Professional School Counselors Using Choice Theory to Meet the Needs of Children of Prisoners

Article excerpt

The prison population in the United States has increased significantly. Children of prisoners experience academic and social challenges. Professional school counselors are in an ideal position to provide theory-based interventions to support children of prisoners. This article (a) describes challenges experienced by children of prisoners, (b) advances choice theory as a theoretical framework to meet their needs, and (c) describes a case study that details the effective use of choice theory with children of prisoners.


Approximately 2.5 million people are incarcerated in the United States (U.S. Department of Justice, 2006). The numbers of prisoners have increased substantially during the past decade (Reitz, 2006). As the number of prisoners increase, so do the numbers of children they leave behind (Miller, 2006). Many of these children experience favorable school functioning and positive life outcomes. However, a significant number of children of prisoners experience challenges each day functioning academically and socially in a society that may stigmatize them as inferior due to their parents' life choices and subsequent incarceration (Miller). The outcomes of children of prisoners require examination as few researchers, or public policy makers, have systematically studied the impact of parental incarceration on the well-being of young children, their guardians, and their schools (Seymour, 1998).

The school functioning of children of prisoners may be adversely affected by their parents' incarceration and precursors to the incarceration (Edwards, 2006; Miller, 2006). Educators can benefit from the delineation of a theoretical framework that facilitates better understanding of the phenomenon. Such a framework provides a conceptual lens to guide educators in better meeting the needs of children of prisoners. In this article, we (a) describe challenges experienced by children of prisoners, (b) advance choice theory as a theoretical framework to meet their needs, and (c) describe a case study that details the effective utilization of choice theory with children of prisoners.


From 1990 to 2004, the U.S. prison population almost doubled, from 773,919 to 1,468,601 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2007). Data from 1999 indicate that state and federal prisoners were parents of approximately 1.5 million children under the age of 18 (Phillips, Burns, Wagner, Kramer, & Robbins, 2002). These numbers continue to increase. Incarceration rates in some of the most highly populated states are particularly striking. The two highest increases were in Florida, with a 20.5% increase by 2002, and California, with a 20% increase by 2006 (U.S. Department of Justice, 2007). Clearly, many of these prisoners are parents who are unable to care for their children. These children will be cared for by single parents, relatives, or foster caregivers (Miller, 2006; Poehlmann, 2005).


Findings from the few empirical studies available suggest parental incarceration results in adverse consequences for children. Cross-cultural, international, and U.S. research indicates that children of prisoners experience negative consequences. For example, research conducted in the United States by Phillips et al. (2002) indicated that children whose parents were incarcerated showed higher rates of exposure to stress, violence, and abuse. International research supports the negative impact of incarceration on children. In England, a correlation between parental incarceration and subsequent criminal behaviors of their male children was found (Murray & Farrington, 2005). Research in Sweden also suggests parental incarceration increases the likelihood of subsequent criminal behaviors in children (Murray, Janson, & Farrington, 2007). However, the correlation is lower than in other countries and the researchers suggest this may be due to supportive social policies in Sweden. …


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