By Julia Mendez Smith, Ph.D., Co-Investigator of the National Research Center on Hispanic Children & Families, and Claudia Vega
Across the country, schools are holding parent-teacher conferences to talk about child development and academic performance—what’s working for a child and what’s not, and how to make the most of this school year.
As Latino parents meet with their children’s teachers, we recognize how parent-teacher conferences can be one important tool for schools to strengthen home-school connections with Hispanic families.
The Importance of the Parent-Teacher Conference
The connection between increased family engagement in a child’s education and improved academic performance has been firmly established by decades of research for both elementary– and middle school-aged students. Students whose parents are involved in their school tend to also have fewer behavioral problems, and are more likely to graduate from high school than students with parents who are not involved.
A successful parent-teacher conference can be an important part of strengthening the foundation for parent and family engagement in a child’s education. In 2012, 64 percent of Hispanic students in kindergarten through 12th grade had a parent who attended school events, while 82 percent of white students had a parent attend. However, differences in attending a scheduled meeting with the teacher were smaller (73 percent of Hispanic parents and 77 percent of white parents).
Cultural Beliefs and Barriers Affecting School Engagement
Certain beliefs and barriers may impact Hispanic families’ engagement with their children’s education. For instance, cultural beliefs around role definitions may result in more home-based (versus school-based) parental involvement in children’s learning experiences.
Identifying these unique beliefs and barriers can help schools and teachers support more active home and school engagement by Latino parents in their children’s education. For instance, Hispanic parents may demonstrate deference to the school out of respect for authority and because of role expectations that education during school time is primarily a teacher’s role and responsibility. This could result in Hispanic families being less likely to ask questions and share their concerns with the teacher, or be less actively involved in the conference process. Schools should not assume this is an indication of less desire for engagement on the part of Hispanic families. Teachers should extend a formal invitation to the families, to which parents may more likely respond because they view it as respectful to attend this important meeting about their child.
Also, we know that Latino families may place importance on the idea of family sacrifice for their children’s education. In a conference, teachers can discuss children’s strengths prior to presenting areas for improvement, which may help families feel proud and pleased that their sacrifices are making a positive impact. This may be especially true for recently arrived immigrant families who may have experienced significant adversity associated with resettlement.
In order to effectively reach Hispanic parents, it is critical that schools utilize culturally-sensitive and diverse outreach strategies. Research found that Mexican-American immigrant mothers felt that acculturation differences between parents and children, separation from extended family, discrimination against immigrants, and concerns about legal status negatively impacted their engagement with schools. One strategy that can help is having language resources readily available. This is already happening across the U.S.: in 2012, 82 percent of Hispanic children in kindergarten through 3rd grade whose parents spoke a language other than English attended schools where interpreters and translated materials were available. In a sample of low-income Hispanic parents with children in Head Start, parents who reported better communication practices with the school, such as availability of another parent or staff member to interpret, also reported engaging in higher rates of conferencing with their children’s teachers.
Leveraging the Strengths of Hispanic Families
Familismo (the importance of immediate and extended family ties) is a strength of many Latino families. Children may be spending important time with adult family members other than their parents; including these relatives in parent-teacher conferences may be useful and reflect the shared commitment among multiple family members to the success of the child.
Due to language barriers, schools may often rely upon Latino students to interpret for their parents during parent-teacher conferences. This pressure for children to engage in language brokering for their family can place the student in an uncomfortable role, but research has yet to establish clear negative impacts on academic performance. That said, parents and family members may not be comfortable discussing issues with the teacher openly if their child is present. Therefore, if professional interpreters are not available, schools should consider asking if other adult family members might be able to participate in the conference when language barriers are present.
Given the prevalence of dual parental employment, more research is needed to help inform how Hispanic parents manage the demands of household and school-related tasks, and how they engage in a child’s education. Schools can offset the challenges of scheduling conferences with working families by offering flexible opportunities for conferences, including holding phone conferences.
For Hispanic families, the parent-teacher conference can be an important opportunity for teachers and parents to plan and coordinate the home and school activities that support their children’s learning. For schools, parent-teacher conferences can reveal sacrifices and contributions that families are making that oftentimes go unseen, and can provide teachers with insights into how to maximize development of the child at any age.