Volume: 9, Issue: 1


Individualized Education Plans in the United States: Experiences of Parents Who are Culturally and Linguistically Diverse
Грегори, Никки [about] , Пиерсон, Мелинда Р. [about] , Хауэлл, Эрика Дж. [about]


  • Culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) parents and students are parents and students who come from a culture outside of the United States, which showcases their diverse perspectives, languages, and customs.
  • Culture is composed of beliefs, customs, and arts of a certain group of people.
  • IEP stands for Individualized Education Plan that requires every special education teacher to focus on specific goals for each individual student in accordance with the US federal law.
  • IDEA stands for The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which was reformulated in 2004 and serves as the key federal law in the United States, which governs the basic principles of equal access to education for students with disabilities.
  • Special education is a service for those individuals from birth through age 21 who are identified as having one of the 13 disabling conditions as outlined in IDEA.

ABSTRACT: Despite reforms in special education law that mandate the direct involvement of families in discussions regarding their child’s education, parents continue to have limited involvement in the individualized education plan (IEP) process in the United States. The special education system with foreign terminology, numerous acronyms, legal language can lead to confusion for families who are culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) and who have children with special needs. The focus of this paper is to understand how special education is generally perceived from parental perspectives of those who are CLD and how to increase parent involvement in the individualized education plan process.  Insights on the common challenges families who are CLD encounter and strategies will be offered on how teachers can create a positive experience for all families. 


Active parental involvement in a child’s education helps the child succeed (LaRocque, 2013).  However, when this understanding is based on western culture and beliefs in education, many students and their families who are CLD find it challenging to participate in educationally related functions (Garcia & Ortiz, 2006). This is especially true when referring to students who are at risk or have already been identified as receiving special education services.

Despite reforms in special education law that offer parents control in their child’s education plan, parents are still not actively involved in the IEP process (Olivos, Gallagher, & Aguilar, 2010).  Instead, parents report feeling more like recipients of the information than part of the decision-making process. According to Fish (2008), “collaborative relationships have failed to exist in particular for families of low socioeconomic status and cultural diversity (p. 9).” 


IDEA (2004) states that active parental roles in the educational process is critical for children with disabilities (Sugai, O’Keeffe, & Fallon, 2012).  With increasing immigrant populations, demographic changes have created a necessity to consider how CLD issues are affecting areas in education (Rueda & Stillman, 2012), specifically in the area of improving parent participation for those who are CLD in special education.  By identifying areas to improve parental understanding of special education overall, it may be possible to increase parent involvement in their children’s education.  The overall goal of this paper is to understand parents who are CLD and their perceptions of special education.   The results can then be utilized to educate all parents on how to take more active roles in their child’s education and become better advocates for their child’s needs. 

Though IDEA has assisted in encouraging the increase of parental input in the IEP process, it has fallen short when it comes to families who are CLD, understanding their perspective of learning disabilities and special education, and accepting how culture can influence their point of view.  For example, one study conducted by Lynch and Stein (as cited in Jung, 2011) found that Hispanic and African-American parents both participated in IEPs, but that the overall number of Hispanic and African-Americans were significantly less involved than white parents. In addition, the same study found that both Hispanic and African-American parents were less aware of the services their child was to receive than white parents. On one hand, the special education system encourages familial involvement; while on the other hand, the current system reflects values that might not be as inclusive as necessary (Jung, 2011).  When education specialists understand how various cultures of CLD individuals perceive children who require special education services, they increase their ability to identify and create effective strategies to assist both the student and their families.

Cultural Perceptions of Disabilities

Cultural misunderstandings stem from cultural perceptions of disabilities that may require special education services (Tincani, Travers, & Boutot, 2009). The literature review uncovered differing views of learning disabilities and how these views affect perceptions of special education among non-European CLD cultures. The populations examined in the literature review were: African-Americans, Asian/Pacific Islanders (including Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Indian-Americans), Latino/Hispanic, and Mexican-American families. As a result of the literature review, it was concluded that culture proves to be a powerful factor in determining how families perceive children with disabilities and their understanding of special education (Irvine, 2012). 

To provide examples of how different cultures vary in their views of disabilities and special education services, results of studies were reviewed.  One study of four African-American parents found that they had very negative perceptions of special education.  Due to disproportionate representation in the past, these African-American parents felt their children were inappropriately placed and did not require special education services.  Rather, these parents believed their children were placed in special education programs, not because of a learning disability, but due to behavior (Irvine, 2012).  In a separate study by Williams (2008), African-American parents were worried that once their child was placed in special education, they would never be able to exit the program.

In another study of 23 first-generation Asian-American mothers of children with developmental disabilities, both negative and positive views of disabilities were identified.   However, there was one outcome that was identified to be specific to the Asian culture - an overwhelming level of compliance.  Additionally, it was determined that Asian families preferred to refrain from speaking about their child’s learning disability to anyone outside of the family circle.  An example of how strong cultural beliefs of having a child with disabilities can be viewed as negative is demonstrated in the following statement, “…mothers did not feel comfortable sharing their family history, especially in the presence of an interpreter because of fear that personal issues about their family might leak out to the rest of their community and bring shame to the family” (Jegatheesan, 2009, p. 129).  As a result of hesitating to provide relevant family details, omitting pertinent information will negatively impact parent participation in the IEP and may limit educators’ ability to support the needs of the student (Jegatheesan, 2009).

This research is supported by Kayama (2010) who found that the Japanese tend to believe individual problems belong to the family, and others should not be burdened with their problems. Another issue that prevents Asian communities from opening up about their child’s disability is the belief that the family is being punished for some wrong-doing by another family member.  Research results concluded there were four culturally related issues that limit the Asian culture’s likelihood of disagreeing with professionals in discussions at their child’s IEP: (1) respect for professional expertise, (2) trust in professionals, (3) fear of offending professionals, and (4) feelings of shame due to lack of understanding (Jegatheesan, 2009, p. 129).

In a study by Ravindran and Myers (2012), it was determined that Latino/Hispanic and Mexican-American families are generally more receptive to their child’s learning disability.  The authors concluded that having deep religious beliefs help Latino/Hispanic and Mexican cultures to be more accepting of learning disabilities because of the belief that it is God’s will.

Cultural Perceptions Toward Educators

Educators need to be careful not to limit their knowledge to understanding how various cultures may perceive learning disabilities.  According to LaRocque (2013), family perceptions will vary in their outlook on sharing feelings towards people of authority.  Educators need to understand that “a lack of participation does not equal a lack of interest in the child or the school (p. 112).”

Research has revealed that in some Asian/Pacific Islander families where education is highly valued, parents may not take an active role in their child’s education because in their cultures, lack of academic progress is an act of defiance rather than a learning disability (Tincani, Travers, & Boutot, 2010).  In addition, the family who is CLD may have traditional values regarding relationships with professionals (Jung, 2011).  In other words, passive families who are CLD have fully entrusted the educator as the ‘professional’ and someone who knows what is best for their child.  Thus, their traditional values toward relationships does not allow for questioning a professional’s decision.  

Research conducted by Fish (2008) concluded that in order to establish positive parent- teacher relationships, teachers should be aware of how IEP meetings are perceived by parents who are CLD.  An important consideration is that these families often feel intimidated by the teacher’s expertise in special education (LaRocque, 2013). Educators should be careful not to put parents who are CLD in a situation where their own literacy and comprehension skills are uncovered and exposed for all to see, further deepening feelings of mistrust towards schools and educators (Conroy, 2012).  

Regardless of the cultural background of parents, educators need to nurture the relationship between themselves and the parents of their students.  An industrious educator will discover effective means of communicating with families who are CLD.  They should include compassion, respect, and thoughtful consideration of the family’s cultural perceptions.

IEP Experiences

The primary cause for negative IEP experiences may be the language barrier families may encounter when they attend an IEP meeting.  In one study of parent perceptions, parents who were CLD cited the use of complex terminology used at meetings and found in handouts or other supplementary readings distributed at IEPs were a major issue in their ability to understand their child’s disability.

Time constraints were also reported as limiting parents’ participation in IEP meetings.  Constraints identified were not specifically related to the scheduling of the meetings, but rather the amount of time it took after the IEP meeting for parents who were CLD to understand the materials they were given to read.  For example, mothers who could speak fluently in English had a difficult time understanding the academic language in the supplementary handouts and in IEP reports (Jegatheesan, 2009).

Finally, another major area of concern reported to limit parent participation for those who were CLD was the use of unqualified interpreters.  According to Lo (2012), there are close to 400 foreign languages spoken in the U.S. today.  Areas of concern discovered in research found that at times, parents felt interpreters lacked adequate background knowledge in the field of special education and had less than adequate language acquisition skills in neither English nor the primary language of the parent to interpret effectively (Jegatheesan, 2009). If the interpreter lacks training and ability in all of the sub-groups and their various dialects, effective communication is either severely impaired or may not transpire at all.  Therefore, it is imperative to select a qualified interpreter in order to ensure accurate and effective communication.

Cultural Perceptions of Goal Setting

Educators and parents share many of the same goals for children, though they may have different ideas and methods on how to get there (Olivos, Gallagher, & Aguilar, 2010).  For example, having a goal of independence commonly found in IEPs, usually stems from a traditional middle class American perspective in which schools work to transition the child with special needs to a more independent lifestyle (Conroy, 2012, p.26). Therefore, educators need to be mindful of how families view disabilities when deciding upon IEP goals for the student.

Once cultural perspectives have been considered, educators can focus on identifying student strengths to support areas of challenge.  When creating goals for children with disabilities, it is important to understand that families who are CLD may have goals in mind for their child that are not necessarily academic in nature or even based on independent living skills (Conroy, 2012).  In some cultures, the concept of a child with disabilities living independently of his/her immediate family is unheard of; thus, goals may not include participation in formal education or access to a larger social world (Olivos, Gallagher, & Aguilar, 2010).  Other studies produced similar conclusions.  For example, Ravindran & Myers (2012) reported that families’ beliefs affected the child’s participation in social activities, the amount of resources expended, and expectations of what their child would achieve in adulthood (p. 313).

Specifically within the Asian culture, it was discovered that mothers were confused when asked about what they thought should be goals for their child (Jegatheesan, 2009).  According to survey findings, Asian mothers reported confusion when asked about goals because they felt the teacher should know what was best for their child.  They could not understand why their own opinions would be considered important. Hence, many immigrants feel fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to bring their children to America and do not feel they are warranted to ask for anything more. 

Nonetheless, the beliefs of families who are CLD have an integral role in determining they perceive the nature of their child’s disability.  According to Palawat (2012), parent perceptions of learning disabilities are directly related to their treatment plans and expectations in adulthood.  Therefore, family beliefs will determine the type and extent of services their child will receive and also affect what long-term expectations there may be in adulthood (Ravindran & Myers, 2012).  It is important to note that expected goals of the family may not reflect the goals set forth by the educator.  For example, many families who are CLD have extended family living with them to help care for a child with a disability.  Therefore, a goal developed by the educator that encourages independent life skills may not be perceived as being entirely necessary by the family (Zhang, Landmark, Grenwelge, & Montoya, 2010).

Assisting Families

Though legislation is an important component of education and parental involvement is widely accepted, legislation does not equate to effective practice (LaRocque, 2013).  This is especially true in cases where students are receiving special education services.  IDEA (2004) calls for parents of children eligible for special education services to be present at annual meetings to participate and help plan the future of their child’s education.  This level of participation is not required of parents for students in general education. 

The key to assisting families who are CLD with children in special education is to understand how beliefs and prior experiences of the family impact participation in their child’s education (Rueda and Stillman, 2012).  According to Ishii-Jordan (2000), teachers must be sensitive towards all students and their families in order to be able to meet their educational needs more appropriately.  Lo (2012) adds that teachers should avoid interpreting discussions with families based on their own cultural perceptions.  Instead, teachers should compare their own beliefs with the beliefs of the family who is CLD, identify the differences, and work together to come to an agreement (as cited in Lo, 2012).

In addition, in order to keep up with the demand of our societies ever changing cultural demographics, all educators need to learn how to teach culturally, thereby treating language as a key dimension of all students’ (Lucas, Villegas, & Freedson-Gonzalez, 2008; Rueda & Stillman, 2012).  Similarly, Rueda and Stillman (2012) called attention to the fact that teacher training on language barrier issues have historically been relegated to specialists (i.e. English learner (EL) teachers).  They feel the reliance on specific specialists to teach culturally is reflected in preservice teacher preparation programs.  The authors argue that all teacher preparation programs should look to include ways to teach culturally, rather than teaching “about” culture (Rueda & Stillman, 2012, p.249).  Doing so would educate all teachers how to minimize the language barriers for all CLD students, and avoid instruction being reserved for just those students receiving English Learner or special education services.

Sugai, O’Keefe, and Fallon (2012) recommend a school-wide approach to understanding how culturally and linguistically diverse beliefs affect communication and lead to misunderstandings.  Their research found that students from CLD backgrounds are disproportionately referred, placed, and classified in special education.  They believe that if administrators and educators address academic issues in school-wide culturally relevant ways, they will be able to reduce the disproportionate number of students who are CLD who referred for special education services (Sugai, et al., 2012).  Yet another alternative method was suggested by Chiang (2014) who recommended utilizing a parent-centered approach to improve family misunderstandings to ensure that professionals work directly with parents and respect parents’ own cultural values as well as their own choices regarding the resources and supports for their children.

Cobb (2013) suggested that multiple opportunities for CLD families to connect with educators be developed.  The platform to communicate should not be limited to a single conversation at the annual IEP meeting.  He suggested using multiple modes of communication on a regular basis such as phone calls, informal face-to-face meetings, and setting up welcoming spaces that encourage exchange of dialogue and collaboration.

Lastly, parental roles should be encouraged to expand beyond participation in the IEP process.  Besides taking an active role in their own child’s educational progress, parents who are CLD could be asked to volunteer their bilingual abilities in school-based committees, community functions, and even serve as a bilingual liaison between the school and community (Cobb, 2013).


In conclusion, the goal of this paper was to gain knowledge of parental perceptions for CLD backgrounds and their understanding of the special education system. By understanding how culture plays a role in the perception of special education, educators can increase their ability to communicate with families who are CLD.


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