One sociologist’s study finds that children who have parents in prison are unprepared for school. It is an alarming finding, considering that there are approximately 2.7 million children who are affected by parental incarceration, and nearly one in 10 US residents under 18 has felt the effects of parental imprisonment.
School readiness measures how prepared children are to learn in formal classrooms and gauges a child’s ability to follow directions, pay attention and control emotions like anger and frustration. It entails such skills as problem solving, number recognition and word knowledge and is shown to affect a child’s development in kindergarten and early grades as well as predict success in college and later in the workplace. School readiness also affects the decisions of teachers and counselors to assign children to special education classes or honors classes, or other such life-affecting decisions.
Parental incarceration can have a debilitating effect on children. The separation may be jarring, or the social stigma associated with having a parent in jail could be traumatizing. The sociologist’s study found that while parental incarceration has no distinct effects on children’s cognitive readiness for school, it hurts their emotional and behavioral readiness—a setback equivalent to nearly two months of schooling. These children were more likely to be aggressive, hyperactive, or easily frustrated.
Boys were also set back more by parental incarceration and the ensuing emotional and behavioral issues. This is helpful to understand why boys generally seem to be more unprepared for school than girls.
The study also found that race has nothing to do with how a child is affected by parental imprisonment, but black children are more likely to have their fathers imprisoned.
The impacts of parental imprisonment are longstanding, because behaviorally and emotionally unprepared boys tend to be assigned to special education classrooms. Boys whose fathers were incarcerated during their preschool years have a higher likelihood to be placed in special education classes by age nine. Being placed in these classes is linked to later setbacks in academic achievement, and it is often associated with dropping out of school, being unemployed and running into trouble with the law.
The study suggests that a large part of the difficulties black boys face in school has to do with having many of their fathers in prison. As black males are most likely to be sent to prison, so many of their black progeny are automatically set back in life, well behind other children.
Preschools can mitigate these effects by creating special programs to help these children succeed at school and provide them with extra support, but this is unlikely to be sufficient. Imprisonment not only affects the individual; it affects children and the family. Unless the US finds alternatives to imprisonment, so many blameless children will continue to start their lives several steps behind.