- Incarceration affects more than 5 million students in schools today, as one in every 14 children has had a parent incarcerated and about half of children with incarcerated parents are under the age of 10. The impact is even greater among minority children because of the racial disparity of the prison population, with nearly one in seven black youths ages 12 to 17 having had at least one parent spend time behind bars, Edutopia reports.
- The incarceration of a family member is one of the 10 adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, that can have affect learning — such as a student's impulse control, concentration and judgment — and can lead to further health and emotional effects in adulthood. Schools sometimes add to the trauma of the situation because educators tend to have negative perceptions of children whose parents have been in prison.
- School leaders and teachers can help these students by refraining from asking about details of the parent’s offense and focusing on the emotional reaction and needs of the children themselves by using sensitive word choices, respecting the parent-child relationship, placing books dealing with the issue in the school library, and providing support for these students through clubs or other organizations so they can talk about their experiences in a judgment-free zone, the article says.
Schools are becoming more aware of the trauma that some students have faced and how those experiences impact students' ability to focus in school and to interact with others in a positive way. The incarceration of a parent or other close family member is one of the ACEs that has the most impact on a child, but might also be the most likely to be ignored. Many educators are either unaware of the circumstances of the family or don’t know how to react to the situation. And, according to research, many teachers either consciously or subconsciously treat these students negatively by questioning either their competence or their character.
Educators can help by gaining a clearer understanding of what these students face and by examining their own responses to the situation, so they are not inadvertently encouraging a repeated pattern of behavior. Students who have family members in prison often have their own set of problems a lack of hope for the future. These feelings are often exacerbated by the responses from others at school. Educators can help students see that they don't have to repeat the mistakes of their family members and that focusing on their education can help them succeed. Schools can also use social-emotional learning to help other students empathize with their classmates that are facing such a situation.
School leaders can explore the possibility of offering groups such as POPS the Club and others that help students find a safe place to share their stories. There are also programs, such as the Angel Tree program and the Sesame Street in Communities initiative for young children. District family engagement coordinators may find these or similar local programs helpful. In addition, the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated offers resources and information on working with families that can be used for professional development for teachers and other staff members. These efforts will help as schools work to become more trauma-sensitive.