Fink! Still at Large: A Study of Children with Incarcerated Parents Suggests That Teachers Can Be a Powerful Source of Stigmatization. How Would You Help a Child in This Situation in Psychotherapy?

Article excerpt

Recently a man sitting across from me at a banquet table said, "I know you; you're the doctor who taught me that children need love and praise." His comment, which I surmised was based on a lecture I had given months before, surprised me. Nonetheless, I was proud that the message had made an impression on him.

I thought of this when I read the paper referred to in this month's question. The paper analyzes the way in which teachers react to elementary school students who have a parent in jail. The researchers, affiliated with the College of William & Mary and the Virginia Consortium Program in Clinical Psychology, both in Williamsburg, conducted two studies. The first focused on the experiences of 30 teachers with children who had incarcerated parents. The second, which involved 73 teachers, examined their expectations for competency of fictitious children who were new to class because their mothers had been incarcerated (J. Appl. Dev. Psychol. 2010;31:281-90 [doi:10.1016/j.appdev.2010.04.001]).

The findings devastated me because they showed that teachers make assumptions about their students' academic potential based on one part of the narrative. As I've mentioned previously, one of the most important bodies of work on the impact of adverse events on the lives of children is the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study. This study of 17,000 people, a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, identified having an incarcerated parent as 1 of 10 ACEs.

Doctors and teachers must be cognizant of the factors that traumatize children, and we must do what we can to help them deal with the trauma. The teachers in this study did the opposite. The parent's incarceration was not a secret and, according to the article, the teachers saw the difficulty the child was having. "Regarding children's emotional difficulties, several teachers mentioned that these children had a low threshold for frustration and would easily 'fall apart' or 'fall to pieces,' " the researchers wrote.

In times of internalizing behavior problems, teachers often mentioned that these children said they felt sick and made frequent trips to the nurse's office but did not have noticeable physical symptoms. They also noted children's internalizing behavior, stating that many with incarcerated parents act out in the classroom and have trouble interacting with peers. When describing a female student who lives with her grandmother, one teacher said, "She had a really high incidence of behavior issues, mostly because she had a low tolerance for those who mouthed off to her, then she'd say and do whatever she felt."

These teachers could have taken the children aside and talked to them to help reduce their stress. Instead, they stigmatize and penalize these children by making assumptions about their academic capability and doing nothing to stabilize those who are clearly suffering. We all know the power of self-fulfilling prophesies, and this study is further proof that if the teacher decides a child is not going to do well - that child won't do well! Elementary school children are highly malleable and need support, encouragement, and, particularly, a teacher who can be a mentor, a guide, an inspiration.

Loss and Rage

Years ago I was told about a 7-year-old 2nd grader who would tell everyone that he wanted to go to jail. When he misbehaved, he would tell the adult, "Send me to jail." Finally, someone asked him why he kept saying this, and he replied immediately, "My father's in jail, and I want to be with him."

Recently, teenagers in a focus group were having a very open-ended conversation, when suddenly, two of them exposed their rage at not having a father. Both of these boys' fathers were in prison. Usually, these teenagers would keep such personal distress to themselves, so those of us running the focus group were surprised at first by their angry outbursts. …