserved areas in Karachi. More recently, she worked as the Tech & Data Lead responsible for Pre-K for All Outreach in New York City. Heer has a Masters in Education Policy from Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Rebecca Honig is the Chief Content and Curriculum Officer at ParentPowered. She has authored numerous curricula, parent guides, and children’s storybooks for Sesame Workshop, Scholastic, Disney, Compass Learning, PBS, WGBH, HITN, Nickelodeon, Mo Willems, and The Norman Rockwell Museum. She has also served as a Curriculum and Content Specialist for Sesame Street and spent ten years teaching in public, private, and after school programs. Rebecca has a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education from Bank Street.