What to Do When a Parent Is Incarcerated

New information helps educators understand how to work with students

By: Megan Sullivan


In the August 2011 issue of Middle Ground, I encouraged teachers to be proactive with students whose parents are in jail or prison. I provided a brief overview of the perceived academic disadvantages for children of incarcerated parents and suggested how teachers, counselors, and administrators could help. Specifically, I suggested educators do the following: acknowledge that some children in their classrooms and schools will have incarcerated parents; provide books about families and incarceration in school and classroom libraries; tailor assignments as appropriate so incarcerated parents can be involved; be aware of local resources; and read Children of Incarcerated Parents: A Bill of Rights from the San Francisco Partnership for Incarcerated Parents to encourage a better understanding of all children's rights.

Although I wrote "Reaching Students Whose Parents Are Incarcerated" in 2011, the information remains appropriate in 2017. What has changed is that researchers and advocates know more today than they did in 2011, especially regarding the impact of parental incarceration on children and families. This new knowledge can help teachers, administrators and school counselors.

What We Have Learned about Children of Incarcerated Parents

According to the Center for Mental Health in Schools (2010), 2.7 million children in the United States have a parent in jail or prison; 11.4% are African American children, 3.5% are Hispanic, and 1.8% are white. At the University of Wisconsin, the Institute for Research on Poverty (2014) reports that these children are more likely to perform poorly in school and to face stigma.

Yet scholars have also begun to examine how we conduct research and to suggest a more nuanced examination of how incarceration impacts children. While teachers, school counselors, and administrators need not worry about the particulars of this call for enhanced research, they will benefit from knowing why scholars are calling for change. For various reasons, to date scholars and others have relied on small-scale studies on children and on long-ranging data from a wide swath of children.

Because of the difficulty and ethical considerations of conducting studies directly on children whose parents are incarcerated, researchers examined studies on various groups of children (such as poor children or children whose parents are not married) and extrapolated from that. As a result, we gained some information, but that information was incomplete.

Today's scholars encourage us to engage in large scale studies; to factor in the particular circumstances of incarceration; to recognize the entire span of a child's development; and to examine not just the risk factors present in children's lives, but also the possible protective factors that may help augment these risks (Poehlmann & Eddy 2010, Arditti 2012). Particularly relevant in the school context is the advice of one scholar who cautions researchers to remember that although children with incarcerated parents are at an increased risk for incarceration, most adults whose parents were incarcerated do not themselves become incarcerated (Dallaire, 2007).

What This Means for Educators

This call for more nuanced and rigorous research should serve as a reminder to school personnel that we cannot make assumptions about children of incarcerated parents. We do not know exactly how a parent's incarceration impacts a child's development or academic achievement. We should not assume a child will fare poorly because a parent is in prison or jail. Conversely, however, and because parental incarceration is considered an adverse childhood experience like divorce, poverty, abuse, and trauma, that has the potential to affect a child's life, we should be aware and attentive.

In the past, practitioners and scholars encouraged schools to make use of all the resources available to children and especially to connect boys and girls whose parents were incarcerated with school counselors. This is still considered a good thing to do. However, the latest research encourages schools to train teachers not to make assumptions about how a parent's incarceration might affect a child's behavior or academic success and to help lessen the stigma that some of these children may face. Schools are also encouraged to learn how to talk to children about what they are experiencing (University of Wisconsin Institute for Research on Poverty, 2014).

Teachers should also know that at least one study suggests female children whose mothers are incarcerated may be vulnerable to teacher stigmatization (Dallaire, et. al, 2010), and that they should rely on a continuum of classroom and school-wide intervention to promote child development and address particular learning needs (Center for Mental Health in Schools). In other words, teachers may be most effective when they attend to children's diverse learning needs–whether their parent is incarcerated or not–rather than what they assume will be the child's emotional or academic challenges.

Parental incarceration may have an effect on children's academic performance and childhood development, but there may well be people and forces that can offset some of these affects. Teachers, school counselors, and administrators are in unique positions to be able to recognize and ameliorate the difficulties that children of incarcerated parents might face. In order to be most effective teachers and school personnel should be aware, attentive, and knowledgeable. In this way they can discover how they can best support a child whose parent is in prison or jail.


Megan Sullivan is an associate dean at Boston University and the author of two books on children of incarcerated parents: Parental Incarceration: Personal Accounts and Developmental Impact (co-edited with Denise Johnston) and Clarissa's Disappointment: And Resources for Families, Teachers, and Counselors of Children of Incarcerated Parents.
Published February 2018.

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