By Leah Davies, M.Ed.
It is estimated that 1.5 million children in the United States have a parent in jail or prison and this number increases each year. These children are less likely to succeed in school and more likely to be involved in substance abuse and delinquent behaviors. A worthwhile goal for educators, as well as judges, lawmakers, corrections officials and child welfare workers, is to break the cycle of incarceration among family members by supporting the needs of the children involved and seeing that their rights are upheld.
Children of an arrested and imprisoned parent often experience trauma and instability in their lives. If the child had a meaningful relationship with the parent, he or she may become emotionally maligned, unable to trust others and therefore loose the ability to form healthy relationships. The child’s social and academic development is often impaired. Feelings of shame, worthlessness and a loss of identity can result in the child being depressed or exhibiting aggressive behaviors.
Since there is no formal mechanism by which children of incarcerated parents are identified to school staff, their needs are frequently overlooked. At times teachers will be aware of a child’s parent being imprisoned through parent-teacher conferences or other forms of communication. When they know a child has an incarcerated parent, there are ways they can facilitate the child’s learning and development. The following ideas may be helpful:
1. Provide a safe, stable, and caring classroom environment with clear rules and expectations.
2. Understand that these children love their imprisoned parent.
3. Respect and accept each child without judgment.
4. Take into consideration their special needs.
5. Reassure them that they can be successful in school.
6. Build their self-confidence by helping them identify their strengths.
7. Provide encouragement and support for them to live up to their potential.
8. Promote social acceptance and inclusion through modeling.
9. Challenge any prejudicial comments or behaviors by other students.
10. Understand their feelings of sadness, anger, confusion, and apprehension about their future.
11. Offer emotional support and a chance for them to express their feelings.
12. Watch for changes in their behavior and/or attitude.
13. Refer troubled children for counseling to help them address their concerns and increase their coping skills.
14. Meet with parents, caregivers and/or agency representatives who provide support and services for these students.
15. Maintain a list of resources and referrals including crisis intervention, mental health and special services for the children, as well as their caregivers.
Services for children of prisoners can include:
- Group and/or individual therapy;
- Skill building activities;
- Social skills enhancement; and
- Anger management training.
The emotional development of these children is enhanced when they feel free to discuss their feelings concerning their parent. Yet, many adults do not know what to say if a child mentions an incarcerated parent. If they respond with something like, “What did he/she do?” the child may interpret the comment as critical and not mention the parent again. A preferential response would be to say something like, “It’s hard to have a parent live away from you.” Then if the adult listens and mirrors the children’s feelings, communication and bonding can take place. Children are better able to cope with their unhappiness when the adults in their life discuss the incarceration without condemnation or embarrassment.