News & Events

Families Have Much to Share

By Sara Wicht of Teaching Tolerance

Overview: Use these ideas to include the religious and nonreligious diversity of students’ home lives in your practice.

Many educators want to teach about religious and nonreligious diversity, but introducing content about belief systems into curricula may seem scary or dangerous. Some teachers worry that families will object to the content and that these objections will isolate or marginalize students. This was one concern we heard from our audience recently when  Tanenbaum teamed up with Teaching Tolerance to provide the webinar Religious Diversity in the Classroom: Applications for Middle Level Educators (the fourth in a free five-part webinar series on religious diversity in the classroom).

Because communicating with families about controversial subjects is clearly of concern to educators, we decided to offer some try-tomorrow practices to make teaching about religious diversity less daunting.

Ask families and students.

Make it a goal to get to know your students’ home lives. A questionnaire or survey can serve as a collaborative and respectful way to start a relationship between your classroom and students’ homes. To get started, create separate questions for family members and students.

Sample questions to ask family members:

  • Who are your student’s family members?
  • What are some important dates or events for your family?
  • What traditions or customs does your family practice?
  • What are some typical weekly routines in your household?
  • What do you want to know about what your student will learn in my class?

Sample questions to ask students:

  • Who’s in your family?
  • What’s your favorite thing to do with your family?
  • What’s your favorite family meal?
  • What’s your favorite holiday and how do you celebrate it?
  • What’s the most relaxed time of day for your family? What goes on then?
  • What’s the most hectic time of day for your family? What goes on then?

You can revisit the completed questionnaires or surveys partway through the year, or conduct a mid-year questionnaire or survey as a way for families to update previously shared information. Mid-year questionnaires and surveys allow families that arrive later in the year to share their narratives.

Think about additional opportunities for incorporating questionnaires and surveys. Perhaps you will ask questions on specific content prior to a unit that will address belief systems. Invite families to share their wisdom and knowledge, and include it in what you are doing. Listen and assure them that you hear their concerns.

Note: Because language plays a crucial role in families’ lives, communicate with parents in their home languages as much as possible. However, asking students to translate for their parents can put them in an awkward position, especially if relaying difficult or complicated information. Provide a translator whenever possible.

Prepare yourself.

Even when the best intentions are involved and you have done all the prep work, families may still object to the inclusion of content on diverse belief systems. Here are some suggestions for building inclusiveness and respect into your communication with families in those moments.

  1. Assume good intentions and approach all families or guardians as partners who want the best for the child.
  2. Share with families or guardians your learning goals and materials for including discussions about diverse belief systems.
  3. Invite families or guardians to share information about family cultures and traditions.
  4. Recognize and respect different family traditions. View linguistic, cultural and family diversity as strengths.    

Reflect on the role your identity and background may play in shaping relationships with families. Bring a sense of cultural humility to all interactions.

Connect to content.

Teaching about religious and nonreligious beliefs fits in well with the content-rich, text-based, critical approach to education that the Common Core State Standards envision.  Content-rich texts on diverse belief systems ground students’ reading, writing and speaking in specific textual evidence while building knowledge and academic vocabulary. Share with concerned families that their student is actively seeking to understand other perspectives and cultures through effective communication with people of varied backgrounds, and team up with families to meet the needs of all students.

Additional strategies for engaging families can be found in the Family and Community Engagement section in Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education.


Wicht is the senior manager of teaching and learning for Teaching Tolerance.