George Lucas Educational Foundation
Special Education

How to Empower Immigrant Families of Students With Disabilities

Schools can help immigrant parents and caregivers become familiar with the assessment process and resources available to meet students’ needs.

July 11, 2022
Parent and student meet with a teacher
SDI Productions / iStock

Approximately 45 million immigrants currently live in the United States. This number continues to grow, and it is also reflected in the student population. Now, more than half of the students in our schools are from culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) backgrounds. It’s crucial that schools make it a priority to meet their needs and engage their families throughout the entire process.

Depending on families’ cultural and educational backgrounds, their views of disability may not always be the same as the ones common in the United States. If they have a limited understanding of the school system and special education process, they may be reluctant to accept any intervention plans that schools propose for their children. To help ensure that students get the resources they need, schools can utilize various methods to better empower and engage these families.

Implement a Clear and Informative Pre-referral Process

Schools are expected to assess and track student progress. When students don’t have a disability diagnosis but show a lack of academic progress, the pre-referral process can begin. Depending on your state or school, this process may be titled as Student Success Team (SST) or Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS). Schools investigate why students are struggling and determine appropriate interventions (academic, behavioral, and more) to use prior to special education referral. During the pre-referral process, follow these three steps:

1. Utilize trained interpreters. Although more than half of students are from a CLD background, a majority of teachers (79 percent) are White and may not speak more than one language. Interpreters will need to be used to help bridge the communication gaps between schools and families.

While language interpreters aren’t required to be certified or licensed, it’s important for schools to only use trained interpreters in order to ensure effective communication with CLD families.

2. Educate CLD families on the process. Not all CLD families will understand why their children are involved in the pre-referral process or how their children would be assessed. It’s imperative to explain the process to all CLD families prior to the beginning of the school year. For example, providing a detailed flow chart of the process that explains the instructional strategies that are used at school can be helpful ways to educate them.

All materials should be available in both hard copy and online formats, for ease of reference. Additionally, make sure that materials are available in CLD families’ preferred languages. When families are empowered with information, they’re more likely to collaborate with schools.

3. Update CLD families. It’s also important for schools to ensure that CLD families stay up-to-date on their children’s progress, so that they’re not surprised when their children are being referred for special education evaluation. This can be done through emails, phone calls, text messages, or in-person meetings.

Schools also have the obligation to train families on how they can support their child academically at home. Schools can host “curriculum nights” where teachers can demonstrate specific strategies that CLD families can use to strengthen skills taught in class, such as how to utilize graphic organizers during prewriting.

Explain the Special Education Referral and Evaluation Process

When students continue to struggle, schools may suspect that they might have a disability and will start the special education referral process. With parental consent, an evaluation for special education services can begin. What schools do before and during the special education referral process has a significant impact on students and their CLD families.

1. Prior to seeking consent for testing. Depending on the infrastructure of your school, a practitioner who already has a good rapport with the family, such as a classroom teacher or special education facilitator, can meet with CLD families and share details about the evaluation process. Sharing a flow chart of each step of the process and timeline can be helpful.

This process can often be overwhelming to many CLD families, because it involves a great deal of paperwork. For undocumented immigrants, some may be reluctant to sign any school forms, since they may think that school documents are official documents that may impact their status in the U.S. It’s important to explain to CLD families that the evaluation forms have no bearing on that. The forms’ purpose is to receive their permission to evaluate their children, so that the school can determine students’ eligibility for receiving special education services.

When the special education eligibility meeting is scheduled, inform CLD families about the meeting structure and options, especially if their children are found ineligible for receiving special education services. Simply providing documents or referring them to online sources is insufficient. Schools need to explain this complicated process and inform families of their rights.

While this information can be shared individually, schools can also consider offering a schoolwide parent training at least twice a year to families who may be interested in learning.

2. During the special education process. When students are found eligible for receiving special education services, the specialized team (including the families) will develop the students’ individualized education program (IEP). This is another new and complicated process that requires a clear explanation for families prior to the first IEP meeting.

When research-based and effective interventions are implemented, students with disabilities are more likely to make progress. However, schools can also train CLD families to use some of the same interventions, so that students won’t be taught using different methods at home and their skills can be further strengthened.

Keeping CLD families of students with disabilities informed is one method for empowerment and engagement, but it’s insufficient. Focusing on two-way communication is the key to success. Schools can seek feedback from CLD families throughout the school year, so that they’ll know what’s working and what isn’t. This ensures that students with disabilities benefit from this collaborative partnership.

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  • Special Education
  • English Language Learners
  • Parent Partnership

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