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NASP Communiqué, Vol. 37, #4
December 2008

Communicating With Latino Parents and Families

By Anna M. Peña, Arlene Silva, Carolina Claro, Alberto Gamarra, & Elena Parra

Members of the Latino Group of the Multicultural Affairs Committee

General Characteristics and Demographics of the U.S. Latino Population

The term Latino (also referred to as Hispanic) represents a large and diverse group of individuals. Latinos are influenced by their country of origin, language of preference, region where they live, years in the U.S., income level, and level of acculturation and education. The following overview provides generalizations about Latino culture and Latino family characteristics.

The United States is home to a thriving Latino population, encompassing more than 20 cultural backgrounds and a range of languages, belief systems, and customs. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Latino population will comprise a quarter of the U.S. population by 2050, with Mexican Americans accounting for more than half of the Latino population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2008). It is estimated that there are currently over 15 million children of Latino descent under the age of 18 in the United States, with the largest concentrations of Latino families located in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas. As a group, Latino children and adolescents in the United States can face difficulties due to discrimination, immigration issues, poverty, the acculturation process, ethnic identity development, gender roles, and learning English as a second language. In addition, Latina girls may struggle with hypersexualization, teen pregnancy, and body image issues, while boys are at greater risk than the dominant population for dropping out of school and delinquency. Lastly, students who are English language learners may face additional academic disadvantages, particularly when their native language is not nurtured, since oral language proficiency in the native language supports proficiency in English.

Identity Development and Acculturation

Working with Latino families requires an understanding of different worldviews that may impact how individuals communicate with professionals as well as their own children, and how these worldviews shape expectations for development. Greenfield’s collectivism–individualism model provides a framework by which to understand ones’ own perspective and that of the individual families we serve (Greenfield, 1997; Greenfield, Keller, Fuligni, & Maynard, 2003; Trumbull, Rothstein-Fisch, Greenfield & Quiroz, 2001). Those with an individualistic perspective value competition and focus on individual achievements, while those with a collectivistic perspective place a higher premium on interdependence and community, prioritizing the goals of the group over those of the individual. In general, mainstream Americans tend to fall on the individualistic side of the continuum, while Latinos typically trend toward a collectivistic outlook. However, it must be borne in mind that conflicts between the individualistic and the collectivistic views may arise, and Latinos often must balance these competing and contradictory worldviews, in part assimilating, and in part remaining true to their heritage. Naturally, the degree to which an individual family favors one or the other side of the continuum will depend on a wide variety of factors, including acculturation level, generational status, level of education, and socioeconomic status.

Broadly defined, acculturation is the process through which immigrants and their children acquire the values, behavioral norms, and attitudes of the larger society. While this adaptation can spark tensions within families or negatively affect identity and self esteem (e.g., giving up one’s culture to fit in), there are statistically significant positive benefits to a family achieving a high degree of acculturation. For example, research suggests that Latinos who are more acculturated are more likely to access preventive services. Likewise, acculturated families are more likely to have a more positive perception of their health than their less acculturated peers (Lara, Gamboa, Kahramanian, Morales, & Bautista, 2005). In this way, acculturation level is an important consideration when planning and providing appropriate culturally sensitive services.

General Family Beliefs Regarding Mental Health and Disabilities

When it comes to approaching mental health issues, Latino families rely heavily on family members as a support system. Families often seek assistance through primary care physicians, clergy, or traditional healers (curanderos, espiritistas, or santeros); however, the utilization of folk healers is decreasing, particularly among the urbanized and acculturated. Culturally traditional Latinos often understand disabilities from religious, spiritual, or supernatural perspectives. Traditional beliefs regarding causes of disabilities are often fatalistic, with disabilities viewed as punishments from God for some transgression against a family member or loved one. Disabilities may also be viewed as having supernatural etiology, for example, “mal de ojo” (evil eye), “real puesto” (hex), “embrujeria” (witchcraft), and “susto” (magical fright). Disabilities can be perceived as reflections of individual differences. In addition, stigmas can be associated with having children with severe disabilities (Pumariega, n.d.). Although practitioners are encouraged to inform families of available evidence-based services, it is important for individuals who work with Latino families to work within the worldview of the families they serve.

Communication Styles

Latinos are respectful of authority, and often use formal language when addressing individuals whom they do not know—e.g., using titles such as Señora (Ma’am), Señorita (Miss), and Señor (Sir). Further formality in the Spanish language may be present through the alternate use of the pronouns “usted” used to address older people or people in positions of authority and “tú” for friends and colleagues. In general, Latinos prefer to be addressed by their title and last name, and will reciprocate this in the school setting. In addition, Latinos use body language as a form of interaction. Kisses on the cheek are used to greet friends and family, while a handshake is considered to be a respectful gesture and should be included at meetings with parents (Chong, 2002).

Strategies for Increasing Latino Parent Participation in the Schools

Latino parents are interested in their child’s education, but often find the language barrier an obstacle to assisting with homework and participating in school events and meetings (Hyslop, 2000; Aspiazu, Bauer, & Spillett, 1998). Parents are trusting of the school system and believe that the school staff has their child’s best interest at heart. Increasing parental involvement is crucial for Latino student success. Strategies for accomplishing this include:

  • Creating a warm, caring, inviting, and receptive school environment. Personal and verbal contact, in person or through a phone call, helps to include parents who may have limited literacy skills.
  • Home visits. Many parents view home visits as an extension of courtesy on the part of the school. Home visits also help to facilitate parental input.
  • The use of parent liaisons or parent coordinators, who create communication pathways and can help deal with cultural and language barriers.
  • The development of newsletters, which should be bilingual. Newsletters inform parents of upcoming events.
  • Working with interpreters—who should be provided during meetings—especially those where decisions are made regarding a student.
  • Scheduling regular activities, events, and workshops that are based on the interests of parents. Providing transportation and childcare may also increase attendance.
  • Teacher and staff training on the Latino culture, as well as Spanish language training for teachers to facilitate communication. Providing ESL training and GED classes for parents may also be beneficial.

Suggestions for Cross-Cultural Collaboration and Advocacy

  • Assume parents want to be involved and encourage positive involvement.
  • Be aware that acculturation impacts utilization of mental health, education, and social services, with those individuals that are more acculturated being more likely to seek out assistance.
  • Encourage parental access to school personnel of similar ethnic backgrounds, since this may increase utilization, adherence, and follow-up to treatments due to perception of common experiences and expectations.
  • Recognize that some families may use alternative, less conventional substitutes (e.g., curanderos, espiritistas, clergy) for mental and physical health needs (Atkinson, 2004).
  • Develop culturally relevant literature and materials that promote community or family reliance.
  • Attempt to establish contacts with community leaders to enhance your confianza (trust; Atkinson, 2004).
  • Use bilingual services. Because understanding and communicating with parents is a central component of the therapeutic/school support relationship, bilingual services are a must and should be used whenever possible. At a minimum, the practitioner should have a better than working knowledge of the language and culture (Atkinson, 2004).

Latino families are now part of nearly every metropolitan community in the U.S. Therefore, it is important to become educated about Latino family characteristics in order to best collaborate with and advocate for families and their children.

Anna M. Peña, NCSP, is a school psychologist with Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland.

Arlene Silva, PhD, NCSP, is a school psychologist at Gardner Pilot Academy in the Boston Public Schools.

Carolina Claro is a school psychologist at the South Regional Center, Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

Alberto Gamarra, PhD, NCSP, is an Assistant Professor in the School Psychology program at Barry University, and Elena Parra, PhD, is the Program Chair of the school psychology program at Argosy University, Phoenix.

The authors would like to acknowledge Monica Oganes Murray, Latino Cochair, for her editorial and organizational contributions to this article.


Aspiazu, G. G., Bauer, S. C., & Spillett, M. D. (1998). Improving the academic performance of Hispanic youth: A community education model. Bilingual Research Journal, 22(2), 1–20.

Atkinson, D. R. (2004). Counseling American minorities (6th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Chong, N. (2002). The Latino patient: A cultural guide for health care providers. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

Greenfield, P. M. (1997). You can’t take it with you: Why ability assessments don’t cross cultures. American Psychologist, 52(10), 1115–1124.

Greenfield, P. M., Keller, H., Fuligni, A., & Maynard, A. (2003). Cultural pathways through universal development. Annual Review of Psychology, 54, 461–490.

Hyslop, N. (2000). Hispanic parental involvement in home literacy. ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English and Communication. 4 pages. ED446340.

Lara, M., Gamboa, C., Kahramanian, I., Morales, L., & Bautista, D. (2005). Acculturation and Latino health in the United States: A review of the literature and its socio-political context. Annual Review of Public Health, 26, 367–397.

Pumariega, A. J. (n.d.) Stigma of mental illness in the Hispanic/Latino community. Retrieved June 28, 2008, from http://www.healthyminds.org/expertopinion23.cfm

Tinkler, B. (2002). A review of literature on Hispanic/Latino parent involvement in k–12 Education. Denver, CO:. Assets for Colorado Youth. Retrieved July 28, 2008 from http://www.assetsforcoyouth.org/products/latinoparentreport/latinoparentrept.htm

Trumbull, E., Rothstein-Fisch, C., Greenfield, P. M., & Quiroz, B. (2001). Bridging cultures between home and school: A guide for teachers—With a special focus on immigrant Latino families. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

U.S. Census Bureau (2008). Annual Estimates of the Hispanic Population by Sex and Age for the United States: April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2007. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved August 4, 2008, from http://www.census.gov/popest/national/asrh/NC-EST2007-asrh.html