How Can Schools, Teachers, and Counselors Help Children Impacted by Incarceration?

School’s out. This means teachers, counselors and administrators are beginning the process of reflecting upon what they might do differently next year. One thing they might consider is how they can more adequately address the needs of the 2.7 million minor children who currently have a parent in prison or jail in the United States.

This is the second blog in a three-part series on how we can assist children. In last month's blog I suggested that although the number of adults who are incarcerated and the number of children impacted by incarceration may tell us some things, these numbers cannot convey the entire story as numbers do not reflect the unique and individualized ways in which incarceration impacts any given family. Our approach as advocates and researchers has often created missed connections and opportunities to truly know more of the story. The same could be said about the relationship between children who have parents in prison or jail and the K-12 institutions and staff who serve them.

The relationship between schools and children can be purposeful and inviting, tension-filled and off-putting, or somewhere in–between. Often the primary difficulties stated by schools are one, identifying the children impacted by parental incarceration, and two, the lack of support for teachers or administrators to respond to these children’s needs. Given these variables, how can K-12 institutions and their staff help children who may have the added circumstance of parental incarceration?

Schools

Schools can help in several ways. They can educate themselves about children’s potential needs, and they can find creative ways to help all students understand human rights and criminal justice.

Schools should first acknowledge there will be children in their classrooms and on their playgrounds who are impacted by incarceration. Estimates vary, but it is safe to say that 1 in 24 children has a parent in prison or jail in the United States. Often these children and their needs remain unattended because we do not know how to help them, and because of the stigma associated with incarceration. Fearful of how their loved ones may be perceived, families sometimes encourage children not to talk about an imprisoned family member. Adults may also be reluctant to disclose the fact that they have an incarcerated son or daughter, father or husband. Schools can bridge this gap by educating themselves about incarceration and families. One excellent place to begin is at The National Resources Center of Children and Families of the Incarcerated. NRCCFI provides downloadable fact sheets that can provide relevant and reliable information. 

Schools can also help by reassessing how they address human rights and crime and punishment more generally. By virtue of the number of people incarcerated in the United States, we are all impacted. Even children who do not have a direct connection to incarceration may well know a neighbor or relative who is or has been in prison or jail. Also, since there are nearly 7 million people in the U.S. who are currently under criminal justice supervision, it is fair to say it is likely that all communities have within them individuals who have been impacted by incarceration in some manner.  While schools can decide if they want to address incarceration directly in their curriculum, there are certainly opportunities for age-appropriate discussions of human rights and criminal justice. One creative way to help begin this conversation in the classroom would be to highlight the website for the San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership found at http://www.sfcipp.org/.  On this page teachers, counselors and administrators can draw students’ attention to “A Bill of Rights” and “Agenda for Action.” Children can be asked, why is it necessary for children of incarcerated parents to have a bill of rights? Schools can also include the aforementioned website when they address children’s rights or criminal justice more generally.

Teachers

Parental incarceration is considered an adverse childhood experience, (ACE), or as an experience that may affect children long after the event has occurred. This means that while there may well be children in a classroom who are currently contending with a parent’s incarceration, there may also be children who are dealing with the long term implications that can be a result of familial imprisonment or criminal justice involvement. So what should teachers do? Again, the best thing they can do is to educate themselves.

A recent Anne E. Casey Report, “A Shared Sentence,” finds that children with incarcerated parents are more likely to live in surroundings least able to support them and where their parents feel unsafe and report a dearth of resources. As has often been reported, research indicates many children with incarcerated parents live in communities with high density, often unsafe housing and with few community resources for families. The report also points out that children with incarcerated parents experience greater rates of housing instability and move more often than do children whose parents are not in prison, likely because their families can no longer afford the rent or mortgage. The report states that “the trauma of being separated from a parent due to prison, combined with the lack of sympathy and support from others can negatively affect children’s mental health,” and they are more likely to suffer from poor mental or physical health outcomes later in life. Other reports tell us that children with incarcerated parents are at a greater risk for feelings of shame, guilt or anger; suffer more from stigma; and may have an impaired ability to cope with future stress and trauma.

With respect to their education, most studies of children’s academic success have focused on children’s behavior rather than their academic performance. Realizing this mistake, scholars have begun to examine discrete parts of a child’s academic experience. Although it has been difficult to separate the socioemotional problems from incarceration in and of itself, one study showed for example the when a mother has been incarcerated for three years that there is a correlation between maternal incarceration and lower retention rates. There were also slight cognitive deficits for middle school boys and girls who had incarcerated parents.

Further, acknowledging that stigma remains an issue for many criminally justice involved people, scholars have also begun to analyze whether and how stigma affects children whose parents are incarcerated. They have found that school-aged children may be impacted by teacher and peer stigma when a parent is incarcerated. These studies suggest teachers should be simultaneously mindful that children with incarcerated parents may be impacted academically, and careful not to pre-judge how individual children will fare.

With this in mind, when I talk to teachers I encourage them to do the following:

  • Acknowledge that there may well be children in your classroom who have an incarcerated parent
  • Support children by suggesting books for classroom and library use that speak to their experiences. Here you can find a book list and other resources for children.
  • Be creative about ways to involve a parent from prison or jail. There are schools that have experimented with video conferences, and there are teachers who help students post letters to their incarcerated parents.
  • Ensure a quality education for all children.

Counselors

School counselors are in a unique position. They may be contacted by a teacher, parent, or school administrator when a child has an incarcerated parent, or they may be left to ascertain this information on their own from meeting with students directly. I advise counselors to be aware of the possibility that children in their school may have incarcerated parents and then to seek out literature that can help them understand children’s needs. All of the resources mentioned in this blog post will be helpful to counselors, yet I also suggest counselors do the following:

  • Ascertain that the child is safe. Not all children’s living situations will be altered by a parent’s incarceration, but some may well be. First, ensure the child is safe and cared for.
  • Support caregivers. Caregivers for children of incarcerated parents face unique needs and are often older (e.g. grandparents). Along with the National Resource Center for Health Marriages and Families, I wrote a tip sheet “For Caregivers: Helping Children of Incarcerated Parents.” Caregiving in general can be difficult, but when one factors in the possible stress of discussing an incarcerated parent, visiting a prison or jail, etc. it is obvious that the stakes may be higher for families when a loved one is in prison or jail.
  • Remember that while all children with incarcerated parents have parents in prison or jail, no two children are the same. Educate yourself about what a child may need but then be open to what the child articulates. He or she may be your best guide on how to proceed.

In sum, as school is out for the summer, teachers, counselors and administrators can use this opportunity to plan for how they will help children whose needs all too often are neglected or misunderstood throughout the seasons.

Megan Sullivan is the Associate Dean for Faculty Research and Development and Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Teaching & Learning at Boston University; she is also the author of the award winning children's book Clarissa's Disappointment: And Resources for Families, Teachers and Counselors of Children if Incarcerated Parents. She was awarded the Anthony Award in Prose from Between the Lines Literary Journal for her essay, “My Father’s Prison,” and she is the co-editor of Parental Incarceration: Personal Accounts and Developmental Outcomes.

By Megan Sullivan

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