Ms. Marcet described the fact of levels of cultural awareness that help or hinder work with families. The simplest level is one where the service provider thinks that her culturally-sanctioned ways of doing things are the only way to do them, thus setting the stage for conflict with immigrant families. A second step is the thought that although the service provider knows “their” way, her way is actually better. At the third level, the provider recognizes that of “their” way and her way, one is sometimes better than the other. At the highest level of cultural awareness, the provider can focus on sharing meanings and creating new and effective rules while working with a specific family.
Ms. Marcet went on to address the problem of bridging cultures and used the example of an immigrant family who are offered services for their children but do not return calls or respond to a welcome letter. She listed a number of reasons for this response-- none of which mean that the family does not want the services. A family may be fearful of agency contact because they are undocumented or because they have had distressing experiences with “officials” in the past. The calls and the letter are likely to have been in English, and the family may not have understood them, or may be reluctant to be expected to communicate in English rather than their home language. In addition, immigrant families often do not understand the concept of early intervention or the meaning of different kinds of services, and their fear and distrust of strangers make it difficult for them to seek any explanation. All of these problems could be helped by identifying the family’s language and using a culturally-aware interpreter to facilitate communication with them.
Ms. Marcet discussed several cases where a young child’s unfamiliarity with English and with some American ways made a service or experience problematic rather than helpful. For example, a two-year-old with limited communication skills (“no”, pointing) was in child care. He would eat grapes and crackers at snack time but would not touch other food at meals. The teacher was not allowed to feed him, and threw away the untouched food after a while. She assumed that the child was not hungry and would eat at another time (although he was at the center for many hours at a time). One problem here was that the child did not understand what was said to him; in addition, he was accustomed to having his mother feed him, as was appropriate for the family’s culture. Ms. Marcet pointed out the need for flexibility of rules as children go through a transition into day care. In addition, with the help of an interpreter, it would have been possible for family routines to have been explored before the child began attending day care, so that teachers would have been aware of activities that were familiar or unfamiliar to the child, and would have been able to lessen the cultural shock he experienced.
Ms. Marcet mentioned a number of facts about an immigrant family that need to be established before they can be expected to benefit from early intervention services. Where do they go to shop or seek health care? Do they know how to take a bus or train to get to services that have been recommended? Do they know how to use services like a library? Do they know how to get an interpreter if they need one? Do they know other people in the community? Does only one family member deal with all community interactions? The answers to these questions help establish what guidance the family will need in obtaining and using early intervention services for a child.
Among other points Ms. Marcet discussed, she elaborated on the need for interpreters. These are ideally not just people who speak a language other than English, but need to be carefully trained and to be bicultural as well as bilingual. Interpreters need to understand the topics being discussed with the family and need to know the purpose of an interview; they also need to understand and be able to translate the “jargon” a service provider may use, including the term “early intervention”. An interpreter needs to be able to provide interpretation for the child as well as the adults in the family.
Ms Marcet’s presentation was followed by much enthusiastic discussion and many practical questions from the audience.