The outbreak of COVID-19 affected almost everybody’s lives in one way or another. Globally, schools took different steps to adjust to public health measures, including switching to online schooling.
This forced parents to become teaching assistants, a role that they did not sign up for. In particular, remote schooling posed a special challenge for immigrant families whose first language is not English. Immigrant parents were left on their own to figure out a complex learning system in an unfamiliar language to support their children’s online schooling.
My research, which took place in Saskatoon during COVID-19 school closures, found that immigrant parents in particular were affected in four ways: parent-teacher communication was hindered; children’s second language acquisition was delayed; schooling was neglected in favour of supporting well-being; and, parents relied on their own communities.
The sudden outbreak of the pandemic did not allow teachers and schools to fully prepare for the transition. Thus, they did not comprehensively consider immigrant students’ situations when adjusting curricula for online delivery. English may not be the sole or primary language of communication at home for immigrant families.
In fact, immigrant parents may feel anxious and insecure when English is the only possible language for oral communication with a teacher. Remote learning magnified these long-existing challenges. Without the in-person aids of facial expressions, gestures, eye contact and other non-verbal cues, real-time oral interactions between parents and teachers became more difficult.
Parents who are learning English are often seen as deficient by educators, which limits the opportunities for parent-teacher communication. This also reflects a power imbalance between mainstream culture (usually white and middle-class) and marginalized cultures in terms of “whose knowledge counts.” Requiring schooling to move online has further widened this gap.
Delayed language acquisition
Parents also expressed concerns over children’s language development, particularly young children’s second-language acquisition. In in-person classrooms, teachers are able to use a variety of teaching methods such as reading aloud, hands-on activities, play-based learning and peer oral interactions. All of these pieces were somewhat, if not completely, compromised during online schooling.
Teachers were not able to pick up students’ cues in order to intervene in a timely manner and provide individual support. The limitations of effective interactions during online schooling discouraged immigrant students from developing English-language skills.
Add in the lack of English-language support at home, and immigrant parents’ concerns over language development grow.
Prioritizing children’s well-being
Despite the challenges, immigrant parents strived to make online schooling a positive experience. Their priorities shifted by adopting a new policy at home to focus more on children’s well-being rather than on academic achievements.
When a sense of well-being is absent, students feel socially excluded because their identities and background are not acknowledged. This can be exacerbated in an entirely online learning environment.
Furthermore, the well-being of immigrant students contributes to a greater sense of belonging to the learning community, which helps them build relationships with their peers and teachers. The development of positive relationships leads to positive learning interactions, which can improve students’ academic achievement.
During remote learning, parents prioritized the well-being and emotional stability of their children. These parents expanded learning beyond schoolwork, with resources they could access at home, such as family activities, shared reading, board games, outdoor play and virtual social activities.
Immigrant parents also emphasized the important role of the language spoken at home. Home language is not only the main oral communication medium between parents and children, but also serves as a valuable tool to translate, interpret and explain children’s schoolwork.
Encouraging children to use all the languages they know, including English and their home language, makes it easier to communicate emotions. Promoting multilingualism in teaching and learning can help improve students’ overall well-being. This in turn leads to improved academic performance because of the close relationship between language and emotions.
The benefit of home language became more visible and important during remote schooling. Parents in the same immigrant communities all over Canada reached out to each other online, forming a connection through their shared identity and language.
Shared languages and internet technologies, like social media platforms, created social opportunities, enriched cultural learning and established relationships for immigrant children.
The acknowledgement and inclusion of immigrant families’ home languages and community experiences require that educators and schools consider complex factors besides subject matter in remote schooling.
Immigrant parents’ experiences in supporting their children during the pandemic reflected both the challenges they faced and the strengths they demonstrated. These counter-narratives challenge the perception of immigrant parents as deficit-based, and call for a new perspective on immigrant parents from educators.
These deficit narratives about immigrant families and immigrant parents can be rectified by reconstructing teaching approaches where immigrant parents’ unique and very valuable knowledge is considered equally alongside educators’ knowledge. This can bring teachers and parents together as partners, and allow them to collaboratively educate young children, maximizing the educational benefits for immigrant students.
Emma Chen does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.