As our schools become increasingly more diverse, both linguistically and culturally, effectively engaging all families becomes an ever-growing challenge. Effective family engagement is an ongoing, comprehensive, purposeful, and relentless process designed to ensure parents’ connection to the school’s culture, purpose, and organization. Yet meaningful parental involvement has traditionally eluded schools. It is typically limited to parent-teacher conferences, and even then, teachers decry parents’ inconsistent attendance or continued absence. Even in those schools where parental involvement is considered strong, only some parents are involved, or they are invited to the school by the teachers or administrators. Dedicated parental involvement exists only when there is a system in place to include all parents in the life and development of the school.
School norms and structures have historically been, and continue to be, most responsive to parents who are middle-class, able-bodied, American born, and standard-English-speaking individuals. Although these norms seem firmly entrenched in most schools, there is an urgent need for schools to include more diverse populations as the nation’s demographics continue to change. We must explore culturally biased beliefs many educators frequently have toward their students and their students’ families. In exploring these beliefs and assumptions, teachers, administrators, parents, prospective teachers, and teacher educators will develop an understanding of what culturally responsive parental involvement truly is.
The term parent is problematic and can be restrictive. However, we should use the term inclusively to indicate any adult person who has responsibility for the care and welfare of a child within a family unit. Parents might include grandmothers, older siblings, same-sex couples, or other responsible adults. I encourage parental involvement that is active, consistent, and inclusive, and label this kind of involvement culturally responsive because it acknowledges that families have varied backgrounds, beliefs, and values. In this light, culturally responsive parent engagement practitioners recognize that definitions of family are evolving and complex and that ALL parents want and need to be involved in their children’s schools.
To be culturally responsive means to openly learn from and respectfully share with people from your and other cultures. To become culturally responsive takes time and practice, along with a commitment to engage in self-reflection. This practice allows for the challenge and expansion of one’s own perceptions. A great starting point for this practice is to recognize that you, too, were born, raised, and surrounded by culture, which had a profound impact on how you were educated and how your family participated in your education.
We all have deeply ingrained beliefs and biases which exist within blind spots that emerge without our conscious awareness. For example, if there is a parent-teacher conference at school and many of your parents of color don’t show, do you shrug your shoulders and assume their lack of concern? If the parent is white, higher income, do we assume their absence is cause for worry or concern?
Another example: If a parent of color comes to school and heatedly begins to question your methodology, do we consider that parent pushy, yet if a middle-class white parent does the same thing, is it viewed as advocacy, in defense of their child? Targeted universalism, a term that describes measuring everyone by the same yardstick. For example, when testing students, with different ‘realities’, are we setting them up to fail, because of a ‘normalized’ standard generic target tool? People need not be deemed deficient when they may start from a different place. We cannot measure all from same point of reference. Hence, differentiated instruction in the classroom.
Lastly, think about how we are welcoming parents at school. Just as do children, parents will respond more favorably with mirrors and windows. Mirrors are the representations of every group reflected throughout the setting. People need to see themselves everywhere, not one designated space. People also need windows, to appreciate and understand others who are different from themselves, also. So, what does culturally responsive parent involvement look like? Here are three practices to consider:
1. Build Relationships and Be Present
All successful family engagement programs are built on solid relationships. The process of building relationships can be challenging, especially if families and school personnel have dissimilar cultural and linguistic backgrounds. A great way to start is with a conversation – be sure to always keep the child’s learning in the spotlight when asking questions, listening, and sharing. These conversations can happen at school or in the community. By going into and being present in students’ communities, teachers and school administration have an opportunity to not only build relationships, but also to establish mutual understanding and respect. Ideas: Enjoy neighborhood walks and porch visits (a less intrusive form of a home visit). Attend street fairs and other local events in your families’ neighborhoods.
2. Recognize, Honor, and Promote Existing Knowledge
All families have knowledge, and many are willing to share that knowledge. First by recognizing that knowledge (i.e., coming to understand what families know), then by honoring it (i.e., inviting families to share with the class/school), and finally by promoting it (i.e., engaging students, other families, and additional school personnel), family engagement programs send a clear message to all families: they matter and they are a vital component to their child’s education. Ideas: Invite linguistically diverse families to teach or share their primary language. Have culturally diverse families assist you when purchasing books for the school, or decorating the school building, or sharing student work in the classroom or halls.
3. Identify and Use What Works For Your Families
When working with diverse families, the “one-size-fits-all” approach does not work. Not being present for school-based family events doesn’t mean that a child’s family isn’t engaged in student learning. For some families, attending school events is a cultural mismatch, which is to say that the school’s culture and a family’s culture don’t align. Instead of fighting against cultural mismatches, why not seek to reimagine what family engagement looks like? The better a school knows its families and their cultural beliefs around education, the easier it will be to engage those families in nontraditional, yet culturally responsive ways. Idea: Partner with families to co-plan a school-based family event or a home-based family activity.
Vow to utilize the culturally responsive family engagement approach that involves practices that respect and acknowledge the cultural uniqueness, life experiences, and viewpoints of classroom families and draw on those experiences to enrich and energize the classroom curriculum and teaching activities, leading to respectful partnerships with students’ families and academic achievement for all. Remember that teaching is the most powerful profession of them all! Use your powers for good!