Communicating with Culturally Diverse Parents of Exceptional Children

A list of helpful suggestions and strategies for communicating with culturally diverse parents of exceptional children.

Communicating with Culturally Diverse Parents of Exceptional Children

ERIC EC Digest #E497, Author: ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education ED333619, 1991
Teachers and other professionals providing education-related servicesto exceptional children from different cultural backgrounds need tobe aware of unique perspectives or communication styles common tothose cultures. The ways people deal with feelings – especiallydisappointment, anxiety, fear, embarrassment, and anger – varyconsiderably, and often it is not easy to discern how parents arereacting to the realization that their child has a disability. It isespecially important to help parents who have been outside themainstream of U.S. education understand the educational optionsavailable. To do this, professionals need to be sensitive to thedifferent values, experiences, and beliefs that may be held by membersof various cultural and ethnic groups toward special education.

Use Language Parents Can Understand and Use Sensitivity inCommunicating

To facilitate communication, educators should use the followingguidelines:

  • 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 concernscan promote communication with and participation by parents fromdifferent cultural backgrounds. Duringmeetings it is important to provide ample opportunity for parents torespond without interrupting. If a parent is formulating a responseand has not expressed himself or herself quickly, this delay shouldnot be viewed as a lack of interest in responding. Educators need tolisten with empathy and realize that parents can change from feelingsof trust to skepticism or curiosity as their understanding of programsand policies increases. It is important to realize that this reactionis normal and that parents may feel hostile or desperate as theyattempt to sort out facts from their fundamental beliefs abouteducation.

    In communicating with families from different cultural groups,educators should keep in mind their diverse cultural styles. There isno one set of characteristics that can be ascribed to all members ofany ethnic group. Instead, the cultural traits of individuals rangefrom those traditionally attributed to the ethnic group to those thatare descriptive of a person who has been totally assimilated into themajority culture. Unfortunately, much of theliterature describing individuals from minority groups reinforcesexisting stereotypes. This digest offers some observations aboutdifferent cultural styles that should be considered cautiously incommunications with families of differing cultural backgrounds.

    • Sharing Space
      People from different cultures use, value, and sharespace differently. In some cultures it is considered appropriate forpeople to stand very close to each other while talking, whereas inother cultures people like to keep farther apart. For example, Hispanics often view Americans as being distant because they prefermore space between speakers. On the other hand, Americans often viewindividuals who come too close as pushy or invading their privatespace.

    • Touching
      Rules for touching others vary from culture to culture. InHispanic and other Latin cultures, two people engaged in conversationare often observed touching and individuals usually embrace whengreeting each other. In other cultures, people are more restrained intheir greetings. In the Asian/Vietnamese cultures, for example, it isnot customary to shake hands with individuals of the opposite sex.

    • Eye Contact
      Among African Americans it is customary for the listenerto avert the eyes, whereas Euro-Americans prefer to make direct eyecontact while listening. Among Hispanics, avoidance of direct eyecontact is sometimes seen as a sign of attentiveness and respect,while sustained direct eye contact may be interpreted as a challengeto authority.

    • Time Ordering of Interactions
      The maxim "business before pleasure"reflects the "one activity at a time" mindset of U.S. mainstreamculture. Some cultures, however, are polychronic, that is, peopletypically handle several activities at the same time. Before gettingdown 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 theconversation.

    Provide Parents with Information

    Much of the need for information can be satisfied through regularlyscheduled meetings, conferences, and planning sessions for a child'sindividualized education program (IEP). Educators may assume thattheir own familiarity with public policy is shared by parents ofchildren with disabilities. Usually, this is not the case. Mostparents of culturally diverse children with disabilities need help inunderstanding the basic tenets of the law, including their own rightsand responsibilities.

    Support Parents as They Learn How to Participate in theSystem

    Schools must make a sincere commitment to consider parents as partnersin their children's education. Professionals who are attempting towork and communicate with parents of children with disabilities shouldbe prepared to support the parents' rights and responsibilities. Inessence, professionals should adopt the role of advocate. Parents fromculturally diverse backgrounds should be encouraged to join parentorganizations and share their cultural points of view.

    Educators and other professionals should recognize parents' needs forthe following:

  • Assurance that they should not feel guilty about their child'sdisability.
  • 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 withdisabilities and help in finding programs, services, and financialresources to make it possible for them to do the job with dignity.

    Using these guidelines for communication, teachers and otherprofessionals can assist parents of culturally diverse children withdisabilities not only to combat feelings of isolation, but also toachieve a sense of belonging.

    Encourage Parental Participation at Home

    A growing body of research evidence suggests that important benefitsare gained by school-aged children when their parents provide support,encouragement, and direct instruction at home and when home-schoolcommunication is active. Children who receive parental help read muchbetter than children who do not. Even instruction by highly competentspecialists at school does not produce gains comparable to thoseobtained when students are tutored by their parents at home. Even illiterate parents can promote the acquisition ofreading skills by motivating their children, providing an environmentthat promotes the acquisition of literacy skills, providingcomparative and contrasting cultural information, asking the childrento read to them, and encouraging verbal interaction about writtenmaterial.


    Carter, T. P., & Segura, R. D. (1979). Mexican Americans in school: Adecade of change. New York: College Entrance Examination Board.

    Chinn, P. C. (1984). Education of culturally and linguisticallydifferent exceptional children. Reston, VA: The Council forExceptional Children. ED 256103.

    Cloud, N., & Landurand, P. M. (1988). MULTISYSTEM (multiculturallearning/teaching innovation) training program for special educators.New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.

    Hewison, & Tizard, (1980). Parental involvement and readingattainment. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 50, 209-215.

    Johnson, M. J., & Ramirez, B. A. (1987). American Indian exceptionalchildren and youth. Reston, VA: The Council for Exceptional Children.ED 294338.

    Kitano, K. K., & Chinn, P. C. (1986). Exceptional Asian children andyouth. Reston, VA: The Council for Exceptional Children. ED 276178.

    Marion, R. L. (1982). Communicating with parents of culturally diverseexceptional children. Exceptional Children, 46, 616-623.

    Simich-Dudgeon, C. (1986). Parent involvement and the education oflimited-English-proficient students. ERIC Digest. Washington DC: ERICClearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics. ED 279205.

    Taylor, O. L. (1989). The effects of cultural assumptions oncross-cultural communication. In D. Koslow & E. Salett (Eds.), Crosscultures in mental health (pp. 18-27). Washington, DC: InternationalCounseling Center.

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