By Karen Nemeth
What can I do when I don’t speak the languages of the parents in my program? If that’s a question on your mind, you know you are not alone. You are facing a challenge that more and more early childhood educators face each year. Building that important connection with parents doesn’t happen overnight. Taking the time to nurture each relationship across language and cultural barriers will bring many rewards, and the following strategies will help.
Snap a few photos of each child enjoying her day, engaged in an activity or participating in a game, so you can show parents that their child is doing just fine. Photos will also help when you are trying to communicate about the child’s progress or about concerns you may have. Besides, it’s always easier to bond with people over photos of their adorable children!
When parents don’t read much English, or if they understand English but have low literacy skills, sending home pages and pages of papers for them to read can be overwhelming. If you work with diverse families, take a close look at the number of written words you have been sending home, and find ways to get rid of the clutter: the paragraphs you don’t really need. When possible, use pictures or graphics to improve understanding, and strive to get high-quality translations for the really important things.
Parent involvement in early education is not a common concept in every country or culture. It may actually be an unfamiliar idea for many families. Rather than pushing them to get involved, introduce parents gradually to your program by offering them services they need. Host an English as a second language class for family members, or conduct workshops on how to find a job or how to locate community services. Use these occasions to get to know the parents as individuals.
Many programs tell me they don’t have much luck getting parents to come in for parenting workshops or meetings. I have found that if you ask parents for help, you may get a better response. When you appreciate what each parent has to offer and ask them to bring their talents to make your program better for their children, they may feel honored rather than intimidated. Create a list of options for all different kinds of participation. Maybe they can bring in music and sing with the children, or perhaps they can help with a cooking activity or with planting a garden for your classroom. Other parents may prefer to help outside the classroom, by coming on weekends to repair toys and furniture or by helping to copy and post notices. Asking for the parents’ help is a way of communicating how much you respect them and value their participation.
Building relationships takes time and patience. In the beginning, you and the non-English-speaking families may stumble awkwardly as you try to communicate with each other. However, if you make the effort to try different ways to reach out and to spend time with the parents of dual-language learners (DLLs), your common experiences will begin to help you understand each other better. The more time parents spend in your classroom or engaging in activities with you, with each other, and with the children, the more comfortable they’ll feel and the more they’ll understand your curriculum and practices. It is the slow and steady nurturing of this shared understanding that will help you relate to parents of DLLs. You are creating the foundation for diverse parents to stay involved and engaged in their child’s education for years to come.
This post was contributed by Karen Nemeth. Karen earned her BA in Psychology from William Paterson University and her MEd in Learning, Cognition and Development from Rutgers University. She has been a teacher and a teacher educator for more than 25 years, focusing her expertise on first and second language development in young children. Karen is a nationally known speaker and consultant based at www.languagecastle.com. She is the author of Many Languages, One Classroom: Teaching Dual and English Language Learners.