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R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Find out What it Means to Immigrant Families

by Fabienne Doucet & Rose Vukovic - December 19, 2011

This commentary positions respect as an essential concept when thinking about how teachers and other school people should relate to immigrant families. In this piece, respect stands for a form of humanization in response to historical and chronic dehumanization that immigrants have long faced. The piece draws examples from the authors' work with Haitian immigrant families.

Johnny Desilhomme migrated to the United States in 1988 from Haiti, where he was a sergeant in the army of dictatorial president Jean-Claude Duvalier. Mr. Desilhomme left behind this past for opportunity in the United States, where he obtained an Associate’s degree and was close to earning his Bachelor’s when the first author was collecting data in Greater Boston for a study of immigrant youth and family adaptation to the U.S. (Author, 2010; Suárez-Orozco, Suárez-Orozco, & Todorova, 2008). Mr. Desilhomme is the father of two daughters who were then enrolled in the Greater Boston public schools. In an interview about his experiences raising children in the U.S., he was asked about negative aspects of his children’s educational experience. He responded: “[Coming from a] Third World country, some teachers do not expect them [the children] to go to college. Even when you show your own background, when you talk about your goals for your child, they are often surprised.”

This stinging accusation represents one of the most significant obstacles to family-school linkages: a perceived lack of respect. The need for respect is a two-way street. Teachers want the adults in their students’ lives to value and appreciate them; to recognize the hard work they do; to comply with their requests to assist students with homework; and to reinforce their directives. Likewise, parents and caregivers want teachers to acknowledge all they do on behalf of their children; to recognize that they have dreams and aspirations for their children; and to show consideration for their complex lives and the many demands on their time, energy, and resources. For immigrant parents and caregivers, the longing to be understood—respected—is perhaps even greater, given the major upheavals that accompany immigration (Suárez-Orozco, et al., 2008). Yet, judgments that immigrant (and urban, working class or poor, and black or brown) parents “just don’t care” about their children’s education are made far too easily by teachers and administrators (Abdul-Adil & Farmer, 2006; Author, 2008; Lightfoot, 2004). These judgments seem especially harsh given the narrow ways the mainstream paradigm imagines legitimate parent involvement, such as volunteering in the classroom or chaperoning on field trips (Henderson, Johnson, Mapp, & Davies, 2007; Warren, Hong, Rubin, & Uy, 2009). Most of these forms of involvement require presence at the school, which is challenging for working parents and/or parents who do not speak English as a first language. Equating lack of presence at school with lack of interest in children’s education fails to consider that in most other countries around the world, parents are not expected to participate in school life—in fact, such “involvement” would be viewed as strange. Furthermore, insistence on involvement ignores the point that parents’ beliefs and expectations related to their children’s education are even more powerful predictors of high achievement than are traditional involvement activities (Englund, Luckner, Whaley, & Egeland, 2004; Fan & Chen, 2001; Lee & Bowen, 2006; Authors, 2010, May).

While we are critical of mainstream assumptions about parent involvement, we advocate for a new model of home-school relationship--one that is bidirectional and child-centered rather than school-centered (Author, 2008; Author, 2007; Lawson, 2003). In order for immigrant families to have more genuine and meaningful relationships with their children’s schools, some important changes are needed in the way teachers and other school people perceive, interact with, and engage these families. Using the fundamental principle of “respect” as our guidepost, we propose that re-imagining the family school relationship will require educators to Rethink family roles; Examine biases; Share power; Practice empathy; Expand notions of involvement; Communicate; and Tap into families’ “funds of knowledge.”


As currently conceived, good parent involvement is embodied by white, middle- and upper-class stay-at-home mothers (Cooper, 2007; Descartes & Kottak, 2008; Author, in press; Lightfoot, 2004; Smith, 2009). As educators, we must make more room at the table for the whole “village” of caring adults who advocate for, support, and invest in children’s educational success. Author (in press) found that Haitian families preferred to send adult males (fathers, older brothers) to school to speak on behalf of the child and/or the family. This was due to a number of reasons, ranging from the tendency for fathers to be more fluent in English to traditional beliefs about the role of men in the family. At times a grandparent, aunt or uncle, or even a close family friend may serve as the liaison between family and school. Hardly a demonstration of apathy, then, some parents’ lack of presence at school might, in fact, evidence the family’s desire to put their best “foot” (or family representative) forward. Thus, redefining family roles is an important step toward respecting the needs and circumstances of immigrant families.


When teachers and the families they serve come from different backgrounds (e.g., race/ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, ability status, social class) misunderstanding and mistrust can flourish (Author, in press; Gonzalez-Mena, 2001). At the core of culturally relevant teaching is a sound understanding that how teachers perceive their students can be a conduit or an obstacle to those children’s academic success (Ladson-Billings, 1994). Similarly, at the core of respectful parent-teacher relationships is a thorough understanding of how teachers’ own attitudes toward parents color their perceptions of, interactions with, and openness toward those parents (Lawrence-Lightfoot, 2003).


When schools set parameters and agendas for parent participation, they typically do not involve including parents in decision-making or other roles that would call schools to share their power (Fine, 1993; Graue, Kroeger, & Prager, 2001; Lawrence-Lightfoot, 2003; Lightfoot, 2004). Even when parents are invited to participate in dialogue about policies or structural issues, often they feel these invitations are “just for show,” (O'Connor, 2001) because once a decision has been made at the organizational level, there is little they can do to change it (Fine, 1993). Parents who feel patronized in this way are not likely to remain engaged in their children’s schools. Yet parents can be empowered by participating in the design, implementation, and evaluation of educational programs (Delgado-Gaitan, 1991; Hong, 2011). This level of involvement increases buy-in on the part of parents, who see their ideas and experiences reflected in their children’s classrooms. As Henderson and colleagues (2007) state, “To be serious about partnership, a school also must be serious about following democratic practices” (p. 187).


By learning about the life circumstances of parents occupying different social spaces than the ones in which they operate, teachers can create safe spaces for parents to share their experiences and contribute to various aspects of school life. As mentioned earlier, immigration creates major upheavals. Coming to their children’s school can trigger feelings of powerlessness or child-likeness, particularly for immigrant parents who must learn a new language, decipher a new culture, navigate a new landscape (literally and figuratively), and for parents who have had little formal schooling experience, or whose formal schooling experiences were negative (Lawrence-Lightfoot, 2003).


What parents believe about their children’s abilities is a stronger predictor of children’s math achievement scores than what parents report doing with their children (Authors, 2010, May). This and similar findings regarding the unique contribution of beliefs to achievement (e.g., Englund, et al., 2004),  may be important especially for working with families whose life demands limit their availability for engaging in traditional PI behaviors (Heymann & Earle, 2000). Unrealistic expectations of the kinds of involvement activities in which parents can engage lead too easily to judgments that parents who are not “doing” involvement do not care about their children.


Dialogue between teachers and parents can encourage teachers’ understanding of parental cultural and educational values (Tobin, Arzubiaga, & Mantovani, 2007). Teacher ratings of kindergarten children’s academic abilities are related to teachers’ perceptions of congruence between their educational values and those of parents from different cultural backgrounds than their own (Hauser-Cram, Sirin, & Stipek, 2003). Teachers who engage meaningfully with immigrant parents are more successful at getting parents involved in the life of the school than teachers who fail to develop productive relationships with parents (Delgado-Gaitan, 1991; Valdès, 1996). Genuine, reciprocal dialogues acknowledge that challenges may be experienced both by parents, who must learn to navigate a new culture and educational system, and by educators, who must understand how mainstream ideas may clash with the cultures parents bring.


The concept of funds of knowledge (González, Moll, & Amanti, 2006) emphasizes the value of teachers of poor and immigrant children coming to understand and appreciate the knowledge already available to their students at home and in the community. This approach to family involvement is based on identifying and supporting parental knowledge and making connections between this knowledge and the school curriculum. For example, immigrant adults who were farmers in their countries of origin would have many contributions to make to science lessons; former street vendors could add real-life examples to mathematics teaching (Civil, 2007). Dialogue between the home and school should, therefore, focus on establishing shared expectations for meaningful family involvement and should build on the existing wisdom, traditions, and talents that families possess.


Abdul-Adil, J. K., & Farmer, A. D., Jr. (2006). Inner-city African American parental involvement in elementary schools: Getting beyond urban legends of apathy. School Psychology Quarterly, 21(1), 1-12.

Civil, M. (2007). Building on community knowledge: An avenue to equity in mathematics education. In N. S. Nasir & P. Cobb (Eds.), Improving access to mathematics: Diversity and equity in the classroom (pp. 105-117). New York: Teachers College Press.

Cooper, C. W. (2007). School choice as "motherwork": Valuing African-American women's educational advocacy and resistance. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 20(5), 491-512. doi: 10.1080/09518390601176655

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Descartes, L., & Kottak, C. P. (2008). Patrolling the boundaries of childhood in middle-class "ruburbia". In E. Rudd & L. Descartes (Eds.), The changing landscape of work and family in the American middle class: Reports from the field (pp. 141-155). Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

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Vukovic, R. K., & Doucet, F. (2010, May). Parental involvement and mathematics achievement in urban contexts: In what ways do parents count? Poster presented at the 2010 Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Denver, Colorado.

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We are grateful to David E. Kirkland and Jacqueline Mattis for their valuable feedback on earlier drafts. 

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 19, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16630, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 3:19:26 PM

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About the Author
  • Fabienne Doucet
    New York University
    E-mail Author
    FABIENNE DOUCET is an Assistant Professor in the department of Teaching and Learning at the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. Her research program addresses the educational experiences of immigrant and U.S.-born children of color and their families. Doucet has a Ph.D. in Human Development and Family Studies from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education with fellowships from the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation. Recent publications include “(Re)Constructing home and school: Immigrant parents, agency, and the (un)desirability of bridging multiple worlds” Teachers College Record, 113(12), and “Parent involvement as a ritual system,” Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 42(4), 404–421.
  • Rose Vukovic
    New York University
    E-mail Author
    ROSE VUKOVIC is an Assistant Professor in the department of Teaching & Learning at the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. Vukovic studies sources of children's academic achievement difficulties at the child, school, and community levels in order to guide early identification, early intervention, and instructional practice for children who are at-risk for learning difficulties. Vukovic's principal research examines the early cognitive and academic indicators of math difficulties and how math difficulties develop in children. Recent publications include “Mathematics difficulty with and without reading difficulty: Findings from a Four-Year Longitudinal Study". Exceptional Children (in press), and “Components and context: Exploring sources of reading difficulties for language minority learners and native English speakers in urban schools." Journal of Learning Disabilities (in press).
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