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Multicultural literacy starts at home: supporting parental involvement in multicultural education.

"I just don't know of any books from other cultures that are good to read to my children. I guess I would also have to know where to get books that are good to read."

--A white parent of a 5-year-old

"My youngest could not understand why the people are being so mean to the black man who wanted to play baseball with them. You see, they are so used to playing with the Mexican boys in the neighborhood and at school. They know very little about black people."

--A Mexican parent o/two boys, a 5-year-old and a 7-year-old

The responses of these two parents, who were part of a research study that involved parents in reading multicultural picture books to their children at home, highlight the central theme of this article--the importance of encouraging and supporting parental involvement in a school's multicultural education policies and practices. In recent years, multicultural education in the United States has made its way into the policy statements of state education departments and national education organizations, has influenced public school and teacher education curricula, and has been extensively studied by researchers. What is absent from virtually all current discourse, practices, and research that focus on multicultural education, however, is an examination of the challenges and possibilities associated with involving all parents in a school's efforts to implement multicultural education.

Occasionally, minority parents are invited to school to share their food, festivals, and cultures with teachers and children. Yet the field of multicultural education is missing an important point: education that fosters (or prevents) a critical world-view (such as anti-bias attitudes or the vision for a just society) in children begins at home and is inextricably linked to the social and psychological atmosphere of the children's families and communities. Without the participation of parents, the task of preparing all children for a multicultural world and equipping them with the requisite attitudes, knowledge, skills, and commitment to seek justice for all members in a diverse society will remain incomplete.

Although family outreach programs (in the 1960s and 1970s) initially focused on a select group of parents, such as low-income families (e.g., the Head Start and Follow Through programs) or parents of special needs children (through special education legislation), the focus recently has shifted to include all parents. In fact, the Massachusetts Department of Education (2002) acknowledges parent and community involvement as an important hallmark of effective schools. At present, many public schools in the United States have adopted policies and practices to encourage parents' involvement in their child's education (Stein & Thorkildsen, 1999). During the late 1990s, there was a significant increase in the number of states requiring courses and / or standards for preservice teachers that focused on knowledge and skills related to parent and community involvement (Hiatt-Michael, 2001).

Unfortunately, the present discourse and practices related to school/home partnership are limited in their scope. The benefits of parent involvement in education are perceived primarily in terms of students' achievement in general (Fan, 2001; National Center for Education Statistics, 1997) or in specific subject areas such as math and reading (Hoff, 2001). Efforts to involve parents in the school's multicultural education efforts often are excluded from scholarly discussions and practices that focus on school/home partnerships. While public schools' efforts to improve children's academic achievement through parental involvement are certainly laudable, the purpose of schooling needs to extend beyond the narrow academic focus. It is critically important to foster well-balanced individuals who can learn the skills crucial for participation in the work force, and learn the attitudes, knowledge, and skills needed to live in a diverse society. Therefore, schools need to integrate research that has examined multicultural education and parent involvement in education, in order to prepare all children for a diverse world.


The importance of involving parents in multicultural education can be justified on several counts. First, parents have been rightly recognized as their children's first teachers and role models. Experts suggest that parents' attitudes and practices toward diversity influence and shape children's attitudes toward people who are different from themselves (e.g., Derman-Sparks, Gutierrez, & Phillips, 1989). Therefore, it is important to explore, change, and extend parents' attitudes and knowledge about multicultural education.

Second, theory and research suggest that parents' involvement in education contributes to children's academic knowledge and skill development (Fan & Chen, 1999) as well as to their behavioral and emotional development (Cai, Moyer, & Wang, 1997). Because multicultural education encompasses emotional, knowledge, and skill components, it is appropriate to infer that parents' involvement in schools' multicultural education policies and practices will facilitate their children's acceptance and understanding of diversity.

Third, the continuity of learning between home and school is critical to children's learning (Springate & Stegelin, 1999). This is true for all areas of learning, including learning about human diversity. Therefore, children need consistent, positive messages (explicit and implicit) about diversity at school and home.

Fourth, there is a growing recognition that schools cannot shoulder the responsibility of educating children single-handedly. To serve children and the society best, schools need support from other agencies, including the family. It follows, then, that schools need support from home to facilitate children's multicultural learning and development.

Finally, experts argue that the parental role in education must change from a consumer or passive recipient to that of an active participant (Swap, 1993). In other words, schools can facilitate parents' active participation in the school's multicultural policies and practices by drawing on their parents' expertise, experiences, insights, and perspectives. Schools still need to plan and implement a comprehensive support system that extends to children's homes and communities.


Experts and organizations working in the field of parent involvement in education advocate for establishing a support network for parents (e.g., National PTA, 2000). The California State Board of Education (1994) states that "parent involvement is most effective when it is comprehensive, supportive, long-lasting, and well-planned." Consequently, schools need to design specific and feasible policies and practices and incorporate input from parents at all stages of the process--planning, implementation, and evaluation. The suggestions that follow for supporting parents' involvement are designed to accommodate families' varied multicultural needs, interests, and expertise, and they can be incorporated into the school's existing parent involvement efforts.

Identifying Parents' Multicultural Education Needs, Interests, and Expertise

The very first step is to assess parents' multicultural attitudes, knowledge, needs, interests, and expertise. The insights gathered from this assessment will help schools to individualize multicultural resources and assistance for parents. Schools can establish a support group that includes teachers, school counselors, and parent volunteers. This group will collect the necessary information through surveys, interviews, and home visits. However, the process needs to be ongoing to account for any change in parents' needs, interests, expertise, etc.

Supporting Parents To Foster a Multicultural Home Environment

Designing a multicultural environment may provide parents with a critical understanding of the importance of maintaining an anti-bias environment at home.

Anti-bias Physical Environment. An anti-bias physical environment has two key goals: 1) to integrate diversity into the family's everyday life and 2) to expose and motivate family members to learn about people who are different from them. An anti-bias physical environment could include artwork representing various cultures and people (include common people as well as celebrities and noted personalities, men and women in nontraditional roles, people from low-socioeconomic backgrounds, people with special needs); multicultural art materials, toys, games, and puzzles; and multicultural books for children and adults. All these materials can be shared with parents during the workshop.

Children need to be involved in the process of creating an anti-bias physical environment, as well. For example, children may be encouraged to create their own multicultural bulletin board at home and share it with home visitors, peers in class, or with other families during interactive family learning nights.

Anti-bias Social Environment. Discuss with parents the purpose and process of promoting an anti-bias social environment. Sharing theory and research that support the value of intercultural interaction for children and adults also will be helpful (e.g., Allport, 1954). The discussion needs to include various ways to create such an environment, which may require parents to go beyond their own comfort zones by visiting a church in an ethnically different neighborhood, inviting home international students from the local college/university on special occasions, or interacting with people who work in nontraditional occupations or who pursue different interests, to name a few examples. Sustained interaction with a variety of people will help children become aware of their own biases; understand the similarities in hopes, aspirations, and emotions among people; and learn and practice the skills of intercultural communication.

Supporting Parents To Extend Their Children's Multicultural Literacy at Home

A series of multicultural workshops on various topics can be sequentially organized so that the teachings of the successive sessions build on the earlier ones. Time off between workshops will give parents opportunities to practice the strategies, or to read and reflect over suggested resources. They can share their challenges, successes, and concerns (if any) with the group in subsequent sessions.

A Critical Understanding of Multicultural Education. It is important to explore parents' understanding of multicultural education. Researchers have reported that many parents perceive multicultural education as primarily learning about various cultures' food, festivals, and heroes (Aldridge, Calhoun, & Aman, 2000). To help them get a more complete picture, it is important to highlight the interplay of social class, gender, special needs, language, and race. Moreover, educators should promote a critical and reflective understanding of multicultural education among parents. For example, a discussion could center around the Disney animated film "Pocahontas." They could review a summary and watch short clips from the movie. Following the movie, parents would read the article "The Pocahontas Paradox: A Cautionary Tale for Educators" (Pewewardy, 1996/97), and make a critical evaluation concerning the accuracy and authenticity of the story as presented in the film. This exercise will help parents to adopt a critical stance when selecting multicultural resources for their children.

Children's Multicultural Misunderstandings. This particular workshop reviews the literature on young children's multicultural development, as well as on children's cultural misunderstandings and the role the family plays in this regard (Derman-Sparks, Gutierrez, Phillips, 1989; Swick, Boutte, & van Scoy, 1995). Researchers report that between the ages 2 and 5, children become aware of differences related to gender, race, ethnicity, and disabilities (Derman-Sparks & the A.B.C. Task Force, 1989). By age 3 and 4, children categorize themselves and others (Aboud, 1987) using observable characters such as skin color or hair texture (Ramsey, 1987). Cross-cultural research points to the fact that children develop racial and ethnic biases from a very young age (Teichman, 2001), and that children's intercultural competence is acquired through various stages.

Parents may be provided print and audiovisual resources on this issue before the workshop so they can arrive prepared to discuss their relevant personal views, beliefs, and experiences. For example, in a multicultural workshop session, a Chinese American mother once shared that she was quite shocked and surprised by her 4-year-old son's refusal to shake hands with her husband's African American colleague; her son had said, "Your hands are dirty." Until that incident, she had been unaware of her child's racial awareness and misunderstandings.

Multicultural Education Teaching Strategies. The goal of this workshop is to support parents with approaches and strategies that will help them enhance/ extend their child's multicultural understanding or address their child's misunderstandings appropriately. Research suggests that parents who are provided with strategies and home-learning activities make the greatest contributions to their children's education (Barclay & Boone, 1996/97). The workshop needs to include a wide range of strategies, such as how to identify, evaluate, and correct one's own racial biases (conscious or unconscious); how to challenge biases in others; how to address children's ethnocentric attitudes and behavior in a developmentally appropriate way; how to engage children in critical discussions on issues related to diversity; how to promote children's ability to be empathic and take others' perspectives; and how to engage children in experiential learning.

Again, parents' own experiences, ideas, and views on such issues need to be considered. For example, a parent may favor a direct approach when addressing a child's use of unacceptable language toward a cultural group. While it is important that the parent provide direct, immediate, and specific feedback to the child in this context, the discussion also needs to be directed toward the long-term value of exploring deeper issues, such as the source of such information and the child's motivation for using unacceptable language in a particular context. An understanding of this "constructivist" approach to multicultural education will help parents perceive their children as active architects of meaning and accept their own role as a facilitator of learning. Moreover, as Lane (1999) points out, "there may be occasions where prejudice is l-ridden from adults unless they watch carefully" (p. 9). Therefore, parents need guidance in watching and interpreting children's behavior/activities in various situations (including their choice of playmates, toys, books, and television programs).

Multicultural Literature. Books are critical to children's development, as is parents' involvement in reading books to their children at home. Therefore, workshop sessions that focus on multicultural children's literature will be very helpful for parents. In advance of the workshop, parents could read the article titled Crossing Borders: Multicultural Literature in the Classroom (Dietrich & Ralph, 1995). This article very persuasively explains the importance of using multicultural children's literature. A children's literature specialist may discuss the criteria for choosing quality multicultural literature for children, share quality multicultural children's books with parents, and engage parents in general literacy strategies as well as specific multicultural literacy strategies. For example, before reading the book Someone Special, Just Like You (Brown, 1991), parents may display the cover of the book and ask questions to probe their child's knowledge and understanding of children with special needs; during the reading, parents may ask questions to help children identify the similarities and differences between them and the special need s children in the story; and after reading the story, parents may ask questions that examine any change in their children's knowledge and attitudes about children with special needs, as well as the children's feelings and evaluation of the various aspects of the book (including illustrations). Sometimes, parents' lack of knowledge about other cultures may prevent their use of multicultural literature with their children (Pattnaik, 2001). Therefore, parents need adequate background knowledge on the multicultural books that they read to their child. Many multicultural books include an author's note that provides information and clarification of themes and language in the book as well as the history and purpose.

Family Projects. Support and resources can be provided to help families complete special multicultural projects that involve the entire family. An example of one such family project is titled "Understanding and Protecting the Rights of People With Special Needs." In order to complete this project, parents need information on specific state and federal legislation that protects the rights of people with special needs. To explore the implementation of these laws and policies, parents may take their children to community places (e.g., supermarkets) to survey for special provisions and services for people with special needs, or to observe the illegal use of parking places designated for those with special needs. The family may write a letter to city or municipal officials regarding their concerns.

Interactive Family Learning Nights. Schools may arrange interactive family learning nights at school or other community places. Interactive family learning nights could include such activities as: 1) "Mommy/ Daddy and Me" sessions, in which parents practice strategies, with guidance, to facilitate children's interactions with multicultural materials from the arts; 2) interactive sessions with a children's author or an ethnic minority artist; and 3) sharing family projects or unique multicultural experiences, such as a special trip to a multicultural art gallery, or attending a Special Olympics event at the state or international level.

Supporting Parents' Participation in the School's Multicultural Curriculum

Besides supporting parents in facilitating their children's multicultural literacy at home, educators need to involve parents in the school's multicultural curriculum.

Parental Input in Planning and Implementing the Classroom Curriculum. Experts recommend that multicultural education needs to be incorporated into the entire curriculum. Therefore, while planning the curriculum, the teacher may invite parents to contribute ideas related to multicultural concepts and skills that are appropriate for the curriculum. For example, with the support of parents, children may prepare a weekly budget for families of various socioeconomic and ethnic/religious backgrounds and learn about the financial resources available to families from various socioeconomic backgrounds, or about the food preferences of families from various ethnic and religious backgrounds. While introducing the themes of "friendship" or "our classroom family," for example, teachers could invite the parent of a special needs child to address children's specific questions about their peer with special needs. Teachers and parents may plan multicultural games for children, such as the hat game from Albania, the round game from Africa, or the magic squares game from India. The Teacher's Handbook of Multicultural Games Children Play (Murphy, 1996) is a good resource. Teachers can use parents as resources, as they design specific multicultural units to help children gain deeper understanding of some particular multicultural concepts, such as slavery, the contributions and experiences of Mexican migrant workers in the United States, or men and women in nontraditional professions.

The Classroom Family Read-along Program. Teachers may invite parents and other family members to come for a weekly one-hour session in which they read multicultural literature to their child, using the strategies that they learned from the workshops. Children whose parents cannot come may join their peers' parents.

Multicultural Newsletter for Parents. Teachers could create a special monthly multicultural newsletter that will provide a forum for parents to share their experiences and ideas, as well as resources, regarding multicultural education. This newsletter may include a section for addressing parents' concerns and questions related to their child's multicultural learning and development, as well as the teacher's multicultural curriculum.

Family Museum. Classrooms may include a family museum that highlights and celebrates a different child's family each week (National PTA, 2000). The family will arrange the museum with family photographs, descriptions of family events, letters, scrapbooks, artifacts, achievements, and contributions to the multicultural efforts of the school and community.

Supporting Parental Participation in the Decision-Making Processes

The school needs to inform parents of its intent to involve them in the decision-making processes related to multicultural education, the exact nature of their participation, provisions of support, and ways to handle confusion and disagreements among and between parents and school personnel. The school can form a multicultural advisory committee (consisting of parents and school personnel). Parents may be selected based on their interest and experiences in multicultural education, and on their involvement in the decision-making processes in their local community and workplace. Care must be taken to recruit members with diverse backgrounds. The committee will participate in decisions related to budgetary allocations for multicultural education (such as for the purchase of multicultural resources, including children's literature and videos); scheduling field trips to multicultural sites (such as art galleries, museums, community centers); bringing multicultural experts and events to the school (such as West Virginia's "Women's History Museum on Wheels"); establishing a multicultural week celebration in the school; recruiting and retaining diverse staff, faculty, and students; and addressing criticisms or concerns raised against multicultural curriculum by families and communities.

Supporting Parents To Serve As Advocates of Multicultural Education

Because of their involvement in the community and the school, parents are in a very good position to serve as advocates of a school's multicultural education initiatives. A parent advocacy group can serve as liaison between the school and the community. This group may be supported with knowledge and resources on how to convince other parents and community members of the importance of multicultural education; ways to disseminate information related to the school's mission, policies, and practices related to multicultural education; ways to collaborate with community organizations that are committed to diversity issues; methods for involving the local news media (e.g., television channels, newspapers, and radio stations); and ideas for fundraising activities to support the school's multicultural education efforts. The parent advocate group may convince the local media outlets to host focus group discussions with parents and experts on multicultural issues, highlight children's involvement in community and school-wide multicultural projects, and announce multicultural activities and events planned and hosted by parents.

Supporting Parents To Identify Quality Multicultural Resources

Access to quality multicultural resources is an important aspect of parents' involvement in multicultural education.

Family Resource Center. The school needs to establish a family resource center within its own campus or in the community. A parent volunteer committee could oversee the center's operations. The center can offer parents easy access to multicultural books, brochures, audio- and videotapes, games, puzzles, magazines, and journals. The center also should include an audiovisual corner with tape recorders and head sets, a VCR and television set, and a computer with Internet connection (with a list of appropriate Web sites on multicultural education prominently posted). A virtual chat room or online discussion board could be created for parents on the school's Web site so that parents can discuss multicultural ideas, resources, progress, and challenges with each other. The center also needs to include multicultural resources for children. Parents could explore the resources while the children are engaged in multicultural learning experiences. A bulletin board can highlight cultural events in the community, television programs related to diversity issues, recently published books on the topic, and Web sites devoted to multicultural education. An exchange and sharing corner would allow parents to share (and lend and/or borrow) multicultural toys, games, puzzles, books, videos, and other relevant materials with other parents.

Multicultural Resource Fair. The school could sponsor or host a multicultural resource fair, and invite suppliers of multicultural books, toys, games, art, music, videos, and software programs to share information about their services with parents. The resource fair could expose parents to a wealth of multicultural resources and provide them with an opportunity to purchase these resources.

Family Library Corner. Families should be encouraged to include multicultural literature in their personal collection of books. Books that have received awards such as the Caldecott, Newbery, Coretta Scott King, and the Jane Addams awards are good places to start. A list of quality Web sites related to children's literature is provided below:


This site includes award-winning children's and young adults' books in three categories: reader's choice, non-reader's choice, and national awards.


The Coretta Scott King award is awarded to authors and illustrators of African descent. This site describes the award requirements and lists past winners.


Ginny Moore Krause and Kathleen T. Homing of the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison, have compiled a fascinating list of 50 multicultural books for children of various age groups, preschool through high school.


This site is very comprehensive and categorizes books according to reader's age, genre, format, multicultural theme, ethnicities, and historical periods; it provides information on various national and international awards; and it lists the Web sites of organizations that give various awards, such as the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), which presents the Newbery and Caldecott medals.


The Jane Addams award site is sponsored by the Cooperative Children's Book Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education. The award is presented to a book published in the preceding year for its effective promotion of peace, social justice, and a sense of world community.

Involving Parents in the Multicultural Program Evaluation

Parents need to be involved in planning the strategies/ tools to evaluate a multicultural program, and in the evaluation itself. The focus of the evaluation needs to include: identification of parents' multicultural knowledge, needs, and interests, both before and after their involvement; parents' suggestions to improve various aspects of the parent involvement program (such as topic-related workshops or changes to the family resource center or the functioning of the parent advocacy group); and connecting with families that have been hard to reach. One important aspect of this evaluation is to gather parents' perceptions of how being involved in the program has influenced their own and their children's understanding of multiculturalism. The data for the evaluation could come from surveys and individual and focus-group interviews with parents; observation of parents' interactions with children in classrooms; video- or audio-recordings of parents' discussions of a multicultural book with their child at home; records of parents' attendance in various activities, including how often they check out multicultural resources from the family resource center; a multicultural home-activity log, maintained by the classroom teacher; and case studies of a few randomly selected parents.


The influence of family on children's attitudes about and knowledge of other cultures cannot be overstated. Therefore, policies and practices should specifically address the involvement of parents in the school's diversity related efforts. Many factors may pose barriers to parents' sustained involvement, such as the availability of multicultural resources, parents' lack of knowledge and experiences with diversity, parents' beliefs about their own expertise to teach multicultural education to their children, and parents' assumptions regarding their role in education in general and multicultural education in particular.

A host of measures can ensure a sustained and high degree of parental participation in the school's multicultural education efforts, including: encouraging parents to choose from multiple activities (e.g., involvement in advocacy activities in the community or collaborating with teachers in integrating diversity issues into the curriculum, etc.), depending on their needs, interests, and expertise; providing comprehensive and ongoing support to parents; and acknowledging parents' involvement through rewards and highlighting their contributions in the school newsletters.


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Aldridge, J., Calhoun, C., & Aman, R. (2000). 15 misconceptions about multicultural education. Focus on Elementary, 12(3), 1-4.

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Barclay, K., & Boone, E. (1996/97). Inviting parents to join in the educational process: What research tells us about parent involvement. Community Education Journal, 24, 16-18.

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Stein, M. R. S., & Thorkildsen, R.J. (1999). Parent involvement in education: Insights and applications from the research. New Providence, NJ: BPR Publishers.

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Swap, S. M. (1993). Developing home-school partnerships: From concepts to practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

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Teichman, Y. (2001). The development of Israeli children's images of Jews and Arabs and their expression in human figure drawings. Developmental Psychology 37(6), 749-761.

Jyotsna Pattnaik is Associate Professor, Early Childhood Education, California State University, Long Beach.
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Author:Pattnaik, Jyotsna
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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