Founder of ESL Reads   EAL Teacher (Secondary)

How Roles Change and Shift in a CALD Family

August 7, 2022 by Lauren Piovesan

Working with families can be a complex task in and of itself. However, when we work with culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) families, this presents a completely different set of challenges. 

In the last blog post, I outlined five challenges my EAL secondary and young adult students commonly face.
This included:

  1. Changing family dynamics
  2. Perpetuating Instability
  3. Ongoing Trauma
  4. Survivor Guilt
  5. Identity

In this blog, I will describe different aspects of topic 1, Changing Family Dynamics, and the ways in which this can impact the classroom.  I will also list some strategies I have trialled in response to these. For many of you, these strategies would already be part of your bread and butter. However, I hope that by reading this, it may give you time for reflection, spark a new idea, or leave you in awe of your ability to understand such complexities! 

So without further ado, here are all of the ways I have seen family dynamics change for my students:

1. Appointments

Image courtesy of:

We’ve seen this time and time again; our students pulled out of class to interpret for relatives at every appointment under the sun. Further disruptions to schooling for our students, given their memory challenges, low literacy levels and often slow progress, can be increasingly frustrating for us as we scramble for ways to catch them up. This can be fuelled by the parent/guardian’s developing understanding of the new country’s education system and expectations around attendance.  

2. Interpreting Services

Image courtesy of:

For some ethnic groups that have certain languages/dialects or a small number of speakers, it can be difficult to source an appropriate interpreter. When our students use an interpreter, they can be left feeling frustrated or confused due to differences in dialects. Some EAL families may not understand “confidentiality” and become concerned that the interpreter will share the information with their community. Consequently, parents/guardians can become over-reliant on using their children to navigate the various bureaucratic systems that govern the Western world.

3. Responsibilities

As children are asked to step into various appointments and meetings, they take on responsibilities that they never would have dealt with previously. Can you imagine wrapping your head around welfare payments or immunisations as a 14 year old? A sense of burden can come with this new level of responsibility. Children may become concerned or worried as they now have access to all the family’s sensitive information. 

Image courtesy of: MasimbaTinasheMadondo/

It’s also important to consider what roles are assigned to older, younger, male and female members of the family. In most of the families I’ve worked with, the oldest sisters have always had a huge number of household responsibilities, being primary carers and housekeepers. The oldest brothers have often moved straight into employment and work long hours in labour intensive jobs. 

4. Fast Learners

Image courtesy of:

Generally, the children in the family adopt the new language much faster than their parents or guardians. They also have greater opportunities for a longer education than their parents/guardians receive, so they often learn more about their new country’s rules. I have seen students use this knowledge to manipulate their parents/guardians into believing false information about the new country’s systems and laws. Essentially, children may use a form of blackmail to get what they want, or purposefully omit information to avoid getting in trouble, leaving parents/guardians confused and helpless. 

5. Confidence and Capacity

Parents or guardians may lose confidence or feel inadequate in their parenting abilities. Their control can sometimes be reduced by their limited English language abilities and knowledge of the new culture. Parents/guardians may also be struggling with culture shock, loss, trauma or mental health issues. On top of all of that, the new country may have a different cultural outlook on discipline, organisation and time management skills. A combination of these reasons compounded could result in less consistent boundaries for children, which presents a number of behavioural challenges in the classroom.

Image courtesy of:

A parent or guardian’s confidence can furthermore be impacted by their inability to help their children with homework, having their English language skills corrected by their children, and being reliant on their children at various appointments. In these situations, role reversal can occur where children prematurely take on a kind of parental role.  

6. Communities

Image courtesy of:

Some cultures rely on extended family or a community to help raise their children. Parents or guardians have often left their family and community networks behind. Additionally, some families have split up from each other in the move. Some families may also be geographically isolated, or placed in a location where members of their community do not reside. This can cause loneliness and overwhelm among parents and guardians.  

7. Physical and Cultural Safety

Image courtesy of:

Due to developing language skills and cultural understanding of their new country, as well as relocation to low socio-economic areas, some parents or guardians may become over-protective in an attempt to keep their children safe. Some families may also disapprove of some of the cultural values in the new country and fear that their children will adopt these. As a result, some families may apply very strict rules in place to keep their children at home or away from certain friends or activities.

In no way is this a judgement of the families that immigrate to Western countries, but it is a reality that has far reaching impacts on our classroom environment, pedagogy and teaching strategies. 


Some strategies I have used in these situations are:

  1. Always using an interpreter (I found phone interpreters to be the preferable choice for families) or Multicultural Education Aide (MEA) in meetings with parents or guardians whenever possible. I have taught in workplaces where this is consistently the message to all school staff.
  2. Keep parents and families in the loop with what is happening at school verbally (as some parents/guardians are illiterate in their first language) via MEAs or through phone interpreters. 
  3. Get school support staff to encourage families to connect with Refugee Community Health Centres (if they haven’t already) which generally take care of interpreters and assist clients to navigate to appointments. This frees up your students and empowers families.
  4. Where possible, weave the learning about health systems and health rights into the curriculum (especially for young adult and adult learners). There is a wealth of literacy here, as well as plenty of opportunities for excursions, incursions and hands on learning. I have found the resource Healthwize to be helpful for this. 
  5. Have a “catch up” folder digitally or physically available for students who are away a lot. Limit the amount of work they do and choose key pieces of work strategically. I used to get my Teacher Aide to manage this.
  6.  Have events that connect parents/guardians to the school or to others in their communities. The more connected the family feels, the more they will share and the better you will be at understanding your student. (This may be organised at a whole school level, rather than a classroom level of course).

While I have listed a few strategies here, the changing family dynamics of our students are often out of our control. Due to cultural differences, it may take you some time to simply understand who are in the immediate family of your students!

I am conscious that this blog only just touches the surface of what you would have seen and experienced in your encounters with culturally and linguistically diverse families. Please feel free to leave a comment about your experiences and strategies in working with these families.

In the next blog, I will discuss the topic of “Perpetuating Instability” in our students’ lives.
Look out for it on LinkedIn and Facebook.

*Please note: I am a teacher and am not in social services or mental health. What I write about in this post comes only from my observations and my students’ experiences across the 5 years that I have worked with them, which I communicate broadly here. 

Cover image courtesy of:

2 thoughts on “Changing Family Dynamics for EAL Students”


    You have nailed this Lauren
    What an amazing blog and so helpful for classroom teachers
    keep up the fantastic work

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *