ERIC Identifier: ED333619
Publication Date: 1991-05-00
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Handicapped and Gifted Children
Communicating with Culturally Diverse Parents of Exceptional
Children. ERIC Digest #E497.
Teachers and other professionals providing education-related services
to exceptional children from different cultural backgrounds need to be
aware of unique perspectives or communication styles common to those cultures.
The ways people deal with feelings--especially disappointment, anxiety,
fear, embarrassment, and anger--vary considerably, and often it is not
easy to discern how parents are reacting to the realization that their
child has a disability. It is especially important to help parents who
have been outside the mainstream of U.S. education understand the educational
options available. To do this, professionals need to be sensitive to the
different values, experiences, and beliefs that may be held by members
of various cultural and ethnic groups toward special education.
USE LANGUAGE PARENTS CAN UNDERSTAND AND USE SENSITIVITY IN COMMUNICATING.
To facilitate communication, educators should use the following guidelines:
* Send messages home in the parent's native language.
* Use an appropriate reading level.
* Listen to messages being returned.
Courtesy, sincerity, and ample opportunity and time to convey concerns
can promote communication with and participation by parents from different
cultural backgrounds (Johnson & Ramirez, 1987). During meetings it
is important to provide ample opportunity for parents to respond without
interrupting. If a parent is formulating a response and has not expressed
himself or herself quickly, this delay should not be viewed as a lack of
interest in responding. Educators need to listen with empathy and realize
that parents can change from feelings of trust to skepticism or curiosity
as their understanding of programs and policies increases. It is important
to realize that this reaction is normal and that parents may feel hostile
or desperate as they attempt to sort out facts from their fundamental beliefs
In communicating with families from different cultural groups, educators
should keep in mind their diverse cultural styles. There is no one set
of characteristics that can be ascribed to all members of any ethnic group.
Instead, the cultural traits of individuals range from those traditionally
attributed to the ethnic group to those that are descriptive of a person
who has been totally assimilated into the majority culture (Carter &
Segura, 1979). Unfortunately, much of the literature describing individuals
from minority groups reinforces existing stereotypes. This digest offers
some observations about different cultural styles that should be considered
cautiously in communications with families of differing cultural backgrounds
(Cloud & Landurand,1988; Johnson & Ramirez, 1987; Taylor, 1989).
Sharing Space. People from different cultures use, value, and share
space differently. In some cultures it is considered appropriate for people
to stand very close to each other while talking, whereas in other cultures
people like to keep farther apart. For example, Hispanics often view Americans
as being distant because they prefer more space between speakers. On the
other hand, Americans often view individuals who come too close as pushy
or invading their private space.
Touching. Rules for touching others vary from culture to culture. In
Hispanic and other Latin cultures, two people engaged in conversation are
often observed touching and individuals usually embrace when greeting each
other. In other cultures, people are more restrained in their greetings.
In the Asian/Vietnamese cultures, for example, it is not customary to shake
hands with individuals of the opposite sex.
Eye Contact. Among African Americans it is customary for the listener
to avert the eyes, whereas Euro-Americans prefer to make direct eye contact
while listening. Among Hispanics, avoidance of direct eye contact is sometimes
seen as a sign of attentiveness and respect, while sustained direct eye
contact may be interpreted as a challenge to authority.
Time Ordering of Interactions. The maxim "business before pleasure"
reflects the "one activity at a time" mindset of U.S. mainstream culture.
Some cultures, however, are polychronic, that is, people typically handle
several activities at the same time. Before getting down to business, Hispanics
generally exchange lengthy greetings, pleasantries, and talk of things
unrelated to the business at hand. Social interactions may continue to
be interwoven throughout the conversation.
PROVIDE PARENTS WITH INFORMATION.
Much of the need for information can be satisfied through regularly
scheduled meetings, conferences, and planning sessions for a child's individualized
education program (IEP). Educators may assume that their own familiarity
with public policy is shared by parents of children with disabilities.
Usually, this is not the case. Most parents of culturally diverse children
with disabilities need help in understanding the basic tenets of the law,
including their own rights and responsibilities.
SUPPORT PARENTS AS THEY LEARN HOW TO PARTICIPATE IN THE SYSTEM.
Schools must make a sincere commitment to consider parents as partners
in their children's education. Professionals who are attempting to work
and communicate with parents of children with disabilities should be prepared
to support the parents' rights and responsibilities. In essence, professionals
should adopt the role of advocate. Parents from culturally diverse backgrounds
should be encouraged to join parent organizations and share their cultural
points of view.
Educators and other professionals should recognize parents' needs for
* Assurance that they should not feel guilty about their child's disability.
* Acceptance of their feelings without labeling.
* Acceptance of them as people, rather than as a category.
* Help in seeing the positive aspects of the future.
* Recognition of what a big job it is to raise a child with disabilities
and help in finding programs, services, and financial resources to make
it possible for them to do the job with dignity.
Using these guidelines for communication, teachers and other professionals
can assist parents of culturally diverse children with disabilities not
only to combat feelings of isolation, but also to achieve a sense of belonging.
ENCOURAGE PARENTAL PARTICIPATION AT HOME.
A growing body of research evidence suggests that important benefits
are gained by school-aged children when their parents provide support,
encouragement, and direct instruction at home and when home-school communication
is active. Children who receive parental help read much better than children
who do not. Even instruction by highly competent specialists at school
does not produce gains comparable to those obtained when students are tutored
by their parents at home (Hewison & Tizard, 1980). Even illiterate
parents can promote the acquisition of reading skills by motivating their
children, providing an environment that promotes the acquisition of literacy
skills, providing comparative and contrasting cultural information, asking
the children to read to them, and encouraging verbal interaction about
Carter, T. P., & Segura, R. D. (1979). Mexican Americans in school:
A decade of change. New York: College Entrance Examination Board.
Chinn, P. C. (1984). Education of culturally and linguistically different
exceptional children. Reston, VA: The Council for Exceptional Children.
Cloud, N., & Landurand, P. M. (1988). MULTISYSTEM (multicultural
learning/teaching innovation) training program for special educators. New
York: Teachers College, Columbia University.
Hewison, & Tizard, (1980). Parental involvement and reading attainment.
British Journal of Educational Psychology, 50, 209-215.
Johnson, M. J., & Ramirez, B. A. (1987). American Indian exceptional
children and youth. Reston, VA: The Council for Exceptional Children. ED
Kitano, K. K., & Chinn, P. C. (1986). Exceptional Asian children
and youth. Reston, VA: The Council for Exceptional Children. ED 276178.
Marion, R. L. (1982). Communicating with parents of culturally diverse
exceptional children. Exceptional Children, 46, 616-623.
Simich-Dudgeon, C. (1986). Parent involvement and the education of limited-English-proficient
students. ERIC Digest. Washington DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and
Linguistics. ED 279205.
Taylor, O. L. (1989). The effects of cultural assumptions on cross-cultural
communication. In D. Koslow & E. Salett (Eds.), Cross cultures in mental
health (pp. 18-27). Washington, DC: International Counseling Center.