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Creating a Welcoming Environment for Linguistically Diverse Families of Students in Special Education

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Father and young daughter both seen from behind as they approach the steps to a school. Girl wears a pink backpack and salmon colored dress. Her black hair is in a bun. Father wears white t-shirt and blue jeans.

In her recent book, Partnering with Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Families in Special Education, Kristin Vogel-Campbell notes the difficulties that parents of students with disabilities face when there is a language barrier. Vogel-Campbell, a 20-year veteran of special education, has seen a higher level of agency, access and knowledge of the special education system among white and English-speaking parents of children with disabilities. Families that don’t fall into these identities often lack the social and cultural capital to effectively advocate for their children within a bureaucratic system. For example, families who have access to resources like attorneys or legal advocates may be better able to ensure their children receive the special education services they need. “There are free and low-cost advocacy and attorneys, but their bandwidth is totally spread thin,” Vogel-Campbell said.

Additionally, even though all parents and families have the right to qualified interpretation, schools can have difficulty finding interpreters that can accurately convey academic language during meetings about a student’s individualized education plan (IEP). According to Vogel-Campbell, not providing proper interpretation services during communication between educators and parents can break trust and delay the implementation of an IEP.

Though not all of these issues are within individual educators’ control, when special education teachers recognize these barriers, they can think creatively about how to connect with and support families who speak languages other than English. Jeremy Jarvi and Ben Simson, two special education teachers who work with Vogel-Campbell in California’s San Mateo-Foster City School District, shared some of their strategies for doing just that. From using Google Translate, to creating systems of outreach and advocacy, Jarvi, Simson and Vogel-Campbell are dedicated to fostering a welcoming environment for the families of students with disabilities. 

Overcoming language barriers during the IEP process

According to Vogel-Campbell, the IEP process is very structured, and doesn’t provide parents an opportunity to share their specific hopes for their children. Language barriers and lack of trust can exacerbate this issue. For example, when a teacher makes eye contact only with an interpreter, rather than the parent, this doesn’t communicate respect towards the families of the students being discussed, said Vogel-Campbell.


While Vogel-Campbell’s school district obtains Spanish interpreter services relatively quickly, and is required to offer no-cost interpretation for all non-English speaking parents, she said that it may take up to a month to coordinate an interpreter of languages less frequently spoken in the area. Vogel-Campbell suggested that educators make small efforts throughout the school year to reach out to parents in their preferred language. For instance, teachers can introduce themselves or greet a family in their native language, even if the rest of the meeting relies on an interpreter. Doing so communicates respect and eagerness to connect with those parents, said Vogel-Campbell. She urged educators to recognize that even if parents don’t understand the dominant language spoken by the teacher it “doesn’t mean that they’re not a source of knowledge and information for their students.”

Jarvi and Simson both regularly use Google translate to communicate with non-English speaking parents. Jarvi, whose classroom consists of nine kindergarten through third graders with moderate to severe disabilities, tries to translate all IEPs using Google Translate. He said that translating it himself for parents is often faster than sending it through the district for a translation, which he said can take up to two weeks to complete. Monthslong waits for IEP translations, as well as poor translations, are common across California, according to EdSource.

Jarvi said that the longer parents have to wait for the IEP document, the more drawn out the process is for parental consent, signature and implementation. “We want it to have a quick turnaround for consent and implementation, because the longer it takes for the parent to consent, the less time the child has to meet the goals,” he said. Without an IEP signed by a parent, the educator has to continue curriculum based off of the most recently signed IEP, which can be a year out of date. The quicker special education teachers can sit down with parents with an agreed upon IEP, the less likely students are to fall behind in meeting their curriculum goals whether those are academic or functional life skills.

Communicating effectively with families

Jarvi and Simson have implemented similar strategies to close the communication gap between themselves and their students’ parents. Simson, who works with middle school students, uses Google Translate to send and receive text messages and emails to and from parents. His classroom consists of families that speak English and Spanish. He tells parents that he has no problem translating on his end and he lets them take the lead on which language to use. 

Jarvi also uses Google Translate as much as he can to communicate with parents of his students that might speak a primary language at home other than English. Over the years, he has worked with families who speak Khmer, Cambodian, Japanese and Spanish. 

Continuing to build those relationships with parents, Simson approaches IEP meetings wondering how he can foster an authentic connection with the family to solidify the partnership between educator and parent. He also texts or calls parents every couple of days with positive news about their student and encourages parents to praise their children. If the student has an obstacle to overcome, Simson makes sure to collaborate with parents to come up with a redirection or constructive solution to the problem. 

Teachers might interpret parental deference to educators’ ideas as disengagement, but in her book Vogel-Campbell highlighted a diversity of non-Western cultural beliefs that may shape parents’ interactions with the school system. She said it’s important to recognize those differences and emphasize ways that parents can advocate for their children in the U.S. education system. Jarvi, who often speaks with parents who are new to the IEP process, makes sure to create lasting relationships with parents in the hopes that they continue advocacy for their children after they leave his classroom. In his weekly communications home, he offers a variety of messaging styles from a traditional email to text messages that consist of a smiley face or frowny face. Although he said it can take some trial and error, Jarvi works to tailor his communication to a parent’s bandwidth and to smooth out any challenges.

Translation resources and multilingual services for families

Vogel-Campbell also shared some resources that her district uses for communicating with families speaking different languages. One is Parent Square, a communication tool designed for use in K-12 education that educators, administrators and district officials use to translate memos into more than 100 languages. Some teachers in Vogel-Campbell’s district also use Remind, an education communication platform with two-way texting translation capabilities. 


If parents ask educators for resources regarding support and advocacy, Vogel-Campbell recommended the organization Support For Families, which is based in San Francisco but offers many online resources, such as introductions to different diagnoses. Vogel-Campbell also recommended connecting families to parent centers that offer multilingual services and resources to families of children with disabilities. Parent centers can be found by location at Vogel-Campbell’s district also has recently partnered with Footsteps To Brilliance, a bilingual app that can be used by families to continue literacy lessons at home.

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