Four youth.

MSU Extension Listening Sessions: Themes from Spanish Language Sessions

November 2, 2020 - <>, and Veronica Quintino-Aranda,

Due to the unforeseen coronavirus pandemic, Michigan communities have experienced many changes since March 2020. In an effort to learn about the needs of Michigan youth during these challenging times, Michigan State University Extension hosted a series of 23 listening sessions, with 592 participants including 47 youth. To learn the educational needs of Latinx parents specifically, two of the 23 sessions were conducted in Spanish with 48 participants. This article is designed to discuss the similarities and differences between the English language and Spanish speaking sessions. To learn more about the MSU Extension listening session process, please see the article written by MSU Extension on June 3, 2020 .

Key Findings

The listening sessions revealed several key lessons, including identifying innovative ways for creative teaching with children and youth under the new social distancing guidelines. However, specific themes were gleaned during the two sessions held with Latinx participants. Key themes most commonly mentioned by participants are listed below.

Rankings based on importance as presented in the 2020 Listening Sessions

Spanish Speaking Session

English Speaking Session

Reading and writing, with particular emphasis on translation barriers (28)

Inadequate internet access/technology; this includes need for stable internet and devices to access it (168)

Hands-on activities for families, including creative teaching opportunities (21) 

Online learning was mentioned as a useful tool, but was tempered with concerns of it being overused. (150)

Social/family connections are important, including agency providers having an understanding of cultural competency (20) 

Specific sub-topics include:

  • Helping families explore their culture/Culture awareness (13) 
  • Cultural competency from agencies (6) 
  • Parent engagement barrier (1) 

Learning kits that could be delivered or dropped off so young people could engage in hands-on learning. (103)

Inadequate internet access/technology (14)

Social/family connections, connecting with friends during this socially distant time. (95)

Resources are needed for parents serving as teachers (13)

Specific sub-topics include:

  • Special needs children (3) 
  • Parent engagement barriers (1)

Outside/nature activities (92)

Outside/nature activities (8)

Basic needs including food, hygiene items, transportation and access to laundry facilities. Another often mentioned point was about the need for safe places for young people. (87)

Mental health (4)

Mental health (69)

Comparison of findings - English and Spanish speaking listening sessions

When reviewing the themes in comparison to the sessions completed in English, several key differences were identified. 

Increasing reading and writing competencies.

Increasing a child’s reading and writing skills and addressing low literacy in the home was a key theme shared in all sessions. Within the Spanish language sessions, ensuring materials were translated so both parents and children could understand the information being presented was a key participant concern. Specifically, participants shared that some families rely on children to interpret for parents and some children may not interpret completely or appropriately. The listening sessions revealed 75 different languages as presently  spoken in the community. Collaborating with translation agencies who can translate documents in the different languages spoken in the home was an identified strategy presented by participants. Participants suggested that promotional and registration materials should be available in multiple languages across the multi-media landscape, including videos, infographics, etc. and agencies should offer multilingual support, when possible. Offering check-ins with parents and being aware of language barriers were supportive measures presented by participants. During the English speaking sessions, translation and literacy issues were also identified as key needs, but not as prevalent as in the Spanish language sessions. Implementing programs such as pen pals and writing tutors were mentioned to help alleviate concerns raised by parents to support children while they are out of school. 

Exploring hands-on activities for families, including creative teaching opportunities.

In both sessions, participants shared a need for receiving hands-on activities. Incorporating learning kits and providing opportunities to limit the online screen time for youth engagement opportunities was a key theme identified by participants. Participants suggested creating learning packets (i.e. art projects, cooking, gardening, STEM, crafts, life skills, etc.)  appropriate to different age levels, referencing that attention spans for various age groups often differ. For instance, having a family coach send out educational activities to parents for children to engage in was one useful strategy presented. In addition, providing opportunities that offer parent engagement strategies was mentioned as important. Participants suggested making sure the time for class is accessible and available for parents (i.e. not holding sessions during work hours). Providing parents with the necessary materials needed for the activity was also addressed. Participants were also interested in finding creative ways of distributing the learning packages to families, suggesting that youth could be encouraged to share pictures and document experiences with classmates as one new engagement strategy. Participants did raise concerns related to accessibility, sharing that some families do not have equitable access to computers and technology. Providing paper and hands-on activities was an identified approach to alleviate this barrier. 

Building social/family connections.

The importance of building social/family connections during this unique time was identified. In both discussions, participants highlighted key benefits such as the increase in family time due to alternative work-at-home schedules and key concerns such as the difficulty of making social connections and sudden increases in youth mental health challenges. For instance, participants shared that some youth do not have extended family nearby and lack the opportunity for social engagement. Communicating on social media was another key concern reported by participants. Finding creative ways to foster social connections was identified as important. One example provided suggested engaging parents with their children in ways such as creating meal packages. In this activity, families can cook together to help build social connections, have fun while learning math skills (i.e. cooking is a great way to teach about fractions), and  learn nutrition skills.  To ensure cultural appropriateness in this example, it was identified that culturally appropriate recipes that include common fruits and vegetables that could be used in multiple recipes should be provided.

Using real life situations when possible was another strategy identified to help build social/family connections. One suggested activity included playing board games. Using nearby community resources as gathering places in a socially distant and appropriate way could be another useful strategy and a positive source of support for youth who do not have a safe place to go during the day. Schools, libraries, community centers and food pantries were provided as some examples of centralized areas for community resources. 

Inadequate internet access/technology 

Several technology concerns related to the digital divide and technological literacy were raised among participants during the sessions.  Specific to the Spanish language session, the discussion of the combination of technological issues and language barriers was an additional key concern expressed by participants. Some examples provided by participants included the lack of internet access  and heightened challenges related to the influence of social distancing as an additional barrier for those families. In addition, having adequate/appropriate technology was a highlighted concern with some participants sharing that they may have only smartphones, when computers are needed. Participants did share that when schools have provided technology, additional concerns centered around the devices not working or breaking. Participants also identified multiple users accessing the internet simultaneously, and inconsistent and unreliable internet as additional barriers for families. This issue was expressed statewide by participants who resided in urban, rural and suburban neighborhoods. 

Several strategies to alleviate the potential barriers surrounding technology were identified. First, working with internet companies to make them aware of the community concerns such as the costs associated with free internet. Working with these companies, support could be provided by securing unlimited learning tools such as hot spots. Secondly, participants suggested using text messaging or other low bandwidth options to communicate with families and conserve internet usage. In addition, participants suggested offering a variety of technology and non-technology options to those that may require various learning approaches. Finally, for families with technological literacy issues, providing a class or session for parents on using technology could be a helpful strategy. Participants shared that there are many technological programs and platforms, and navigating them sometimes can be confusing.  Providing multilingual tech support and offering classes at convenient times were suggested by participants.  

Resources for parents and families around teaching.

Raised in both the English and Spanish speaking sessions, key concerns raised by participants were providing resources for parents and families around teaching, while simultaneously balancing work and family needs. Participants shared that parents are often the first teachers in the home and that they want to be involved as much as they can while balancing multiple priorities (work, parenting and support learning for their child). However, some parents shared that they do not have the ability to stay home with their child(ren) and many have to work, sometimes overtime, because they are essential workers in the community. Thus, the need for assistance with monitoring youth and supporting the childcare needs of younger youth while they are working was identified. Participants reported that for some, older children are often helping watch younger siblings while parents work, while others are relying on friends and family. Participants expressed a need for respite care for their children while they are working. Creating programming that could be offered at parallel times across ages so older children can participate instead of caring for younger siblings was one identified strategy presented. Creating family programming that adults can also participate in with their kids and offering that program in multiple languages was also raised as an identified strategy.  

Providing support for the academic needs of children, including accessing adequate supplies needed to support at-home learning, were additional key concerns raised. Suggestions to recruit volunteer or paid tutors and access hard copies of books, and supplies like paper and crayons were various strategies that could support this need. Working with local schools to access needed materials and worksheets could be another useful strategy. 

Outside/nature activities.

Outdoor/nature activities were raised by participants as opportunities for youth engagement in both the English and Spanish speaking sessions. Many participants mentioned an appreciation for outside and nature activities during the pandemic. Several suggestions raised by participants included: creating a birdhouse from natural items, exploring nature by providing families with milkweed seeds so youth can observe the process of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, or catching frogs. Physical activity options were also shared, including riding bikes or engaging in folklore and other cultural dances. In addition, participants suggested youth could engage in community service projects and where appropriate, access outdoor museums, college campuses and outdoor concerts, while observing social distance practices. 

Mental health.

Mental health concerns were significantly highlighted in both the English and Spanish speaking sessions. First, participants expressed concern around the stigma associated with mental health issues. Assisting parents and children through the various stages of the coronavirus pandemic was reported as important. Participants expressed uneasiness surrounding the undetermined length of the coronavirus pandemic. One supportive strategy raised by participants suggested that agencies should proactively check on participants instead of asking families to reach out to them for support.  

Supporting the key social and emotional needs of families was also a key concern expressed by participants. Participants shared that youth need someone to talk and assist them with normalizing feelings and sharing how adults are struggling during this pandemic. Providing opportunities for one-on-one interactions with other youth or seeking the support of paid professionals could be a useful strategy. Acknowledging and honoring youth for taking on roles as leaders in their own households and helping younger youth and siblings could improve self-esteem and mental health. Sending cards to youth to help reduce stress or recognize accomplishments and milestones was one suggested action step. Additional strategies included offering classes on stress management and mental health and providing grief support services for children and families who may have lost a loved one during this pandemic period. 

Finally, for younger children, having sensory toys to help cope with stress and anxiety was identified as a need. Providing opportunities for children to express their feelings was also a useful strategy presented by participants. 

Basic needs. 

Supporting the basic needs of families was a key theme expressed by participants. Examples provided include access to food, transportation, hygiene items, or the physical school building as it is often a safe place for youth. Participants also shared that undocumented immigrants often do not have the same access to resources as other families (i.e. unemployment benefits, food stamps, cash assistance and stimulus funds). Helping to provide supports to aid all families were identified as important. 

Participants also expressed feeling voiceless in the educational and community decision making processes. Several participants expressed a need in streamlining the policies and procedures that affect systems and institutions, as the amount of changes occurring often create additional stress and anxiety on families.

Several strategies were raised by participants. First, community organizations should approach participants in a culturally appropriate way. Second, community organizations should build relationships in the community and use outreach strategies that reflect the needs of the community.  One suggested strategy was for community organizations  to recruit community members to build the local relationships and ensure the community’s voice is represented. This can help in having an inclusive decision making process and reduce  potential bias when programming options are provided. Additional strategies focus on having a centralized agency or person to assist parents with navigating resources. This individual or organization could advocate, troubleshoot and problem solve. When working with immigrant and refugee youth and children, providing education to support various work opportunities should be considered.  Partnerships with refugee organizations or other organizations who provide services to BIPOC (black, Indigenous and people of color) communities could be beneficial in providing those services. 

These listening sessions were designed to better understand the needs of children, families, and those who support them during this time of social distancing. MSU Extension will share this information with partners and use it to better serve communities across Michigan.


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