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5 Tips for Building Relationships With Families of Multilingual Learners

by Judie Haynes |

As schools open this fall, classroom and subject area teachers of multilingual learners of English (MLLs) need to find ways to include families in the life of the school. It is important for schools to adopt policies that support developing respect for the cultures in the school and encourage the engagement of MLL families in their children’s education. The more comfortable newcomers feel in theirs schools, the faster they will be able to acquire new learning. The more anxiety students experience, the less language they will absorb. (Remember Krashen’s hypothesis on affective filter.)

According to the WIDA’s ABCs of Family Engagement (2014), building trust is crucial for “establishing relationships with families from groups that have been historically marginalized by schools, which includes families of language learners.” This trust-building should begin with intensive training for all school personnel that promotes an asset-based approach to the cultures of the MLLs in their classrooms.

In this blog, I’m going to talk about what families need to know when they first come to your school.

1. School Schedule

MLLs and their families need to know what time school begins and ends, when delayed openings and early dismissal days occur, and when school will be closed by inclement weather. My school used to send a monthly calendar home with all students, but my MLL families often didn’t realize it was important or didn’t understand the language on the calendar: We still had students left in school on an early dismissal days or coming to school in a snowstorm.

They also needed to know what time they could leave students in the school yard in the morning. Families often dropped their children off at the elementary school at the same time they took older children to the middle and high school. The elementary school did not begin until 8:40 am, and students are not allowed in the building until that time. The middle and high school began at 7:30 am. I once had a new student from China who arrived at school at 7 am on her first day, and the custodian let her in the building. Her teacher found her sitting in her classroom in the dark. She came to school at the same time her classes started in China.

2. Attendance Policies

Families of MLLs need to know the school procedures for returning to school after an absence and what to do when they arrive in school late. Many families don’t realize how excessive absences affect their child’s academic progress. Colleagues have shared with me that their MLLs may leave for a month without warning to visit their home country for a family event. Families don’t realize that, in our district in the United States, their children are truant when they’ve had 10 or more unexcused absences. In New Jersey, this may result in a referral to the court program. It is important that families are apprised of this before it happens. I once had a kindergarten student who missed a total 40 days of school, and the parents were brought in in April of the school year. The family had been keeping him home every time he had a sore throat but never sought medical help, so he was out of school for about 2 weeks every time he was ill. Our school social worker communicated with the family that their son might need to repeat his kindergarten year. The parents decided to find him a tutor throughout the summer so that he would be ready for first grade.

3. When Families Need to Communicate Information to School Administration

During the first weeks of school, a second grade ESL teacher noticed that one of her MLLs from the previous year seemed withdrawn and uncommunicative with classmates and did not participate in class activities, which was a big change in behavior from the prior year. When a parent-teacher conference was held in October, she learned that the child’s father had died during the summer. The family members never notified the school.

Schools need to build strong relationships with MLL families so that this type of personal information is shared. Families need to alert the school about their child’s medical issues and major changes in the child’s home life, such as illness or death of a family member. These events can impact learning and school behavior greatly. Sharing the information helps schools support students during the hours they are in school.

4. Parent’s Rights

Parents should know their rights when it comes to their students. U.S. schools are not allowed to ask about the immigration status of their family members or request their social security number. Schools should offer free or reduced lunch and provide help to fill out the form. If an MLL has tested into an English language program, the family must be given information about why the child was tested for the program and the level of their English language proficiency.

5. Conferences Between the Teacher and Families

As teachers, we want to give our students a deep sense of belonging in their classrooms and uplift their strengths. If teachers are holding conferences with families of MLLs, they need to send home a letter explaining the purpose of the conference (some families may think that they or their child did something wrong), and communication should be made in the family’s home language. I found that attendance was better at conferences if MLL families had an option to come before school or in the evening, as many families can’t take off from work. During the conference, encourage families to ask questions about concerns they have about their child’s education.

Building a strong relationship with the families of your MLLs begins with communication, so start by making sure your MLL families know how to contact the classroom, ESL teacher, and the school office, and also ensure you know the best way to get in touch with them. With open lines of communication, you can exchange important messages, policies, and schedules—and even friendly dialogue.

About the author

Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.

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