All About working with Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Families
Cultural Awareness Language Barrier Home-School Partnership Empowering Parents
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What is it like to be a culturally and linguistically diverse parent introduced to the special education system?
How can I be a parent-friendly educator to families who are culturally and linguistically diverse?
What does research say about students who are culturally and linguistically diverse?

Cultural Awareness

Parents of children with disabilities who are from non-mainstream cultures face numerous obstacles when confronted with the special education system. It is very important for teachers to be aware of these experiences, as well as strategies that can assist such families with becoming familiar with the education system as they seek to meet their child’s needs. In this chapter, you will learn the importance of maintaining cultural awareness. Research will be presented along with María’s story.

Things to Consider:

  1. What cultural biases exist in today’s school system?
  2. If you were a parent of a child with special needs who came from a different culture, how might you feel when entering the special education system?
  3. What are some strategies you could use to ensure an awareness and respect for people who come from different cultures?

Cultural Awareness- What Research Says...

The special education system has its own culture. The language used to describe disabilities, educational interventions, and programming is unique only to the system. In fact, many parents who come from mainstream English speaking U.S. culture share many stories about the difficulties they first faced when their child entered the system. Becoming familiar with the jargon, meetings, numerous professionals, paperwork, and educational decisions are all very intimidating considering they affect the overall educational, social, and behavioral success of the child. This sense of unfamiliarity is often added to the major adjustment and, in some cases, grief stage for parents who have just been told that their child has a disability. This process can be even more difficult for someone who is culturally and linguistically diverse. To put it mildly, the culture of special education is daunting.

One of the most effective things teachers can do is to simply be aware of a family’s culture. Teachers can take the time to provide all family members with the following support:

  1. Get to know your student and their family’s culture. Take the time to find out about their values, practices, preferences, etc.
  2. Keep in mind that all families are unique…avoid stereotypes.
  3. Be aware of your own cultural traits and how they may interact with other cultures… be aware of your proximity, eye contact, touching, and the order you give to the interactions you have with families (e.g., greeting before paperwork).
  4. Provide parents with information and resources. Other parents of children with disabilities who have similar backgrounds are a great source of support for families.
  5. Be sure to respect the family’s culture and not to impose your own cultural values on the family.

Understanding Cultural Differences - A Commentary by Dr. Sandy Bowen, Professor of Special Education at the University of Northern Colorado

Respecting Cultural Differences- What María Says...

When my son entered a preschool program, I was very excited that not only would he be in school for the first time, but his developmental delays would finally be addressed. I think one of the more striking things that happened were that some of the teachers had begun calling him Tony. His name is Antonio.  We requested that he not be addressed as Tony any longer. Eventually we sort of settled for him being called Anthony. I think again this was our lack of experience and being overwhelmed by everything. For my mom this was a sign of a cultural change that was imposed on Anthony. I think when children are young, a teacher should always be most careful to, at the very least, make an effort to say a child’s name in their native language.


Imagine you are a parent of a child with a disability and you speak a different language than the majority culture. You were just invited to your child’s first Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting and there are six people in the room in addition to yourself. You are the only one who does not speak English and you do have an interpreter at your side. As you sit through the meeting, everyone is talking very quickly and taking turns. The interpreter has asked the team to slow down two times because she said they were moving so quickly through the meeting. The school staff have also said several things that you do not understand, such as SDAIE instruction, using an AAC device, SLP services, and CSAP.  It is the end of the meeting and they ask you if you have any questions…

  1. How do you feel as the parent in this meeting?
  2. What are some things that are wrong with this scenario?
  3. Do you think you would be able to actively participate in your child’s IEP as envisioned by IDEA?

Your Task: Create a plan for actively including parents who are culturally and linguistically diverse into an IEP meeting. Provide details of how you would ensure the parents are able to understand what is being said, actively contribute, and that other family members who are present are able to participate as well.


Harry, B. (1992). Cultural diversity, families, and the special education system: Communication and empowerment. Teachers College Press: New York.

Harry, B. (2002). Trends and issues in serving culturally diverse families of children with disabilities. The Journal of Special Education, 36(3), 131-138.

Harry, B., Allen, N., & McLaughlin, M. (1995). Communication versus compliance: African American parents' involvement in special education. Exceptional Children, 61(4), 364-377.

Harry, B., Rueda, R., & Kalyanpur, M. (1999). Cultural reciprocity in socio-cultural perspective: Adapting the normalization principle for family collaboration. Exceptional Children, 66, 123-136.

Marion, R. L. (1982). Communicating with parents of culturally diverse exceptional children. Exceptional Children, 46, 616-623.