SEDL Southwest Educational Development Laboratory
  Building Support for Better Schools
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step four: Train Facilitators

You've identified facilitators. The next step is training them with extra attention to language, culture and other considerations. The most artful facilitators are sensitive to these issues and, consequently, develop trust with participants more quickly than facilitators who are not. Training facilitators well in how to be aware of cultural and language barriers and the history of minority communities can make the difference between success and failure as groups come together for the first time.

The strategies highlighted next are designed to enhance good facilitation training.

Know Your Audience

While knowing your audience is critical to the success of any community forum or discussion, it's more critical for facilitators working with parents, community members and others from different cultural backgrounds. The more facilitators acquaint themselves with their participant's needs, the more meaningful the discussion.

Here's a checklist of questions to consider:

  • Which community members are likely to participate in the discussion?
  • What languages do they speak?
  • Are there cultural barriers to overcome?
  • Will traditions or customs dictate where or how people want to sit during the meeting?
  • Will extra time be needed for interpretation?
  • Is audio equipment required to help overcome language differences?
  • Have considerations been made for nonreaders?

Welcome Participants

Good facilitators welcome and introduce themselves to every participant. This may seem painfully obvious, but a flurry of activity takes place before a community conversation and this most important step is often overlooked. This step is critical because this sets the tone for the entire meeting. It can affect the comfort level of participants and the quality of the conversation.

SEDL staff who attended Study Circle meetings observed participants entering a room and standing alone, unsure and uncomfortable. After a quick hello they were on their own — not because facilitators were unfeeling, uncaring people, but because they were caught up in pre-meeting logistics. Take care of the logistics early on, so that when participants arrive, you can concentrate on them. Consider assigning community leaders solely to the job of welcoming participants. You may want to have one to three designated greeters, maybe more if the group is large. And, if you are unsure how to pronounce a person's name as you greet them, ask an interpreter to help you.

Meeting Site

Allow participants time to become familiar with the meeting site. Point out where participants can park. If transportation is provided, make sure participants know where to meet the driver when the meeting ends. Show them where they can make a telephone call or use the restroom. If childcare is available, introduce participants to the caretaker before the meeting and let them know they can visit their children any time during the meeting. This will help ease concerns for parents who are not used to being separated from their children and rely on extended family when they are apart.

Understanding Cultural Influences

Accepted practices vary from one culture to the next. In some cultures, a handshake or direct eye contact with an authority figure is frowned upon. In other cultures, individuals stand just a little more than a foot apart when they speak to each other. Still other cultures see this as an invasion of personal space. Keep these cultural differences in mind as you greet participants and involve them in the discussion. Talk to a local cultural expert to learn what's acceptable and what's not.


Good Reads

Check out At-Risk Families and Schools Becoming Partners by Lynn Balster Liontos published in 1992 by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management. Chapters 22-25 offer important and in-depth insights on engaging immigrant, Asian, African-American and Hispanic families in school-related activities. The book may be found online at


Nonverbal Behavior

Sometimes it's not what we say, but how we respond physically that makes the greatest impression. Smiling and listening closely are nonverbal communication strategies that put participants at ease and show respect for their contribution to the conversation.

Be aware that nodding, within some cultures, indicates politeness and respect rather than agreement. Other cultures see silence as an important nonverbal strategy feeling it is not necessary to talk all the time in a conversation. However, too long a silence by the facilitator during a conversation between two individuals may not be viewed as appropriate. Again, the local cultural experts can offer both knowledge and suggestions for making community conversations comfortable for all involved.

  Building Support for Better Schools
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