K12 Records Resources

March 23, 2023

Bridging the Communication Gap: How Income and Language Affect Family-School Interactions



Recognizing and addressing the unique needs of all families 

In today's digital age, it's easy to assume that everyone has access to the same tools and resources when it comes to interacting with school systems. However, the reality is that different families and parents often have different access to paper-based products or tools based on income or language barriers. This can lead to frustration and inconvenience for families, particularly when it comes to interacting with their children’s school. 


It's essential for school districts and charter schools to consider household income when issuing school communications because financial barriers can limit families' abilities to participate. Traditional paper-based tools, such as envelopes, stamps, and scanners, may be costly for families who are already struggling financially. Consequently, requiring these tools for activities or communication with schools can create an additional financial burden for parents.


Furthermore, it’s important to recognize that parents and guardians who don't speak English may have trouble with paper-based processes because language barriers can significantly impact their ability to communicate with teachers or administrators. Some families may struggle to understand school materials, leading to potential misunderstandings and exclusion from the education system. 


By considering the unique needs of all families and providing resources that are accessible and user-friendly, schools can ensure that all families stay informed and engaged in their children’s education. This leads to better academic outcomes for students and a more equitable education system for all.



How financial and language barriers influence communications with school systems

Research shows that people with a lower income are increasingly reliant on mobile technology and have less access at home to paper-based products or tools than those with a higher household income.


“With fewer options for online access at their disposal, Americans with lower incomes are relying more on smartphones. As of early 2021, 27% of adults living in households earning less than $30,000 a year are smartphone-only internet users – meaning they own a smartphone but do not have broadband internet at home.”

- PEW Research


In fact, according to our recent report, The 2023 communications with education systems study:

  • Less than half of households making $34K a year or less have home access to stamps, a checkbook, or a printer. 
  • Less than 25% of households making $34K a year or less have access to a copy machine, fax machine, or scanner.


Families who don't have access to these technologies at home are more likely to face the need to pay for use at a store or institution, such as a library or print shop. This is particularly difficult for those who are already at economic disadvantages. Costs of using these services can add up quickly and create additional financial stresses for families who may be struggling to make ends meet. Plus, the need to pay for use at a store or institution can create logistical challenges, such as the need to arrange transportation or take time off work. All these factors can make it challenging to engage with school-related paper-based communication or documentation.


Language is also an important consideration when it comes to communication access and needs. When school systems offer limited communication options, misunderstandings, delays, and missed opportunities can be frequent obstacles for parents and guardians who aren’t native English speakers. In fact, Scribbles’ recent study indicates the following:


English speakers are more likely to:

  • Have paper envelopes or stamps for mailing letters at home AND access to paper envelopes, printers, copy machines, and fax machines at work

  • Have internet access at home


People who speak a language other than English or Spanish are more likely to:

  • Not be able to remember the last time they used a fax machine

  • Pay to use internet access or borrow a friend’s scanner if they don’t have access at home

  • Miss work to conduct business with a school/education system

  • Have the need to pay for transportation and rely on payment options that are difficult for them

  • Find using paper envelopes and stamps for mailing letters frustrating or annoying



Families who don't speak English are more likely to struggle with paper-based school communications due to language barriers. Parents and guardians may have difficulty understanding written instructions, completing paper-based forms, or communicating with teachers and school staff. This can lead to confusion, misunderstandings, and potential disengagement from the education system. For example, a parent or guardian who struggles to understand a school newsletter or permission slip may be less likely to participate in school activities or events. Moreover, families who don't speak English may not have access to translation services or support, further exacerbating the communication barriers they face.



How technology can level the playing field for lower-income families

It's essential for school districts to recognize that different families have varying abilities to engage with paper-based school processes. Digitalizing school district processes can help level the playing field and give families with income or language barriers better access and convenience when interacting with schools.


Digitalizing education system communications provides a more accessible, convenient means of communication for lower-income families. With digital platforms, families can easily receive and respond to important updates and information from the school. This helps to eliminate barriers such as transportation or scheduling conflicts, which can prevent some parents and guardians from attending in-person meetings or school events. Additionally, digital communication can be more cost-effective than traditional paper-based methods, as it reduces printing and postage costs. This can save money for both the school district and families, which can be especially beneficial for lower-income households. 


Foregoing paper-based processes also benefits non-English speaking families, as it provides a means of communication that can be easily translated into different languages. With online platforms and translation tools, school districts can ensure that families who speak different languages have access to the same information and resources as English-speaking families. This can help to eliminate language barriers that may prevent families from engaging with the school, attending meetings or events, or accessing important educational resources. 


By replacing paper-based processes with online platforms, schools can better engage and support all families, regardless of income level or spoken languages. This promotes equity in education and ensures all families have access to the resources they need to support their child's education.


Communication recommendations for school districts serving lower income and non-English speaking communities

If your education system represents Title I schools, serves lower-income families, or serves a community with non-English speakers, there are several actions you can take today to break down barriers and become more inclusive to diverse community members.


  • If you represent a Title I school, serve a lower-income community, or have lower-income families attending your district, consider the costs associated with paper-based processes and how these processes could be made more financially accessible to everyone.

With most Americans having access to smartphones or the internet, putting processes like records requests or registration online, especially in a mobile-friendly environment, can make a huge difference in the time and money needed for families to support themselves and their children.


  • If you serve a community with a high population of non-English speakers, use tools that make it easier for families and staff to communicate. Digital technologies are increasingly adept at offering translation services for both virtual and in-person assistance. Even if in-person assistance is currently the best way to support your non-English speaking families, digital tools can provide immediate translation vs. having to pay for a translator and printing materials in advance.


  • Since families who do not speak English are more likely to miss work or pay for transportation to conduct business with schools, consider partnering with other departments in your district to deliver services like school registration, transcript requests, or anything in between. Welcome centers or agencies for education and outreach are good places to start.


  • Also, evaluate alternatives to using printers, copy machines, scanners, and fax machines to serve these families. In addition to access challenges, using these technologies can introduce difficulties due to language barriers or unfamiliarity with the device itself.


The 2023 communications with education systems study

Did you know that Scribbles Software released a new research study on communication trends between school districts and families, students, and alumni? “Mismatched expectations: How students, families, and alumni expect to interact with education systems” is available today.


The survey results detail the insights of students, alumni, and families from a diverse range of school districts and charter schools across America. We focused on finding out how people feel about obligations like visiting offices and mailing documents, access to technology, trust in district operations, changing communications expectations, and more.




Download the report now to gain perspective on your district or charter school.