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5 Tips for Educators Supporting Children of Incarcerated Parents

Here are 5 core tips for educators to create safe spaces for children of incarcerated parents in your in-person or virtual classroom now and post-COVID.

We are living in unusual and difficult times, and educators and students are facing great challenges. In addition to the already daunting task of teaching children during an ongoing pandemic, educators are supporting children’s heightened emotional needs now more than ever. COVID-19 presents unique challenges for the one in 14 children who experience a parent’s incarceration that may include 1) limited to no communication with their parents, including not being able to visit, 2) worrying about their parent’s well-being and risk of contracting COVID-19 in prisons and jails where adequate medical care may not be available, 3) feeling lonely in their experience because of limited contact with friends, and 4) facing the double uncertainty built into both the pandemic and the criminal justice system. 

Action Steps:

  • Learn about local resources providing support for children with incarcerated parents
  • Talk to people you know who are affected  by incarceration and/or work with incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people or their families.
  • Seek out training about implicit bias, systemic racism, and using a trauma-informed approach.

Action Steps:

  • If you know a student has a parent who is incarcerated, reach out to the family or caregivers to find out what supports the child is receiving and what they may need.
  • Connect students with supportive resources within your school, such as the school guidance counselor, nurse,mental health professionals, social workers, and peer support  to increase the child’s holistic care.
  • Explore with the child and their caregiver about the possibility of involving the incarcerated parent in the child’s education. Many incarcerated parents can receive report cards and can possibly join parent-teacher conferences by phone or video.
  • Explore whether there is a local organization or after-school program for children of incarcerated parents or consider starting a support group in your school

Action Steps:

  • Assume and affirm diverse family configurations, and that some children in your classroom will have varying levels of access to their parents.
  • Include books about children with incarcerated parents in classrooms and libraries
  • Include conversations about mass incarceration and its effects on children in curricula
  • Invite organizations or advocates to speak to children (and adults!) in your school about mass incarceration and its effects on families and communities.

Action Steps:

  • Use humanizing, person-first language when speaking about a student’s parent or people who are incarcerated
  • Be mindful and critical of the narratives and statistics in the news, movies, music, research, and more that dehumanize incarcerated people and criminalize certain communities, People of Color, and families with incarcerated loved ones. 
  • Consider how a student with an incarcerated parent might respond to specific films, video clips, books about the justice system that you show in class or assign as homework.
  • Recognize personal biases and remain focused on asking the child and family how you can support them. Refrain from sharing personal biases in classroom settings.
  • Keep the conversation open-ended: 
    • Ask about their feelings and what they need rather than asking why the parent is incarcerated
    • Listen more. Be ok with silence. Your presence and willingness to listen is supportive. 
    • Affirm what they are experiencing and feeling while reassuring them that they are not alone and not responsible for what has happened with their parent. 

Action Steps:

  • Request professional development on how to support students with incarcerated parents from an organization that offers this training.
  • Advocate for your school to develop a protocol for how to engage incarcerated parents in educational meetings and sharing a child’s educational records when appropriate.
  • Request professional development on how to implement trauma-informed and restorative justice practices, with a racial justice lens, at your school or district-wide.
  • Consider  the experiences of students with incarcerated parents in all policy and practice discussions, professional development, staff  meetings, and all decision-making processes.
  • Advocate for support for social workers and school counselors who can build capacity for supporting the children of incarcerated parents and train educators on restorative justice practices.
  • Approach school policy decisions with a racial justice and trauma-informed lens,
    providing tools and training for staff to dismantle systemic racism in meetings, among
    staff, and in the classroom.

1. Start where you can with the resources you have

It may feel overwhelming at first to know how to support children with incarcerated parents, especially if you have not been impacted by incarceration yourself or are just recently learning about this experience.
Start with educating and preparing yourself so that you feel better equipped to respond to students whose parents are incarcerated. It is crucial to be comfortable with talking about incarceration before signaling to families that they can come to you for support.

2. Be collaborative and reach out for support 

Teachers are often overburdened with the unrealistic responsibility to meet the myriad of needs of all of their students. Remember you do not have to carry all of this alone. Your time and capacity to offer support is limited. Collaborating with others, and engaging in self-care will benefit the child and increase the support you receive as you empower and support your students.

*Reminder: In building trust and partnership with the child and their family, follow confidentiality guidelines and get permission from the child to share information with other school staff. A child's personal information cannot be shared with an external organization without the guardian’s permission.

3. Decrease stigma
and isolation by acknowledging the common yet unique experience of
parental incarceration

Children of incarcerated parents often do not disclose their parent’s incarceration out of fear of how their peers, friends, and teachers may respond or because of stigma. They often feel alone in their experience. There are ways to bring up the conversation broadly in class so students know that 1) this is a common experience, 2) it is a diverse experience, and 3) you are attempting to create a safe space for them to acknowledge their own experience.

“Children of incarcerated parents are like all other children; like some other children; like no other children.”
–Ann Adalist-Estrin

4. Consider the language, narratives, and teaching resources you use

The language we use when speaking directly to a child or to a group of students about incarcerated people and their families matters. Negative narratives about those who are incarcerated are prominent in our society, and we must be careful not to unknowingly perpetuate stereotypes. Thoughtfully including the experiences of children of incarcerated parents and the effects of mass incarceration in teaching lessons is an opportunity to change these harmful narratives and help students feel comfortable sharing their experience. Using humanizing language and keeping the conversation open and focused on the child’s needs allows them to define how they are feeling about their parents and understanding their experience, not how they think they should feel about it.


5. Advocate for school policies that support affirming environments and restorative practices

In addition to individual support, consider advocating for educational policies that see and support children of incarcerated parents. Implementing restorative and trauma-informed practices can increase access to resources that heal and support a child’s development, rather than punish a child for behavior that is often rooted in unmet needs. Championing policy change also shows students you care about their well-being and models how they can be an advocate for change.

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