Educators and administrators know that parent involvement in school can improve student achievement. But even with school newsletters and parent-teacher meetings a few times a year, it can still be difficult to engage parents.
It’s even more challenging to involve immigrant parents, and that can be problematic, since children of immigrant parents are more likely than other children to fall behind in school. But with extra effort and special strategies, teachers can help immigrant parents feel comfortable participating in their children’s education.
Reaching out to parents
A few years ago I volunteered in a first grade class for English Language Learners. Most of the children were recent immigrants, and the majority had parents who did not speak any English. Despite these obstacles, when I arrived to school each morning the classroom teacher was already deep into one-on-one parent meetings, speaking the small amount of broken Spanish she had taught herself.
The parents, whose lives were probably stressful and uncertain on a daily basis, seemed happy and grateful for this interaction with the teacher. They often asked her what they could do at home to help their children learn.
This model educator found a way to connect with parents, working around their busy schedules and language barriers in order to get them into the school and develop relationships with them. She did whatever it took—learning basic Spanish, re-working her schedule and sometimes calling parents multiple times to set up meetings. The results were remarkable. Parents were comfortable in the classroom and excited to establish a connection with their child’s teacher.
Currently a doctoral student in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College, I have been studying immigration and parent educational involvement for the past four years. Although the existing research is sparse, it finds that immigrant parents are less involved than other parents at school. But my own research has revealed encouraging results. For example, I discovered that despite low levels of immigrant parent involvement at school, immigrant parents’ levels of involvement outside of school (such as with home-based activities and rules) are just as high as native-born parents.
In fact, during my analysis of a study of first and third graders and their parents, I found that immigrant parents have significantly higher educational expectations for their children than non-immigrant parents of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. These results show that immigrant parents care deeply about their children’s education, but numerous factors, both logistical and cultural, may be keeping them out of schools.
The special case of immigrant families
According to a report by The Urban Institute, a quarter of kids under the age of eight in the United States have immigrant parents. And researcher Jeffrey Passel predicts that number will grow to one third of our population by 2050.
So it is important that we break down the barriers immigrant parents face that may keep them out of school, including an inflexible work schedule, a lack of English proficiency, and an unclear understanding of American school systems. There may also be important cultural barriers. For example, in some cultures, teachers are incredibly well-respected figures of authority, and being involved at the school might be seen as disrespectful or questioning the teacher’s knowledge or strategies.
Children of immigrants are at risk to fall behind their native classmates academically. Some of the risk factors include a higher likelihood of living in poverty, linguistic isolation (meaning no adults in the household who speak English) and sometimes a lack of health benefits. Because these students will eventually make up a huge chunk of our American workforce, we should work to improve their educational outcomes, and parent involvement is one way to do it.
Strategies to improve immigrant parent involvement
- Teachers should always encourage parents to be involved in school events by making time for informal conversations when parents come to the school, personally inviting parents to events and asking them what their goals are for their children and how the teacher can help the child to reach these goals.
- Ensure that there are sufficient translators for school events, whether formal events like parent-teacher conferences or informal events at school.
- All communications home, such as homework schedules and newsletters, should be in the family’s home language.
- Start a home visiting program, where teachers or parent “buddies” from school visit parents who are new to the school district. These “buddies” can introduce immigrant parents to after-school programs as well as other resources that may benefit the family and answer any questions they may have about specific teachers or academic requirements.
- Hold group parent-teacher conferences. Because many Latino and Asian cultures are collectivistic (as opposed to the more individualistic American culture), parents may feel more comfortable speaking together in a group setting.
- Ask bilingual immigrant parents who are already leaders at the school to reach out to new immigrant parents to help acclimate them to the school and community.
- Make sure immigrant parents know that they have the right to be involved in their children’s education. People in the United States often take that right for granted, but in many cultures it is a novel idea.