Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children
Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children

Parent engagement is a hot topic in education. Policymakers and educators are looking for the best ways to form partnerships with families, particularly when those partnerships bridge cultural or linguistic differences or focus on very young children.

A new policy brief that focuses on Latino families affirms that preschool programs can better engage parents by “leveraging the ways parents are already engaged to encourage more frequent and different forms of involvement.”

The brief — “The Strengths of Latina Mothers in Supporting Their Children’s Education: A Cultural Perspective” — was released by the Child Trends Hispanic Institute. It reports on the findings of 43 interviews conducted in the Washington, D.C. area “with Latina immigrant mothers about the techniques they used to support their children’s education at the most malleable stage of development, the preschool years.”

Building on what parents already do “is especially important for parents who may appear to be less involved despite holding a high regard for education. For example, Latino immigrant parents consistently place a high value on education, yet appear to be less involved compared with other parents.”

Parents’ Cultural Interactions with Their Children

Latina mothers involved in the study engaged their children in typical ways that teachers can see, the brief says, noting that these moms read to their children and attend parent-teacher meetings.

“At the same time, Latina mothers support their children’s education in ways that reflect Latino cultural values and beliefs or cultural forms of parental engagement, such as sacrificios (sacrifices), consejos (advice), and apoyo (moral support), and these ways may be less apparent to teachers.”

Educators who are not familiar with these cultural norms and activities may overlook them, missing an engagement opportunity.

Instead, the report says, “Teachers and schools may increase parental engagement among Latinos by recognizing, encouraging, and incorporating cultural forms of engagement. This step, in turn, could foster an environment that encourages a true partnership between schools and Latino families and a space in which Latino parents feel empowered to support their children’s education. Teachers may also use cultural forms of parental engagement as discussion points to introduce Latino parents to novel approaches to enhancing their children’s educational development.”

To bridge the cultural gap, the brief explains the key themes of sacrificios, consejos, and apoyo.

Sacrificios refers to a mental state of struggle and sacrifice in the interest of enhancing or supporting children’s education and learning.” Despite the hardships such sacrifices can entail, mothers who were interviewed spoke of them with pride.

Consejos refers to advice parents give their young children about school that reinforces values, such as resiliency and perseverance.” For Latina mothers “educación” means one’s education in school as well as learning manners and morals.

“The mothers in this study knew what it was like to be relegated to working physically taxing, low-status, and low-paying jobs; and they used their own experience as an example of something for their children to avoid. A common theme that ran through the interviews was mothers’ plea that children should not ‘be like me, but be better’ and that education was a means to accomplish this,” the brief says.

Apoyo refers to the emotional and moral support parents offer their children to boost their self-esteem and encourage their perseverance so that they do well in school.”

As one mother explained: “Emotional support comes from home. What they see at home they transmit to school, emotionally. If there is nothing at home, then this can harm them in school.”

Converting the Research into Preschool Action

One step that teachers can take, the brief explains, is to “ask parents how they support their children’s education” and “learn about parents’ values and beliefs, as they relate to their goals for their children and family.”

Professional development programs can help teachers by demonstrating “how narrow views of what constitutes parental engagement can lead to underestimation, misinterpretation, and devaluation of the efforts of parents.”

The brief calls for workshops on cultural sensitivity using real-life examples and interactive activities as well as regular teacher/parent meetings, “preferably via home-visits so parents are in a familiar and comfortable environment — to build and strengthen quality relationships with parents.”

Preschools and schools in general need to move beyond treating parent engagement as an “add-on” activity, Dr. Karen Mapp of the Harvard Graduate School of Education explained at a 2012 Strategies for Children’s event on family engagement for literacy.

“A lot of schools tell me family engagement is something they do if they have time,” Mapp said. “They do not understand that it is an active ingredient of children’s success. It is important for school improvement.”

Meeting the Preschool Needs of a Growing Population

In 2011, a report from the National Council of La Raza — “Preschool Education: Delivering on the Promise for Latino Children” — noted that while the population of Latino children is growing, they are less likely to attend preschool than their black and white peers. The report also pointed to a lack of engagement among Latino families, especially those who are immigrants.

Working harder and differently to engage parents can produce strong benefits for children that will help them succeed in school and later in life. As one of the mothers interviewed in the Child Trends study said: “You can always inspire… That’s the ambition of education. If I show my daughter things of education, she will want them.”