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About Family Involvement Research Digests

Harvard Family Research Project's (HFRP) Family Involvement Research Digests summarize research written and published by non-HFRP authors and/or written by HFRP authors but published by organizations other than HFRP.  For help citing this article, click here.


Latina teachers often have first-hand experience with factors shaping the lives of their English Language Learner students. However, little research exists on these factors and how they may shape teachers' lives and classroom practices. This study focused on six Latina teachers working with English language learners in elementary urban public schools within predominantly Latino communities. Using an ecocultural lens (Weisner, 1984) we attempted to trace their early socialization experiences in order to understand their subsequent influence in present practices.

Research Background

Ecocultural theory states that a universal task for all families is to organize a sustainable daily routine (Weisner, 1984). The theory assumes that family adaptation involves balancing ecology (resources, constraints), culture (beliefs, values, and schemata), and the needs and abilities of family members in the organization of daily routines (Gallimore, Weisner, Kaufman, & Bernheimer, 1989).

A family's daily routine is dynamic and changes according to its needs. How it addresses these needs is filtered by perceptions of resources and constraints, and the actual resources and constraints of the environment. This often involves negotiating options and balancing competing demands. For example, household management involves attending to domestic chores like cooking and cleaning as well as supervising children's school work. A working parent may decide to forego a scheduled laundry chore in order to help a child who is struggling with homework. In this example the family ecology (e.g., limited time, no accessible afterschool program) and sociocultural values (e.g., child's education) are linked to changes in the family's routine.

Research Method

We purposefully selected teachers who attended elementary schools in the U.S. All the teachers worked at public elementary schools, where the school's population is predominantly Latina/o. Teachers were in their mid-twenties to early thirties, first- or second-generation immigrants, and often shared past histories and cultural experiences with their students. These histories and cultural experiences typically included struggling to learn a language that was not spoken at home, growing up in a country where their parents' social and cultural practices were different from those portrayed favorably in mainstream media, and overcoming being seen as “other people's children” (Delpit, 1993) by teachers and those in authority. We felt that the shared childhood and schooling experiences (Hargreaves, 2001) could potentially inform us about key issues influencing these teachers' lives and practices.

We assessed family features with two versions of the Ecocultural Family Interview (EFI), based on current literature and our ethnographic data.1 Each teacher and a trained bilingual/bicultural interviewer met for administration of the two EFI that lasted two to three hours. Interviews were in both Spanish and English following interviewees' choice of language. Teachers, prior to meeting with the trained interviewer, had filled out an extensive questionnaire including inquiries about their demographics and routines.

Our prior work (Arzubiaga, et al., 2002; Rueda, et al., 2000) served as a guide to the analysis. We had previously identified five ecocultural features of childhood that were particularly relevant to the adaptive challenges immigrant families face. In addition, old and new items were grouped based conceptually on ecocultural theory, findings from ethnographic fieldnotes on families included in the current study, pilot work conducted during the development of the interview, and correlational studies of coded EFI items.

Research Findings

We found ecocultural features during childhood that related to teachers' current daily living routines and practices. Instrumental knowledge, nurturance, and parental workload related to teachers' practices.

  • Instrumental knowledge. Instrumental knowledge refers to the understandings about how institutions work. Teachers who currently read more media in English are more likely to have had families that had access and/or knowledge about institutions including schools during childhood. Families' access and use of school-related instrumental knowledge during childhood also strongly and positively related to teachers' adult family involvement in functional literacy—meaning how much the teacher and her current family depend on literacy for daily living.

  • Nurturance. Teachers currently living in homes with high literacy involvement were more likely to have experienced certain types of nurturance in childhood, such as spending family time together, and parental valuing of encouragement and emotional support.

  • Parental workload. Teachers who viewed their families as involved in heavy or complicated domestic and care-taking chores during childhood view themselves and their current family as less engaged in functional literacy activities and in reading for pleasure.

In conclusion, our study found that the literacy practices of Latina teachers related to activities their families engaged in when teachers were in their early school years. We learned that either as single or combined practices, when families had access to and used their knowledge of schools and other institutions to support their children's education, when they offered a nurturing home environment, and when domestic chores allowed time for interacting with their children, the children were more likely to be involved in literacy activities later as adults.

Implications for Teacher Preparation and Professional Development

Our study indicates that the more knowledge about school a family can obtain and use, the more likely the child will benefit, even beyond the school years. This type of family involvement, however, involves a reciprocal partnership, with teachers playing their part as approachable sources of the information families need.

Programs that prepare and train teachers to instruct culturally and linguistically diverse children can apply an ecocultural framework to strengthen teachers' understandings of the backgrounds and family lives of their students. Through this framework, teachers can gain insights about the ways to support families within their sociocultural contexts, and how to address the gaps in families' knowledge about schools and other community institutions. Specifically, the results of our study suggest coursework and field experiences that enable prospective teachers to

  • Facilitate families' access to networks of information about school
  • Create opportunities for parents to establish relationships with other parents or persons that can potentially inform them about the school system
  • Communicate meaningfully with families information about the school system and how to access its resources
  • Reflect on their own upbringings and how this might unconsciously shape their practices with children and families
  • Understand the complex processes of family functioning and adaptation, and their influences on children's learning
  • Acknowledge and support the multiple ways that parents nurture their children's development.


Arzubiaga, A., Ceja, M., & Artiles, A. J. (2000). Transcending deficit thinking about Latinos parenting styles: Toward an ecocultural view of family life. In C. Tejeda, C. Martinez & Z. Leonardo (Eds.), Charting new terrains of Chicana(o)/Latina(o) education (pp. 93–106). Creskill, NY: Hampton Press.

Arzubiaga, A., Rueda, R., & Monzo, L. (2002). Family matters related to the reading engagement of Latino children. Journal of Latinos and Education, 1, 231–243.

Cole, M. (1996). Cultural psychology: A once and future discipline. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Coots, J., & Arzubiaga, A. (1997, April). Development of the ecocultural family interview instrument. Paper presented at the biannual meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Washington, DC.

Delpit, L. (1993). Other people's children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: The New Press.

Gallimore, R., Weisner, T. S., Kaufman, S. Z., & Bernheimer, L. P. (1989). The social construction of ecocultural niches: Family accomodation of developmentally delayed children. American Journal on Mental Retardation, 94, 216–230.

Gutiérrez, K., Crosland, K., & Berlin, D. (in press). Reconsidering coaching: Assisting teachers' literacy practices in the zone of proximal development.

Hargreaves, A. (2001). Emotional geographies of teaching. Teachers College Record, 103, 1056–1080.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1999). Preparing teachers for diverse student populations: A critical race theory perspective. Review of Research in Education, 24, 211–247.

Nihira, K., Weisner, T. S. & Bernheimer, L. P. (1994). Ecocultural assessment in families of children with developmental delays: Construct and concurrent validities. American Journal on Mental Retardation, 98, 551–566.

Rueda, R., MacGillivray, L., Monzó, L., & Arzubiaga, A. (2001). Engaged reading: A multi-level approach to considering sociocultural features with diverse learners. In D. McInerny & S. VanEtten (Eds.), Research on sociocultural influences on motivation and learning (pp. 233-264). Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing, Inc.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Weisner, T. S. (1984). Ecocultural niches of middle childhood: A cross cultural perspective. In W. A. Collins (Ed.), Development during childhood: The years from six to twelve (pp. 335–369). Washington, DC: National Academy of Science Press.

Wertsch, J. V., Tulviste, P., & Hagstrom, F. (1993). A sociocultural approach to agency. In E. A. Forman, N. Minick, & C. A. Stone (Eds.), Contexts for learning: Sociocultural dynamics in children's development (pp.336–356). New York: Oxford University Press.

Zimpher, N., & Ashburn, E. (1992). Countering parochialism in teacher candidates. In M. Dilworth (Ed.), Diversity in teacher education (pp. 40–62). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

1 The domains have been defined theoretically (Weisner, 1984) and operationally for Euro-American families (Nihira, Weisner, & Bernheimer, 1994) and adapted for Latino populations (Arzubiaga, Ceja, & Artiles, 2000; Arzubiaga, Rueda, & Monzó, 2002; Coots & Arzubiaga, 1997; Rueda, MacGillivray, Monzó, & Arzubiaga, 2000).

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