Diverse Families in the Classroom

Parental Incarceration and Divorce

Compelling Question


Supporting Questions

1. Why is it important for educators to be aware of diverse family situations?

2. What are some extra challenges children with incarcerated parents face in the classroom?

3. What are some challenges children who split time between two divorced parents face in the classroom?

Diverse Families

"In this day and age, diverse families are probably more the norm than the standard nuclear family. Lots of blended families, multi-racial families and even same sex parenting situations. It's important to know a child's family make-up so you can be sensitive to that when communicating with parents/guardians. It is also helpful to know so that you can use it during instruction and the topic of families is raised, (C. Huntsman, 2016)

Parental Incarceration

Background Information- Facts and Stats:

  • More than 2.7 million children in the United States currently have an incarcerated parent and over 10 million children in the US have dealt with parental incarceration at some point in their lives.
  • About 120,000 parents incarcerated are mothers and 1.1 million are fathers.
  • In 1998: 67 percent of incarcerated parents were handcuffed in front of their children, 27 percent drew weapons in front of their children
  • In 2004: about 59 percent of parents in a state correctional facility and 45 percent of parents in a federal correctional facility said that their children never visited them
  • 11.4 percent of African American children, 3.5 percent of Hispanic children, and 1.8 percent of white children in the U.S. have an incarcerated parent.

(Osborne Association, 2011).


  • Children with incarcerated parents are more likely to spend time behind bars in the future than their classmates who do not have parents in jail.
  • More devastating than divorce and even parental death in many cases and causes much damage to children's health, academics, and social relationships. These are reasons why they are more likely to spend time behind bars themselves.
  • Children often feel shame and think they have to keep their parent's incarceration a secret, which makes school more challenging.
  • Kids with incarcerated parents are more likely to have attention deficits, lower grade point averages, and being retained at the end of the school year, especially in elementary school.
  • 1-2 percent of students with incarcerated mothers and 13-25 percent of those with incarcerated fathers graduate from college.

(Edweek, 2015).

  • Sometimes, kids' parents are both arrested together and they have to either live with a family member or be put into the Foster Care System, which can lead to other issues.
  • "The things that come up the most with a parent inside is this feeling that you are going to be just like them, and there's this fear and loss and disappointment that translates to depression in a lot of kids," (Ms. Friedman, Edweek, 2015).

"There are a lot of programs for the incarcerated, but not so many for the collateral damage out there," (Ms. Friedman, Edweek, 2015).

Interview Notes: Incarceration

Elementary Teacher

What are some extra challenges children with incarcerated parents face in the classroom?

"Lots of times the child feels abandoned. It's a lot like grief. Child may miss the parent. If child has contact with incarcerated parent, they may act out before or after visits. It's also hard during holidays or breaks when other children are getting to see parents, do fun things, etc...and they don't get to because their parent is in jail. Sometimes children will put incarcerated parent on a pedestal to avoid thinking about whatever crime parent may have committed. Every once in a while you find a child that blames themselves for the parent being incarcerated."

As a classroom teacher, how do you meet the emotional needs of a child with an incarcerated parent? "Set boundaries, be consistent with them. Be sympathetic to situation, but do not compensate by allowing misbehavior or lack of consequence. Utilize all counseling opportunities open to the child."

What is the most challenging aspect of teaching a child with an incarcerated parent?

"Understanding child's perspective. Realizing the grief/responsibility child may be feeling.

Not caving to the inclination to excuse poor behavior. Being a consistent adult in the child's life."

(Huntsman, April 2016).

Guidance Counselor

What are some of the biggest struggles young children with an incarcerated parent seem to face at school? "Depending on the parent(s)' charges and incarceration time, many of these children may spend time in Foster Care. While this may be necessary, it can create significant attachment injuries that will have to be overcome. In addition, these children may struggle with a sense of guilt or shame knowing that their parents are incarcerated."

How do you, as a guidance counselor help children who have challenging home lives? "I truly believe that simply being fully present with children with difficult home lives is the number one most important thing. Research consistently indicates that the top predictor for academic, personal, and social success is having at least one consistent, supportive adult in their lives. Communicating value an worth to these children is also of utmost importance, as many of them struggle with self-esteem. I also work regularly to connect students and families with needed resources...In addition, I have started a mentor program where volunteer adult mentors spend regular time with students with identified needs..."

What advice do you have for teachers when they are trying to support children that come from difficult situations? "The best advice I have for teachers looking to support students is simply to be present with them When they are talking to you, engage them with eye contact and let them know that you are truly listening. Communicate value and worth to them above all else, and understand that any difficult behavior or emotional responses likely make sense given the context the student is living in. Also, do not hesitate to connect with your guidance counselor regarding identified needs. At MMJ, we also conduct a monthly support staff meeting where counselors, administrators, district social workers, and area agency personnel consult regarding struggling families and students."

(Taylor, April 2016).

Children of the Incarcerated

stop video at 3:55

Supporting Children of the Incarcerated in the Classroom

It is very likely that there is a child in your classroom that is dealing with the incarceration of a parent. These are some tips for how to support them.

  • The child needs one on one attention and is probably not getting that at home.
  • Stress at home can affect school in various ways. Children can come to school unable to focus, hungry, tired, anxious, worried, etc. It is important that their classroom teacher is sensitive to that.
  • Invite children to share their feelings, and really listen to what they are saying to you. Avoid expressing your personal reactions to what they are telling you (verbal and facial expressions)
  • Be careful when talking about parent-teacher conferences, asking if mom or dad is picking students in your class up from school, and making other parental generalizations as this can be painful for children of the incarcerated.
  • Give children a "right to pass" when asked questions such as "what did you do this weekend? Where's mom and dad?" and so forth as these questions can be painful for a child with a parent behind bars. Giving them a "right to pass" builds trust.
  • Keep in mind that different families deal with disclosure differently. Sometimes children know exactly where their parents are, when other times their family members have chosen to give the child a different narrative to protect their innocence.
  • Do not condemn the incarcerated parent in front of the child regardless of their crime because the child still cares for and loves their parent.
  • Give child an outlet to appropriately express his/her feelings. This can be done through art, writing, talking about feelings, etc. This is imperative for their social and emotional health.
  • Invite positive role models (both male and female) to your classroom
  • Keep an open line of communication with the child's caregiver/guardian

(Kaplan Early Learning Company, 2016).

(Project Avary).

Divorce in the Classroom

Facts and Stats:

  • 50% of all marriages in the U.S. today end in divorce and many of these families involve children
  • Children often believe they caused their parents to split and feel they have a responsibility to bring them back together. This can be very confusing for young children.

(AACAP, 2013).

  • Young children who have to deal with divorce are more likely to display behavioral issues such as aggression, depression, poor school performance, and low self esteem.

(Teachnology, 2016).


  • When children's parents go through divorce, it can take up to about two years for them to adjust to the new lifestyle. During this time, they need the adults (including teachers) in their lives to be supportive.

(Teachnology, 2016).

  • When a child comes from divorced parents, there can be some difficulties in the classroom, especially if the parents do not co-parent well.
  • If the co-parenting situation is rocky, "children may go without backpack, folders, supplies, etc...for as long as a week," (C. Huntsman, 2016). Mrs. Huntsman further states that school is sometimes the only stability children have in their lives.
  • Also, "If a student struggles, then parents tend to blame each other or school and it can get ugly fast," (C. Huntsman, 2016).
  • When asked what some challenges children with divorced parents face in the classroom, Ms. Taylor, an elementary school guidance counselor stated, "Children with divorced parents often struggle when realizing that some of their friends have parents that are still together. This can create jealousy and social struggles at school. These children may also struggle some emotionally while at school as they adjust to new family dynamics and often live in a constant state of transition as they spend time with each parent. These students can be preoccupied and struggle focusing on academic work, (Taylor, 2016).

Supporting Children with Divorced Parents in the Classroom

  • Communicate with both parents rather than just the "custodial" parent
  • Be sensitive to diversity and avoid using terms such as "broken home" or "real parent."
  • Be aware of the fact that not all family members have the same last name
  • Teachers and schools can help families going through transition periods such as divorce by providing resources to help foster positive relationships between parent and child, encourage all parents (biological and step) to monitor child's academic progress, encourage parent networking with other parents in the class and school
  • In the classroom, teachers can include supports for children with divorced parents and other difficult home situations into the curriculum by "encouraging understanding of different types of families, helping children communicate about their family, increasing self-esteem, helping children appropriately express feelings, and supporting positive parent-child relationships," (Leon, 2005).
  • Providing students with discussion opportunities in the classroom can allow them to express their feelings in a safe and appropriate manner. This can be integrated with social studies through studying diversity.
  • it is important to remember that just because a child is going through a divorce or something challenging at home, does not give them an excuse to act out. The teacher must maintain boundaries.

(Teachnology, 2016).

  • Integrating supports for diverse families in the classroom can be done in a variety of manners, but one of the most powerful ways is through children's literature.

What I Learned: A Summary

  • It is important for educators to be aware of the diversity that makes up their classrooms so they can meet the needs of each child, whether their diversity is based on ethnicity, race, culture, or family structure
  • Children of the incarcerated need a little more compassion, empathy, and guidance at school because they are dealing with something at home that no child should ever have to deal with; they are confused, angry, and frightened and often do not know how to express big emotions
  • There are few programs to support children of the incarcerated, and there should be more.
  • Although many children are affected by divorce, each child handles it differently; some are completely distraught over their parents' divorce while others are okay with it
  • Communication with parents/caregivers is key, especially when dealing with a child who is going through some tough stuff
  • Using children's literature is a great way to discuss difficult topics and bring diversity into the classroom in an age-appropriate manner.
  • Every child in your classroom is different; each one will handle difficult times, whether it is a parents' divorce, incarceration, death in the family, or other hard things in their own unique way. It is our job as educators to meet them where they're at and help them succeed.
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Children and Divorce. (2013, December 1). Retrieved April 11, 2016 from



Helping Students Going Through Divorce. (2016). Retrieved April 9, 2016 from


Huntsman, C. (2016, April 12). Email interview.

Leon, K. (2014, January 1). Helping children understand divorce. University of

Missouri Extension. Retrieved April 9, 2016, from http://extension.missouri.edu/


New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents. A special project of the Osborne

Association. (2012). Retrieved April 11, 2016 from



Parents’ Incarceration Takes Toll on Children, Studies Say. (2015, February 25). Retrieved April

9, 2016 from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/02/25/parents-incarceration-


Resources for Teachers. Top Ten Things Every Teacher Should Know About Children of

Incarcerated Parents. (N.d.) Retrieved April 9, 2016 from


Supporting Children of Incarcerated Parents. (2016). Retrieved April 8, 2016 from



Taylor, M. (2016, April 17). Email interview.