“Nearly all of them have felt alone until they’ve met someone else in their situation,” said Tanya Krupat, director of the Osborne Center for Justice Across Generations, the policy center for the Osborne Association, which supports individuals, families, and communities affected by the criminal justice system.
Students with incarcerated parents may not willingly identify themselves to teachers and counselors out of fear of judgment from their peers. How can school staff support these students while respecting their privacy and combating stigma?
Including the full range of school staff—teachers, administrators, officers, counselors, athletic coaches—in initiatives to support students with incarcerated parents is a crucial part of creating a safety net and an inclusive culture across campus.
“You never know who a student will be comfortable confiding in,” Krupat said, so it’s best to make sure every staff member is prepared to provide support.
Families and Incarceration in the United States
There is no government agency dedicated to continuously collecting and analyzing data about children with incarcerated family members, which makes it difficult for school districts to know how often students have parents in the carceral system at any given time. However, some smaller organizations periodically collect data through national- and state-level initiatives.
“Some teachers’ expectations of a student’s academic potential become lower when they find out about a student’s parent being incarcerated,” Krupat said. “Small microaggressions about a student’s potential build up and have a narrowing effect on the future the child sees for their own life.”
A change in academic performance may be a common sign that students are experiencing a disruption to their daily life at home, but it’s not the only one.
Complicated grief as a result of a change of residence or school
Fear of vulnerability or honesty with adults
Fear of judgment from peers or school staff
Emotional numbing or avoidance
Disruption of identity formation
These disruptions can complicate a child’s identity formation throughout their adolescence, changing the way they develop a sense of self and belonging in the world. While each child responds differently to adversity, Krupat said the attitude and demeanor of the adults around them can drastically affect whether a child feels supported and understood.
Creating a Supportive School Environment for Children of Incarcerated Parents
Students draw upon the culture of a school’s ecosystem to learn about the world and their place in it. While school staff may assume that children with incarcerated parents are being supported by the child welfare system, that’s often not the case, said Ann Adalist-Estrin, director of The National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated at Rutgers University. It’s important to make sure they’re finding the necessary resources throughout their schools.
“Look at the systems that are already serving students,” Adalist-Estrin said. “And then start training the staff that are a part of those systems,” like school counselors, teachers and administrators.
Adalist-Estrin outlined specific steps that the school staff can take to show families they’re committed to creating and maintaining an inclusive culture:
6 Steps for Creating an Inclusive Culture in Schools
Train all school staff members to build competence related to serving families with incarcerated parents.
Inform all families that school staff had training via a letter or email from the school.
Let the community know that the school is interested in better serving this population by asking for volunteers to develop an advisory council of caregivers, people with lived experiences, and adults or young adults in the community with a formerly incarcerated parent.
Gather community resources for supporting families in the carceral system. Make a list of local programs, summer camps, social services and transportation to local prisons and jails.
Maintain a support group specific to kids affected by incarceration.
Adalist-Estrin encourages school staff to give families the choice to refer themselves to specific programs or support groups because self-referral increases the likelihood that families will stay involved with the program and meaningfully participate.
Destigmatizing Incarceration Through Inclusive Language
Building a culture at school where incarceration is normalized and understood as a part of many families’ lives can help students speak more freely about their experiences.
“Children are very influenced by the adults around them,” Krupat said. “They pick up on shame, isolation, fear and secrecy more than we realize. Talking about [incarceration] is very helpful, though it can be hard for adults to do so.”
Within the academic curriculum, students are often taught about civics and government with language that implies people who are arrested or incarcerated are criminals or generally bad people. Krupat said educators should be thoughtful about the language used and underlying assumptions when teaching students the difference between breaking the law and criminality.
“You want to balance personal responsibility and respect for the law and authority with the fact that there are systemic forces like racism, but some laws are unfair or implemented unfairly,” Krupat said. “Ultimately, I think we need revisions to education curricula for teaching kids about the grey areas.”
Person-First Language About Families and Incarceration
Instead ofConvict, prisoner or felon
Instead ofEx-convict or reformed prisoner
UseFormerly incarcerated person
Instead ofReturning citizen
Instead ofLaw enforcement officer
UsePublic safety officer
Instead ofCriminal justice system
Instead ofTo target someone
UseTo serve someone
Supporting Students’ Mental and Emotional Health
School counselors can provide confidential, one-on-one support for students but should be careful to get the permission of parents beforehand.
“If the school finds out from the child or parents that a parent is incarcerated, the counselor can thoughtfully reach out to the family or caregiver and offer support,” Krupat said.
If parents are open to it, counselors can pursue working with the student. If they’re not open to resources, respecting their privacy is an important way to build trust, she said.
Remember that it may not always be appropriate for a child to engage an incarcerated parent. Each situation is unique and requires a unique response based on a thorough understanding of the family’s situation and the guardian’s preferences.
Group counseling is another option school counselors may pursue. However, group sessions with vague or general titles like “grief support group” can be discouraging to students who may not feel like they belong with others who are grieving the death of a friend or family member.
“In all of our focus groups, kids said they would prefer to join a support group that was created specifically for students affected by incarceration,” Adalist-Estrin said.
Aside from counseling or therapy sessions, school staff can facilitate a variety of activities to help support students.
Activities for Supporting Students with Incarcerated Parents
Add books to the school library so students can check them out on their own.
Create self-reflective journal prompts that students write on their own.
Help students write letters to their family members in the carceral system.
Feature speakers at school who have had experiences with family in the carceral system.
Share information with the student body about transportation opportunities to nearby prisons and jails.
Acknowledge the rights of incarcerated parents to receive report cards and other school news.
Building allyship within the student body is an opportunity to create an inclusive environment that stems from peer support. Talking about the complications of the carceral system in class, without prompting a student to identify as the child of an incarcerated parent, can show students that the environment is supportive without singling them out.
The most important way to offer support, according to Krupat and Adalist-Estrin, is asking students and families what they need instead of assuming what would be helpful.
“Ask to give,” Adalist-Estrin said, “rather than to get.”
Additional Resources for School Staff and Caregivers
A Shared Sentence (PDF, 1.6 MB), The Annie E. Casey Foundation: policy report that analyzes data and discusses the needs and potential solutions for children with family in the carceral system.
Children Who Have Experienced Trauma, Youth.gov: guide to trauma-informed care for children of incarcerated parents that includes tip sheets for educators, a video for school staff and discussion guides for training within the school environment.