When teachers receive their roster each school year, they are handed more than a list of names—they receive an opportunity to invest in lives.
By Bethany McIlrath
It’s likely that some of these lives are impacted by crime and incarceration. 2.7 million children in the United States have a parent behind bars.
Teachers and school administrators play a significant role in creating a positive or negative experience for all of their students, but particularly those who come from more vulnerable backgrounds.
Several strategies can help educators support prisoners’ children in school:
TREAT STUDENTS AS INDIVIDUALS, NOT PRODUCTS
As an article in Education Week points out, students who have an incarcerated parent are statistically more likely to be incarcerated themselves one day. Students with incarcerated parents are often and unfortunately stigmatized as criminals (or on the path to becoming one) themselves. Sadly, bullying is common for children who have a parent in prison. Teachers should be on the lookout for this behavior and intervene.
Other ways that educators can come alongside students with a parent in prison are highlighted by Project Avary, a program that supports children of prisoners:
- Addressing students’ feelings about incarceration without focusing on the crimes of the parent
- Offering one-on-one attention and validation
- Praising and helping students grow in their talents and natural positive qualities
- Collaborating with caregivers positively to support students
- Avoiding generalizations that highlight the student’s challenging situation
VALIDATE AND ENCOURAGE EMOTIONAL PROCESSING
Most children react with strong emotions to the incarceration of a parent. The emotions can be confusing, especially for younger children. Youth.gov explains that having a parent incarcerated is classified as an “adverse childhood experience” (ACE), just as abuse and other traumatic experiences are.
School staff can help students with incarcerated parents by encouraging them to express their emotions in healthy ways. Behaviors should be corrected, but emotions should’t be punished. Validating that a student has a right to experience their own feelings and develop their own opinions can help students take personal responsibility while also healing from the trauma.
MAINTAIN EXPECTATIONS WITH GRACIOUS FLEXIBILITY
School psychologist Eric Rossen outlines several elements of supporting students with incarcerated parents. One is that students need to be given flexibility without lowering expectations. He explains that teacher expectations influence student performance.
When teachers maintain high expectations, students are challenged in a positive way to live up to these expectations. Due to lifestyle changes and hardship that may affect students’ ability to focus or complete homework as quickly, some flexibility, such as extra academic support or understanding of the emotions behind a problematic behavior, is also important.
ENCOURAGE PARTICIPATION IN ACTIVITIES
Since the incarceration of a parent can be isolating for a child and negatively affect a student’s social relationships, educators can support students by encouraging participation in extracurricular activities. Before- and after- school activities give students:
- Personal interaction with adults and mentors
- Something in common to share with peers
- A space to relax and develop skills they desire
- Oversight that may be lacking at home during those hours
Students often benefit from involvement in activities and events outside of school as well. For instance, children with incarcerated parents may be especially blessed by attending summer camp such as Angel Tree Camping®. Educators can discover opportunities like these and share them with students. Some even choose to use their skills in education to support students at camps throughout the summer.
RECOGNIZE THE ROLE OF EDUCATION
One of the main reasons that an educator has an amplified effect on the lives of students with incarcerated parents is because these children often face a variety of significant obstacles. They lack not only the presence of a parent, but also may face instability at home, financial insecurity, little oversight or structure outside of school, inconsistency, and much more.
For many students living with challenges like the incarceration of a parent, school is one of the only places that is stable and consistent. Educators have the opportunity to make that inherent structure safe and positive so that children who may not have support elsewhere have the opportunity to shape their lives for good.
An important note: Children may not be aware that their parent is in prison. If a caregiver discloses this information, the educator should hold that information in confidence unless given permission to share it.
A learner at heart, Bethany McIlrath loves to share about her Savior and ways to lovingly serve others whom God has so loved. You can find Bethany’s writing on her blog: FirstandSecondBlog.com. She is a guest blogger for Prison Fellowship®.
This article was originally published on the Prison Fellowship website and republished with permission.