4 tips to help Spanish-speaking families communicate with teachers

UnidosUS partnered with Understood, a lifelong guide for people with learning and thinking differences, on Take N.O.T.E., a web-based tool for parents and caregivers who think their child might have a learning and thinking difference, like dyslexia or ADHD.

By Christina Armas, Understood expert and English as a New Language teacher

Designed as a mnemonic device (Notice, Observe, Talk, Engage) Take N.O.T.E. includes simple, free, and accessible practice activities and multimedia features in English and Spanish to help families understand the signs of learning and thinking differences — and then use that knowledge to support their child.

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Families need guidance through this process. As a trusted source of information and support, UnidosUS and its Affiliate Network play a key role in getting the best help possible for kids and caregivers in the Latino community.

In this guest blog post from Understood, Christina Armas (an Understood expert and an English as a New Language teacher) gives advice to help Spanish-speaking families connect with schools when they have concerns about their child.

I met Alex’s mother a few years ago at the beginning of the school year. There was a parent orientation for families of students who were English language learners and who were new to the public school system.

We held the orientation in Spanish. We provided information and resources on how the school would support the student and the family. We also talked about how families could be involved in their child’s education. But there’s so much going on at the beginning of the year and so much paperwork for families to deal with that. It can be really overwhelming.

Later in the year, I met Alex’s mom again in the park. She told me that Alex was having behavior challenges. And while his schoolwork had shown some progress, it was very slow. Alex was also challenging at home. Alex’s mother wanted to come to the school to get help, but she felt her English was not strong enough. She was afraid to approach his teachers who did not speak Spanish.

Communicating with educators about your child is important, but it isn’t easy. According to a study by Understood and UnidosUS, 44% of parents don’t know how to start conversations about learning and thinking differences with teachers. These discussions become even more challenging for parents when English isn’t their first language.

But as I told Alex’s mom and other families I work with, there are many different ways to reach out and find support. From technology options to actual face-to-face meetings, here are my suggestions:

  1. Request an interpreter.
    By law, schools must respond to a parent’s request for language assistance. For example, schools must offer translated materials or a language interpreter. Language help must be free. And it must be provided by staff members who are appropriate and competent (or through appropriate and competent outside resources). Schools should never use students as interpreters.

    The interpretation services are done in person or over the phone with several people calling in at the same time. If the school sets up a videoconference, an interpreter has to be there, too. If you prefer, you have the right to bring a person you trust to interpret for you.

  2. Write an email.
    Find the teacher’s email address on the school website. You can use this example email as a guide when you write your own. Once you finish writing the email, you can translate it into English using a translation program like Google Translate.

    You could also write an email to the parent coordinator. In many schools, the parent coordinator speaks more than one language and can act as an interpreter for you and your child. They can ask questions on your behalf or tell you the best way to solve a problem in the school. The parent coordinator can answer questions about school letters, meetings, trips, activities, or anything happening at school.

  3. Send a text or a voice message. Some schools use apps like ClassDojo, which translates messages back and forth between the teacher and the parent. There are other free messaging apps that translate into many different languages. Find out which app is being used at your child’s school. If you’re not comfortable writing or reading in your own language, ClassDojo lets you send and receive voice notes on your mobile device. Also, a smartphone can read aloud any text on the screen. Here’s a quick video on how to use text-to-speech on a mobile device (both iPhone and Android).
  4. Explore different resources. To start, look at your school’s website. You can also visit the sites for your district or for your state’s department of education. These will have much of the information provided in the orientation. That includes a parent bill of rights and ways you can support your child at home and at school. On some of those sites, you can choose your preferred language. You can also take advantage of other resources, like Take N.O.T.E. From checklists and downloadables, to conversation starters and prompts, this interactive experience is designed to help parents and families understand and support their child, which includes collaborating with their child’s teachers.

Communicating with your child’s school and educators can be challenging. But it’s a step that can make all the difference in ensuring that your child is supported academically, socially, and emotionally at school and at home. For more strategies, check out the following resources:

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