Yvette Sanchez-Fuentes is the Director of the Office of Head Start.
Hispanics are the largest and fastest-growing minority group in the United States. We see this in our Head Start programs across the country where the number of Hispanic families with enrolled children has nearly doubled over the last three decades. As a nation, one of the most important things we can do is to support and engage families in the early years to ensure children succeed in school and life. Families can and do play a significant role in their children’s academic success. As parents, teachers, administrators and advocates we can strengthen family engagement in Hispanic communities by:
Learning about the rich diversity of Hispanic families in our communities.
It is important to understand that Hispanic families are a diverse group. They include monolingual Spanish speakers, bilingual English and Spanish speakers, monolingual English speakers, and indigenous language speakers. Hispanic families may have recently arrived in the United States or they may be second, third or fourth generation Americans. Hispanic families come from many different countries in North, South and Central America, and like any ethnic group, they deserve early childhood programs and schools that genuinely understand and respect the deep cultural roots and values that underscore their daily lives and decisions.
Helping children identify and connect with their cultures and languages of origin.
Give children and families opportunities at school to share who they are and be proud of where they come from. Children need family stories to root them in their culture and give them a strong foundation upon which to build their futures. The sharing of language and culture in program and school settings teaches children to feel good about who they are, and helps their peers learn to value cultural differences. It also helps families feel welcome and a part of the program or school environment. Administrators can support these efforts by being intentional about language and cultural policies and practices in programs and schools.
Exploring families’ perceptions about what it means to be engaged in their children’s school.
Some Hispanic families might come from the perspective that teachers are the expert and families should not interfere out of respect. In Head Start we have a long history through our requirements and mission to value the expertise parents bring to the learning process since they know their children best. Encourage parent-teacher interactions that invite conversations about family perceptions. Welcome parents to share their thoughts, concerns and questions in order to build a trusting partnership.
Encouraging bilingualism to promote children’s academic success.
Teachers should talk with families about encouraging their children to continue using their home language as they are learning English in programs and schools. Parents should seek out programs and schools that support both English and the language they speak at home. The research is clear that learning more than one language provides children with enhanced cognitive functions, positive language and social development. Also, as children progress into adulthood there are workforce opportunities unique to bilingual individuals. To support lifelong family communication, parents should be encouraged to continue speaking their home language with their children regardless of whether there are opportunities for one or more languages at school.
Taking Advantage of these Related Resources.
The Importance of Home Language Series includes handouts for staff and families and provides basic information on the benefits of being bilingual. Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors is a structured curriculum on language stimulation, health, socio-emotional development, and parent engagement and advocacy for Latino parents. Las Manos de Apá (The Hands of My Father) is a set of Head Start resources that focus on how to run groups and activities that engage Latino fathers around their children’s early learning.
During National Hispanic Heritage Month, we can celebrate the Hispanic community by celebrating the role of families in children’s education. One Head Start parent put it best when he said, “it’s never too late to be involved in your child’s education. Like on the banner I read [at my child’s school] ‘School is my second home, and home is my first school’.