2018 Convention News

Best Practices in Collaborating With Interpreters: Lessons Learned

By Elsa Arroyos, Diana Diaz & Ivelisse Torres

Volume 46 Issue 5, pp. 29-30

This article interviews three convention presenters about working with interpreters and English language learners.

By Elsa Arroyos, Diana Diaz & Ivelisse Torres

In the United States, approximately 4.6 million public school students (9%) participate in English language learner programs (Musu-Gillette et al., 2016). Many of these students' families lack opportunities to learn English, making direct communication with families potentially challenging. In this Presenters in Focus Q&A, convention presenters Elsa Arroyos, Diana Diaz, and Ivelisse Torres discuss best practices for the use of interpreters in schools to help families understand and engage in their child's educational programming (NASP Practice Model Domains 2, 7, & 8). They will also explore this issue in more depth during their Field-Based Skills Session, Best Practices in Collaborating With Interpreters: Lessons Learned, at the 2018 national convention in Chicago.

Generally speaking, when should school psychologists use or collaborate with interpreters?

The collaboration between school psychologists and interpreters stems from a need to provide equal and high-quality support to students and families from non-English speaking backgrounds. For these families, use of an interpreter is critical to accurately conveying pertinent information about related services and supports that are being provided in the educational setting. The increase in culturally and linguistically diverse groups may lead schools to place more importance on establishing strong collaborations with highly trained interpreters to better serve this growing population.

Collaboration between school psychologists and interpreters may permeate many aspects of service delivery (e.g., meetings, interviews, consultation, and evaluation). When involving interpreters during assessment, in particular, school psychologists should inform and instruct the interpreter about key concepts of assessment. For example, an interpreter must be informed about each instrument used, assessment procedures, and jargon. The professional training of the interpreters is important, as this will facilitate their engagement of students and parents during the evaluation process.

What are some cautions, as well as challenges, when collaborating with interpreters?

When collaborating with interpreters, one must understand their role: to provide or facilitate an oral conversion of one language to another between two or more individuals who have difficulty communicating because of language barriers. An area of extreme caution is using interpreters who are not highly trained or qualified to provide such services. An interpreter must complete training in specific interpretation techniques, which should include high levels of language proficiency in the source and target languages, familiarity with the educational environment and processes, and knowledge of the cultural backgrounds of the populations they serve. Without highly trained interpreters, a word-for-word translation may transmit an improper message. For example, an untrained interpreter may incorporate their own opinions or nonverbal reactions to the information being conveyed, which may be perceived as disrespectful to the receiving party. Additionally, some concepts, words, or ideas conveyed in one language may not exist or translate easily to the second language. Having interpreters that understand the educational process can ensure accurate and effective translation.

A challenge often faced when using qualified interpreters is the lack of their availability within the educational setting. This may lead to the use of children, school staff, or any bilingual individual on school grounds to fulfill the role of an interpreter. The challenge here is in the lack of knowledge of the topic discussed and loss of confidentiality between parties. Using children to translate places a large responsibility on them to discuss issues that should be discussed among the educators (or other professionals) and adult family members. Also, the mere notion that any bilingual individual has the ability to interpret is incorrect. In the absence of trained interpreters and when there is a need to communicate immediately with parents and families, a school psychologist would need to consider who is being asked to translate and whether that person is trustworthy (i.e., will maintain confidentiality) and informed (i.e., has full command of the language and is able to convey the technical or educational jargon). To avoid any such issues, it is the responsibility of the educational institutions to seek highly trained and competent interpreters to provide their services where needed. School psychologists should consider advocating for a new policy to address such instances if one does not exist.

Describe some misconceptions that exist related to the use of interpreters in education.

One of the biggest misconceptions related to the use of interpreters is that the only prerequisite skill for an interpreter is that they know the languages involved. For a school psychologist, another potential misconception is that you need to focus on (i.e., make eye contact with) the interpreter when our focus should be on the child and family. Another potential misconception is that you only need to pay attention to verbal communication. Since a lot of meaning can be communicated through nonverbal communication, it is even more critical for a school psychologist and interpreter to be aware of all aspects of how communication takes place. This reiterates the critical importance of school psychologists being cognizant of maintaining natural patterns of communication and being respectful of the child's and family's preferred communication patterns while avoiding stereotypical thinking about specific cultural groups. For example, cultures may differ in family dynamics related to parent roles, with different expectations about whether to address one parent over the other, or both at the same time.

What is the school psychologist's role when working with interpreters?

It is the school psychologist's responsibility to (a) apply the legal and ethical requirements related to providing services to students and families from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, (b) follow the school district's policy and procedures for accessing interpreters when needed, and (c) provide those services in the family's preferred mode of communication. Additionally, they should contextualize the sessions for the interpreter, prepare them before a session, and debrief afterward. During interpretation, the school psychologist should check for understanding constantly while working toward maintaining rapport with the child and family. In other words, school psychologists should constantly be mindful that the child and family are the primary client—not the interpreter.

Additionally, we must be mindful about the need for always advocating for families: conveying who we are, using interpretation as an advocacy tool, and understanding the law and those that apply to specific populations (e.g., undocumented families and children). Upholding these legal, ethical, and professional standards is key to supporting children and families.

Identify some strategies to effectively incorporate interpreters during assessment, consultation, or other related services.

The interpreter should maintain proper credentials to work within the school system. There are agencies that specialize in the provision of such services. School psychologists should consult with their district regarding the availability of such services and ensure that interpretation services are accessible and solicited when needed. It is also critical for the school psychologist to understand the dynamics among the parents, child, and interpreter, being mindful of the importance of building and maintaining rapport.

When establishing rapport, school psychologists should first prepare the interpreter for the upcoming session. Interpreters need to know what is expected before, during, and after the interpretation session (e.g., accurately translate items, understand assessment process). This includes a discussion about confidentiality and having the interpreter sign an agreement indicating understanding. Also, everyone needs to know what to expect and who will be in attendance at meetings. During the session, make sure you address the parent and child (not the interpreter) directly in a culturally appropriate manner, ask for clarification when needed, and be sensitive to both verbal and nonverbal communication. After the session, debrief with the interpreter to go over everything that happened and ensure you clarified any questions.

What are some recommended options if no interpreter is available?

Although it may be a strong possibility a properly credentialed interpreter is not available, school psychologists should recognize the potential legal and ethical implications of sharing confidential information with unqualified or untrained individuals, even if they are school staff. Asking individuals to sign confidentiality agreements is highly recommended. In addition, school psychologists need to be aware that important information might be missing, especially if the person translating does not have adequate knowledge regarding educational and psychological terminology; therefore, it is always good practice to ensure information makes sense and ask whether additional clarification is necessary. Other aspects to consider in particular for the assessment process is that you will be deviating from traditional standardization processes, thus impacting the validity and reliability of assessment findings. It is recommended that, when interpreting scores and writing reports, a statement should be made regarding the use of interpreters during the process.


Musu-Gillette, L., Robinson, J., McFarland, J., KewalRamani, A., Zhang, A., & Wilkinson-Flicker, S. (2016). Status and trends in the education of racial and ethnic groups 2016 (NCES 2016-007). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

© 2018, National Association of School Psychologists
January/February 2018, Volume 46, Number 5