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?
Fink, Paul J., Clinical Psychiatry News
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. We soon realized, however, that such feelings must be universal.
The sense of disappointment and loss felt by these adolescents turns into rage - which becomes part of the driving force for delinquent behavior. The absence of a father or a mother is one of the major factors underlying much of the antisocial behavior of these young men and women.
When a child loses a parent to whom he or she is very attached, it is a disruption that lasts a lifetime, and is reported over and over again as the child grows and matures. Our society is especially adept at destroying family units by sending parents to jail with little concern for the children who are left behind.
I do not condone crime, but there are alternatives to jail as consequences for criminal behavior. Foster care does not provide a substitute for the lost loved one. There seems to be a real disregard for the children who are left without a mother or a father, and jail does not correct the failure of parents to realize the damage they are doing to their children. So little is understood about child development by the general public.
Teachers can draw on erroneous ideas when dealing with children. For instance, teachers who participated in the Virginia studies indicated that high school children handle having an incarcerated parent better than do children in elementary school. My experience with the focus group shows a different part of the story: High school children are better able to repress or deny their troubled feelings and their distress over the loss of a parent.
These children are truly hurting, and this behavior on the part of their teachers might hurt them more. In another quote from the paper, "... several (n = 10) noted that they have witnessed colleagues being 'unsupportive,' 'unprofessional' and expecting less from children with incarcerated parents."
Don't Discount Child's Impressions
When one of our own children or one of our patients says, "My teacher doesn't like me," our first tendency is to try to dissuade the child of his impressions. We know realistically that not every teacher treats every child the same. But for one teacher to note that another teacher is acting badly toward a child is quite an indictment, and those of us who are outside observers regarding schools are shocked and saddened to know that a child's education can be harmed by his teacher.
However, the Virginia researchers discovered new hazards for children. Without extrapolating to other social-emotional issues in the child's life, we can imagine how critical the child-teacher relationship is for the child. If the child is searching for a parent substitute, the attitudes uncovered by these authors point to a real tragedy. This is evident in elementary school, where in many schools, children have the same teachers all day long.
In previous columns, I have railed against the culture of punishment in which modern children often find themselves. They are punished in school, at home, in the school yard, and in the streets with bullying. Parents and teachers have to be aware of the stress that our children are enduring. But it's very hard for us to educate an entire nation - or world.
Several states still allow corporal punishment in schools. This is much worse than a teacher sneering at a child perceived as someone who won't achieve. Children cannot stand being humiliated or disrespected. And they feel it in the schools, where fear is generated and maintained to keep them in line. We must find ways to get adults to talk to, not yell at, children.
Imagine a world in which a child would go up to his teacher and ask "Why don't you like me?" indicating that she has feeling and is hurting because she has become, in a subtle way, a victim of low expectations.
I have often said that it I ever write a book, it will be titled: "But She's My Mother." Throughout my career, people have been unable to acknowledge the amount of hatred they felt for a parent who treated them cruelly, and they assumed that it was their own fault. But they never blame the mother. One woman I have treated for several years often told me that her father was very negative toward her and very positive toward her little sister. She cannot understand it but will never acknowledge the negative feelings she has had for him for more than 50 years. Similarly, the only way children can rationalize an adult's negative behavior is to feel they must have done something to foster that behavior. I hear people say, "I'm no good," "I'm worthless," "I can't do it," which is the result of experiencing a system that leads them to feel less than the other children in the class.
The concept of self-fulfilling prophecy is a powerful force in the academic lives of children who get the message that they are not expected to perform as well as their peers. The literature shows that students who belong to the stigmatized group might be particularly vulnerable to the self-fulfilling prophesies. Schools have to be neutral places where all children start at the gate together and go as far as their individual abilities allow them to.
If the child were fortunate enough to get into therapy, our tendency would be to concentrate on the incarceration of the mother. But it would be more important to find out whether the child had a teacher who loves her and believes in her ability to be a successful student - and whom she adores.
DR. FINK is a psychiatrist and consultant in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., and professor of psychiatry at Temple University in Philadelphia.
PAUL J. FINK, M.D…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: 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?. Contributors: Fink, Paul J. - Author. Magazine title: Clinical Psychiatry News. Volume: 39. Issue: 1 Publication date: January 2011. Page number: 10. © 2009 International Medical News Group. COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale Group.
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