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Communicating With Asian Parents and Families

By Brian Leung, Tony Wu, NCSP, Majorie Questin, NCSP, Julie Staresnick, NCSP, & Phuong Le — Members of the NASP Asian Workgroup

When interacting with any parent, school psychologists must never assume “one size fits all.” Particularly in the broad group considered as “Asians,” there are many within-group differences to consider, and further difference even within the same national group of Asians (e.g., Chinese). Familial characteristics, such as SES, acculturation level, educational background, and previous contact with professionals all play a part in how a particular set of Asian parents will participate in interactions such as IEP meetings. It is prudent to do one’s homework before such a meeting in order to be best prepared to collaborate with and advocate for Asian parents. Once you have established yourself as a trusted “outsider,” you may discover that other Asian parents will seek you out for support!

Asian Families (General Background)

  • Asian immigrants come from many parts of Asia, and countries in Asia have very distinctive traditions, habits, and preferences. It is important to ascertain the countries the Asian parents from your district come from. Countries commonly represented in the U.S. include China (Hong Kong), Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan, and the Philippines.
  • Asian families frequently emphasize academic achievement more than anything else, because historically, educational attainment was the way to success in life in the old country and also according to the American dream. This can include not entertaining careers that are not deemed as prestigious and money making.
  • Asian families intentionally and many times inadvertently discourage individuation of children and stress conformity. Obedience and following the wishes of elders are considered signs of respect.
  • Asian immigrant adults struggle with Asian-American youths in cross-cultural/generational conflicts in the above areas as well as in other life choices regarding daily living situations.

Communication Styles

  • Face saving gestures (bowing, smiling, or silence—even if they disagree)
  • Nonconfrontative (will not overtly challenge or disagree with authority figures)
  • Cognizance of hierarchy and titles (paying attention to titles and degrees)
  • Children usually are not allowed to express opinions openly (decisions are made by adults)
  • Authoritative parenting style (children, even adolescents, are expected to follow parent wishes)

Help-Seeking Behaviors

  • Not trusting outsiders; usually prefering professionals of the same ethnicity and language
  • Family or friends are sought first for consultation
  • Elders are respected or at least consulted
  • Traditional healers within the community are held in high esteem and sought for consultation
  • Mostly mothers are involved in educational situations (distinct gender role), though fathers will likely have decision-making influence; mothers are then held accountable for results

Attribution of Handicapping Conditions

  • Traditional causes for disabilities include punishment for past sins, fate, or simple laziness that student can overcome with more effort and hard work
  • Shame/guilt is associated with having a child with disability, especially for the mother
  • Less stigma is attached to physical disability than mental or academic disabilities; therefore, you can discuss physical symptoms more openly

Suggestions for Effective Cross-Cultural Collaboration & Advocacy

  • Consider the background of the family before planning strategies; it is possible that you are dealing with a middle-class, American-born, Asian-American parent requiring few (if any) adjustments.
  • When in doubt, mirror the greeting and interpersonal behaviors of families until you learn more (e.g., more formal at first).
  • Allow time for pleasantries before doing "business." Accepting small gifts once is a sign of acceptance.
  • Select interpreters who will be honest and forward with you, so you're kept informed of any cultural issues that impact decision making for the student.
  • Respect is everything. Some prefer that we hand things (files, reports, business cards, etc.) to parents with both hands but at a minimum, do not "throw" or "drop" them in front of parents. Place them gently on table in front of parents or give to them directly.
  • Comparing a child's low academic performance or intellectual ability with another student (or students) in the class may bring shame to the parents, which consequently will bring frustration or anger toward the child. Best to make the comparison general and not specific.
  • Parents from low SES need continual assurance and encouragement to inquire about the presented information or participate in the discussion. Assurance and encouragement can be nonverbal such as a smile and a nod.
  • Allow time for parents to share but manage the time. Most of them are not familiar with the structured nature of IEP meetings and often use a lot of time to share their thoughts and feelings or give excuses for what they perceive as the student's fault. If necessary, promise that we would listen to them after the meeting to learn more about the situation but now we need to focus on the business of the meeting. Vietnamese parents often continue their conversation after the meeting as a way to find closure.
  • Guide parents to learn the "system" so they can begin to advocate for themselves and their children (e.g., in-language written/web material, linkage with other parents, organizing short meetings to review information, home visits).


National Technical Assistance Center (NTAC-AAPI) http://www.ntac.hawaii.edu/downloads/products/briefs/culture/pdf/

Das, A. K., & Kemp, S. F. (1997). Between two worlds:Counseling south Asian Americans. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 25(1), 23–33.

Pang, V., & Cheng L. (Eds.) (1998). Struggling to be heard. Albany, NY: State University of NY Press.

Lin, K., & Cheung, F. (1999). Mental health issues for Asian Americans. Psychiatric Services, 5(6), 774–780.

Serafica, F. C. (1999). Clinical intervention and prevention for Asian American children and families: Current status and needed research. Applied and Preventive Psychology, 8, 143–152.

Wu, T. (2007). Serving East Asian American Children and Families, Communique, 35(6), 42–43.