Scholastics Teaching Tough Topics Takes on Supporting Children of Incarcerated Parents in the Classroom

22 March 2016

“My dad calls, and we write letters back and forth, but it’s just not the same as having him here to talk to on a daily basis. In fact, I only get to travel there to see him in person twice a year. Saying goodbye is always the worst. No kid should have to do that. Parents are supposed to be with you all the time.”


Justin Burl, an extraordinary young man who has been a participant with Osborne’s Children and Youth Services for much of his life, shares his experience of growing up with an incarcerated parent in the February 2016 issue of Scholastic’s life skills magazine for teens, Choices.

 Justin describes his feelings and strategies for coping with being separated from his father in a way that is personal and relatable for other teens with similar experiences, as well as for those who are considering the issue for the first time.

To help teachers effectively use Justin’s story as a learning tool, Scholastic’s classroom language arts magazine, Scope, explores ways of promoting understanding, empathy, and support for children of incarcerated parents. Osborne worked with Scope’s Associate Editor to provide guidance and resources to help teachers approach the topic, including a guide on creating safe spaces, using humanizing language, and combating stigma, all within a clear framework of Do’s and Don’ts that are pertinent to anyone working with youth.

This issue, we have a special paired-text feature, “My Dad Is in Prison,” which explores what it’s like to have an incarcerated parent. Many of you may have students in your class who have, or have had, a parent in jail or prison. To help you approach this important, but sensitive, topic, I enlisted the help of the The Osborne Association an incredible organization that works with incarcerated persons and their families in New York State.

We talked a lot about how to promote understanding and empathy among students who have no experience with this issue, as well as how to create a supportive, safe space for kids who have been personally affected by parental incarceration. We came up with a set of “dos and don’ts” to help you with both.

The DOs

Click here to download the “dos and don’ts.”

DO convey the scope of the issue. In America, 2.7 million children have an incarcerated parent, and more than 10 million children have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives. This translates to one in 28 children having an incarcerated parent on any given day. It may be useful to share these numbers with your class, to show that Justin Burl’s situation is not that unusual, and to help a child in your class who may have an incarcerated parent feel less alone. For more, check out the Children of Incarcerated Parents Fact Sheet.

DO use humanizing language. Be mindful of the language used during class and group discussions. Avoid terms such as offender, convict, inmate, and criminal. These words may be upsetting and uncomfortable for kids whose mom or dad is incarcerated. Instead, use the word people—people who are in prison, people who are incarcerated, people who have committed crimes. Read more about humanizing language.

DO be mindful of stigmas. Children of incarcerated parents often feel ashamed of their situation. They may also feel judged for their parent’s decisions, and may even have been told they are more likely to be incarcerated than other children. The idea that children with incarcerated parents are more likely to go to prison themselves is damaging, hurtful, and untrue. It serves to limit the future aspirations of students. You can counter this idea by clarifying that a parent’s decision-making in no way limits a child’s potential and future abilities. Read more about the stigmas faced by children with incarcerated parents.

DO post the Children of Incarcerated Parents’ Bill of Rights in your classroom, or hand copies out before reading the essay and interview. The “Children of Incarcerated Parents’ Bill of Rights” is a great way for students to step into the shoes of kids like Justin and think about the issue from their point of view. Sharing the rights with your students also identifies you as a safe and supportive person to a student who may be dealing with the issue. Get a pdf of the Children of Incarcerated Parents Bill of Rights.

DO allow children to remove themselves from the discussion. If you do have a student who has an incarcerated parent, be careful not to pressure them to talk about the experience or to join discussions related to it. Permit students to remove themselves from these discussions and monitor them for signs of distress. It’s important to follow the student’s lead, and also to explore other opportunities (such as talking to a guidance counselor) for them to open up.


The DON’Ts 

AVOID focusing on the offenses of those who are incarcerated. Students may ask what Justin’s dad did to become incarcerated. We asked Tanya Krupat, Director of the New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents at the Osborne Association, how she might respond to this question and we loved her answer. Tanya suggests that you say, “I actually don’t know, and I think there is a reason the editors did not include that information. Why do you think they left it out?” You might explain that the real purpose of the article is to understand more about Justin and his life, not his father’s. “Justin’s relationship with his father is clearly important to him, and that is what is important here. Justin loves him and that’s all we really need to know to be able to support Justin,” Tanya says.

AVOID “bad vs. good person” narratives. “We want children to understand that making bad decisions doesn’t mean you’re a bad person,” says Tanya. This is particularly important because children are figuring out who they are in large part by looking at who their parents are. Tanya suggests moving away from conversations that center around a “bad vs. good” narrative, and to instead encourage students to think about people who are incarcerated as human beings who have made mistakes. This also encourages taking responsibility for one’s actions and underscores the fact that there are consequences for decisions.

Other Tips:  

  • Some families of incarcerated persons choose not to tell children where their parent is. Do not bring up the topic with a student unless you know that the child is aware of his or her parent’s situation.
  • If a child wants to confide in you, listen to them and signal that you can be trusted. Let them know what they share is confidential, and share the limits of that confidentiality. (Check your school’s policy.)
  • Be sure to refer a child seeking help to any resources that your school or community may offer, such as youth groups or counseling.
  • Read more about how teachers can support children with incarcerated parents.

The Osborne Association's President and CEO Liz Gaynes, and Director of Communications Jonathan Stenger with Director of the New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents Tanya Krupat.

 More Resources:

To read more tips and download a step-by-step lesson plan,subscribe to Scholastic

Read about an Osborne participant who shared his experience of parental incarceration with Scholastic Scope Magazine

Osborne's See Us, Support Us toolkit