By Rebecca Honig, chief content officer
We have new neighbors. And they are wonderful. Every time I visit, they insist on feeding me a full family style meal followed by at least two rounds of tea. They’ve hosted me at Nowruz celebrations and birthday parties, they’ve introduced me to some of my favorite new songs.
I love watching our collective 7 kids pile on to one sled and fly down the hill behind town hall, or race matchbox cars across the living room floor. We go shopping together and have an occasional craft circle. They promise they are going to help me learn to like cooking (something no one in my family has been able to achieve). Also, they’ve informed me that they’ll help me learn my way around town (once they themselves get their bearings) because they have quite accurately observed that I have NO sense of direction.
For my part, since they’re new to our town from Afghanistan, I’ve promised to help THEM navigate school in the US.
It’s Not Easy
At the start (despite decades working in education) I was not terribly good in this role.
I remember the first time we sat down to talk about the school registration process. Eager to show off my chops, I launched into a detailed overview of the curriculum at each grade level. Three minutes into my curricular monologue they stopped me. “Rebecca…What days does school meet?”
Right. All of this is new.
In Afghanistan the school week is not Monday through Friday as it is here in the US. Things like half days and after school clubs do not exist as they do here. Busing is new for many, as are school lunches. Calling in an absence is unfamiliar as is learning in a mixed gender classroom. Parent teacher relationships come with different expectations, parent involvement is different too (just to name a few).
And I was not the only one skipping all of this fundamental information. Shortly after filling out the registration forms, email after email began arriving from the three schools their kids would be attending:
Half day tomorrow!
After school clubs begin next week.
Permission slips due.
Call if you want to talk about ways we can support your child.
Sharing the Basics
As family engagement experts, we all know that the goal is to create a trusting and strengths-based partnership between home and school. But that can only begin to happen once families are oriented around what it means to attend school in the US and around what the opportunities to engage and partner even are.
Like any new experience, the experience of starting school in the US and supporting learning at home must be scaffolded. It must be made relatable. It must leverage a family’s strengths, building new skills on top of known skills and responding to families’ lived experiences, culture, and traditions.
That is why we set out to tailor ParentPowered’s Trauma Informed program to offer schools out-of-the-box family engagement for Afghan refugees.
Building Accessible School Support
As a family engagement solution delivered via text messages, one of our greatest strengths is our ability to quickly adapt and version our content to meet unique needs. And to get that content into families hands no matter where they are. We are well versed in doing it.
We’ve created versions of our evidence based program to address the unique needs of tribal nations, urban and rural communities navigating trauma, and island communities working to preserve cultural heritage. We’ve worked with neighborhoods, counties, districts, cities and states, across the country to create messages linking to their local resources and supports. And when COVID hit, we quickly versioned our entire program to account for families’ new at home routines.
We’ve also translated our program into 13 languages and have a well-tested system in place for ensuring these programs are versioned to account for cultural considerations.
In all of this work, we lean into our specialty, breaking down complex topics and systems to make them easier for families to understand, access, and navigate.
Tailoring Family engagement for Afghan Refugees
1. Start By Listening
When we version our content we ALWAYS begin by listening. And it was no different creating school support for Afghan refugees. We started by bringing on a team of experts: Afghan refugees with previous first-hand experience, educators working in schools to help new families from Afghanistan build comfort and agency within the classroom, experts in supporting refugee families as they navigate trauma, and community health organizations specializing in refugee and immigrant populations.
We began with general questions. Questions about culture, daily life in Afghanistan, parenting and schooling, about the refugee experience, about strengths.
We then asked about the needs we could meet with family engagement for Afghan refugees.
What would you like families to know about navigating school in the US? What would you like them to know about family engagement and communicating with educators? About supporting children in school? About accessing services? What do you wish someone had told you when your children began school here in the US? What would you like schools to know about working with Afghan refugees?
Then, like always, we did a review process.
2. Build on Success
Our advisors reviewed our current Trauma Informed program. They considered how this program could be changed to offer family engagement for Afghan refugees. Through the lens of their own experiences, each of them considered the following questions:
- Do any of our current messages need to change? Do they resonate from a cultural perspective? Are the routines and activities familiar? Are they doable?
- What messages can we add in order to better support Afghan Refugee Families? What topics are essential to cover? Is there foundational knowledge that is missing?
- Do any of these messages read as triggering?
- Do all of these messages leverage families’ strengths? If not, what needs to change?
3. Make it Culturally Relevant
The answers to the questions posed during our listening sessions and review cycles led us to make the following changes to our Trauma Informed Program so it would offer maximum support for Afghan families:
- We reframed the messages to better reflect the daily routines of a typical Afghan household. And scaffolding was added when unfamiliar skills and practices were being introduced.
- Additional messaging was added to address: the school calendar, attendance, school involvement, parent teacher communication, advocacy, connecting with other families, accessing services and opportunities like busing, camps and school meals.
- We added messaging to support families in continuing to celebrate home culture, language, and traditions.
Here’s a look at some of the new and edited messaging:
4. Offer Concrete Supports Families Need Most
The next step in the process of developing family engagement for Afghan refugees was ensuring that families know how to access resources to have their basic needs met. So much of parenting has to do with having your basic needs met. Having your basic needs met involves navigating systems and accessing support.
With this in mind, we created a community support stream to compliment our ParentPowered messages. It connects families to mental health supports, job assistance, health agencies, legal help and additional education assistance. It also gives families tips for reaching out.
Each new community that joins has the opportunity to add to this stream. How? They provide us with the resources and services they want families to know about. And we write messages linking families to these resources .
5. Use Localized Translations
Once all content was written, we began the process of translating the messages into Dari and Pashto so that families can receive everything in their home language. This piece is absolutely critical to reaching and engaging families. Everything we translate goes through a cultural and language review process.
This is always done with native speakers and then sent back to translators for edits. You WON’T ever find us using translation programs-always humans with lived experience and language expertise.
Localization takes the nuances and complexities of meaning behind words and ensures the words translate across cultural spheres. A lighthearted example of translation without localization occurred when Pepsodine tried to market its teeth-whitening toothpaste in a community in Southeast Asia where people strived to have black teeth. They didn’t sell much toothpaste at all, as you can imagine. In a school scenario, missing the cultural nuance of the concepts we’re translating risks alienating the families we most want to serve.
The Outcome: Family Engagement for Afghan Refugees
From this layered and multifaceted development process comes a program that is supportive, accessible and highly doable. Here’s what it looks like when it reaches Afghan refugee families.
Three ParentPowered messages a week (52 weeks a year) orienting them around skills that are important to their child’s development and skills that will help them thrive in school in the US. Along with everyday activities for supporting those skills at home.
And Community Support Stream messages, two times a week, linking them to information on local resources and supports and ways to access things like legal services, mental health supports, food assistance and so much more.
Here’s what those two streams look like side by side.
Everything is strengths-based, accessible, and comes to them in their home language. Because above all else, we want families to feel seen, celebrated and supported. We want them reading our messages and thinking, “I can do this!”
Just like I sat with my new neighbors as they waded through those early emails from school, I’m now getting to sit with them as they receive a new kind of communication: email after email from teachers and administrators telling them how well their children are doing. Emails noting that the kids are making fast friends, that they are learning English at lightning speed, that their unique abilities are shining through.
Those emails take a bit of explaining too. And it’s a type of explanation I feel so lucky to get to share. I say, “In the US, teachers sometimes reach out just to let you know that they are proud of your children and that’s what this email is all about.”