Continued Early Childhood Education Phone: 866-727-1617

Cultural Awareness in Working with Families

Cultural Awareness in Working with Families
Anarella Cellitti, PhD
December 21, 2018

To earn CEUs for this article, become a member.

unlimited course access $99/year

Join Now

Editor’s note: This text-based course is an edited transcript of the webinar, Cultural Awareness in Working with Families, presented by Anarella Cellitti, PhD.

Learning Outcomes

After this course, participants will be able to:

  • Recognize cultural differences in families.
  • Identify potential barriers to working effectively with families.
  • Implement culturally sensitive strategies to promote family engagement. 

Cultural Awareness Benefits Relationships

Today's topic is cultural awareness in working with families. Take a moment and think about who will benefit from this. We know that cultural awareness is important, and you most likely have already identified who will benefit from cultural awareness. Of course, we all will benefit from cultural awareness, but particularly we talk about cultural awareness in regards to children.


So how will cultural awareness benefit children? It will develop emotional wellbeing, increased learning, and form social relationships. When you're aware of the child's culture and you plan and conduct your classroom in a way that is culturally sensitive, the children feel they belong. They know that they can form an attachment with you because you understand them and you respect them. Also, because they are more relaxed, they're more included and psychologically they're feeling more accepted. They're going to learn better and faster, and they're going to put more efforts in learning because the environment is supporting that learning.

Parents and Families

The next group that will benefit from cultural awareness is parents and families. If the parents perceive that you're making an effort to be more culturally sensitive, and if you have strategies in your classroom, books in your classroom, and communications in their language, they will feel more accepted. They will perceive the program as positive and they will become more empowered to participate. That's what we want. We want parents to feel accepted. We want them to understand that we're there for them, and they can come to us and ask questions, and ask us to do things for their children or clarify things that they might not understand about our program. Our program, because of our own actions, will become, in their minds, something more positive, something that they can rely on, something that is a place for their children to grow, and a place that they can go and feel respected. Therefore they will become more empowered. They will have more questions. They might even volunteer more. They might participate more in all the activities and might do the activities that you send home with their children. They will become a part of the program if they feel like there is a cultural understanding for who they are. Whatever possible cultural barriers that might present, because you handled it appropriately, it gave the parents the sense that you really care for their kids and for their family, and you understand where they're coming from. Sometimes this is easier said than done because there are so many things that we don't know because we don't know every culture. But hopefully, at the end of this session, you will have some ideas of things that you could do that might help that.


As a staff member, you will benefit because you're going to feel more comfortable. I know when I work with people from different cultures than mine, I always wonder what is the right way, what should I do when I don't know, how do I find this information? Because you feel more relaxed, chances are you will establish better relationships. Even if you make a faux pas once in a while, the parents will realize that you're human. You're trying and have shown that, in the past, when things like this happened, you were able to communicate and get it solved. Again, because you're able to establish a better relationship, you as a staff are going to feel more secure in what you're doing for families. You know that the services you provide are going to be accepted, are going to be followed through, and are going to be implemented in the classroom and at home.
You will also see increased participation from the parents. You'll see parent involvement not only in the classroom but also at home. Whatever you send home with the child, the parents are often willing to try because the relationship between you and the parent is established. It's not likely the parent will think she doesn't care about my kid, she doesn't present my culture, she doesn't seem interested in what we can offer or my child can offer. On the contrary, all of this will be water under the bridge. You might not ever have those issues, but the parents will feel like you really understand where they're coming from. Sometimes that's hard because as a human, sometimes we respond to behaviors, Hopefully, at the end of this session you'll realize, I need to take time. Before I respond, before I make a judgment, before I say anything, let me check if behind all of this is a cultural issue that I might not know about.

Recognize Country of Origin

So with that in mind, let's start with the simplest thing, which is to recognize the country of origin. Everything I've discussed so far relates to where I'm coming from. Because I have an accent, I've been asked where I'm from many, many times. All families, regardless of who they are, are proud of their heritage, and they deserve respect. I'm sure I am preaching to the choir as all of you already have that value. Although the information presented here is working with Latino families, the content is applicable to any culturally different family. The issues might be a little bit different but there might be some that are the same. I'm going to present what are some of the possible barriers, or differences, that sometimes we don't even realize that exist. I know that when I came to this country there were things I didn't know. I was an educated person, I already had a bachelor's degree, and I had been a teacher for 10 years.  I had to step back and say, okay, let me look at this. Now, unfortunately, some of our parents don't have the same degree of education. Also, sometimes the differences or the variances or the degree of things are not really well explained to you even when you read an article about cultural differences. Even though we're talking about Latino families, you have to understand that different subgroups might have different behaviors.

Hispanic vs. Latino

The first thing I usually talk about is what's in a name. There's often a big discussion in the United States about whether to use the term Hispanic or Latino. The term Hispanic was coined by the U.S. government in 1970 for census purposes and it has nothing to do with ethnicity. It was specially designed for people that speak Spanish. The problem with that is that not all Spanish speaking people are Latinos. For example, people from Spain are included because they speak Spanish, but not people from Brazil because Brazilians speak Portuguese. The term Latino is more encompassing because it refers to people of Latin American origin or with cultural ties to Latin America.  This includes Brazil but excludes Spain. In general, people prefer the term Latino rather than Hispanic. Why did I mention that? Because it's a sensitive issue, and I will discuss later on, in many cases, Latinos are socialized not to provoke conflict, or to avoid conflict. They might hear you refer to them as a Hispanic family.  Inside they might be upset, but they're not going to tell you that it upsets them. In general, Latino is more broadly accepted. You will find more people that accept the term Latino than the term Hispanic. Also, you can just refer to their country of origin. For example, this is Mrs. Rodriguez from Venezuela or this family is from Puerto Rico, or these are my Argentinian preschoolers. When you don't know how to refer to a family, you can always refer to their country of origin. However, Latino will generally be more accepted.  The best practice is to ask parents how they want to be addressed or use nationality when introducing them.

Respect Name Differences

Because we come from different cultures, we have different names. Unfortunately, I've seen teachers and personnel trying to change the name of the children. You have to respect name differences. Sometimes it's really hard to pronounce those names. I know that because I often have a hard time with them myself. Our name is part of our identity and is unique to us. You've always been called that and you respond to it. Not only that but for some cultures, those names are carrying cultural and family significance. When you change the name of a child because it's easier for you to pronounce it, it's not really helping the relationship with the child or with their parent. Please be sensitive to the name issue. Of course, you can always tell the parents that you don't know how to pronounce the name correctly. Let them know you're doing the best you can and ask for help pronouncing the name the right way.

Potential Barriers

One of the things that teachers say to me is, "But I asked the parents if I can change the name and call him Peter rather than Pedro." I don't recommend doing this because parents are very polite and they're not going to confront you. But think about it. If somebody approaches you and says, "Can I call you such and such?" Chances are you're going to say, "No, that's not my name." But sometimes parents or children are not going to tell you that, so please don't ask. Just try the best you can. Those of us with different names will realize that people are doing the best they can. As long as they try, we feel comfortable and respected. Also, do not make fun of the name or name pronunciation. That sounds obvious, but you would be amazed at the kinds of things that I sometimes hear. It is true that some of the name pronunciation might remind you of other things in your own language or culture that might be funny. Try not to make comments about how the name sounds like something else. Those are comments that you might want to keep to yourself. 
You should also avoid shortening the child's name or giving a nickname. For example, if the child is called Alejandro and we have a hard time with the -dro, we might just call him Alex. Please don't do that. I know that it's easier for you, but it's affecting the children and their families. I know this because I've been in many meetings at schools with parents and I ask what the child's real name is. Parents say, well, it's Alejandro. When I asked where Alex came from, the parents tell me the teacher decided one day to call him Alex. The teacher decided to change the child's name. It wasn't a pleasant situation and you could tell by the parents' tone and demeanor that they didn't appreciate that. We'll discuss later why they don't confront that. It's important that we as the professionals have the sensitivity not to do that. 

Helpful Strategies

Now, what can you do with the information I've been discussing? As I mentioned before, never ask for permission to change the child's name. Parents might say, oh, that's okay, but they will resent it because the Latino families are taught in general to avoid confrontation. Sometimes if you ask them in front of everybody they are going to say yes. They feel like you're an authority figure, so they're not going to say no to you. Try to pronounce the name of the child to the best of your ability. What you can say is, "Tell me how to say it correctly." If you're doing the best you can and are asking for the correct pronunciation, parents will respect that and children will understand that. I'm going to tell you something that happened to me. I remember when my nephew came to America. He went to his first day of school and came back home crying. He said, "I'm not going to that school anymore." When I asked him why, he said, "Because they're making fun of me." I thought, how do you know that? You don't know any English, and they don't know any Spanish. How do you know they're making fun of you. He said they were making fun of his name. His name is Moises and he said they were calling him Moses. We know that's how it's pronounced here, but he didn't, so he felt ridiculed. I had to explain to him that it had nothing to do with making fun of him. We started making jokes about all the names that people couldn't pronounce, and he finally understood, it's nothing about me. It's that they have a hard time pronouncing the name. He practiced some of their names and couldn't do it. He was five years old, and he came home feeling bad about how people were treating him even though it was not intentional whatsoever. Now imagine how they feel when we change or shorten their name or give them a nickname, that's even worse. Make sure the children understand that the pronunciation might be different because you can't do it. Kids understand that. Kids are very good and very forgiving if they know where you're coming from. So are parents. Try to pronounce the best you can, and go forward. That is the best you can do, but that will be something that is showing respect, and acceptance, and that's the most important part.

Family Orientation

As we continue to discuss cultural differences, I want to reiterate that some Latino families might fit all these categories but some of them might have some differences within them. I will continue to touch on that throughout the presentation. In regards to family orientation, we are very close-knit. The emphasis is on the wellbeing of the whole family. It is also important to understand here that sometimes we have families that are not family. For example, I have an aunt and when I was 12 years old I asked my mother how she was my aunt if my mother had no siblings. It took me 12 years to realize that. We adopt people so they become our psychological family, and within that comes a power over children. My aunt that wasn't really my aunt had the power to send me to my corner, send me to bed, chastise me, or anything else she thought was necessary. It's important that you know that because, in the United States, the family orientation is basically the immediate family, while in the Latino family, not only do several generations live together, but grandparents are extremely important and are key players in raising the children. Also, the extended family might include grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. As I said, the family that is not family but is given that psychological role. So it's not only the blood family, the legal family but also the psychological family. Why is that important? Because children in the United States that are from immigrant families might have lost those aunts, uncles, and nieces, and they are adopting next door neighbors as an aunt or as a cousin. Those people will have authority over them, and they might need to be included in family gatherings or events at the school and in the decision-making process at the school about the child. Families are group-oriented, and often families have a lot of gatherings. We tend to socialize and do a lot of things with the family. Often, if my kids cannot go, I won't go.

Potential Differences

All families will be involved in decision making. That's a very different scenario from the main culture in the US. I've been in many IEP meetings where the parents brought many people to the meeting. There were parents, grandparents, a real aunt, and the next door neighbor which is an aunt. We have to navigate all those relationships. You could tell that the teachers were not comfortable with that. At some point I had to say, this is their family, even though some were the psychological family.  They are not going to make decisions that affect their kids without their family support. If you're really a good family member you will be there when the kids need you, like in family meetings, parties, and celebrations at the school. We'll be there, so make sure that when you open your event, you have extra seats for the people that are going to come with the Latino family. Expect that in your meetings you're going to have more people than you usually expect. You might not have just mom and dad. You might have the mom, grandparents, and the next door neighbor.
Discussions might be lengthy because everyone will have to have a voice. In the Latino culture, as a family, there will be people that make the decision but it is culturally ingrained in us that everyone in the family will have a say so. Because I care about the child, even if I agree with the decision, I need to be given the time to say that so the family knows that I am for the decision. Then I feel like my voice and my opinion count. For the family, including the biological parent, it's a reassurance that I am a family member and I am contributing to that child. When you have decision making that you have to do, plan it differently, and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to express their opinion. This will help the family dynamics. When it's not like that, even though it might not be the grandparents' fault that they didn't voice their opinion, they will feel like their role was not validated, that they didn't contribute and that they didn't support the family. Those things are important because those families will go home and if the dynamics have somehow shifted, it's not going to be pleasant, and it's going to be always a point of contention because we didn't treat them culturally sensitively. 

Helpful Strategies

When inviting parents, ask who will be attending. Don't think that they're going to come by themselves. That's not going to happen. Most of the time you'll have three to five people. I went to one meeting that had seven people. Be open to that. Ask the parents who they want to bring. In one meeting, parents brought the priest. If the parents need the priest to attend, it’s important that you help him to feel welcome as well. He's going to be a support for that child. Everyone in that meeting is a support for that child. That's what we want. We want children to be supported in their development and learning. 

Let the decision makers know what will be discussed and what decisions will be made during the meeting.  It's best if you can do this before the meeting so you do not ambush the parent. For example, we're going to decide if your child will need a family plan, or we're going to assess your child for a possible language delay, or if we'll need to do X, Y, and Z. This gives them an idea why they're coming to the meeting and allows families to discuss it at home prior to the meeting. Then when they come to the meeting and you ask for their opinion, they already have an opinion formed and know what they're going to say. Grandma is going to say, yes, I agree, because she already said everything before. This shortens the process during the meeting because everyone has already had time to discuss it.

If you want to make those significant others part of your support system, ask them, what do you think? Solicit the opinion of every single person that came there. Give them the opportunity to speak. Give them the opportunity to show family members that they are supportive.

Unfortunately, many teachers often say they don't have enough time to do that because they have 20 or 25 children and have to have a meeting for each child. When you work with families that are a different culture, you have to understand that they may not be in this fast-track Americans are in. Sometimes they need extended time. The decision might not be made today. Families might go home and discuss the decision. Give them time to discuss it and ask them to contact you the next day.  They could call you, or send an email, or text you saying, well, we discussed it tonight, and we decided to do this. Then you can ask them to stop by your office to sign the paperwork or you can send the paperwork with the child.

Do not think that the approach of problem-solving that the main culture in the United States has is the same problem-solving process that parents of different cultures might have. During the meeting, provide a break without the staff. Leave and give them 10 to 15 minutes to talk, discuss, and get the consensus. Even though it's only 10 to 15 minutes, it shows respect for the family. The other thing is that in the Latino culture, like in many others, we're trained that you don't make a decision right off the bat. If you gave them those 15 minutes, you might need to tell them when the decision needs to be made. For example, by the end of this week or you can say, “You all can talk and when I come back if any of you have any questions left about it I’ll be happy to answer them.” It’s important that you give the family that privacy and the opportunity to communicate among themselves and then present you either their solution or what they need in order to get to that decision made. It's just providing time and sensitivity.


The other thing that is very common in Latino family is collectivism. We are a collective culture, compared to individualistic culture. That being said, it’s important to understand that the children are trained from a very young age to help family, friends, and the next-door neighbor, who is often considered their relative as well. Unfortunately, some of the practices in the schools and in some centers are very individualistic.  This can create an imbalance in the children at home because in the school they are trained to be what we would call self-centered, even though it's more independent. When they get home, they are expected to be more group-oriented and to be more looking at the benefit of all. 

Potential Barriers

What are the potential barriers of collectivism? Expecting the children to be more competitive, such as doing their own work, and doing their own thing. Sometimes it's okay to do this because it's a value that they need to learn and it's a behavior that they need to learn, but not at the expense of their collectivism. When they go home and they display those behaviors, they're going to be penalized.

Latino children will help their friend or relative even if they're instructed to work alone. I've been in some classrooms that the children were doing some work, and the teacher said they were cheating. When I asked the teacher why she thought they were cheating she said they were always looking at each other and talking in another language. She didn’t know what they were talking about because they were talking in another language. I explained to her that helping is not cheating. He might not be giving the answer. He might be giving the instructions. Remember, he's expected to do that.

When those children go home and say they asked their friend a question and he didn't answer, that child is going to be penalized. That child is going to have to answer to an adult. It’s very confusing for a four, five, or six-year-old. The child might tell the adult the teacher told me not to do that. This can cause problems within the family. Instead of scolding the child and assuming they’re cheating, ask the child what he’s helping him with. Try to look at some of those behaviors differently. The children are not trying to cheat. The child might be trying to help because they've been conditioned since very early on that helping others is more important even than helping your own self.

Helpful Strategies

Encourage children to be cooperative. Provide opportunities for group as well as individual work because it's important that they learn that skill as well. Eliminate any bias you might have about helping to create dependency. Latinos depend on other people. Some literature calls it being dependent, but we call that interdependency. We do need everybody in order to function. That's why we train our kids to be interdependent. Also, the fact that you help me doesn't mean I'm going to be dependent on it. I think it's a big leap between being dependent and being helpful. It’s also important to remember the language differences. If you have children that still have difficulties with the language, they're going to rely more on some of their peers of the same language to translate for them or give them clues as to what is happening and what is expected of them. Please, be very careful about this dependency issue. I hear many teachers and child care providers saying that they're dependent. You might say that, but in reality, it's what is culturally expected.

Personal Space

All right, the next thing we will talk about is personal space. For Latinos, personal contact is extremely common. You're going to get hugs, handshakes, kisses on the cheek, and pats on the arm. That is what is expected. The Latino is friendlier and more open emotionally than the typical American. Let me tell you a funny story about when I came to America. I came from an Italian family. My mom was Venezuelan and my father was Italian. Unfortunately, in the United States, the physical space is bigger. It's more hands off. In the schools we're trained we're not supposed to be touching or hugging children. But then the children come from families where affection and acceptance is expressed by physical contact and proximity. When I came here, I remember I went back home and asked my mom, “Mom, do I smell?” And she said, “Why do you say that? You took a shower this morning.”  I said, “Yeah, but every time I get close to people, people back up.” I was already an educated woman, and I didn't even realize that it was the issue of personal space. I started reading, asking friends, and finally, some good soul explained to me that you have to talk at arms-length. Just think about it because in addition to that, we're talking about three, four, and five-year-olds who are very emotional. They want to be hugged and kissed. That doesn't mean that they are dependent. This means that they're being trained to be more affectionate.

Potential Barriers

Conversational space might seem too close for comfort, for you, but for some, the more space you put between the two of you, the more separation they feel. They often wonder why you are not standing close to them and if there’s a problem. You might want to address that. Don't assume that parents know this. They don't and I didn't. Demonstrate behaviors that might feel uncomfortable to you, such as affection, hugs, and kisses. I understand there is a limit and we're going to talk about that in a minute. Lack of affective behavior from others can be perceived as a rejection. I know because I experienced that.

Disclosure of too much personal information might seem inappropriate. This is another thing to keep in mind. The psychological space for Latinos is just as close as the physical space. Latino people will tell you a lot of things. During an IEP meeting you might ask a question, and before you know it they are telling you stories that you were not expecting to hear. They are telling you all of that because they trust you and because they think, if I'm going to work with you, and you're going to work with my child, you need to know that. That's what's in their mind. Even though in your mind it may seem like too much info, in their mind this is how I can convey that I'm closer to you and that if I tell you all of this you're going to help me with my child. For some families, the lack of those effusive or demonstrative things might feel as if you're cold and aloof, while you might feel a psychological struggle and that it's too much for you. We have to find a middle ground somewhere.

Helpful Strategies

One thing you can do is remember that you are the educated person and you are in charge of the program. When you have families that are from the Latino culture, try to sit closer to them. You may be in a meeting that’s an hour or an hour and a half long. Condition yourself to do what is necessary to show acceptance, which might mean sitting a little closer than you’re used to. I’m not talking about getting in their face. I’m talking about just getting a bit closer by leaning forward or other strategies that say I'm here for you. You might give a comforting pat on the shoulder for a greeting and say, “Hi, how are you doing?” We may want to hug and kiss you, but we realize that you might not feel that comfortable. Say good morning, good afternoon, how are you, and give a good handshake. While conversing, as I mentioned before, lean forward.

Be aware that even with all your barriers you might have a parent or a child break those barriers and hug you as a sign of acceptance and respect. Again, I know you might feel uncomfortable, but we are the trained professionals. We are the ones that can say, you know what, I understand. This is what they need to feel accepted and to feel a part of this. This is how I can show that I do respect them.

Now, if this is too uncomfortable to you, then you might want to talk about it. I don't think that anyone will kiss you, but I think that the hug can happen. You might want to say that in the United States sometimes, those signs of affections can be misconstrued, and people, when they pass by, might not feel comfortable seeing this.  If you get to that point you could also say, “I’m having a hard time because in my culture that's not acceptable behavior. It's nothing against you, it's just about me.” You have to be the one that decides whether you feel comfortable with a hug once in a while or not. If you need to address it, be sensitive about, and always say it's about you and the American culture. People are often not trained to be huggers and kissers, and therefore you feel really awkward, and you even feel awkward about presenting it to them.

Caring and Respect

The next thing that is extremely important is caring and respect. In general, the average Latino tries to maintain social harmony and pleasant relationships. They prefer not to address problematic issues in order to avoid conflict and social awkwardness. Children are typically expected to be polite, not assertive, and to obey adults as a sign of respect. In the classroom when you ask the children to express their ideas, if they don't think that's what the teacher is wanting, they're not going to share their idea because they perceive that as going against the authority. They might see that as not being a polite child. 

Potential Differences

That all sounds really good but it can create some potential differences. Parents might not tell teachers they disagree if they don't like what they're doing. Latinos will avoid showing anger or disappointment. I’m going to talk about my country for a moment. In Venezuela, we are very assertive and direct. That's a very different approach than some other Latino cultures. You have to be careful because many people in my culture, my country, my group, my age are very direct. We tell you what we think.  Some people here might feel like it's rude, because it's rare, particularly in the south. You have to think about where they're coming from. Don't assume that the Latinos are not going to tell you about their anger. We're going to be polite about it, but you're going to know that we're angry and upset.

I went to a meeting one time where even the interpreter felt uncomfortable translating what the parents said. What the parents said was very mild. They said, “I don't think you like my child.” The interpreter, who was Latino, was falling apart with that statement and couldn't handle it. Again, when you have a parent that says, “I don't believe you're doing the right thing,” or “I don't think you like my child,” you have to take into consideration where they’re from.

Even though what they said was mild, behind that was a volcano erupting.  It was said in a calm way because often times we're not trained to show our anger or disappointment. Children, of course, are going to avoid confrontations with peers. It is unlikely that you’ll hear a child say no or tell on his peers because they're trained not to do so. They're trained to be shy in many cases.

Helpful Strategies

One helpful strategy in regard to caring and respect is to develop a strong relationship with parents before giving feedback about issues with children. We are sensitive about our children, like anybody else. Recognize that to maintain group harmony and cohesion, Latinos might be more diplomatic, supportive, and trusting. At the same time, you might need to encourage them to really speak their mind when they agree, or if they disagree as well. If certain conversations are sensitive in nature or involve constructive criticism, discuss these matters privately with the parents, without the children being there.  It’s also important to use a nurturing relationship approach. You want to make sure you’re sensitive, caring, and present positive things about the child. Think carefully about how you're going to present negative information to parents. That goes for parents in any culture.

Parental Role

The parental role is very important because the parental roles are perceived very, very different in the Latino culture. For example, parenthood is emphasized over the roles of wife and husband. Our children come before our spouses. Our mission is to be parents first and a spouse second. In the United States, that's not the case. Parents are controlling. We exercise high monitoring and involvement with the children. I don't like the new term of helicopter parents. I think that's demeaning, particularly when there are cultural issues behind this. We're trained that to be a good parent you have to watch and protect your children. How can you protect your children if you're not watching them?

Authority is usually given to the husband, the parents, males and the elderly. So as a grandmother, I have a lot of authority. As a parent I have a lot of authority. As a husband I have authority. Children have so many people that have authority over them.

Husbands/fathers are expected to provide financially for the family, to protect, and to be hard-working, while the mother is expected to be more supportive, nurturing, and self-sacrificing. Mothers take care of the children, and in general, they make the majority of the school decisions, but they are expected to seek the father’s input. In general, that's the expectation.

Now, in some cultures, like in Venezuela for example, the mothers make the decisions about the children the majority of the time, such as medical decisions, unless it's something really severe. But in general, at least my generation, the mothers were more involved in the decision-making about the children and if both parents couldn't be there, that was not a conflict. The mother had the right and the most authority over the child. In other Latino cultures that's not the case. In some other Latino cultures, the father has to be involved and he makes decisions for the child. Even though he might make the same decision as the mother, it’s important for the father to have that say. This is why when there's a decision to be made in a meeting, it’s important to allow the family time to consult and discuss the decision before giving you an answer.  Sometimes we expect the mothers to make the decision right then, but that is upsetting the balance of the dynamics of the relationship because the other parent was not consulted. Those are sensitive things that we have to look at. Of course, in some Latino families, like in many other families, you're seeing that the father and the mother roles are becoming more equal. 

Potential Barriers

One of the potential barriers when thinking about parental role is expecting parents to come to meetings and leave the children at home. That's not going to happen. Parents do not leave their children alone and their children go everywhere with them. If you are asking parents to come to a meeting or an event, have a classroom with a teacher or a babysitter available for the children to go to during the meeting or event.

The most important part that is always a big conflict with the school is expecting the parents to take teaching roles. They see you as a teacher, a provider, the person in charge, and the person with the education. You're supposed to do that. As a parent, they are supposed to nurture, clean, cook, and make their child healthy, and you're supposed to teach their child. I know that's not the American point of view but that's the Latino point of view.

Helpful Strategies

What can you do? You might need to train the parents and explain to them why their role is so important. You need to learn about the parental social group to understand their perception of their role. Find out if the family is coming from this ethnic group or that group and what are they perceiving their roles are. Of course, education is important. They need to understand how they can help with their child’s education and you can assist with that. Sometimes I think the family doesn't feel comfortable. They don't think they have the skills or the knowledge, even though they might have. With good training, any parent can assist their child in reading, writing, arithmetic, and social skills. They don't perceive that as their role, so you might need to give them the confidence and let them know that they can do that. If they can read, they can read to their child. That's excellent. They’re being a teacher and helping in development. As already mentioned, when in a meeting, ask the parent if he or she needs to consult anyone. Expect many people to attend the meeting and plan care and activities to engage children during meetings if they're going to be attending the meeting with their parents.

Children's Role

Let’s talk about the children’s role for a minute. Independence is not encouraged. We feed and dress children until the children say they can do it. The other day I went to a school and I saw a mother feeding a child. I told my coworker, that's a Latino parent. She asked how I knew and I said it was because many people here don't feed their children. The family had just immigrated from Nicaragua and this was the child’s first year of school. It was October and the mother was there feeding her child. Unfortunately, the teacher saw that negatively. In our culture the parent has to do that for their child until the child says she has learned it and can do it for herself.

In addition to that, children are expected to be obedient to authority figures. In general, we are authoritarians. Authority is important, and you have to submit to the authority because the adults know better than you do because you're a child. The children will obey rules without talking back to their parents or adults. Children look parents in the eyes during commands. However, in some groups, the opposite is expected. In my Venezuelan group, my age, my generation, you have to look at your parents when they talk to you, or else. You know what or else means. In some other cultures it's the opposite, don't look at me or else. But you have to figure out for your group, for the children that you're serving, what is the norm for that group.

Potential Differences

Some of the potential differences you’ll see in the child’s role is that parents feed, dress, and do many things for their children. The children are expected to be “children” for a longer time. That's the reason we don't include children in meetings. That's the reason we don't allow them to be in conversations that adults are making decisions, or talking about adult things because they need to be kept kids.

Children will not report or say things that are bothering them without extensive coaching. They will tell you, but you have to coach them to do it because they are trained that, number one, conflict is to be avoided, and I have to obey. I might be given a command to obey that I don't like, but I'm not going to complain because that's going against the authority. Eye contact could be a conflict for some children. Children are not expected to be involved in conversations where adults are making decisions such as where they're going to school or what are they going to do. Some families have family meetings and everyone has an opinion. That typically won’t happen in the Latino cultures.

Helpful Strategies

Do not include children in meetings. Arrange for their care. Do not expect the children to give opinions in meetings. I went to an IEP meeting once and the teacher asked the child a question and he went blank. I had to suggest that we ask the parents first. The child wasn’t going to say anything because he felt that he would be chastised if he gave his opinion, because that's a conversation for adults.

Since our children are seen as dependent rather than independent, I think that we need to explain to parents that if we don't encourage the children at school to do things for themselves they are at risk of being called babies and be ridiculed by peers. Let parents know that at home they can still feed their child, but at school maybe just do it the first week or two.  Have parents explain to the child that they are not coming because they don’t want other children to make fun of him. At home it’s okay for the parent to feed the child. For the child, the mother feeding him is a sign of affection and caring, and for the mother, she feels like she’s being a good mother by feeding her child. Explain those possible issues about what we call independence here and what might be independence in other cultures. Help the children transition from interdependency into independency. That's hard because the parents might have a different vision than you, but explain why it’s important and give them the steps. Let them know you can do this together.

Teacher's Role

The Latino parents value education immensely because it is an opportunity to change the family’s future. They have high respect for teachers. Parents will not challenge school policies or unjust treatments. As we just discussed, teachers, not parents, are responsible for education and learning. In many cases when there’s not a culturally sensitive relationship, parents feel like the non-Latino teachers don't understand their culture or care for them. That's sometimes far from the truth. Sometimes caregivers, teachers, and service providers do care, they just don't know how to show it.

Potential Barriers

One potential barrier in regard to the teacher’s role includes expecting parents to take a teaching role. In addition, family and friends could take precedence over school activities. For example, if there's a conflict between what the school is requesting me to do but what my friend needs, I'm going to go with my friend's need because my friend, remember, is my psychological family, and I'm going to be family first, and then teachers next.

Many families lack information about school policies. I've been in situations in which parents do not realize that attendance is a big issue, particularly when they're starting grade school.  They don’t realize that they can be sent to DHS and court because the child has been absent many times. You might need to explain that a little bit more and the consequences here, because in the Latino culture, and in many other countries, that's not the case. If you don't send your child to school, there's no penalty for that.

Helpful Strategies

One thing that’s really helpful is to explain to parents the importance of their role in children's learning. Parents need to learn they can help their children. Help parents to become education partners with you and send home activities they can do with their child. Ask for and encourage feedback from parents about their child’s experience and ideas for improvement. More than anything, show your understanding of Latino culture in conversations with parents. Read about what's happening in Nicaragua, Honduras, Venezuela, or the country the family is from and mention things you might have seen in the news. Comment about a celebration in their culture that may be happening or show a book that talks about their culture. If you do these things, your relationship with the parents is going to be more effective.

Time Perception

The final thing we’re going to talk about is time perception. Latinos usually have a different time orientation. Latinos are present-oriented, right here, right now. More importance is placed on the present than in the future. Some other cultures within the Latino group have a past orientation, focusing on what happened in the past and the ancestors. The quality of the interaction is more important than the length of time used to interact. I might have only spent five minutes with you, but I found that important. I don't need to spend 20 minutes with you. Remember, families may be involved in many other things and don’t have the extra time.

Potential Barriers

Planning too far ahead in the future is one potential barrier. That's extremely important because of the school’s need to focus on school readiness when the child is only three-years old. We don't plan that far ahead. When I was in Venezuela, I remember people making fun of me because I had a five-year plan. Whatever things are coming we will resolve them, but in many cases it's not a plan for the future. Therefore, when you're talking about that three-year-old that needs to be ready for school, well school is three years away. Why am I going to be worrying about it? So, that's a possible barrier there.

Putting an emphasis on meetings rather than people can be another barrier. One of the things that is going to happen is you’ll have a meeting scheduled, the Latino parents say they're coming, and they don't show up. When they call back, or you meet them again, they might say, “Well, my next-door neighbor had this problem.” You might think, yeah, but we had a meeting. Remember, other people are more important than the time. Again, their psychological family is more important than anything else. They are also going to put that collectivism view above themselves and their child. Their group needs them, therefore, they have to respond to the group. Don't get upset, it's nothing about you. They are trying to be what they are, group oriented. They're trying to be part of their most significant people, which is their family, whether that’s blood or psychological.

Helpful Strategies

One helpful strategy is to ask about addressing the family's immediate needs for their child. What is going on right now what do they need to learn? If you have a six-month-old child in your class, let the parents know that six-month-olds should be doing these things, especially if their child isn't doing them. You could also let them know what their child should be doing at nine-months-old, but don't go to what they need five years from now. That's not important to them right now. Focus on the child's current development. Show parents what their child should be doing now, not in the future. Understand that a meeting might not occur.  Call the family on the day of the meeting to verify attendance. Do not get upset if it changes. Make time for families to ask questions, talk, and get acquainted after the meeting and say goodbye. That's just a very common thing for many other families in addition to the Latino family. 


We have talked about many different issues here. Working with Latino families can be very rewarding, like working with any other family. Try to understand their values and adjust your behavioral expectations of children and parents to promote effective communication with them. If you want to be effective with them, you have to understand where they're coming from. If you can move to where they are, you will connect with them at some point. You are the educator, the service provider, and the one with the most knowledge, so it's your responsibility to make the move.
I mentioned in the beginning that not all Latino families are the same. We have a lot of common values and characteristics, but we also have many differences, based on nationality, socioeconomic status, educational level, gender, religion, age, generation, etc. Even though this is generic, my recommendation to you is look for that particular group. There is a lot of information available nowadays about groups, and people, and where they're coming from, and the issues they're facing. Even though we focus on Latino parents here, this content can apply to any culturally different parent. I think that when you really look at this, working with parents from different cultures is your own attitude, your own values, your own beliefs and your own perception of the families. 


Auerbach, S. (2011). Learning from Latino Families. Schools, Families, Communities, 68(8), 16-21.
Bornstein, M.H, & Cote, L.R. (2004). “Who is sitting across from me?” Immigrant mothers' knowledge of parenting and children's development. Pediatrics. 114(5), 557-564.
Grant, K.B. & Ray, J.A. (2010). Home, school and community collaboration: Culturally responsive family involvement. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
“Hispanic” versus “Latino” versus Latin.” Retrieved September 3, 2018.
Kim Y. (2009). Minority parental involvement and school barriers: Moving the focus away from deficiencies of parents. Educational Research Review. 4, 80–02.
Murray, K., Finigan-Carr, N., Jones, V., Copeland-Linder, N., Haynie, D., & Cheng, T. (2014). Barriers and Facilitators to School-Based Parent Involvement for Parents of Urban Public Middle School Students. Sage. 4(4): 10.1177/2158244014558030. 


Cellitti, A. (2018). Cultural Awareness in Working with Families. – Early Childhood Education, Article 23046. Retrieved from


To earn CEUs for this article, become a member.

unlimited course access $99/year

Join Now

anarella cellitti

Anarella Cellitti, PhD

Dr. Anarella Cellitti has an undergraduate degree in education from the Instituto Universitario Pedagógico de Caracas. Her PhD and MEd degrees in elementary/early childhood education are from the University of South Carolina. In addition, she holds an MA degree in psychology from the University of Houston, Victoria. Currently, she is an Associate Professor in the School of Education at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. In addition, she holds a Psychological Examiner License as well as International Medical Interpreter License.  Her work as an educator covers teaching preschool, high school, undergraduate, and graduate students. Dr. Cellitti's work also includes doing therapy and assessments with children and adolescents. In addition, she has worked as a medical interpreter for ten years. Her presentations and publications represent her dedication to work with dual-language learners. Dr. Cellitti is very involved in community initiatives and is an advocate for language access of minority populations.

Related Courses

Cultural Awareness in Working with Latino Families
Presented by Anarella Cellitti, PhD
Course: #31336Level: IntermediateSubject Area: Building productive relationships with families1 Hour
This course will explore cultural differences that could interfere with working and communicating with Latino families. Participants will learn about potential barriers and helpful strategies to use when working with Latino families.

Working with Diverse Families and Coworkers
Presented by Anarella Cellitti, PhD, Sara Pullen, DPT, MPH
Course: #31431Level: IntermediateSubject Area: Building productive relationships with families2 Hours
This course will explore working with diverse families and colleagues, specifically Latino families and LGBTQ families. During this course, learners will discover potential barriers, and actionable inclusion strategies, to create welcoming, culturally sensitive environments for all children and families.

CDA Renewal - Preschool, Part D
Presented by Sara Pullen, DPT, MPH, Liz Moore, MEd, Amanda Schwartz, PhD, Luis Hernandez, MA, Shari Robertson, PhD, CCC-SLP, Anarella Cellitti, PhD, Tara Warwick, MS, OTR/L, Connie Jo Smith, EdD, Becky Bennett, EdD
Course: #31520Level: IntermediateSubject Area: Building productive relationships with familiesSubject Area: Maintaining a commitment to professionalismSubject Area: Observing and recording children's behavior9 Hours
This course focuses on screening, assessment, and evaluation, working with families, and communicating effectively with coworkers and families. This course is one of five parts that together comprise a 45-hour package of CDA renewal coursework specific and relevant for the Preschool setting. Each part includes 9 hours of content. Parts belonging to this package are labeled “CDA Renewal - Preschool, Part A” through “CDA Renewal - Preschool, Part E” and may be completed in any order.

CDA Renewal - Home Visitor, Part E
Presented by Anarella Cellitti, PhD, Carol Flexer, PhD, CCC-A, LSLS Cert. AVT, Stacy Brown, BA, Nicole Quint, Dr.OT, OTR/L, Alison D. Peak, LCSW, IMH-E, Tara Warwick, MS, OTR/L, Lauren Starnes, PhD, EdD, Carrie Fruin, EdS
Course: #32057Level: IntermediateSubject Area: Understanding principles of child development and learningSubject Area: Advancing children's physical and intellectual developmentSubject Area: Building productive relationships with families9 Hours
This course focuses on working across the child welfare continuum and understanding principles of child development and learning. This course is one of five parts that together comprise a 45-hour package of CDA renewal coursework specific and relevant for the Home Visitor. Each part includes 9 hours of content. Parts belonging to this package are labeled “CDA Renewal - Home Visitor, Part A” through “CDA Renewal - Home Visitor, Part E” and may be completed in any order.

CDA Credential - Family Child Care, Part 4
Presented by Tara Warwick, MS, OTR/L, Karen Deerwester, EdS, Shari Robertson, PhD, CCC-SLP, Megan Kapcar, BS, MA, CCC-SLP, Brynn Hanson, BS, BA, MS, CCC-SLP, Brian Fisher, BS, MS, CCC-SLP, Anarella Cellitti, PhD, Luis Hernandez, MA, Sara Pullen, DPT, MPH, Marva Lewis, PhD, Amanda Schwartz, PhD, J. Neil Tift, BA, MA
Course: #31822Level: IntroductorySubject Area: Building productive relationships with families10 Hours
This course is one of twelve courses that together comprise a 120-hour package of coursework designed for acquiring a new Family Child Care CDA Credential. Each course includes 10 hours of content. Courses are labeled “CDA Credential - Family Child Care, Part 1” through “CDA Credential - Family Child Care, Part 12” and may be completed in any order. This course focuses on topics related to CDA Subject Area 4, Building Productive Relationships with Families.