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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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FINE Newsletter, Volume III, Issue 1
Issue Topic: Preparing Teachers for Family Engagement

Guest Commentary

Guest commentator Elise Trumbull, EdD, an Independent Educational Consultant and co-creator of the Bridging Cultures Project, discusses the challenges of communicating with families from different cultural backgrounds. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, over one-third of students in Pre-K through grade 12 classrooms are from minority groups, and the families of an increasing number of students are immigrants, many with native languages other than English. However, many new teachers are unprepared to deal with the challenges of this diversity in their classrooms. Dr. Trumbull addresses these concerns and presents a framework to help teachers understand cultural patterns, as well as guidelines for cross-cultural parent–teacher conferences.

Communicating with parents from different cultural backgrounds presents challenges to teachers beyond common language issues. Communication is itself tied to culture. For instance, an immigrant Latina mother from rural Mexico may expect to intersperse personal talk with academic talk during a parent–teacher conference. She may be more comfortable with indirect questions than with direct inquiries about her goals for her child and perceptions of his development. The teacher, on the other hand, may view the conference as an opportunity to focus on a child’s academic progress and gather information that will help that particular child to achieve further. She may regard social conversation, beyond a greeting, as a digression. In addition, the assumptions about child development and schooling that underpin the content of a conversation between parent and teacher may differ. The parent may be just as concerned about her child’s proper behavior as she is about his test performance, whereas the teacher is focused primarily on academic development. Unfortunately, while all of these differences can come into play in a parent–teacher conference, they tend to remain invisible and may result in misunderstandings and discomfort.

These are some of the lessons of the Bridging Cultures Project1 and earlier research on which it was based. Through Bridging Cultures, professional researchers and teachers in Southern California explored ways to use cultural knowledge to improve schooling for the predominantly immigrant Latino students in the region’s schools. Some of the very first changes in these teachers’ beliefs and practices were in the realm of working with parents.

Using a Framework of Individualism and Collectivism

In the Bridging Cultures Project, we used the cultural framework of individualism and collectivism to understand contrasts in worldviews that can lead to conflicts between home and school.2 Schools in the United States are highly individualistic, reflecting the values of independence, individual achievement, interpersonal competition, self-reliance, and individual rights. Cognitive development is generally evaluated independently of social/moral development.

A contrasting set of collectivistic values, meanwhile, is common to many cultures throughout the world, including the majority of immigrants to the U.S., in addition to American Indians and African Americans. Collectivism is associated with the values of interdependence (particularly within the family), group well-being, respect for elders, personal modesty, helping, and sharing. Cognitive and social/moral development are seen as intertwined. Although access to formal education and urban living move people toward a more individualistic viewpoint, many collectivistic values tend to persist across generations.

It is important to note that this framework is a starting point for understanding cultural patterns, not a substitute for learning directly from people about their own worldviews.

Cross-Cultural Parent–Teacher Conferences: A Hotbed of Communication Issues

A conference can be considered cross-cultural even when teacher and parent are from the same ethnic background, because the teacher has likely internalized the values and beliefs associated with the mainstream culture through her own education process. Hence, miscommunication can occur between a Latino teacher and a Latino parent, based on both communication style and beliefs about child development and schooling. A parent may have the goal of rearing a respectful, modest child who is helpful at home and at school, while the teacher may envision an independent learner who is confident in expressing and supporting his or her opinions and achieves to high levels.

Consider the following vignette based on an actual videotaped parent–teacher conference about a fifth-grade girl named Carolina from an immigrant Latino family.3 Carolina’s teacher, mother, father, and younger brother are at the conference.

Teacher: Carolina is doing great. She’s doing beautifully in English and in reading. And in writing and in speaking.
Father: (Looks down at lap.)
Teacher: It’s wonderful!
Father: (Turning to point to younger son) The same… this guy he…
Teacher: (Interrupting, with shrill tone.) Gooood!
Father: …can write—
Teacher: (Cutting him off) He can write in English?
Father: Well, his name…(trailing off).

In this short exchange, several communication problems can be identified:

  1. The father’s lack of initial response suggests his discomfort with the effusive praise the teacher offers, which is not consonant with a value of modesty. He may prefer to hear how his daughter needs to improve rather than about her accomplishments (an inference validated later in the conference, when both father and mother become enthusiastic about helping the daughter improve her handwriting).
  2. When the teacher continues with the praise of Carolina, the father attempts to draw his young son into the discussion. Whereas the teacher seems to find this inappropriate, he is likely acting on the value of family as a cohesive group. From his point of view, each child should be recognized as a contributing member of the family unit, and not so much as an individual. Singling out one child violates that value.
  3. Neither the teacher nor the parent seems aware of the source of the conflict or how to repair the conversation.

Alternative Conference Formats and Communication Practices

Several of the Bridging Cultures teachers have found that a small-group parent–teacher conference format appeals to immigrant Latino parents. When one parent is willing to talk, others will often join in. And parents appear to be more comfortable talking about common problems and goals rather than singling out their individual children for discussion. One format that teachers decided against on the grounds of cultural incompatibility is the student-led conference. Putting students on the same footing as teacher and parents would violate role expectations. Latino parents are likely to believe that it is the teacher who should be in charge.

With the help of one of the researchers in the program (a Latina mother and teacher who grew up in Mexico), the teachers identified guidelines for entering into their cross-cultural conferences. Here are a few:4

  • Begin with a personal exchange rather than launching into a formal progress report.
  • Allow the personal to be interspersed with the discussion of academics.
  • Show respect for the family, instead of only paying attention to the child who is the focus of the conference.
  • Use indirect questions or observations rather than questions to elicit information about the child at home (e.g., “Some parents prefer to have an older child help with homework…” rather than, “Do you or someone else help the child with her homework?”)
  • Discuss the student’s achievements in the context of the peer group of the classroom, suggesting how the individual student contributes to the well-being of all.
  • Explain the goals and expectations of the school and help parents find ways in which they are comfortable supporting their children’s learning.
  • Create a sense of common purpose and caring through the use of the pronoun “we” rather than “you” and “I.”

This resource is part of the March 2011 FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family involvement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the FINE Newsletter Archive, visit

1. Bridging Cultures® is a registered trademark shared by WestEd (San Francisco) and the four founding researchers: Patricia M. Greenfield, Elise Trumbull, Carrie Rothstein-Fisch, and Blanca Quiroz.
2. Trumbull, E., Rothstein-Fisch, C., Greenfield, P. M., & Quiroz, B. (2001). Bridging cultures between home and school: A guide for teachers. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
3. Adapted from Greenfield, P. M., Quiroz, B., & Raeff, C. (2000). Cross-cultural conflict in the social construction of the child. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 87, 93–108.
4. Adapted from Trumbull, E., Greenfield, P. M., Rothstein-Fisch, C., & Quiroz, B. (2007). Bridging cultures in parent conferences: Implications for school psychology. In G. Esquivel, E. Lopez, & S. Nahari (Eds.), Handbook of multicultural school psychology: An interdisciplinary approach (pp. 615–636). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project