Recently, a teacher said to me, "In my classroom, there are children from a number of cultures. I don't have time to study each of these cultures, but I do want each child to feel comfortable in my classroom. It seems like an almost insurmountable problem." As we chatted, we teased out what we agreed were the most important things that this concerned and way-too-busy teacher could do to bring the children's home worlds to school.
Learn More About Children's Families
The first and most important thing to remember is to assume nothing—get to know your children and their families. You don't need to know about the home country and culture of every child. And even if you did, you would still know very little about an individual child's family—it's not a good idea to make assumptions about a family based on what you know about its culture. Focus on each child in your class and his family life, including traditions, rituals, language, and other specifics of that child's home experiences. Everything you need to know and do can come from the child and his family. They are your best resource.
There are a number of things you can do to learn more about how a child's family lives and to help children feel comfortable about sharing their backgrounds with you and with their classmates. Although some of these ideas may be familiar to you, the important thing is to do them—to engage children in as many of these activities as possible.
When school starts, and throughout the year, invite children to bring in photos of themselves, family members, family activities, and special events. Suggest that they include photos of grandparents, other relatives, and anyone else who is significant to them. Be prepared for unusual family groupings or relationships so you can graciously accept them: "These are my parents, my mom and her boyfriend." "This is me and my donor dad." "This is my birth mother." Regardless of how we feel about certain issues, our job as teachers is to endorse the child and his family—to strengthen the child's self-esteem.
Include time in your schedule each day (or at least three times a week) for children to work on journals. Expect children 4 and older to draw and dictate (or write, invented spelling and all) stories about home happenings, as well as about school friendships and events. (Sometimes children can't think of anything. It helps to sit down next to each reluctant journalist and engage in conversation: "What did you do this weekend? Did you go anywhere? Did you do anything fun? What did you play? Did you play with anybody?") This increasingly conventional activity has much less value when we don't take time to get each child thinking and recording his most interesting experiences, including feelings and opinions.
Plan to have a family-related group discussion each week. Pick a topic, optimally one that emerges from a child's experiences or comments or from your curriculum. The more naturally you can tie this into other aspects of your program and classroom life, the better. (Remember: All these topics can be supplemented with lots of good books.) Topics might include:
- family pets or animals the child has known—this is a cross-cultural home-school activity that leaves no one out (perhaps leading to visits from various pets)
- grandparents (or grand-aunts and -uncles)—most children have had experience with relatives (or close family friends) two or more generations removed (this could lead to visits from various older relatives, each with a story about his childhood that could include aspects of life that were different then)
- siblings or cousins—including visits from these available family members (children are usually thrilled and proud to bring a big brother, baby sister, or cousin to play at school for a while)
- "the house I live in"—with the child's verbal or illustrated version of her home (introduced or followed with books picturing different kinds of homes or animals and their homes)
- family rituals and traditions—including food, music, church, birthdays, holidays, and work family members do.
Be careful! Some families don't attend church, give birthday gifts, or celebrate holidays, but all families have habits and routines. And everyone does something, whether or not she's employed.
The second principle involves helping children feel good about their families and helping families feel good about their children. Many teacher preparation programs don't include components involving work with families. In addition, teachers are so busy in the classroom that it can be hard to fit in work with families. Some teachers find this work difficult—and the reasons can be wide ranging. There may be conflicts regarding belief systems or a lack of understanding about backgrounds and cultures. Staff development workshops facilitated by skilled leaders can be very helpful in forming the foundations of family work.
There are many things you can do, however, each and every day to help children feel good about themselves and their families. Some require no more than making sure that your responses to children are sensitive and considerate. For example, when inquiring about children's families or backgrounds, show children that you're interested but never ask questions that may make a child with an atypical family feel "different." Teachers have the power to make a child feel unhappy and confused or OK about her family. Frequently saying things such as, "Every family is different from every other family. The important thing is that it's your family," can be helpful for children between the ages of 3 and 8, who are beginning to deal with a world bigger than their family and are keenly aware of every difference.
How you handle children's sometimes-hurtful comments and elicit discussion about family similarities and differences (with the emphasis on similarities) is extremely important.
For example, if a child has said something unkind about another child's family, you might respond by saying: "Johnny, I just heard you tell Paul that he has a stupid family because he doesn't have a daddy. In our school, we don't say mean things about people's families." Then, take advantage of the opportunity to discuss family differences and similarities by saying, "You know, everyone has a different kind of family. Some families have one child, some have all boys, some have all girls, some have boys and girls. Some families have daddies who live in the home and some families don't have daddies living at home. Some have a mommy who takes care of the children, some have a grandma who takes care of the children, some have a daddy who takes care of the children. Families are not all the same. There are so many differences, and it's fun to share them with one another!"
Another way to demonstrate how much we value children's families is to invite them to visit the classroom. Many will be pleased to come in to cook a dish with children, lend an occupation-related prop to your play area, or talk about a skill they have, a place they have lived, or to help you in the classroom. Children take great pride in seeing their families sharing and working with their classmates.
Many teachers say that it's often difficult to get parents to come to school. However, members of some children's families will become regular helpers in your classroom if:
- their help is strongly sought
- family members other than parents are urged to help (older brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts)
- they are consulted about what they would like to do (perhaps by means of a checklist and conversation)
- they are given an orientation and instructions
- a mutually convenient schedule is established
Stay in Touch
The third principle in working with parents is to make sure that you connect with family members individually and that those connections are positive ones. Here are some things you can do to get started:
Greet family members warmly when you see them. Invite them in "to see what we're doing" and "to take a look at all the things going on in our room." This will help them to feel comfortable in the classroom culture. Most important, their child will glow.
Phone families at home from time to time and say something about their child that will warm the parent's heart. You'll be building bridges for future partnering.
Keep a small home-school notebook for each family. Write a positive personal note home every week or more frequently. Encourage parents to write back and get a two-way written conversation going. It's a great way to gather information about family culture and traditions.
Make home visits. By pre-arrangement, drop by for 10 friendly minutes, maybe to deliver something. You'll be bridging the home/school gap and experiencing the child's home culture.
Plan frequent "field trips" and classroom events (potlucks, story parties, art shows, picnics, swap nights, tea parties) with family members. Encourage multicultural contributions. Vary the time of day you do these things so more people may be able to come. Enjoy! The children will.
Have regular meetings with families. At these conferences, sit informally as equals and dialogue amiably, with the emphasis on the positive.
Build Constructive Relationships
To set the foundation for constructive relationships with families, arrange for conferences early in the year. Use this time as an opportunity to ask parents about their goals for their children and share your goals with them. Discuss any discrepancies between the goals and seek common ground. Remember that, typically, parents' and teachers' feelings differ on a number of subjects such as eating, cleanliness, toilet training, play, academics, and discipline. This is particularly true where more than one culture is involved. Discussing this in a parent meeting gets these touchy issues out in the open in an impersonal, thus non-threatening, way.
If you're having a problem with a particular family on a particular subject, calmly and respectfully discuss it with them privately. Begin by indicating that people often see things differently, though you both just want to help the child grow in positive, healthy ways. Try to find areas of agreement and places where you can compromise, sometimes doing things the parents' way. In other instances, you can say, "I see we have the same goal. This approach has worked for so many children: Would you be willing to try it for a few months? Then we can re-evaluate the situation and decide together what needs to be done next, if anything."
Caring teachers develop protective feelings about the children they work with. Sometimes a parent might believe that a teacher disapproves of her, causing the parent to feel resentful. Stresses and jealousies, or at least tugs and pulls, are inherent in the parent/teacher relationship. It helps if teacher and parent talk respectfully about this when tensions arise.
Teachers also need to reflect on ways in which their own attitudes and feelings might be interfering with the ongoing healthy relationship for parent. For example, when a parent has trouble separating from her child at drop-off time, and the teacher feels increasingly upset about this, it may be that:
- the teacher believes that the parent is over-protecting the child because her own parents believed in the notion of throwing children into the deep water to sink or swim, to tough it out.
- the teacher feels angry and hurt that the child isn't immediately eager to turn himself over to her care.
- the teacher, as a child, felt abandoned by a parent who died or left the family, so subconsciously she still finds separation a painful subject.
An Expert Partnership
The fourth and final principal in working with families is to understand that they know much more than you ever will about their children and their families, while you know much more about the curriculum and the school culture. The child's best interest is served when teachers and family members forge a partnership of equally expert people who care about the children's well-being and education.