Children’s first language, culture, and personal identity are inextricably linked. The positive development of each child requires maintaining close ties to the child’s family and community. When schools respect and value a child’s fi rst language and culture, children, families, and communities stay securely connected. If children and their parents feel that their previously acquired language, background knowledge, and culture are not valued, children’s sense of identity and self-worth can be negatively impacted. However, when schools capitalize on the richness of the culture (e.g., experiences, understandings, values, and language) that children bring to the classroom, children’s learning and sense of belonging are enhanced.
A welcoming and inclusive multicultural school is one in which students and parents of all linguistic and cultural backgrounds feel welcome, valued, and included. (Coelho, 2004) 18 Supporting English Language Learners in Kindergarten
Role of parents
The Kindergarten Program acknowledges that children perform better in schoolif their parents are involved in their education (p. 3). Parents provide a wealth of family tradition, knowledge, and experience for their children. They are their children’s fi rst teachers; this role continues when the children enter school. Building relationships with the home School staff can lay the groundwork for ensuring that communication with the home is handled in an honest, sensitive, and respectful manner.
Communication with parents who are ELLs themselves requires some thoughtful planning.
How do you begin to communicate with children’s families when you don’t speak the same language?
A good starting point for me is to think about how I would want to be treated if I were a parent in a new country talking to my child’s teacher. I’d like that teacher to recognize the important role I play in my child’s education and to show empathy for me as a newcomer.
Providing an interpreter would help me communicate more complex ideas than I could if I had to struggle to express myself in the language I was just learning. Inevitably, there will be some challenges along the way, but the key is to learn from them and move on. For example, I found it natural to hold out my hand to shake parents’ hands, and sometimes they would not return the gesture.
Reflecting on those uncomfortable moments helped me learn what to do next time. In some parents’ cultural tradition, shaking hands with a teacher did not feel appropriate. So now I wait for the parents to offer their hands fi rst or, if I forget because it comes so naturally to me, I just pull back my hand and say,
“Good morning, I am your son’s teacher.”
New Teacher: I know it is important to find out about the families’ backgrounds, so what have you done to find out more?
Mentor: I have tried different things as this is something I am learning too. I have said things such as, I look forward to learning more about your family’s background. It will help us work together to support your child’s learning. I find working with interpreters very helpful as they are able to provide general information about many cultures, as well as important information specifi c to the family. I’ve used the Settlement Workers In Schools website, www.settlement.org. There’s lots of information there. Supporting English Language Learners in Kindergarten 19 I also fi nd that I pay more attention to international news items now that I have ELLs in my class. The reports often provide background information as to what is happening in the countries parents have come from, and I can sometimes use that information as a conversation starter. But I also try to be careful not to generalize about families’ cultural backgrounds.
Stages of acculturation in adults There are well-documented stages of acculturation that most newcomer adults experience:
- arrival and fi rst impressions
- culture shock
- recovery and optimism
Whether Kindergarten children go through these stages is yet to be proven, though it is possible that their parents’ feelings about their own adjustment would have a general impact on the family.
Teacher Refl ection As a teacher of ELLs, I have a wonderful opportunity, as well as an obligation, to extend my own learning, to deepen my cultural awareness, and to reflect on my own assumptions about the role of the parents and the community in education.