Strong Connections Built on Confianza Between Home & School for English Learners

by Sarah Ottow

“This student doesn’t have any support at home.”  “ELL parents just simply don’t come to school.” “If only the family would just get involved, the student would do better in school.” Many educators tell us how much family engagement matters and, in many cases, exasperated in terms of what could be improved. It’s true that a major indicator of school success is a strong connection between home and school and how expectations for student achievement are communicated through the family.  

However, there are many reasons why families may be disengaged, or what we may perceive disengagement to be.  Plus, there is no “one size fits all” approach for working with families or students, for that matter.  To focus on the things that aren’t happening isn’t completely productive and doesn’t necessarily move things forward.  We need to move beyond “admiring the problem” of disengaged students and families to an actionable approach of finding out why families may be disengaged and try to build bridges to support them. If we stay stuck in the problem without shifting our focus to one of looking at strengths and ways to build bridges, we won’t make any progress.  And often the solution lies within us.

We need to remember that underperformance is usually not a “within child” issue. Blaming students for not achieving at the level we expect them to is largely operating in a deficit mindset.  This way of thinking is usually inaccurate and most certainly unproductive. Thus, we need to reframe our thinking in terms of a “within system” issue focused on what steps we can take to provide for equity for our students.  By shifting to an asset-based mindset, we can look for the root causes of why that access to meaningful and rigorous learning opportunities isn’t there, and most importantly, what we can do about it.  We need to focus on what is within our “circle of influence” and put our energy into what we can actually change based on your experience for the benefit of our students.  


Root Causes Analysis of Student Disengagement

One reason that ELL may not feel connected to school is because much of the curriculum features typical “American” topics that may not be readily accessible to learners from other cultures.  If we can find this“mismatch” of student experience to the curriculum, we may be able to enhance our curriculum to better match the lives of our students. If our goal is for students to be more engaged in the classroom, doesn’t it make sense that their identities are somehow present in it?  If students aren’t engaged in the curriculum, underperformance, not to mention behavior management issues, can result. As my esteemed graduate advisor said to me as I began teaching, “The best classroom management is a student-centered curriculum.” I worked hard in my formative years to make my “standard” curriculum more meaningful for my students so that they could not only see their identities reflected in the classroom but were, more often than not, inspired to contribute, to learn and to grow.  Nora was already doing it but wanted to do it more intentionally with an eye towards integrating family histories and cultures.


Starting with Strengths

An asset-based mindset and vision for success is necessary for building strong relationships with students and families.  To become asset-based, we need to interrupt deficit-based statements and change them into probes as to what we can do to advance the situation.  

For example:

  • “This student doesn’t have any support at home.”  By using “absolutes” like “doesn’t have any supports”, we are devaluing what supports may exist at home, even if they don’t fit within what may be traditionally defined as supports.  Who is at home with the child? Are their role models at home or in the community? And, what is our goal for the child--do we absolutely need home support in order to make success happen?  Perhaps we need to examine what expectations we have for home support, and if it’s not possible to the extent that we expect it, then maybe we should provide more appropriate homework and home-school activities.
  • “ELL parents just simply don’t come to school.” There are many varying cultural values on the role of parents/families and schooling for their children.  Values manifest in different behaviors which can be understood, especially from the dominant American culture where parents are often expected to be present at home and at school for their child.  Some cultures view the role of the family to take care of children at home, fostering independence on the part of the student at school. Others view it inappropriate to get involved at school. None of these perspectives state that families don’t care about their children’s education.  In fact, education is valued by people from every culture so we should refrain from making value statements on a family or a culture if the adults are not as present in schooling as we might expect. Questions to dig deeper may be, What are the culture values present in this home culture?  What is my classroom or school expectation around family involvement? Do we explicitly value many types of family engagement or only one, more traditional American type? Again, we can look at our expectations and how we are communicating them. We can determine if they are culturally responsive to the students and families we serve.
  • “If only the family would just get involved, the student would do better in school.” While the research points to higher student achievement with a high rate of family engagement, we can back up and think about what our definition of family engagement is and what factors may be at play for our students.  Does the student live with a caregiver who needs to work several jobs and simply isn’t available? Is the home culture one that prefers to stay out of school affairs? Does this family know that the school values their perspective?  Are the school and classrooms welcoming, providing access to families from other language and culture backgrounds?

All of the above statements can be shifted into the circle of influence by focusing on what we can do to build bridges with families and students in respectful, proactive ways.  

Determining Causes of Disengagement

Educators often identify needing to improve understanding of students and their families as an underlying cause of disengagement.  I see this all the time. We want to rush to an action step but we haven’t gone “below the surface” to make sure we understand our students as best as we can.  We need to make sure that we truly understand our students, that we authentically are connecting with them and the homes they are coming from. And by looking more deeply at the “clients” we are serving, we can better uncover root issues that may not be so obvious right away.  Thus, it can be helpful to back up and consider how well we know our students and how well we are, or aren’t, engaging with their home lives in order to more fully engage them in her classroom.


Family Engagement vs. Parental Involvement  In order to build a strong connection between the school and the home for our linguistically diverse learners, we must first define what we mean by family engagement.  Traditionally, we often refer to schools engaging with families as “parental involvement”.  However, this term can be limiting. First, using the word “parents” is not an inclusive way of referring to the home communities of our students.  Children come from homes that may have traditional “parents” and they also come from homes that may have grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, adoptive parents or step-parents or other adults as caretakers.  For many ELL families I’ve worked with, it’s very common for extended, multi-generational families to live together. Cultural values can inform what Americans may view as “non-traditional” family structures, as well as socio-economic needs and immigration/migration issues.  It’s not uncommon for a child to be sent to the United States to live with relatives or family friends before or after his or her parents or other caretaker in order to get things settled. Thus, reframing how we call the people who care for our students from simply “parents” to “family” promotes inclusivity of all types of home configurations.  This is true not just for our ELL families but for all of the families we serve in our schools.

Second, the word “involvement” is problematic.  Involvement connotes something that is being done to families, more of a one-way communication path from the school to the home.  Whereas, “engagement” is a term that connotes something that is being done with families and is more of a two-way street.  Engagement takes both parties and is a form of expressing confianza or mutual trust and respect (see Chapter 1 for more about confianza).  Family engagement is defined as a relationship between families and educators that is ongoing, not just when a critical issue arises.  Family engagement is comprised of relationships that are built on trust and respect so that the common focus is student learning and achievement. 


Considering other Perspectives  Aside from language, we need to consider what expectations we have for our diverse families and if they are appropriate.  Without reflecting around this competency, we may forget that there isn’t one cultural perspective. Doing so can color our perceptions and expectations of what family engagement should look like.  Our perception may be coming from what we experienced and that experience may have been very different from that of the families we serve.  Schools working with culturally and linguistically diverse families should remember that families value education in different ways, not just the more traditional ways that the American culture values--i.e. showing up for parent-teacher conferences and signing the homework notebook every night.  Cultural differences, previous experiences and language barriers can impact family engagement and, most importantly, what our perception and expectations of what appropriate family engagement can look like.  


Checking Our Expectations  As a teacher, I had to check my expectations that every parent, every caregiver, would be an active participant in the school.  I had to remember that they way my family defined family engagement for me growing up isn’t the way all families, and all cultures, define it.  For example, let me tell you about the Rodriguez family. They had newly arrived from Puerto Rico, and the two Rodriguez students were my ELL caseload my first year as an ELL teacher. I knew from my previous experiences as a classroom teacher in an urban district that all sorts of barriers prevented a strong home-school connection--poverty and developing English proficiency to name two. Mrs. Rodriguez was no exception. She didn’t call the school when her kids were sick. She didn’t show up for conferences. Her children’s teachers made comments like, “Well, no wonder those kids have such a hard time in school; their mother just doesn’t care about their success.” “That mother never signs the homework notebook and those kids come to school with such poor hygiene.” I heard the teachers’ frustrations yet I had to make sure I wasn’t making the same assumptions that they were.  Luckily, I spoke Spanish (Puerto Rican Spanish at that!) so I wrote a note home to Mrs. Rodriguez one day asking her to please meet with me, either at the school or at her home. She came to the school asking for me and we sat in my “classroom” which was really the tiny corner of the computer lab. Mrs. Rodriguez seemed really grateful that I could communicate with her since none of the office staff or school support team who had previously contacted her spoke Spanish.  She was also excited that I had lived in Puerto Rico and was familiar with her pueblo (town).  We started a long-term relationship that day that lasted through the three years I was her children’s ELL teacher at that school.  

Note from Mrs. Rodriguez to me: “Thank you for your interest in realizing the dreams of the students of the school” demonstrating confianza and the importance of a strong-home school connection

In getting to know her, I learned that Mrs. Rodriguez had the highest hopes for her three children and was very focused on their academic success.  She was a single mother who had become pregnant at a young age, struggled in school, dropped out to care for her baby, and then escaped an abusive relationship in Puerto Rico to have a new life in the mainland United States.  She was embarrassed to be on welfare and hoped to improve her English skills to start working once her youngest son became of school age. Over time, she shared with me that her experiences in school had not been positive. In getting to know her son’s learning issues (who later received an IEP once we made sure these issues were not language-acquisition related, but, in fact, a true language processing disability along with some behavioral concerns), I suspected she may also have a disability, or, at the least, gaps in literacy development partly caused by the notoriously inconsistent public school system of Puerto Rico.  Here in her new life, she made sure her children were well-fed, had a space to do their homework and that they heard from her consistently about how important doing well in school is for their future. Even though Mrs. Rodriguez’s limited English proficiency prevented her from being very hands-on with homework help, she made sure they did it every day. She didn’t understand the expectation to sign the homework notebook daily, but as soon as I explained it, she made sure to do it. Also, what was perceived as poor hygiene was, in fact, not the case; the students were always clean and well-fed but, due to their socio-economic situation, they only had a few outfits and many of the clothes had been worn or had holes in them.


Uncover Motivators  Given these challenges, I, along with other empathetic educators at the school, started to focus on what we could do to empower this mother and her children and other ELL families in similar situations.  We discovered what motivated the students so we could help set them up for success (i.e. Mrs. Rodriguez’s daughter loved attention from me so he got weekly lunches with me, whereas the son was motivated by using the computer at the end of the school day so we used that as a reward for his behavioral issues). We learned about the students’ interests and integrated them into the curriculum.   We offered the choice to families of when and where to talk. We got the social worker and interpreters involved. We reviewed the documents we sent home to be sure they weren’t overly complicated (they were) and revised them into more simplified messaging which ended up helping ALL of our families, not just ELL families. We focused conversations with families more on us listening rather than us talking.  We brought in student-selected work to show growth over time of English development and content standards.  We wanted our approach to be that of true family engagement, a two-way interaction focused on the common goal of student success. Once we had trusting relationships built, we tapped into funds of knowledge--in this case, it was food.  


Tap into Funds of Knowledge  Mrs. Rodriguez loved to cook Puerto Rican dishes and insisted I come over periodically to eat with the family and refine my cooking skills. Not only did she want to share her gift, she also appreciated my company and the opportunity to practice English.  I had found other families in need of connection with English, with each other, and so I started an ELL Family Literacy Program at the school. The program was funded by district community education funding and the curriculum I designed was focused around key facets of surviving and thriving in a new community.  We went to the grocery store. We went to the post office. We went to the library. We role played parent-teacher conferences. We practiced calling the school to report a sick child.  We shared our talents, which in this group, came in the form of food. Mrs. Rodriguez and other mothers created a recipe book for the school as a final project for our Family Literacy Program.  This recipe book was a beautiful complement to the annual Harvest Festival that the school had to celebrate the school garden and what classrooms made with its ingredients. In fact, these mothers became not just contributors to the Harvest Festival, but sought-after “experts” of their cuisine.  Her children were so proud! Plus, the teachers who had previously misunderstood and misjudged Mrs. Rodriguez now saw her as an equal and a mother who cared for her children and could contribute her talents to the school community.


Build Bridges Based on Mutual Trust and Respect  In our role, as educators, we can see that it’s key to keep several things in mind.  As illustrated above, we need to redefine what “family engagement” means in order to honor all family configurations and build relationships based on mutual trust and respect.  We also need to set families up for success by creating reciprocal, “two way street” bridges for communication and be sure we aren’t making assumptions about students’ home lives without getting the full story.  In doing all of this, we also need to discover and potentially integrate families “funds of knowledge” into the school community. By backing up and looking deeply at our family engagement approach in these ways, we can better ask the right questions to address the challenges of creating and sustaining strong home-school connections. We want to be sure that we are not looking past potential root issues, like a lack of home to school connection that may be strengthened by us and/or the school.


It’s All About Relationships  As I explained above with Mrs. Rodriguez, building those bridges of mutual respect and trust (confianza) were key.  As Schecter & Cummins (2003) stated, “respect and affirmation are central to motivating second language learners to engage actively and enthusiastically in academic endeavors” (p. 11).  Additionally, in a multicultural schooling model, we want practices to be transformative to ensure equity for underrepresented groups.  This includes investing in the identity of our students, their families, getting to know them in the classroom, outside of the classroom through meaningful, respectful family engagement.  Here, we build respect and affirmation of students’ backgrounds by unpacking factors why barriers may exist between home and school. This can help increase engagement in school for both students and families.  We can define maximum identity investment as being sure we take the time and build the systems to understand who our students are, where they are from and what they need to succeed.  As I explained above with Mrs. Rodriguez, it all starts with relationships and meeting the family where they are at in order to better understand their issues and assets.  


Family Engagement Plan

One way to back up and examine our approach for family engagement is by doing a “Family Engagement Plan” with a priority family.  Like the Student Profile, going through a step-by-step process can help us slow down our thinking, put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and consider new ways forward to build bridges.  You’ll see that you can focus on one student or set of children from the same home here and “dig in” to the factors that may be impacting a stronger home-school connection. It’s helpful to recall the factors from the student profile here but there could be others you can think of, too. For example, on the example here, the teacher noted how the parents’ work schedule prevented them from coming to the school for school events.  By making space to uncover family history and “funds of knowledge,” this example shows how the family has access to community resources yet is going through a lot of transition with new family members living at home, which can greatly affect the student’s readiness to learn and the family’s ability to be engaged in schooling in more traditional ways. Then, once you’ve laid out these factors, you can pinpoint your goals going forward.  This means getting clear about reasonable expectations--often taking it step by step--for this family, building on what has worked, even if it’s been imperfectly, and also bringing in new ideas to build bridges.  In this case, you can see the teacher worked with the mother to meet her at a different school during hours that were convenient to the family.  Now that’s a step in the right direction, building a reciprocal relationship between the teacher and the parent!

Family Engagement Plan Example

Focus on positive, goal-oriented relationships built on mutual trust and respect.

Student Name


Family Members and/or Guardian(s)

Mother, Father, Grandfather, oldest half­brother (paternal) 2 older half­brothers (maternal), Juan
(Also an older half­sister lives in DR)

Potential Factors Affecting the Home-School Connection

Factors helping the connection to school:
+ Parents clearly love the student
+ Parents want the student to be successful in school
+ Parents are experienced at connecting to school
+ Parents have built relationships with some school staff members. + Parents English language skills are building
+ Mother openly shares information

Challenges to connection to school: 
Parents’ complicated work schedules, Family stress, Language barriers (Spanish is primary and School personnel fluency in only English),
Economic factors (gas money, time missed from work), Cultural barriers

Family History & Funds of Knowledge

Parents understand much about school programs, expectations, resources, report cards, special education, graduation, etc.
Parents are aware of community resources and are accessing mental health services when appropriate.

Grandfather is ill and has recently moved in with the family to be helped. In the fall, Juan’s oldest half­brother moved into the household.
Prior to oldest half­ brother moving in, Juan enjoyed special attention from father as his only biological son in the household.

Student is currently worried about how well his parents are getting along with each other; trying to adjust to new configuration of household, and has concerns about what might happen next.

Your Goal for Family Engagement

To build a connection to Juan’s mother.

To find a way to communicate more directly.

To better support student at school.

What Has Worked So Far

I have communicated indirectly using a Spanish teacher from the district middle school to relay messages. This has been somewhat successful, far from ideal, but better than nothing. We are working on securing a Spanish interpreter for this family and others coming to our school.

I have also collaborated with other school staff members who have history with this family.

New Strategies to Try & Resources to Help

I will meet with mother face to face at the middle school utilizing the Spanish teacher as an interpreter (for now) I am accommodating parent’s schedule and traveling to another location to make things easier for her and to demonstrate that I care. The meeting is scheduled back to back with another meeting mother was already planning to attend at the middle school.

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