Teaching Students with Incarcerated Parents

American Educator, Summer 2019
A few weeks shy of my 22nd birthday, I stepped into my own classroom for the first time in Baltimore. Like many teachers, my background was different from that of my students. I am white and had grown up in small, solidly working-class Pennsylvania towns, whereas my students, both black and white, were living in some of the most highly distressed urban neighborhoods in the country. Despite our differences, I shared with many of my students a personal history of early self-sufficiency—and a sense of humor—that opened up opportunities for connection. Not all of my students were a fan of my Spanish class, of course, but I prided myself on showing them that I cared and on building relationships whenever I could.
In my high school classroom, I experienced many common obstacles to developing strong relationships with students. I had large class sizes, more IEPs (individualized education plans) than seemed reasonable, and a steep learning curve with classroom management. I hadn’t yet internalized the extent to which great teaching is leadership, and I sometimes struggled to strike a balance between caring and captaining the ship. Between lesson planning, grading, advising students in extracurricular activities, calling parents and caregivers, cleaning desks, and washing chalkboards, there was not enough time in a week, or even in a school year, to get to know all of my students’ stories and build the open, supportive relationship with each student I would have wanted.
Nonetheless, I developed enough rapport with many students and their families to learn about their lives beneath the surface level. Often, they shared positive things like career goals, hidden talents, poetry or song lyrics, and dreams for the future. I also heard about difficult relationships, financial struggles, housing instability, and health concerns. At times, my students discussed their experiences with police and upcoming court dates. Sometimes I learned about parents’ situations. One student told me, after missing weeks of class, that his father’s health had deteriorated, and he had assumed responsibility for his father’s transportation and care. Other students shared with me worries about their parents’ mental health or substance use. Once a student I was certain disliked me, or at least loathed my class, arrived with a giant smile: she told me that she had just received a letter from her father in prison and learned that she would see him soon.
Since leaving the classroom in 2005, I have worked as a researcher studying issues affecting children and families, with a focus on criminal justice. I arrived at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., in the midst of pioneering work on prisoner reentry, motivated by the dual insights that the United States has a spectacularly high incarceration rate and that almost everyone who is sent to prison is eventually released. Back then, the effects of incarceration on individuals, families, and communities outlined in the article on page 22 were only beginning to be documented. People questioned, but had not yet assembled empirical evidence on, the extent to which incarcerating unprecedented numbers of people affected the families and communities they left behind.
As a researcher, my challenge was to determine whether incarceration caused children’s and families’ trajectories to worsen, or simply occurred alongside a range of other issues. Reflecting on my classroom experience, I wasn’t sure. Although the goal of research is often to isolate the size of the effect of one condition on another, reality is messier. Plenty of students whose parents are not incarcerated are also growing up in challenging circumstances, including situations where their parents are absent due to addiction issues, military service, or long-distance jobs. I could not have correctly guessed which of my students had a parent or caregiver in prison and which did not. I didn’t always know, and it would have been inappropriate to ask. But when a student, caregiver, or staff member told me that a child I was teaching had an incarcerated parent, I also don’t remember feeling surprised.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that, in the context I was teaching in, incarceration was devastatingly common. Not only does the United States incarcerate people at an unusually high rate, but the experience of being incarcerated is unequally distributed. The predominantly white towns I grew up in had people in jails and prisons, of course, but that experience was far from common. By contrast, a majority of black men without a high school degree experience incarceration by their early 30s.1 Few people in my students’ neighborhoods would have been untouched by this reality.
Research on children with incarcerated parents has yielded several insights that educators may find useful. In this article, I highlight three such insights. First, although having an incarcerated father is the more common experience, having an incarcerated mother is especially likely to disrupt children’s everyday lives. Among people in prison who have minor children, mothers are more likely than fathers to have been living with their children and to have been their children’s primary caregiver at the time of their arrest.2 And whereas most children with incarcerated fathers live with their mothers, children with incarcerated mothers have much more varied living arrangements. Grandparents provide care most often, but many arrangements exist, including living with other relatives or friends or in foster care.
Because of this, children may find even a mother’s return home stressful, as caregiving arrangements are renegotiated. Incarcerated women are also especially likely to cycle in and out of jail quickly and to have histories of mental health challenges and substance abuse. Some children feel responsible for helping to keep their parents safe and may worry and experience stress when they return home.
Second, maintaining contact with an incarcerated parent is associated with positive outcomes for children as well as parents, but doing so can be challenging. As the article "Understanding the Needs of Children with Incarcerated Parents" explains, correctional facilities are often located far from home, and the costs and logistics of travel can make visiting difficult. Phone calls can also be expensive. For children who do visit their parents in prison, correctional facilities’ visitation protocols can be intrusive and traumatic. If relationships are strained, children’s current caregivers may not want to facilitate communication between their children and an incarcerated parent. Nonetheless, many incarcerated parents are eager to stay in touch with their children and seize opportunities to do so when they are available. They may also jump back into doing so when they are released.
Third, parental incarceration is just one piece of a larger concern: students are growing up in an era of an expanded criminal justice system that shapes not only their day-to-day lives, but also their perceptions of what is possible for their futures. For middle and high school boys in particular, frequent interactions with police and firsthand knowledge of men in their families and communities who have faced legal troubles or been to prison can cast a shadow over them as they enter adolescence. Research has focused on parental incarceration—for good reason—but even children whose parents are not incarcerated may have brothers, cousins, uncles, or other relatives who are. They may also know people in the community who are not in jail or prison but are on probation or parole or facing new charges.
In perhaps the most powerful exchange I had with a student while teaching, a young man in my class who was quiet and brilliant, and commanded universal respect from his peers, stopped into my classroom after school one day and sat down at a desk. In tears, he shared that his older brother had recently been incarcerated. He told me that he was feeling pressure to take up drug sales to replace his brother’s income and keep his family afloat. His sadness was palpable. As he was grieving the loss of his brother—with whom he had shared a room and his daily life—he was facing new challenges brought about by his brother’s absence. Fifteen years later, I can’t remember exactly what I said to him. I am sure that I conveyed my care and concern for his well-being. Beyond that, what did I say? What should I have said or done? What would I do now?
Today, I think about returning to the classroom often. If I were to teach again, all that I’ve learned about parental incarceration—and criminal justice more generally—would inform my teaching practice. In addition to becoming familiar with the statistics on parental incarceration, there are several things I believe teachers and other school staff members can do to better meet the needs of students with incarcerated parents.
In communities where incarceration is relatively rare, developing knowledge and sensitivity about the issue of incarceration among all students should be prioritized. In these settings, it’s important to educate all students on the prevalence of incarceration and what it means for families and communities. Prohibiting jokes about prison and taking care to avoid language and examples that stigmatize are also practices teachers should engage in. And assigning readings that explore the scope of the U.S. criminal justice system can also help students understand the issue. If a student, caregiver, counselor, administrator, or other staff member discloses to you that a student has a parent in jail or prison, take care to ask how much the student knows about the situation (as caregivers sometimes choose to withhold information to protect children) and be certain to protect that student’s privacy.
In communities where incarceration is common, recognize the extent of the problem, be mindful of challenging dynamics when engaging with students’ families, and consider spearheading schoolwide efforts to meet the needs of children with incarcerated loved ones. Recognize that many students already have firsthand knowledge of this topic. Understand that the removal or return of a parent or loved one from prison might not be an isolated event, but one in a series spanning long before and after their time in your classroom. Be mindful of potentially challenging relationship dynamics between incarcerated parents and current caregivers.
At times, these relationships are fraught, and it is important to be respectful of all parties. Incorporate opportunities for connection with incarcerated parents into daily curricula. Suggest that students prepare written assignments and artwork with incarcerated loved ones in mind. Discuss with caregivers the feasibility and appropriateness of mailing these items from school. Consider offering resources or clubs targeted toward students who have been affected by prison, including support groups, counseling, and extracurricular activities providing opportunities to process experiences through poetry, writing, arts, and journal writing. Framing these efforts broadly—i.e., as suitable for anyone who has an incarcerated loved one or worries about this possibility—may allow for greater participation and connection among students.
In all school types, recognize that many parents are eager to be involved in their children’s lives both while they are incarcerated and once they are released. Do what you can to facilitate these connections and meet parents where they are. Do not assume that absences from parent nights and other functions are voluntary. Besides work conflicts and transportation issues, parental incarceration may be an additional reason some parents in your school are not in attendance. If you are in a leadership position, explore innovative ways to include incarcerated parents in education and consider formal partnerships with departments of corrections. For example, it may be possible to facilitate parent-teacher conferences with incarcerated parents by video, as is currently being done in the state of Washington.3 And investigate whether there are programs or service providers in your community serving families affected by incarceration, where you can refer students and caregivers for additional support.
Research on children with incarcerated parents has increasingly made clear that parental incarceration does cause children’s outcomes to worsen independent of other challenges that may have existed in their lives beforehand. For students who do experience the incarceration of a parent, having access to teachers who share their experiences and who can relate to them can help.
Ideally, teachers and school staff members would have all the time they need to build strong, open relationships with students to engage in conversations around these issues. But in the world we live in now—with millions of individuals and families touched by prison, and with teachers in many communities less likely than students to have experienced parental incarceration—there is still a lot we can do to provide the supportive, inclusive school communities children with incarcerated loved ones need.*  

Tracey Shollenberger Lloyd is a senior research associate in the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, where she coleads the center’s Policing and Crime Prevention research team. Previously, she was a high school Spanish and mathematics teacher in Baltimore and a member of the Baltimore Teachers Union.

*For additional resources and tips for educators, see www.youth.gov/youth-topics/children-of-incarcerated-parents. (back to article)


1. B. Pettit and B. Western, “Mass Imprisonment and the Life Course: Race and Class Inequality in U.S. Incarceration,” American Sociological Review 69 (April 2004): 151–169.
2. L. E. Glaze and L. M. Maruschak, Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children, Bureau of Justice Statistics, August 2008. 
3. Washington State Department of Corrections, “Parent/Teacher Conferences,” accessed 2019, www.doc.wa.gov/family/conferences.htm.
American Educator, Summer 2019