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Communication Matters

Communicating Effectively With Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Families

By Carlos Guerrero, Chair, Multicultural Affairs Committee & Brian Leung Member, Communications Workgroup and Multicultural Affairs Committee

As America’s schools become increasingly diverse, it is important for school psychologists to communicate effectively and responsively with students and families from various backgrounds and cultures. Much attention has been paid by lawmakers and the educational community in recent years to closing achievement gaps between students from culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) backgrounds and their white classmates; however, much remains to be accomplished to make this goal a reality. In addition to existing achievement gaps, it has also been well documented that certain CLD populations have higher and disproportionate incidence rates for special education, particularly in specific categories such as emotional disturbance and mental retardation (U.S. Department of Education, 2006). Finding methods of facilitating home–school collaboration is a key ingredient in the communication process, particularly with CLD families who may lack exposure and familiarity with the U.S. educational system. School psychologists can take a leadership role in this regard both in their own interactions with CLD families and in providing guidance to other school staff members.

This column and the related insert on communicating with Asian American parents and families are part of a series offered by NASP’s Multicultural Affairs Committee and the Communications Workgroup to raise awareness of the issue and to enhance competencies of school psychologists in their work with students and families from CLD backgrounds.

Not a One-Size-Fits-All Concept

Cultural information, guidelines, frameworks, and models abound and are invaluable, but caution is necessary in their use. Understanding different cultural and linguistic groups is important foundational information, yet generalizations about individuals based on their culture, race, and ethnicity should be avoided. Instead, school psychologists and other educators should use the principle of cultural awareness as a framework for understanding, respecting, and responding to the unique culture of all families, regardless of race, ethnicity, or language. Equally important is to be aware that everyone has a cultural lens that affects their world view: school psychologists in terms of how they view a child and his/her family, and families in how they view the school psychologist.

        The following are key messages related to cultural responsiveness for school psychologists to consider:

        Behaviors and expression are mediated by many factors. Every student and family member is shaped and influenced by his/her environment and experiences. School psychologists should consider ecological variables in order to promote effective communication with CLD families. For example:

  • Research shows that low-income parents hold the same attitudes about education that wealthy parents do. Parents from low income levels are less likely, however, to attend school functions or volunteer in their children’s classrooms (National Center for Education Statistics, 2005) not because they care less about education, but because they have less access to the school environment and face greater barriers to involvement (Gorski, 2008).
  • Lack of trust, fear, and suspicion of government entities and school personnel can negatively influence how school psychologists and their provision of services are viewed.
  • Culturally originated pressures to succeed place different burdens on students.
  • Degree of acculturation with “mainstream values” will change behaviors of families from similar cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Not all families from the same CLD background look or act the same.

Reflect on assumptions or preconceived notions about a student or family. A major source of information in the 21st century is the media, which often portray diverse groups according to stereotypes. In addition, thoughts and perspectives about people from different cultures and backgrounds can be passed down from parents to their children or become accepted in localized areas that have limited exposure to a more representative sampling of individuals of CLD backgrounds. School psychologists, who are often leaders in their school communities, need to focus the discussion at school sites toward objective facts, understanding behaviors in context, and an awareness that everyone has a unique lens through which we interpret events. In addition, engaging in a process of self-reflection increases attention to how our experiences and exposures influence the assumptions we make about other groups or cultures.

Recognize a family’s exposure to and formation in a different culture. Building a knowledge base of common cultural traits, practices, and beliefs is a great start for school psychologists to be prepared, sensitive, and understanding of differences when interacting with CLD parents. As with other competencies, focusing our attention on the positive or adaptive strategies that are expressed within cultures fortifies communication and acknowledges strengths. For example, respect is universal but conveyed or understood differently in different cultures. Parent involvement looks different depending on their perception of their role in the school system.

Be aware that global characterizations lose valuable information. As much as a broad knowledge base is helpful in providing background and guidance in interactions with CLD families, stopping there is risky. A multitude of individual differences exist within racial and ethnic groups as well as from individual to individual. As with any evaluation, school psychologists must view the totality of the student that exists within different contexts and parse out environmental factors from those that emanate from within the child.

Consider acculturation and its effects on families and students. Change is never easy, especially when the values of the family (or parents/elders) contrast with “mainstream” culture. Oftentimes adaptation on the part of the family is neither negotiated nor assisted. For example, the provision of mental health services often holds a stigma in many cultures and needed referrals may take additional time and care to complete. School psychologists stand at a unique position to understand and acknowledge the multifaceted nature of CLD families and their acculturation.

Understand that a negative response to acculturation can lead to maladaptive cultural characteristics.Over time, historical or sociopolitical events can negatively affect the process of acculturation of some CLD groups and create secondary cultural characteristics (Fordham and Ogbu, 1986). As a maladaptive response to issues of maltreatment, discrimination, or lack of economic opportunity, some individuals from CLD backgrounds may not only reject “mainstream” cultural values, but also disassociate themselves from those of their regions of origin. As a result, some families and students may become suspicious of school staff or mental health professionals, not want to cooperate with educators’ recommendations, or oppose school rules and academic success for peer group attention. It is our responsibility not to take certain individuals’ preconceptions and negative perspectives personally, but view them as possible responses to environmental/historical patterns or events. In working with those CLD families who may have had this experience, we have the opportunity to create new impressions and relationships.

When in doubt, communicate respectfully, clearly, and thoroughly. Regardless of origin or upbringing, all families want the best for their children. Unfortunately, navigating the educational system to get the help their children need can be a daunting task, especially for families that are not from the mainstream culture. At its most basic level, communicating effectively with CLD parents is predicated on the same principles used in effective communication with any parent: respect, clarity, and care. Remember, time invested in getting to know the CLD families and earning their trust can make a huge difference in fashioning a home–school collaboration that works best to meet the educational needs of our students.

Although the above key messages are clearly not exhaustive, they are meant to assist school psychologists in their efforts to be culturally responsive and to be effective cultural advocates for families and students.

NASP Resources

NASP has many resources available to assist school psychologists and other mental health providers in schools communicate effectively with parents from CLD backgrounds.

NASP’s Culturally Competent Practice web page www.nasponline.org/resources/cultural competence

NASP Cultural Competence–Defining Culture www.nasponline.org/resources/cultural competence/definingculture.aspx

The Provision of Culturally Competent Services in the School Setting www.nasponline.org/resources/culturalcompetence/provision_cultcompsvcs.aspx

Culturally Competent Consultation in Schools: Information for School Psychologists and School Personnel www.nasponline.org/resources/culturalcompetence/cc_consultation.aspx

All Children Can Learn: The Premise of Effective Education www.nasponline.org/communications/spawareness/spweek_allchildren.aspx

Effective (and Easy) Communications: Tips for School Psychologists www.nasponline.org/communications/spawareness/

Truth In Labeling; Disproportionality in Special Education, a guide for educators from the National Education Association (NEA) in collaboration with NASP; available from NASP Publications, www.nasponline.org/publications

References and Resources

Fordham, S., & Ogbu, J. (1986). Black students’ school success: Coping with the “burden of ‘acting white’.” The Urban Review, 18(3), 176–206.

Gorski, P. (2008). The myth of the “culture of poverty.” Educational Leadership, 65(7), 32–36.

Jeynes, William H. (2005). Parental involvement and student achievement: A meta-analysis. Retrieved April 21, 2008 from, www.gse.harvard.edu/hfrp/projects/fine/resources/digest/meta.html

National Center for Education Statistics. (2005). Parent and family involvement in education: 2002–2003.Washington, DC: Author.

National Center for Educationally Responsive Educational Systems (NCCRESt) http://nccrest.org

U.S. Department of Education. (2006). Twenty-sixth annual report to Congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Washington, DC: Author.