Supporting students with a parent in prison

Issue: Volume 98, Number 9

Posted: 4 June 2019
Reference #: 1H9uep

In New Zealand approximately 23,000 children and young people have a parent in prison. An early childhood teacher travelled to six countries to understand how to best support the education of these students and found a lot can be done.

For 23 years Charlotte Robertson has dedicated herself to raising awareness on how to support children with a parent in prison. Although she has been presenting workshops on how the judicial process affects children for a number of years, she wanted to place more emphasis on how teachers could better support these children.

Last year, Charlotte was awarded the Margaret M. Blackwell Travel Scholarship, administered by NZCER, to research how teachers can support the wellbeing, welfare and learning of the children of prisoners. She travelled to Australia, USA, Portugal, Great Britain, Sweden and Canada to learn from more than 50 experts at educational, correctional and research institutions and advocacy groups and promote discussion around ways to support the emotional and physical health of children of prisoners.

There is a growing global awareness of the need for change around imprisonment and the effects on children and their families, says Charlotte.

“For a child, having a loved one in prison sits alongside death, separation, divorce, illness, family violence, drug and alcohol addictions and other situations that children experience grief about,” says Charlotte.

“It’s really important teachers understand the shame and the stigma and the bullying (children can both be bullied and become the bully).
It’s also around respecting that, regardless of what the parent has done or what a loved one’s done, that person is important to that child.”

What we know

Research has identified that parental imprisonment impacts directly on children’s educational success and wellbeing. Sometimes the child takes on adult responsibilities.

These impacts may begin prior to imprisonment and during the judicial process. The challenges children face can surface and resurface at every step and could include shame, stigma, financial hardship, moving home/school, losing friends and support systems.

Fears and anxieties may lead to lack of sleep, a deterioration in health and impact on the child’s ability to concentrate.

Families are often unsure what to tell children and some children have no knowledge of where their parent is or why they have suddenly disappeared. It is important to clarify the kind of relationship the child had, has, or wanted to have, with their family member.

“It is important that teachers respect parent decisions on whether to tell or not. When teachers and parents have discussed approaches together they can be consistent to the child,” Charlotte says.

Research indicates that:

  • early intervention reduces negative effects of incarceration on children
  • everyone in contact with the child needs to understand how the incarceration of a loved one can affect children’s physical/mental health and their ability to learn
  • children of sex offenders face extra stigma when a parent or family member offends and seldom visit prisoners as family members can be the victims.

In many countries a disproportionate number of indigenous people are affected by the criminal justice system. In New Zealand a disproportionate number of Māori and Pacific students are affected by having a parent or loved one in prison.

While Charlotte’s research was conducted without a specific cultural lens, the outcomes are relevant globally as all children face similar yet unique, challenges. These outcomes are often due to the reactions of whānau, friends, community, media and those caring for them, as well as the incarceration itself.

“A key finding is to do with relationships and attitude. Building reciprocity with the child and with their family and whānau and/or caregivers is fundamental to the wellbeing and welfare of the child and their learning,” says Charlotte.

“So I learnt the importance of teachers recognising a distressed child and finding positive ways they could support them to achieve. It links aspirations for Māori and Pacific students with Te Whāriki and other related documents.”

Charlotte’s findings

Teachers have a vital role in supporting resilience and agency and providing pastoral care for their students.

Teachers who focus on positive behaviours can help a child who may be experiencing behavioural issues in the classroom and have the power to reduce shame-based rage by making affirming statements, such as “I want you in my class”.

Children can learn resilience through grounding exercises, such as yoga, dance, breathing, thumbprint pictures, matchbox shrines, dominoes, weighted blankets and calm-down jars.

Research indicates that letting children doodle or draw for 15 minutes reduces their cortisol level and helps them verbalise more, says Charlotte.

“Help children to acknowledge shifts in their thinking.”

“Also help them when they say they are okay but everything about them indicates they are not. For example, ‘You say that you are okay, but I can see…’ However, also recognise that maltreatment can shut down language centres when in crisis, so help them use other ways to express themselves,” she says.

Non-verbal methods of expression could be painting, drawing, clay, fingerpaint, music, dance, puppets, drama, writing, or using natural resources. Being in nature can relax students, so even facing outdoors rather than a wall might be helpful.

Teachers need to exercise sensitivity when sharing information with others to ensure they maintain a positive relationship with the child and whānau.

“Often before children tell a teacher they have a parent in prison, they’ve taken quite a long time to make that decision. It’s really important that the child feels they can trust the teacher. If the teacher goes and tells another teacher and that teacher feeds back to the child that they know, then the child can have a real sense of mistrust,” says Charlotte.

Charlotte advocates thinking of the child as an expert.

“Give children options and do not assume because children have a parent that they want to do things like make a Father’s Day card,” she says.

“Consider whether you stigmatise these children and their families by lowering your expectations of them.

“Listen. Don’t be afraid of what you are hearing. Respect what children choose to tell you.”

For more information, Charlotte can be contacted through the Auckland Kindergarten Association at  

Key considerations

Charlotte encourages schools to review policies and practices to support child wellbeing and learning. Consider their loss and possible trauma, which may manifest in many guises from withdrawal to outright anger.

  • When a child or family member shares information, it is crucial to respect their right to privacy. Be sensitive when sharing the information with other teachers.
  • Identify what information needs to be shared and then ways information can be shared in a confidential and respectful way.
  • Avoid making assumptions that the child already knows about the parent’s imprisonment.
  • Respect that parents know their children best and may not be ready to tell them what has happened.
  • Build a trusting relationship with the child and whānau. Develop a culture of trust within the school setting so families inform the school of any updates.
  • Consider class placement for children.
  • Discuss with family whether it is appropriate to send information to prisoners or enable the child and parent to work together on school projects or homework.
  • Highlight positive stories so whānau can reinforce positive behaviour.
  • Know which services/outside agencies could support children and their families. Ask if other organisations are involved so everyone can work together to support the child and their family.
  • Have effective bullying prevention and response policies, procedures and self-evaluation in operation.


The Department of Corrections encourages contact between children and their loved ones in prison, as this can support the prisoner’s rehabilitation and help families move forward after release.

However, it is important for teachers to be mindful that not all prisoners can have contact with their children because of court-imposed protection orders or due to the nature of their offending.

Corrections works with Pillars, a charity that provides support to children who have a parent in prison. For more information on supporting the children of prisoners, visit link).

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:04 AM, 4 June 2019

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