Transcription of the episode “Parent-school relationships in early childhood programs: family engagement is driven by families”

Amy H-L: 00:15 Hi, I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.

Jon M: 00:17 And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools.

Amy H-L: 00:20 Our guest today is Dr. Yasmin Morales-Alexander. Yasmin is an assistant professor in the Early Childhood graduate program at Lehman College. She was the inaugural recipient of Teacher’s College’s Shirley Chisholm Dissertation Award, recognizing TC doctoral graduates who have advanced the aims of democracy by promoting racial and gender equality, and is also a recipient of the Lehman College Urban Transformative Education Award. Welcome, Yasmin.

Yasmin M-A: 00:49 Thank you. It’s good to be here.

Jon M: 00:52 Your work has focused a lot on Latinx parents engagement with early childhood programs and dispelling myths that Latinx parents don’t value their children’s education. In your doctoral dissertation on Mexican parents with children in a New York City Head Start program, you found that the parents were wholly engaged in their children’s development and education and helped them primarily by communicating knowledge rooted in Mexican culture. How did the parents do that?

Yasmin M-A: 01:22 Well, my simplest answer is they did it being themselves and just being true to who they are and and really relying on their own experiences, their own experiences growing up in Mexico and various states of Mexico immigrating to this country and then subsequently having their children in this country and really kind of bridging those two worlds.

Jon M: 01:56 Can you talk, I mean, would there be any specific examples you can give that struck you as particularly striking and perhaps that the school sort of needed to understand in a, in a fuller kind of context?

Yasmin M-A: 02:09 I think that it really begins with understanding our, trying to understand how Mexican immigrant families conceptualize family engagement and conceptualize education. So I think that that conceptualization formed the crux of their practices. So, for example, in many Latino cultures, including Mexican immigrant families, the idea of education is starkly different from our understanding and conceptualization of education here in the United States. For example, Latino families will see education as like moral, moral development, the idea of being a good person and that if, if the child is respectful towards others, if the child demonstrates behavior that’s kind and empathic and considerate of other other people and when they’re young in that sense it’s the family unit, then they’re considered to be bien educado, well educated. And so it’s kind of with that definition and that cultural value of education that the Mexican immigrant families in my research really approached family engagement and their practices. So to give you a more concrete example, you would often hear parents saying to their children, you know, when they would drop them off at school, okay, have a good day. You know, be good, listen to the teacher. I don’t want any complaints. And yeah, when we think about, you know, engagement, right? When we think about engagement, it’s, you know, that Mexican mom in that moment is, is in fact engaging in a deeply cultural practice. Like her idea of this child having a good day and this child reaping the benefits of a quote unquote formal education is being respectful towards the teacher, paying attention, listening. I don’t want any complaints.

Amy H-L: 04:22 That’s interesting. How about the parents themselves? I mean, I’ve actually been involved in quite a few schools and the metrics that tend to be used are, you know, did these parents come to the PTA meetings, that sort of thing. And I’m wondering how that differs within Mexican-American culture.

Yasmin M-A: 04:46 So one of the things that I learned, interestingly enough, is it’s kind of like this, this dichotomy where there wasn’t many differences in terms of the Mexican immigrant families and those practices that you speak of. Yet at the same time, there was a major difference in that their philosophical, cultural approach. So the parents in my research were very much interested in participating like you mentioned and kind of going to let’s say a parent teacher meeting and they would make it their business to leave work early, to find another adult to represent them at these meetings. And when I, and when I would ask them why they did this, why would they engage? And they also talked about like volunteering on a trip or volunteering at an event. And when invariably when I asked them why they did this, they would say things like, I need to make sure that my child is behaving. I need to make sure that my child is paying attention to the teacher. I want to support the teacher. And so really what that led me to, to kind of think about is this idea of not just this concept of education and what it means to them to be bien educado, but that they rely on these cultural values. It’s always at the core of the decisions that they make. And so it’s very important for them again, that let’s say the children are listening and paying attention and doing what it is that they’re supposed to do. And it becomes the basis for the parents going that quote unquote extra step, taking a day off from work and so on and so forth, to participate. And so I would hear more of that and less of like, well, the school asked me to, or that’s what the school wants. It was very much driven by what the parents wanted. Does that make sense?

Jon M: 06:52 Yes. You’ve talked about family engagement as a cultural practice. What does that mean and how does that tie in with what you were just saying?

Yasmin M-A: 07:00 So one of the, so one of the frameworks that I relied heavily on to, to kind of understand phenomenon and to help my students understand phenomenon is like a sociocultural framework. And a sociocultural framework suggests that, that people, that children, people develop in the context of communities, in the context of families, in a historical or sociohistorical timeframe that then kind of informs that development and the decisions again, that the community, in this case parents and families, make for and with their children. And that is, I don’t think that that’s unique to Latino families. I think that that’s what happens to all of us. And so given this how I frame it and how I conceptualize development, families start engaging with their children in utero. I mean, if you think about it, right? So, and, and what they do is, is cultural in that whatever, whatever things that you do to prepare ourselves for a new addition in the family, whatever we do when a baby comes into the fold are very unique, right? So what we may do here in New York City may look very different than what’s done in, in Brazil, let’s just say as an example. And it doesn’t, that doesn’t stop those behaviors and that conceptualization of engagement doesn’t stop when our children enter formal schooling. And so if I’m raised, if I was raised with the cultural concept of a cultural value of el respeto, respect, and I was taught that and my parents engage me in that way, once I get into school, they’re not going to stop necessarily kind of drilling that in my head and expecting that behavior from me. And so when I kind of did a comparative look at kind of our, our American cultural values, I’m thinking, well that’s, it’s the same thing. That’s, that’s what we do, right? That’s why we read to our children at night, right? That’s why we try to enroll them in enriching learning programs as early as possible because that’s something that we value. Because here we value literacy here, we value children talking, we encourage our children to ask questions. It’s a cultural practice and our values inform and in many ways, I dare say, dictate the decisions that we make. And for me personally, you know, it was a very interesting and kind of engaging in this was a very interesting experience because I’m the, I’m the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants and so I, I grew up understanding the tenets that the Mexican immigrant families were talking about. Yet at the same time I was born here, the first in my family to be born here, um, in the United States. I was educated here and so, you know, and I’m an educator, so when it came to raising my children, it was very interesting because it was like this, I don’t want to say necessarily a clash, although there are moments of cultural clash, but it was always being cognizant on some level of like, oh, that’s my very Latino side, you know, in terms of decisions I was making around my children. And this is all, this is so American of me when I would make other kinds of decisions.

Amy H-L: 10:42 The differences that you’re talking about, is that not confusing for these children when I guess it’s more the emphasis than anything else that’s different. So if their parents are prioritizing, you know, behaving and being respectful and that sort of thing and obeying I suppose. And then the in school and, and certainly the, what I guess we’d call the dominant cultural value is, you know, ask a lot of questions. [Inaudible]

Yasmin M-A: 11:13 I don’t know if I would go as far as seeing confusion as, as I would say, probably tension. And I think that there are always cultural tensions and I think that children experience it. I think the families experience it, right. So like just as an example, I had one mom who, you know, she had her child in early Head Start program and where she came to the center with her child in almost like a Mommy and Me type of situation. And um, when it was the child’s first day of kindergarten and the school staff said, no, you can’t pass the gate. You have to leave, you have to leave your son here at the gate cause he’s going to line up. I mean, she, she was floored. She was like so consumed with like, Oh my gosh, is he going to be okay because this is not, that’s not what she got used to when that’s not part of her own kind of repertoire. That’s an example of a cultural tension. Right? And so I think that what happens as a result of these tensions, children internalize them children internalize the differences, right? Just like we know how to behave in certain places. So children also learn how to, kind of, what their home world is, what their home culture is, what school culture is, what the school world is like. And then there’s the other pocket of friends as they get older. And ultimately what we’re talking about is bicultural beings. And if we look at it as if we look at these tensions in a positive way, what it’s doing is in fact creating bicultural frameworks. And that’s a positive thing.

Jon M: 13:03 In the context of that, of a bicultural setting, what should the relationships look like or a relationship look like between the school and families from an ethical point of view? How do ethics come into this?

Yasmin M-A: 13:18 So I think one of the pieces that also struck me is the level of authenticity in which these families spoke about, their engagement practices and their understanding of engagement. And even in the midst of these cultural tensions and kind of figuring things out, they also spoke with conviction. And I think that conviction comes from kind of knowing who they are, honoring themselves, understanding who they are in relation to, whether it’s in relation to the Head Start program, in relation to the school, in relation to the teachers, in relation to their children. And I, I think that in terms of family engagement, schools and ethics, we need to go beyond saying that we build relationships with families and really do it. And part of it is a certain level of authenticity. And I think that, I’m not sure the schools as a whole and the people that reside in schools are being in some ways true to themselves. I mean, I, it’s, it’s hard to kind of understand. I absolutely have it in my head and so I’ll try, but, but this idea that it’s, you know, yes. I’m gonna invite the parents and I’m going to have a, a curriculum night and so and so forth. But where’s the space for the staff themselves to say, I don’t know what I’m doing? How do I do that? I’ve never worked with this population before. That freaks me out a little bit. Right. So where is this authenticity? Right? And with authenticity is integrity. You can’t, they kind of go together. And so I think that that’s where the whole ethical piece comes in and in family engagement.

Amy H-L: 15:18 Yeah. Certainly typical teachers’ schedules don’t allow for a lot of interaction with parents. I don’t know how that happens, you know, in reality.

Yasmin M-A: 15:29 Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think that they’re in a, and obviously it’s a much broader issue in terms of what teachers are expected to do in the amount of time that they’re given to do it and, and how. But but one thing I will say is, you know, schools themselves have a culture and I think that the leadership of the school or the leadership in a school can, can work towards creating that culture. And so, you know, I’ve been in, I’ve been in programs and in schools where they’re so open to families and not just open to families. It’s almost like there’s a recognition that without families they can’t do their job. And so the school feels very different. You’ll see more families in the school itself. There’s rooms dedicated just for parents to kind of get together. There’s programming going on that, that addresses families’ interests. Um, on the, conversely, you have schools where, you know, again, leave your, leave your child at the door. This is your four year old, the first time in a, in a U P K classroom in an, in a school. And they’re like, no, you can’t. You can’t come in. Nope. He’s, he’s a big boy. He’s a big girl. They’re going to have to go by themselves. I mean, those are really stark differences. And so I think that that culture sends a message not just to the families but also to the teachers. And even if they’re well intentioned and well-meaning and are desirous of engaging with families, sometimes there are bigger pieces that don’t allow them to do that successfully.

Jon M: 17:13 So, yeah, I mean, part of what I’m hearing you say in terms of, you know, Amy’s question about scheduling is that if a school sees this as really essential to its mission, that it’s going to organize its schedule and its interactions around it. Whereas if it sees it as kind of peripheral, well then there’s not enough time for it. But I wanted to follow up because you’ve recommended that teachers, and I think this fits in with this, that teachers need to be immersed in the community of the children that they’re teaching. Um, what would this look like and, and why is this so important?

Yasmin M-A: 17:48 Well, because I take the position that family engagement is a cultural practice. I believe that that understanding a culture requires, again, this like this immersive, right, like you have to be in it, you have to know where, you have to know the families’ community because if you’re immersed in it then, then on some level it gives you the opportunity to see it in some ways the same way that they see it, right? So part of, part of our day to day is like these regularities, right? It’s like we may go to the corner store to get our, you know, bacon, egg and cheese sandwich. And then from there I’m going to stand at the bus stop cause I’m going to take my child to school, which is two stops away. So I mean, so this is like the everyday lives and experiences of children and families, um, that children experience more or I don’t want to say more deeply, but certainly more in terms of frequency than the amount of time that they spend in an actual classroom. And so it’s almost like we’re almost obfuscating a whole portion of this child’s identity and this child’s day to day life and by extension, the identity and the, the day to day life of the family itself. And so I think, and I think that there’s something fundamentally wrong with that, right? If we keep talking about, it’s certainly in early childhood, we talk about, you know, teaching the whole child and knowing and recognizing that this child comes with a family, but yet there’s like this whole missing piece that we don’t understand and we don’t know. And so for those reasons, I strongly recommend kind of immersive experiences for preservice teachers and even teachers themselves. I’ve had students where, you know, they’ll say to me, I, I just, I just go to, I go to work, I go to my classroom, I don’t live in the neighborhood. I didn’t know that there was, I don’t know, like a mosque, you know, three blocks down. So I think again, that this knowledge that children have, this experiential knowledge, that should and could be totally tapped into is not. And if teachers had opportunities to, to live and breathe and smell and eat in the community,

Amy H-L: 20:12 I wonder whether it should be the norm that teachers, or at least there’s an attempt to hire teachers from the local communities. Otherwise, you know, cultural competence is really difficult to acquire during regular teaching hours.

Yasmin M-A: 20:28 Yeah. You know, and I think, I think one of the, the joys, benefits of being part of the CUNY world. You know, I was a CUNY student, I’m a CUNY educator. Uh, you know, the biggest university that we have here in New York City, is that I think many of our teachers in the CUNY system pretty much stay in the city and teach in the city. And I think that’s a good thing. I think that’s, that’s really positive. And you’ll have a couple of outliers where that may not be the case, but certainly at Lehman College in the Bronx, a good number of our preservice teachers either are already doing some type of work in, in local schools or are looking to, you know, to teach in local schools. They’re not committed to doing it. And so they, they enter the program with that commitment. What I will add to that though is that cultural congruence is, is important and those connections could be readily made. So for example, if I speak Spanish and I’m dealing with a predominantly Hispanic parent population, obviously just on the strength of that, you know, language ability, I’m going to be able to connect. Well, one of the things that I find is that sometimes it doesn’t matter and when I say it doesn’t matter is that I have found that teachers who share the racial and ethnic cultural backgrounds of some of our families may also need more work and deeper understanding of of some of these kinds of cultural nuances.

Jon M: 22:19 Yeah. Speaking of that, how could teacher education programs better prepare teachers to engage with parents, engage with the community, with the kind of approach that you’re talking about, sort of regardless of whether they happen to have grown up in that community or if they’re coming new to the community. What can teacher ed programs do, both preservice and an inservice?

Yasmin M-A: 22:45 So I think like a tool. I think a two-pronged approach would be useful. Helpful. And I think that all learning should start with the individual. And by that I mean we’re asking our teachers, our students to learn this culture, you know, here or to understand kind of where this family is coming from. But I feel that without that self knowledge, learning about someone else and understanding someone else’s kind of cultural values and regularities and nuances, would be that much more challenging, right? And so I think that we need to rethink how we position the preservice teachers or how we position the teachers themselves when we’re, when we’re talking about teaching them or professional development. The same way that we ask our students and our teachers to like center the child and that the child is the center of the learning experience. I think that we need to take the same approach with our students. So, for example, I teach a family engagement course and one of my very first assignments is to have the students talk about their family engagement experiences in the families in which they grew up. So that that gives them some sort of context for not only understanding themselves, but understanding themselves in relation to what their, you know, the topic at hand and in relation to the families that they’re going to work with. So I think that that’s one piece of it, like the self kind of knowledge and as a process of that self knowledge, then we need to facilitate conversations where we’re kind of unpacking some of this deficit talk about families and Latino families and families of color or families that are from different religions or different backgrounds, right? We have those opportunities to, to kind of unpack that. Alongside of that. I think that in every course, not just in the course that speaks specifically about family and community relationships, but even our methods courses, I think that their field experiences need to somehow involve working with families. So I’ll give you another example. We have a math course, right? Teaching math. What kinds of opportunities are we embedding for our preservice teachers? I say to think about math in very different ways, right? So how is, I don’t know. If we’re in a community where, again, the majority are Latinos. What is this community’s experience with math? How were they understanding math? And so I think that there are opportunities for us to embed it through out the program and not just in this one class that’s titled “Family and Community Relationships.”

Amy H-L: 25:45 Yasmin, what do you mean by, you know, how they, what their view of math is, just to pick up on that example?

Yasmin M-A: 25:54 So I’m trying to come up with a very concrete example. If that, say, that the community, if the community in particular relies on a bartering system, right, that’s not the same thing as going to the store and taking out of the $20 bill and paying, right? There’s like another way, there’s other ways that this community is conducting these transactions, these financial transactions. That is just one example that’s related to math concepts, That if that’s what a community does and if that’s the way the the community engages, then I think it would be important for teachers to know that because then they take that information and then they can develop lessons for the children, develop obviously the curriculum and then it’s, it’s much more meaningful and tied to, again, the children’s and the families’ experiences. It’s again, it’s, it’s like that funds of knowledge, right? It’s like there’s a wealth of knowledge out there and you know, how effectively are we tapping into the funds of knowledge?

Jon M: 27:07 Oh, you know, several of the things you said really seem to obviously tie together very tightly. I mean, one is looking at the funds of knowledge, which goes back to what you were talking originally about the Mexican parents that you were working with in the Head Start program. And the need for schools to really understand that there are multiple sources of knowledge and not only what the teacher is imparting in the classroom, but also, you know, you’ve been talking about authenticity on everybody’s part, including teachers sort of recognizing where they’re coming from and what they do and don’t know, and being vulnerable enough to knowledge what they don’t know. And you also mentioned the key to relationships. And I think when we were talking earlier, before we started in until you, on the podcast, you were telling about how relationships are key to, to everything. Um, so what would be your ideal situation in terms of, and maybe you’ve seen them in schools where the school folks and parents and kids are coming close to really being able to be their authentic selves and recognizing both the similarities and the differences of where everybody’s coming from. I don’t know if that’s too long winded a question but answer any part of it you feel [inaudible].

Amy H-L: 28:38 um, I agree. Yes. I, I definitely think that relationships are key. And when I think about what makes a relationship and how do we, how do we get into a relationship and a part of it, like the components of it, it’s communication, right? So there is some sort of communication, whether it’s nonverbal or verbal, there are behaviors that support that communication. There is a disposition that’s part of relationship building that says there is good in that person, right? That there is not just good but that there, there is something that I can learn from that person. There is something that that person can learn from me. So I think that that disposition is, is really important because I think that it goes towards demystifying what feels as an adversarial kind of construct with like parents versus teachers. And I think a part of it is how they view or what’s out there as how they view themselves. And part of building relationships is kind of like having the courage, if you will, to to put that aside, to be vulnerable and have cards against it. Be your authentic self. And that means you smile when, when a parent walks in and that means you say hi. Um, that means that you kind of, you know, there’s a certain level of emotional intelligence that’s part of effective and strong relationships. It’s recognizing that that mom, that mom looks a little stressed out and taking out the two minutes to say, mom, you alright? You okay? You know, yesterday [inaudible]. You okay? Um, and that mom may not tell, tell the teacher that mommy not saying anything, that mom may go ahead and say, yeah, I’m fine and drop off the child and keep it moving, but that mom is not gonna forget that the teacher took the two minutes to ask about her and it’s all of these tiny little acts, if you will, that then kind of create the sense of confianza, which my participants talk a lot about the sense of trust that wow, that person has my best interest at heart and in mind. It’s a lot of work, I think.

Jon M: 31:07 You spoke just then about the constructs that, I mean schools are pretty generally set up, traditional American schools. And I suspect this is obviously true in a lot of other countries, are set up to sort of establish dominance and to sort of value the transmission of specific knowledge uni-dimensionally from the teacher or the school to the student, which a lot of times fits into this deficit model that oh, the family doesn’t have this knowledge and we have to fill the glass or whatever with this knowledge. And it sounds as though what you’re saying is that you really need to break that down, that that’s not a helpful model for establishing true relationships among the adults and the kids as equals. I mean the kids of course are young, but they are whole people and the adults of course are both older and whole people, as are the teachers. Um, is that what you’re saying, that what you’re advocating cause for a fundamental assessment of what a, what a school should look like and what a school community should look like?

Yasmin M-A: 32:26 Yes. I think it’s twofold. I think it’s two things that need to kind of happen in conjunction or simultaneously. And that is again, reconceptualizing this idea of family engagement as a cultural practice. If we recognize it is in fact a cultural practice driven by in large by the family, then that already puts kind of all families on a, I hate to say even playing field, but it, yeah, that kind of puts them even if you will, that it’s like, well you have your, your practices and I have my practices, all families have their practices. So I think that thinking, rethinking about family engagement, that it’s not something that’s driven by the school. So the schools think that they own it and they don’t. Family engagement is owned by the family. And so I think that that’s one piece of it. And then kind of taking that, that conceptualization or that, that reconceptualization and then begin to change everything kind of that goes on in the school to support that reconceptualization. So then there is this kind of this hierarchy of knowledge.

Amy H-L: 33:43 What does that look like when there are children from different cultures or their families may have different traditions and values? It seems to me that it would be quite a challenge for the teacher to negotiate.

Yasmin M-A: 34:01 Yes, and I hear that often from students. I hear that from program staff, from school staff, that it’s like, oh my, if I just, you know, how much translating, right, we could do when there’s like, I don’t know, maybe 50 languages in one in one school alone, but I’m going beyond that. I’m really thinking about, it’s interesting, I’m really thinking about ethics, right? So I’m thinking about again, kindness, kindness is kindness, acts of kindness are just that, right? Again, the communication, the authenticity, integrity, how do you establish trust? These families, from whatever culture they are, they’re entrusting this school, they’re entrusting this teacher with my most absolute precious commodity, which is my child. And so I think that if we support schools and support teachers in engaging in those kinds of behaviors, I feel like the other pieces will come of how do you then honor, if you will, the variety or the diverse cultures in your school. Because I think that there are some tenets that some human interaction principles that cross cultures, cross religions, crosses race crosse ethnicity.

Amy H-L: 35:22 That makes sense. Is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t covered today?

Yasmin M-A: 35:30 Um, no. I mean I think again, I will just, you know, emphasize this idea of supporting teachers and school personnel and our students in higher ed to understand themselves and to think about themselves in the context of other people. And sometimes that means kind of really peeling that onion, peeling the layers. Because we have all been raised by people, um, and we have experiences and we’re bound to find, and I say this to my students all the time, I was like, have more things in common than not and let’s start with those commonalities.

Jon M: 36:21 Thank you so much, Yasmin Morales-Alexander. And thank you listeners for joining us. We are posting transcripts of our interviews to make it easy to pull audio clips for classes and workshops. We’d like to hear how you’ve incorporated ideas you’ve heard on our podcasts or read on the Ethical Schools blog. And if there are topics you’d like to hear more about, please email us at We also offer professional development schools and after-school programs in the New York City area. You can contact us for details. Check out prior episodes and articles, on or on Facebook, Twitter @ethicalschools, and Instagram. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Until next week.

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