In our culture [Somali], you send the kids to school and they are the school’s responsibility…Sometimes the teachers have a problem understanding the mothers, I help them by translating for them.  The first thing the mother will ask is, “What is she complaining for?  Isn’t that her job?  Isn’t she the one who is supposed to fix the child?  Why is she telling me?” [12]

Many teachers and administrators across the United States are confused and concerned when they host parent-teacher conferences, “Open Houses,” or other events for parents and find that few of their refugee parents attend. Sometimes, repeated failed efforts result in teachers and administrators concluding that the refugee parents in their district “just don’t care.”[11] Yet, that is rarely the case. Research consistently shows that refugee parents do care about their children’s education a great deal. Yet, as the above quote demonstrates, there are often a number of cultural issues at play.

Defining Parent Involvement – Whose Definition?

American-born educators, administrators, and researchers have yet to decide upon a clear definition for “parent involvement” since it encompasses so many things, but a general understanding of the term includes activities such as:

  • Volunteering at school
  • Communicating with teachers and other school personnel
  • Attending school events, PTA meetings, and parent-teacher conferences
  • Assisting with academic activities at home [8]

If we take a close look at this list, the first three items involve “showing-up” activities that teachers often use to gauge a parent’s level of support. Americans often emphasize parents’ presence at their children’s schools, more so than anything done at home. Yet, refugees’ ideas of what it means to be involved in their children’s education are often different. For example, a focus group of Somalis in Minnesota revealed that many help their children with their homework, read to them, take them to the library, and involve community members whenever their children need extra help. In addition, many of these Somalis considered “peripheral” activities – such as feeding their children, buying them books, and making sure they get to the school bus on time – as being involved in their children’s education. Yet, the majority of these parents did not visit the schools; therefore, many of the local teachers had made the all-too-common conclusion that “they didn’t care.”[12] In addition, some cultures do not distinguish between education as schooling and education as upbringing, so some refugee parents may feel that they are involved in their children’s education when they teach them social skills, such as how to be respectful. [22] Before examining other cultural misunderstandings related to parental involvement, it is important to take a look at why this topic is important.

Why All the Fuss?

Numerous studies have shown that parent involvement is associated with children’s academic success. Studies usually demonstrate this in the short-term, but some studies have also shown the benefit of parent involvement in the long-term. Data from the Chicago Longitudinal Study indicated that parent involvement in elementary school was significantly associated with academic success in high school.[3] Due to the consistent research findings in this area, schools are now required to involve parents in their children’s education through the No Child Left Behind Act. [23]

“Between 1979 and 2004, the number of school age children (ages 5-17) who spoke a language other than English at home increased from 3.8 to 9.9 million, or from 9 to 19 percent of all children in this age group…” [24, p. 34]

For refugee families, this topic is even more important for a number of reasons:

  • Education is closely linked with refugee families’ integration. The Migration Policy Institute stated, “Schools have served as critical engines of integration, enabling children to master the core curriculum and both parents and children to acquire language and civics skills.” [7, p.3] For a figure that illustrates how parent involvement is related to integration, see page 101 of Investing in Communities: Strategies for Immigrant Integration by Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR).
  • Teachers who are culturally different from their students are less likely to know their students/parents than are teachers who share the cultural background of their students; furthermore, teachers who are culturally different than their students are more likely to believe that they and their families are disinterested or uninvolved in schooling. [6]
  • Teachers and administrators often have lower expectations for immigrants and children of color. [17]
  • Refugee parents often have extraordinary strengths and the capacity to educate their children, and their classmates, in numerous ways. Yet, unfortunately, differences in culture are often considered a deficit rather than an asset in schools. “…Low-income, urban parents who speak English as a second language…are portrayed as empty containers, which need to be filled before they can give anything of value to the schools or to their own offspring.” [11, p.93]

Involving Refugee Parents in Activities at School: Cultural Considerations 

  • As explained above, many refugees may be unaware that, in the United States, involvement in children’s education includes visiting their child’s school for various meetings and events. Many refugee parents may hear that they are supposed to visit their children’s schools and may be vaguely aware of expectations, but they are often not sure what those expectations are. [12]
  • In many – perhaps even most – cultures, teachers are highly respected and considered to be experts in their field. Teachers may be viewed as being of a higher status and as always right. In these societies, it is often disrespectful to question a teacher or interfere in their work in any way. Thus, in many countries, parents rarely visit their children’s schools or talk with their teachers. This is one of the primary reasons that foreign-born families find their new role as the teacher’s “partner” confusing (see, for example, the opening quote for this Spotlight).
  • Many cultures are relationship-oriented and it is important to gain someone’s trust before “doing business” or discussing problems. Some refugee parents have suggested that the development of informal relationships with their children’s teachers, prior to hearing “bad news” from them, would help tremendously.
  • When discussing the child’s progress with his/her parents, teachers need to be aware that certain behaviors that are viewed as positive in American society might be considered negative in other cultures. For example, families from collectivistic (group-oriented) societies are likely to be uncomfortable with teachers who praise their students individually because it singles them out from their classmates or because it is interpreted as spoiling them. Furthermore, in cultures where elders are highly respected, parents might be upset to learn that their children are “speaking up” and sharing their ideas with the class. [22]
  • It can be challenging for refugee parents to learn how to discipline their children in their new context. Misinformation about acceptable parenting practices and discipline techniques carries over to education as can be seen from this quote:

My mum didn’t have any education but she encouraged me to do my homework. This is why I graduated university [in Somalia] in 1985. I couldn’t lie to them. In this system [United States] I can’t punish [my children]…if they lie to me. [12, p. 89]

  • People from around the world have different orientations to time. Many refugee families are not used to making appointments weeks ahead of time, keeping a calendar, or showing up to meetings “on time.”
  • In many countries around the world, individuals do not have the power to change the infrastructure of established systems. The idea that parents can potentially create change in their children’s schools may be unfamiliar. [1]

Recommendations: Cultural Considerations

  1. Orientation for Refugee Parents: Provide refugee parents with some type of orientation to the American school system, including a clear explanation of expectations related to parental involvement. [20] Models are available for how to conduct orientations; for example, the LEP Parent Involvement Project. Also, the Adult Learning Resource Center in Illinois conducts trainings around the country on starting up parental involvement programs in schools. Sample pages of their curriculum, Parents as Educational Partners (PEP): A School-Related Curriculum for Language Minority Parents, are available. Some school districts are using videos to accomplish this such as Minnesota and Illinois.
  2. Observation: As a part of the orientation, invite refugee parents to observe their child’s class for a couple of hours. Some have reported that even non English-speaking parents benefit from this experience. [15]
  3. Cultural Liaisons: Consider hiring cultural liaisons to bridge the gap between refugee communities and the local schools. Many programs use such liaisons; for example, see the Refugee Family Services School Liaison Program in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
  4. Tips for Initial Meetings with Parents:
    • Begin by establishing a relationship with the family and gaining their trust before urgent behavioral or academic matters arise.
    • Next, use the opportunity to ask questions about refugees’ cultures and views on parental involvement. See the Iowa Parent Information Resource Center’s sample questions.
    • As much as time allows, explain the type of behavior that is expected and encouraged in American classrooms.
  5. Parenting Education: Develop or locate parenting classes for refugee families. See BRYCS’ Parenting Toolkit as well as Module 4 from the LEP Parent Involvement Project. Rather than operating from a deficit approach, be sure to build on the families’ strengths. For ideas, see Reassessing Parent Involvement: Involving Language Minority Parents in School Work at Home.
  6. School Staff Training: A large percentage of teacher training programs do not include coursework on parent involvement or much information on the cultures of the students they are teaching. [5] In addition, the majority of American teachers is white and speaks only English. [21] Therefore, schools need to provide teachers with cultural competency training, including information on how to translate this knowledge into practice. [9] It is also a good idea to include other school staff in these trainings, since refugee children interact with a broad range of staff. See BOX 6 for ideas and materials.

Language Considerations

  • All schools receiving federal funding are required to provide interpreters for parents to facilitate communication according to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In addition, the No Child Left Behind Act states that communication with immigrant children’s parents should occur in their native language. Many immigrant parents experience communication as an insurmountable barrier.
  • Children are unfortunately often used as interpreters, which gives them an inappropriate amount of power and can negatively affect family roles and relationships. According to the focus group of Somalis in Minnesota: Children were reported as acting as translators and interpreters of all communication, including any letters from the school. Because they controlled the communication between the household and the outside world, the children were said to act like they are the heads of households and their parents are inferior to them. [12, p. 87]
  • Recognize that some parents who need an interpreter will not ask for one. For some, it may be embarrassing to ask for an interpreter due to a fear that they could be viewed as “ignorant.” Others might not want to go through the all-too-typical hassle of waiting for one to be located. Still others might simply want to use the opportunity to practice their English.

Recommendations: Language Considerations

  1. “I Speak” cards or posters can be used so that refugee families can communicate the language of interpretation they need.
  2. Translate/Interpret: Translate as many documents as possible, keeping in mind the literacy level of the parents, and provide interpreters for parents who need them. Consider partnering with refugee resettlement agencies or refugee-led organizations to accomplish this. Have a process in place for obtaining interpreters and translators in all languages – not just Spanish. For example, the Minnesota Department of Education keeps an interpreter database to help with this process.
  3. Cross-Cultural Communication: For all refugee parents, there is much to consider, beyond the level of English, for successful communication. See Working on Common Cross-Cultural Communication Challenges for tips. And for the parents who choose to speak English, be patient! If you have ever tried having a conversation in another language – not to mention a conference with a teacher – you can imagine how difficult this might be.
  4. Choose Vocabulary Carefully: Certain words, such as “OK,” mean different things depending on one’s tone. [12] Furthermore, new English speakers might not know technical terms such as “curriculum.” [18]
  5. Written Communication: Recognize that refugee parents with a higher level of formal education might prefer written communication, such as email or letters, because of having a better understanding of written than spoken English.

Literacy and Education Level Considerations

  • Many refugee families come from parts of the world where education is a luxury or has been interrupted due to war and/or the migration process. Research shows that parents’ confidence in their own intellectual abilities significantly affects their involvement in their children’s education. [8]
  • Due to the difficulties that preliterate parents face, many family literacy programs have been developed by schools and community organizations. To read an overview of what family literacy is and how it benefits multilingual communities, see Family and Intergenerational Literacy in Multilingual Communities. Family literacy programs have been shown to increase parents’ involvement in their children’s schools. For an example of an effective program, read about the Hmong Literacy Project.
  • Unfortunately, some family literacy programs focus on the deficiencies of families and utilize narrow definitions of literacy that promote “only school-like literacy interactions.” More recently, educators are realizing the importance of strengths-based literacy programs that incorporate activities that are relevant to the lives of their students and their families. [14]

Recommendations: Literacy/Education Level Considerations

  1. Family Literacy: Develop family literacy programs using a strengths-based perspective. Begin by asking parents questions about their perceptions and expectations on the uses and functions of literacy in their lives.
  2. Literacy in Native Language: For adults who are literate in their native language, but not necessarily English, encourage them to read to their children in their native language. As one literacy expert stated, “The greatest contribution that refugee parents can make to their children’s success is to ensure they maintain fluency and continue to develop the home language.”[As cited in 14]
  3. Beginner Literacy Skills: For adults with some literacy skills in any language, expand your definition of literacy and promote activities where parents assist their children in developing literacy skills from familiar life events. Teachers can create reading and writing assignments around the families’ interests such as hobbies, sports, and cultural events.[14] For other ideas, see BRYCS’ description of World Relief Chicago’s Family Literacy Program as well as Model Strategies in Bilingual Education: Family Literacy and Parent Involvement.
  4. Preliterate: For parents who are unable to read or write in any language, recognize the role of oral language development as a precursor to early literacy. Parents should be encouraged to engage their children in rhymes, songs, riddles, oral history, poetry, proverbs, and folklore. In addition, parents can also share wordless picture books with their children to teach early literacy skills such as predicting, story sequencing, and identifying key story elements and main characters. [14] Dispel the myth that they cannot help their children in school just because they do not speak En