Creating Inclusive Schools: How to Support Students with Incarcerated Parents
More than 5 million children have had a parent in prison or jail, yet many of them don’t know anyone else with a similar experience. That may be because children with an incarcerated parent can feel isolated or shameful.
“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.
According to a 2012 report from The Sentencing Project:
fathers were in prison
mothers were in prison
Between 1991 and 2007, the number of fathers in prison increased by
Between 1991 and 2007, the number of mothers in prison increased by
The majority of parents in state (62%) and federal (84%) prisons were incarcerated more than 100 miles from their last residence.
Racial disparities in mass incarceration of adults also affect their children. The rates of children with incarcerated parents were:
1 in 15
1 in 42
1 in 111
Students of color are more likely than white students to have a parent in the carceral system and more likely to be disciplined by teachers than white students who exhibit the same behavior, according to a 2018 report from the United States Government Accountability Office (PDF, 5.6MB).
“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.
- Change of residence, temporarily or permanently
- Change of primary caregiver
- Loss of family income
- Change of day-to-day routine
- Disruption of academic performance
- Infrequent or unpredictable communication with incarcerated parent
- Distrust of authority at school and at home
- 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.
Schools can make use of existing resources to train all members of the school staff. Youth.gov provides a discussion guide for school administrators, counselors and educators to work through, and a tip sheet for teachers to practice advocacy and support in K–12 classrooms.
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.
Advertise the school’s resources in the hallway and display posters or signage that offer support for students with incarcerated parents (PDF, 6.4 MB).
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.”
Being intentional with language can help shape a child’s understanding of their own experience, which is why adults should opt for inclusive language about the carceral system.
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.
Once a counselor has secured permission or a student brings up the topic, counselors and other school staff must be ready to have discussions with students about their family’s situations regarding an incarcerated parent (PDF, 759 KB). Adalist-Estrin said that deflecting or changing the subject shows students that discomfort or stigma about these topics is still present in the school culture. This type of response can be harmful to a student’s feeling of safety and inclusion.
Adalist-Estrin created a guide on navigating conversation with children who have a parent that is incarcerated (PDF, 499 KB) and addressed specific questions that children commonly ask.
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
- The Children of Incarcerated Parents Library, NRCCFI: series of downloadable PDFs for educators, parents, care-providers and other helping professionals who serve children with incarcerated parents.
- 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.
- Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators (PDF, 3.7 MB), The National Child Traumatic Stress Network: downloadable PDF of basic information for professionals within the school system about supporting children who have experienced traumatic events.
- Resources on Children of Incarcerated Parents, The Osborne Association: library of information that includes book recommendations and inclusive language and other tangible guides for educators, parents and care providers.
- Ten Things You Should Know, Project Avary: list of advice from program graduates and staff about supporting children with incarcerated parents.
- Parent-Child Visiting Practices in Prisons and Jails, Urban Institute: recommendations for best practices for supporting children when visiting parents in the carceral system.
Are you interested in supporting students through programmatic and behavioral interventions? Learn more about how to become a school counselor.