Perspectives: How to make sure families of color are heard by the school

6 answers

It’s a common experience: some families of color feeling unwelcome and not being heard at school. And some teachers not being aware of biases that affect the way they interact with students and families.

This situation can make it harder for parents and teachers to communicate when a child is struggling in school. Some families may find it difficult to raise concerns about their child and have the school listen and address them.

We know that everyone’s experience is different. So, we reached out to six Understood experts and Teacher Fellows. Here’s some general advice for educators and parents on how to help make sure families of color are heard.

Answer fromKareem Neal, MA

For educators: Get to know your Black and brown students on a real level. Don’t make assumptions. Getting to know your students will help you feel more comfortable communicating with their families.

I didn’t feel comfortable communicating with my students’ Latinx families until I truly got to know the students and their culture. Once you feel comfortable, you are free to be your authentic self, and that is what people want. They don’t want you to be like them — they want to feel they can trust and believe in you.

For families: Talk to teachers about how in your daily communication with your child about their schooling, something came up that caught your attention. Teachers, sadly, have biases. Some teachers assume people of color don’t pay much attention to schooling until there’s a problem.

That bias is often cut through when teachers realize that the parents are an active part of their student’s education. To be clear, this is a teacher issue, not a parent issue. But if a parent doesn’t already have a great relationship with a teacher, that’s the best way to start.

Kareem Neal, MA, is a special education teacher in Phoenix.

Answer fromKara Ball, MEd

For educators: Communication goes both ways, and oftentimes we as educators forget that. We want families to be open and supportive when we approach them with concerns. In return, we need to offer the same support and respect when families approach us.

Before conferences, send home a preview of what you want to discuss so families don’t feel caught off guard. Be flexible in the hours you’re available to chat, and remember it takes time to build and gain trust.

For families: Try talking to your child’s teacher first with any concerns before going to an administrator. Use sentence starters like “I am concerned…,” “Do you have any advice on…,” or “This doesn’t seem to be working….”

Kara Ball, MEd, is a STEM educator with the Baltimore City Public Schools.

Answer fromBrian Thomas, MS

For educators: Listen more than you speak. Try to ask open-ended questions. For example, “When I spoke to Malcolm, he told me that his math teacher just doesn’t get him. What are you seeing at home?” “Who does he connect with at school?” “What would help him open up at school in ways that he might be comfortable with, and that you might be comfortable with exploring?” “What would him being comfortable and successful look like to you?”

For families: Try to be specific by saying things like “Can I tell you the top two things that matter most to my child?” Or “Here are the three things that would be helpful to me if the school understood.”

Unless you tell your child’s teachers, they won’t know important details, like that you work late or that your child doesn’t always have a quiet place to study after 7 p.m.

You may also want to ask “Would you connect me with other parents who are experiencing some of the same challenges? It would be nice to know we’re not alone.”

Brian Thomas, MS, is assistant head of school at Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School (MICDS) in Missouri.

Answer fromShivohn N. García, PhD

For educators: All parents, no matter what language is spoken, want to know that you understand their child. It’s especially important when you don’t speak the same language as them.

Educators may want to focus on communication challenges right away. Instead, make the extra effort to keep the focus on what you have in common with families: the child. Share what you know about your student — the positive traits you see at school — before jumping into a conversation about a concern.

For families: For families who don’t speak English at home, consider asking the teacher to use translation apps when communicating. This can help if you’re having trouble understanding the teacher or if you think the teacher is having trouble understanding you.

You can also ask the school to get an interpreter for things like IEP meetings. You are the expert in your child, and teachers can learn from you in order to work more effectively with your child.

Shivohn García, PhD, is senior director of the Impact team at Understood.

Answer fromRayma Griffin, MA, MEd

For educators: Don’t make assumptions. Ask questions and listen to the responses. Educate yourself about the unique needs of your families. 

Ask how they envision partnering with you to help their child. Find out how they prefer to communicate (phone, email, face-to-face meeting). And always include an opportunity for families to give you feedback. Good communication is a two-way street. It requires trust, which is built on understanding and mutual respect.

For families: Tell teachers about your child’s strengths, needs, and interests. Share details about your family life and traditions that are important parts of who your child is. 

Talk about what works for you when you have to support or discipline your child. Be open about any barriers your child is facing, like not having time to complete assignments due to work schedules. Try to work with the teacher to address these issues.

Rayma Griffin, MEd, has spent 40 years working with children who learn and think differently in the classroom and as an administrator.

Answer fromTimothy King, EdD

For educators: Be prepared to listen. Often in education, we do a great job of talking but we struggle to really listen. Listening carefully to families of Black and brown students will help you better serve the diverse needs of those students.

Our role is to ensure the safety and well-being of our students. If you see a student being treated unfairly or disciplined unfairly, speak up. Ask to speak directly with the person handling the discipline event. When speaking with them, refer to the discipline process, and highlight where the process wasn’t followed.

Lastly, offer information about biases in the discipline process for minority students, and advocate for a different outcome. Always be prepared to move the conversation up the administrative chain of command.

For families: Start conversations with teachers with your goals for your child. This is a good way to focus toward a solution rather than being viewed as rambling or venting. Focusing on the end goal can also help you bring up concerns in a way that isn’t confrontational.

Tim King, EdD, is a statewide program director for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities in Florida.


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