CHAPTER 4 From Family Deficit to Family Strength: Examining How Families Influence Children’s Development and School Success

Ellen S. Amatea


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Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you will be able to:

■ Explain the changes in thinking of researchers who investigate how families influence their children’s learning and social adjustment.

■ Describe the assumptions of family systems theorists and ecological systems theorists regarding the influences on children’s development of the family and larger social systems.

■ Identify specific family processes demonstrated by families varying in structure and social background and how these processes influence children to be successful academically.

■ Describe strategies for assessing and using a family’s strengths to foster their child’s school success.

The summer that I turned 13, my father sat my 12-year-old sister and me down and showed us how to make a weekly schedule in which we laid out our week’s activities of chores, swimming at the community center, and trips to the library. Every Sunday night, he would ask us how our schedule had helped us keep track of what we did with our time. He would then have us make up a new schedule for the coming week. That habit of thinking purposefully about how I spend my time has stood me in good stead for the past 40 years as I tackled the multiple responsibilities of running a household, raising children, and having a demanding career.

Like this successful professional woman in her late 50s, every one of us can tell a story about the lessons our families have taught us about managing our lives. Through one’s family, children learn who they are, where they fit into society, what kinds of futures they are likely to experience, and how to plan for those futures. Although families have frequently been blamed for children’s academic difficulties, particularly when families are poor and not consistently involved with the school, most educators are not exactly sure how families, particularly those of oppressed minorities, shape their children’s future. How do families prepare their children to be successful academically? What do families, especially families who are very poor or are headed by a single parent or a grandparent, do at home to groom their children for school success?

A considerable body of research is now available that describes how families who vary in structure and social background rear children who are academically successful and socially adjusted. The purpose of this chapter is to examine what we have learned about such families. We first look at how, since the early 1960s, family researchers have changed their research perspective and moved from looking only at the surface characteristics and deficits of families to looking at the internal lives of families. Next, we discuss family system theory and ecological systems theory, and how these two theories have become the major theoretical frameworks that organize how researchers have studied the lives of children and families. Finally, we describe the key ways that families interact and organize themselves to rear their children effectively. We believe this information can be of value to you as an educator for several reasons. First, it can counter many of the stereotyped descriptions of family lifestyles and customs depicted in the mass media that may influence your efforts to reach out to students’ families. Second, it can help you understand what families actually do at home to help their children to be successful in school, thus countering the belief that some educators hold that only those families who show up at school are rearing their children effectively. Third, it can guide you in deciding how to help families further strengthen their capacity to rear children who are successful in school and in life.

4.1 Moving Beyond Stereotypes: Changing Research Perspectives

Can children from “broken homes” be successful in school? What about children of welfare mothers, children with absent fathers, or “latchkey” children whose mothers work and cannot supervise them after school? During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, most social scientists who studied the family’s influence on children’s school performance embraced the popular stereotype that nontraditionally structured families (e.g., the family with one parent; the family with an employed mother) had a negative effect on children’s school performance. (Even the language of broken homes, absent fathers, and latchkey children has a pejorative ring, doesn’t it?) These early family researchers, who took a family structure research perspective, assumed that only one type of family structure—the idealized 1950s intact nuclear family headed by a breadwinner father and supported by a stay-at-home mother—was “normal” and had a positive effect on children. Like many social scientists of that era, these researchers believed that the major source of youth’s needs and academic problems was their location in particular family groups with one or more of the following characteristics: (a) divorced parents; (b) working mother; (c) missing or absent father; (d) young mother; (e) poorly educated mother; (f) recently migrated to American cities; (g) racial or ethnic minority; (h) living on limited income; or (i) residing in depressed, inner-city neighborhoods. Illustrative of this approach were studies that examined the effect of the presence or absence of fathers from the family on children’s school performance (Herzog & Sudia, 1973; Kriesberg, 1967; Moynihan, 1965).

Until the early 1980s, practically all empirical research that studied the influence of family on children’s school achievement used this family structure perspective in which they compared the adjustment or achievement of children from two different types of family structures (e.g., single-parent vs. two-parent families). Although this family structure research is voluminous, efforts to predict students’ academic achievement based on family socioeconomic status (SES) or family structure configuration alone have not been too successful. White (1982), for example, analyzed 101 different studies and found that only 25% of the variance in student school achievement could be accounted for by family socioeconomic status or family structure configuration. Despite this modest success, the family structure research perspective continues to be used to confirm many of the stereotypes and misconceptions that appear in the popular media about the negative influence on children of being in low-income, non-White, or single-parent family structures.

In the 1980s, however, a number of social scientists (Clark, 1983; Dornbush, Ritter, Leiderman, Roberts, & Fraleigh, 1987) began to challenge this deficit-oriented perspective. Noting that little attention had been paid to studying how the surface characteristics of family income or structure (i.e., two-parent or one-parent) might be shaping the actual behaviors and daily lives of family members, these researchers observed that family structure researchers had no means to explain the differences in student achievement within a social group. This criticism is expressed eloquently by Clark (1983):

Of the many studies that have shown a statistical correlation between background, life chances, and life achievement, few seem to explain adequately the fact that many youngsters with disadvantaged backgrounds perform very well in school and in later life. (p. 18)

Rejecting the idea that family structure or socioeconomic status alone were reasons for students not succeeding in school, these researchers (Clark, 1983; Dornbush et al., 1987) proposed a family process perspective. They insisted that only by looking inside the family at the particular ways in which family members interacted with each other could one understand how families influenced children’s school achievement. Moreover, they believed that under no conditions should it be inferred that family background characteristics alone were the reason why students did not succeed. Instead, these researchers sought to show how the beliefs, activities, and overall style of interaction of the entire family, not only the surface characteristics of family composition or social status, produced the necessary mental structures for children’s successful school performance. Using family systems theory, these researchers studied how family members organized themselves to carry out important family tasks, such as establishing rules for children’s behavior, getting children to school on time, monitoring children’s whereabouts, organizing who would prepare meals or keep clothes washed, or fostering children’s cognitive or social development.

Since the early 1980s, many family researchers (Edin & Lein, 1997; Furstenberg, Cook, Eccles, Elder, & Sameroff, 1999; Murry, Brody, Brown, Wisenbaker, Cutrona, & Simons, 2002) have begun to draw the circle even more broadly, looking at the larger social and cultural contexts experienced by a family and assessing how these contexts can constrain or facilitate a family’s influence on their children. Using Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory, these researchers examined how the various systems in which a family was engaged (e.g., schools, work settings, community agencies) affected children and families. Many of these researchers were particularly interested in how families who face adverse environmental circumstances carried out their functions. Noting that the same adversity appeared to result in different outcomes in different families, these researchers adopted a family resilience perspective. They explored what happened inside families as a result of adverse external events and circumstances and studied how families withstood, adapted, and rebounded from adversity. For example, in their interviews with 379 low-income single mothers, Edin and Lein (1997) uncovered families who lived in extreme poverty and deprivation, yet demonstrated surprising resilience and creativity in building strategies to help their children overcome poor life conditions. Even with low incomes and the struggles of getting and keeping public assistance, a high proportion of these economically disadvantaged families were able to keep their children in school, live in their own homes, and engage their children in developmentally appropriate activities. A basic assumption of family resilience researchers and practitioners is that, although stressful crises and persistent economic, physical, and social challenges influence the whole family and their capacity to rear their children successfully, key family processes can mediate the impact of these crises and facilitate the development of resilience in individual members and in the family unit as a whole (Walsh, 2003).

A volume of research that uses either a family process or family resilience perspective has now been conducted (Bempechat, 1998; Collignon, Men, & Tan, 2001; Garcia Coll et al., 2002; Kellaghan, Sloane, Alvarez, & Bloom, 1993; Lam, 1997), generating a rich picture of how families of varying socioeconomic backgrounds influence their children’s school lives. We now know that, although lower-SES parents’ work often involves inflexible schedules and long or unpredictable hours, these circumstances are not predictive of less involvement in their children’s education. As Hoover-Dempsey et al. (2005) state:

Socioeconomic status does not generally explain why and how parents become involved in their children’s schooling, nor does it explain why parents in similar or identical SES categories vary substantially in their effectiveness in raising educationally successful children. (p. 114)

Instead, researchers (Davis-Kean & Sexton, 2009; Fan & Chen, 2001; Jeynes, 2010) have found that the particular ways that family members interact with their children are much more powerful predictors of children’s school achievement. For example, Fan and Chen (2001) report that parents’ aspirations and expectations for their children’s educational achievement were much more strongly predictive of their children’s academic achievement than their socioeconomic class. Furthermore, Walberg (1984) reports that 60% of the variance in reading achievement was explained by the particular interactions that family members engaged in with their children, whereas only 25% of the variance in student reading achievement was explained by social class or family structure configuration (e.g., intact or divorced family)

4.2 Using Systems Theory to Understand Family Life

Families have always been recognized as a central influence on children’s emotional well-being and school learning. However, the traditional training of most educators in assessing the functioning of individuals did not give them systematic ways of assessing and working with families (Christenson & Sheridan, 2001). As a result, many researchers looked at only one family member’s functioning to understand children’s achievement, such as a mother’s aspirations for her children or a mother’s beliefs about how they should discipline her children. Lacking an explicit conceptual framework that gave them a wider lens for understanding how families influence their children, educators often fell back into using common stereotypes to describe students’ families, such as “controlling mother,” “neglectful parents,” or “broken home.” Such thinking can result in simplistic explanations for children’s performance and moralistic parent blaming. To correct this situation, many educators are beginning to use family systems theory and ecological systems theory to understand students’ families and their larger life contexts. The central advantage of these theories is that they provide educators with a more explicit and non-blaming lens by which to understand the complex ways that families rear their children and the complex forces that shape families’ interactions with schools.

Family Systems Theory

Family systems theory, developed initially by family therapists who work with troubled families and then expanded to assess healthy family functioning and strengths, is now the major theoretical model used by clinicians and researchers to understand how families function together. It provides a different way of looking at students and their families that moves us beyond describing them exclusively in terms of individual characteristics, such as low-income or two-parent households or authoritarian parents, toward viewing persons as positioned within a context of relationships and interactions with others. Very simply stated, a family is seen as a system defined as “any perceived whole whose elements hang together because they continually affect each other over time and operate toward some common purpose” (Minuchin, Nichols, & Lee, 2007, p. 4). Inherent in this definition are the ideas of wholeness, interdependence, reciprocal influence/punctuation, patterns and rules, adaptation, and organizational complexity.


By wholeness, we mean that any system—whether it be a family, a work organization, or an athletic team—is made up of a set of parts (i.e., family members) and the relationships among them that can be seen as an organic or unitary whole that “hangs together.” This sense of wholeness or unity is created by the way that family members talk about themselves and their life together and define themselves in relationship to others. A family may describe itself as “religious,” “close-knit,” “supportive,” or “strong”—adjectives that might not necessarily apply to every member. Moreover, a family often defines itself by describing who is in the family group and who is not. As a result, family systems theorists tend to describe families in terms of the quality of the boundaries that families establish defining themselves as a group. Do people know who is in or out of the family and who is to be included in family discussions and decision making?

A positive consequence of this sense of wholeness is the experience of unity of purpose and synergy that may develop as family members work together. Have you ever had the experience of working with someone else and realizing that the two of you together can accomplish more than can each of you working individually? When you consider a human system such as a family, the parts or people have importance; however, once these parts become interrelated, they may take on a life greater than their individual existence. In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. For example, history has often documented the collective power of immigrant families to accomplish dramatic improvements in their social position and income through their members’ joint efforts. Think about the accomplishments of your own family or other families you know and try to imagine how differently they would have to act if it were assumed that these accomplishments could only occur if each person acted as an isolated individual. In most cases, you will probably conclude that the group spirit can be a positive force that contributes to your family’s accomplishments.


By interdependence, we mean that the parts of the system are interconnected or interrelated so as to be dependent on each other for proper functioning. The actions of one member trigger reactions in another member, and, over time, patterns of interconnections are developed. For example, think of your own family. All human systems, such as families, develop predictable ways of interacting. Although you may not be aware of it, you have learned to live within a relatively predictable pattern of interaction that characterizes how your family members affect each other over time. Moreover, changes in one part (i.e., a member) of the family result in changes in other parts. Satir (1972), a noted family therapist, said it well when she described a family as a mobile. Picture the mobile that hangs above a child’s crib as having family members instead of animals on it. As events touch one family member, other family members reverberate in relationship to the change in the affected member. Thus, if a member of your family were to flunk out of school, lose their job, marry, or become ill, each of these events would affect the surrounding group of family members to a greater or lesser extent, depending on each person’s current relationship with the specific individual. Each of you may be able to pinpoint major or minor events in your own families that influenced all members of your family in some ways. In Chapter 5, we examine the types of changes that families experience and the impact that these changes can have on the lives of family members.

Reciprocal Influence and Punctuation

When you function as a member of an ongoing system, any single act by you is both a response by you to another member(s) of your system and a stimulus for that member to respond to. Reciprocal influence means that once a cycle of behavior starts, each behavioral act serves to trigger new behavior as well as to respond to previous behaviors. This cyclical quality makes it impossible to determine which behavior is the cause and which is the effect. For example, a mother may punish her son for staying out later than his agreed on curfew by grounding him for a week; the son may stay out later on a subsequent night, triggering the mother to impose an even sterner punishment of grounding for 2 weeks, and the son may come home even later the next night. Punctuation refers to the breaking up of a sequence of behavior in order to give meaning to that behavior. It often involves suggesting, “Things started here.” Interaction sequences, like word sequences, must be punctuated or given a particular meaning or grouped in a certain way to make sense. Thus, previous patterns of behavior may be punctuated or interrupted in various ways. Communication breakdowns may occur when people punctuate the behavior sequences differently, therefore assigning different meanings to the behaviors. For example, the son may say, “Our trouble started when my mother started coming down hard on me for being out with my friends.” Punctuating the cycle this way lays blame on the mother. However, if the mother says, “The family problems began when my son stayed out too late with his friends and disobeyed me,” the son is at fault for the troubles of the family. From a family systems perspective, it becomes less important to decide on a beginning point for the cycle and instead to look at the act as a sequence of patterns and try to understand this ongoing process without needing to say, “Here’s where it really started.”

Patterns and Rules

How do you greet family members in the morning? How do you show affection to family members? How do you resolve family disputes? Although you may not be aware of it, you have learned to live within a relatively predictable pattern of interaction that characterizes your family system. All systems need some regularity and predictability to continue functioning. Patterns govern important aspects of life. Rules are relationship agreements that prescribe and limit family behavior over time. They are limits that shape the nature of the relationships you create with members of your family system. Families have rules that govern all areas of their life together. These patterns and rules you develop for living together reveal the degree of connectedness or interrelatedness that you have established among yourselves as a group.

Feedback and Adaptation

Through a system of feedback, family members develop and then maintain their patterns of relating with each other within a defined range. Yet families also adapt by changing their ways of relating as they face internal and external demands for change. By means of feedback, healthy families change their roles and ways of relating and organizing themselves in response to demands from inside the family or from the environment. Parenting, for example, involves continually adjusting as children change developmentally. Hence, a parent’s style of monitoring their young children would be inappropriate for monitoring their teenager. Moreover, in the face of illness or other family crises, some families are able to adapt their roles and routines, whereas other families become stuck in patterns of operating and relating that no longer work.

Organizational Complexity

Finally, human systems, such as families, are complex organizations. The primary reason for this is the existence of subsystems that form a hierarchy. The system is therefore a series of subsystems that might be viewed as levels of increasing complexity, similar to a set of Russian matryoshka dolls nested within one another. The complexity of the family systems may be seen through the subgroups or subsystems that exist within its boundaries. The family as a unit forms a system made up of of individuals and the relationships between them. Yet each family unit or family system also contains subsystems: (a) a marital subsystem, (b) a parental subsystem, and (c) a sibling subsystem. Each of these subsystems has its own rules, boundaries, functions, and unique characteristics.

The marital subsystem consists of interactions between husband and wife, significant others, or same-sex partners who function as marital partners. Partners interact to decide how to feed, clothe, and provide shelter and companionship to one another. The parental subsystem is composed of interactions between parents (or couples acting as parents) and their children (i.e., mother–child; father–child; mother–father–child). Couples can be biological, step, adoptive, or foster parents. Some stay married to each other; some divorce. Some remarry, others do not. Regardless of how couples come to be parents, they face the joint task of protecting, feeding, teaching, and rearing their children. Not only do parents influence children, but children also influence parents.

The sibling subsystem consists of interactions between brothers and sisters. One of the most obvious interactions relates to socializing; brothers and sisters often provide the first and perhaps the most intense peer relationships that their siblings experience. Through their interactions, brothers and sisters give each other opportunities to experience sharing, companionship, loyalty, rivalry, and other feelings. As with all family relationships, the nature of the sibling bond is rooted in culture. Different cultures have different expectations for siblings, and those expectations often depend on age, birth order, and gender (Minuchin, Nichols, & Lee, 2007).


Who was in your family growing up? What are some of your earliest memories of learning in your family? Think of a time you learned something that was important to you. Who taught you and how? Draw your family tree depicting whom you considered to be members of your immediate family when you were growing up and who was involved in rearing and teaching you and other children in your family.

Ecological Systems Theory

Ecological systems theory applies the idea of systems to interactions among different levels of a system and across different systems. Bronfenbrenner (1979; 2005) hypothesized that developing individuals are active participants located within a variety of systems. These systems, ever changing, constitute the different settings with a potential impact on the developing child. According to ecological systems theory (Bronfenbrenner 1979; 2005), a child’s development is influenced either directly (i.e., through daily routines and interactions that occur in the child’s immediate contexts, such as their family home or their classroom) or indirectly (i.e., through more distant factors with an impact on those routines and interactions). Recall from our brief discussion of this theory in Chapter 2 that a primary idea of ecological systems theory is that every level of the ecological system (e.g., the child’s home or classroom, the caregiver’s workplace, the family’s and school’s neighborhood) is interdependent and interconnected, and thus can influence all other levels of the system. Therefore, persons across each system level influence persons reciprocally at other levels. For example, the way that teachers and other school staff structure their educator–student classroom routines and interactions and their family–school routines and interactions affect what happens in the child’s home, and vice versa. Moreover, larger social and economic policies and resources (considered distant from a child’s everyday experience) also influence the routines and interactions that occur in the child’s immediate contexts of the home and classroom.


Figure 4.1 Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory


Source: Kopp, Claire B., Krakow, Joanne B., The Child: Development in Social Context, © 1982. Reprinted by permission of Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.

Ecological systems theory can be represented visually as a set of concentric circles surrounding the child (Figure 4.1). The immediate interpersonal contexts in which the child interacts (i.e., parent–child, teacher–child, sibling–sibling) make up the microsystem. Adults who nurture and teach children; peers and siblings who play and socialize with them; and settings, such as day care, home, and school, constitute the microsystem. One of the most salient points that Bronfenbrenner makes is that a child’s learning and development are facilitated when the child participates in complex patterns of reciprocal activities with someone with whom the child has a strong and enduring emotional attachment. According to Bronfenbrenner (1979), for the child to have the greatest opportunities to develop, “Somebody has got to be crazy about that kid” (p. 174). However, not only does the caregiver influence the child; the child and his or her characteristics influence the nature of the interaction as well.


The next level of ecological systems theory, the mesosystem, involves interactions and social relationships between and among individuals and settings. For example, mesosystem interactions include those between specific individuals (e.g., a parent and a teacher) and microsystem settings/institutions (e.g., an after-school program and a school). Hence, the social relations in the mesosystem may be at the institutional level (general messages sent out by the school to all families) or individual level (e.g., when a parent and a teacher meet in a conference or talk on the phone). In this way, the mesosystem represents the degree of connection, coordination, and continuity across the child’s microsystem settings.


The exosystem of ecological systems theory provides the context in which events occur that affect the individual child’s immediate environment (e.g., child’s microsystem) and do so indirectly. Settings within the exosystem may include work; church; neighborhood; extended family; or the quality and availability of community health, recreational, or social services. Thus, the exosystem exerts its influence on the child through its impact on individuals and institutions in the child’s microsystem. For example, parents’ workplaces may institute new work schedules that interfere with parents’ ability to read to their child each night, which then affects the child’s literacy achievement.


The macrosystem operates at the broadest level of influence and determines, to a great extent, the resources, opportunities, and constraints present in the lives of children and families. The macrosystem is made up of the cultural beliefs, values, and attitudes that surround family life and children’s development embodied in political systems, social policy, culture, economic trends, and so on. Bronfenbrenner (1979) defines this context as the generalized patterns, overarching ideology, and organization of social institutions common to a particular culture or subculture. Rather than referring to specific ecological contexts, the macrosystem refers to the general patterns of values and beliefs that exist in any culture or subculture. These patterns influence the structure and activities that occur in a particular culture or subculture and include the institutional patterns in which the microsystem, mesosystem, and exosystem are embedded. For example, national policies, such as welfare reform, exert control over parents’ access to economic support and change the conditions under which parents receive that support and the ways that they provide and care for their children. Another example is the dominant cultural practices and belief systems around individual achievement that affect what parents and teachers prioritize and value, and how they organize their daily routines to achieve their goals. Yet another example is the attitudes of educators and the general public regarding providing inclusive educational opportunities for children with disabilities. If a school does not provide inclusive settings, then the child with a disability who attends that school has limited opportunities.


The chronosystem represents the element of time, both in the individual’s life trajectory (i.e., infancy, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood) and historical context (Bron-fenbrenner, 2005). For example, the dramatic increase in the number of dual-income families in the United States in turn affected children’s daily routines and experiences through nonparental care. In Chapter 5, we examine how the family’s and individual’s life trajectory both influences and is influenced by the larger systems context in which they operate (Bronfenbrenner, 2005).


Think for a moment about your family as a system. As you were growing up, do you recall an event or occurrence within your family unit, either positive or negative, that seemed to have a ripple effect on the entire family or several members (e.g., a divorce, death, loss of job, moving)? How did different members of the family react/respond to this event or occurrence? How did this affect you?

4.3 Looking at Key Family System Processes

As a result of the influence of family systems and ecological systems theories, a consistent picture is now emerging from research revealing how the families of successful students interact with their children to prepare them to be successful in school (Fan & Chen, 2001; Hoover-Dempsey et al., 2005; Jeynes, 2010; Murry et al., 2002). From this research, we now know that rather than just perform certain educational tasks at home, effective families create a particular emotional atmosphere in their home that is conducive to children’s school success. And, despite multiple adverse conditions (e.g., socioeconomic disadvantages, urban poverty, community violence, chronic illness, catastrophic life events), these families demonstrate remarkably similar ways of relating to each other that contribute to their children’s academic success (Walsh, 2003).

These ways of relating encompass four interrelated domains: (a) family beliefs and expectations, (b) family patterns of emotional connectedness, (c) family organizational patterns, and (d) family patterns around learning. These four domains, outlined in detail in Figure 4.2, appear to operate in an interrelated fashion. Rather than just one domain being the most influential in shaping children’s school achievement, it is the combination of all four domains that appear to be most influential (Jeynes, 2010). Moreover, although this research on family factors influencing children’s achievement focused primarily on the families of adolescents, similar ways of relating are now being reported by researchers studying families with young children. This research reveals that the ways of relating that families use take slightly different forms depending on the age of the child. Let’s look more closely at each of these aspects of family interaction.

Figure 4.2 Key Family Interactional Processes Contributing to Children’s Academic Success


Source: Amatea, E., Smith-Adcock, S., & Villares, E. (2006). From Family Deficit to Family Strength: Viewing Families’ Contributions to Children’s Learning from a Family Strengths Perspective. Professional School Counseling9 (3), 177–189. Copyright © 2006 by the American School Counseling Association. Reprinted with permission.

4.4 Family Beliefs and Expectations

Family members of academically successful students demonstrate a distinctive pattern of beliefs and expectations characterized by a (a) strong sense of purpose, (b) positive outlook, and (c) high level of personal efficacy (Brody, Flor, & Gibson, 1999; Jackson, 2000; Mandara, 2006; Murry & Brody, 1999).

Sense of Purpose

Parents and other family members, more often than not, influence the behavior of their children in subtle ways. For example, parental expectations for their children’s performance are frequently conveyed more by what parents do in their own lives than in what they say. Researchers report that parents/caregivers of successful students demonstrate a strong sense of purpose in their own lives by setting goals, committing themselves to meeting these goals, and persisting at difficult tasks (Edin & Lein, 1997; Jeynes, 2005; 2007). For example, a review by Fan and Chen (2001) of 25 studies that examined the influence of specific aspects of parent involvement on children’s achievement indicated that parents’ expectations and aspirations for their child’s educational achievement were very strongly correlated with their child’s academic achievement.

Parents also expect their children to set goals for themselves and to work hard to achieve those goals (Clark, 1983; Crosnoe, Mistry, & Elder, 2002; Eccles & Harold, 1996; Snow, Barnes, Chandler, Goodman, & Hemphill, 1991). This expectation for purposeful action is delivered several ways. First, parents frequently talk with their children about future life goals and the necessary steps to getting there, and they encourage their children to dream, to make plans for the future, and to seek a better life. As one mother of a high school student interviewed by Clark (1983) stated:

I told my son to do whatever interests him. I make no decisions for him. I’d be interested in whatever he is. I know in order for him to get a job, whatever it is, he’s gotta be interested in it. I told him I would like for him to go to school but I don’t want him to because of me. I want him to be interested in it because you’re not really going to be a success at anything unless you have your mind to it. So, it’s up to him. (p. 99)

Second, parents frequently use themselves as reference points, repeatedly emphasizing that their children should try to do better in educational and occupational attainment (Brody, Flor, & Gibson, 1999; Frome & Eccles, 1998; Grolnick, Ryan, & Deci, 2000).

One father interviewed depicted this message in his conversations with his teenage son (Clark, 1983):

This is what I’m trying to explain to my son; I want him to succeed. The only way he can do this is to be even smarter than I was because things are getting tougher instead, you know every day things is getting out of reach. And there’s no way I can get him these things with what I make. So I told him he can get them on his own but he’s got to get his schooling finished. So I told him all you can do to survive these days is to have an education. (p. 101)

Third, these parents teach their children from an early age how to set goals and act purposefully by systematically stressing that their children commit themselves to purposeful action. One mother (Amatea, Smith-Adcock, & Villares, 2006) described how she conveyed this message to her children when they were young:

Even when my children were little before they started going to school, I developed the routine that we all needed to get up, get dressed and have breakfast because we had things to do in the morning. It was rare that I let them stay in their pajamas. I wanted them to learn that you have to get up and get going to have a meaningful day. (p. 179)

Another mother illustrated this message of being goal-oriented in her report of her conversations with her teenage children:

I always told my children that you don’t go to school for a love affair, you go to school for an education. And it does not matter whether a teacher likes you or not. You don’t go there to be liked. You go there to get an education. And if you act like a young lady or gentleman you can get the respect of people whether they like you or not. (Clark, 1983, p. 105)

As one can see demonstrated by these quotes, it is not the idea that a mother or father pushes expectations on his or her children, such as, “You must live up to these standards.” Rather, the types of expectations that have the greatest impact are those that are subtle but understood by the child, such as parental sacrifice to save for the child’s college, low-stress communication, and a general agreement between the child and parents on the value of having a productive day or getting a college education (Davis-Kean, 2005). A number of studies (Gonzãlez, Holbein, & Quilter, 2002; Jeynes, 2005; 2007) have confirmed this positive relationship between parental expectations of purposeful action and student’s goal orientation and school achievement.

Positive Outlook

Families of successful students think optimistically about their life circumstances, and they teach their children to think optimistically—viewing adverse circumstances as providing an opportunity to learn. Parents demonstrate confidence that they can surmount adversity by actively mobilizing their thought and resources, and they teach their children these ways of responding. One student talked about her family’s positive response to the birth of a disabled child in the family:

My parents were very open about my sister having Down syndrome. We were taught to believe we were capable, and that she was capable. She wasn’t a special case. People in stores sometimes stared or said stupid things about my sister. But my parents taught us how to be respectful of them and yet be blunt with them in saying what my sister could do. People can change for the better, they’d say. (Turnbull & Turnbull, 2001, p. 211)

Researchers who study the parenting practices of low-income mothers with optimistic outlooks found that these mothers use more supportive and involved parenting practices (Edin & Lein, 1997; Furstenberg et al., 1999). Despite severe financial pressures, those mothers who were optimistic about the future had a greater sense of perceived control, reported fewer psychological and physical symptoms, and engaged in more effective parenting practices, including consistent discipline, monitoring, problem solving, and inductive reasoning (Bugental, Blue, & Cruzcosa, 1989; Murry et al., 2002). Other researchers have also reported that when optimism and collective efficacy are present in low-income families, children perform much better in school and are much more likely to go on to college and improve their life opportunities (Crosnoe, Mistry, & Elder, 2002).

Such a sense of optimism in parents promotes psychological resilience in children as well. Research that explored how parents teach children to be optimistic and how optimism correlates with psychological resilience confirms the power of families to instill psychological resilience (Aspinwall, Richter, & Hoffman, 2001; Seligman, 1991; 1996). Seligman (1991), for example, introduces the concept of learned optimism to depict the process by which people learn how to resist the potentially harmful effects of stressful experiences. He reports a strong relationship between the parents’ level of optimism and that of their children. In summary, families of academically successful children teach their children firsthand about the personal roadblocks they may confront, and strategies for circumventing those roadblocks (Furstenberg et al., 1999; Jackson, 2000; Orthner, Jones-Sampei, & Williamson, 2004).

Sense of Personal Efficacy

Albert Bandura and Walters (1963) formulated a theory of personality development in which they described the social factors contributing to the development of one’s sense of competence or self-efficacy. Bandura claimed that social variables, particularly those active in the home, play a large role in the personality development of children. For example, the manner in which adults communicate with and coach children to respond to challenging life tasks and situations has a dramatic effect on the development of children’s self-efficacy. Families of high-achieving students demonstrate how they help their children develop this proactive stance in responding to life tasks and challenges. Rather than become discouraged and immobilized by stresses and difficult life challenges, family members encourage each other to “rise to the challenge.” They are confident about their ability to succeed. This “can-do” attitude shows itself in several ways. First, parents have positive expectations about their relations with teachers and other members of the community. As a result, parents expect to take an active role in helping their children prepare for schooling. Rather than believe that the school has all of the responsibility for educating children, these parents believe that they should actively work alongside the school in developing their children’s talents. Hence, they expect to engage in home learning activities to help their children gain a general fund of knowledge and to assist them in developing literacy skills needed for school (Izzo, Weiss, Shanahan, & Rodriguez-Brown, 2000). In addition, these parents may visit the school or monitor (and are emotionally supportive of) their children’s involvement in school assignments and other literacy-producing activities (Mandara, 2006).

Second, parents attempt to develop their child’s sense of personal efficacy by actively encouraging the child’s persistence and performance in the face of difficulty or challenge (Murray & Mandara, 2003) in two identifiable ways. First, parents frequently enjoin their children to take charge of their lives. Typical of these efforts was one teenager’s report that his mother always told him, “The world don’t owe you anything. You owe something to yourself. You’re responsible for your own fate. If you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, you don’t have nobody to blame but yourself” (Amatea, Smith-Adcock, & Villares, 2006, p. 181). Another student from a low-income family reported that his mother always told him, “If you don’t get off your butt and go after it, you ain’t never gonna have anything” (Snow et al., 1991, p. 76). Second, parents actively bolster their child’s feelings of self-competence and sense of hope when facing difficult circumstances. As one parent remarked:

So if you’ve got enough personal pride, you go as far as you’re able to go—and then I tell them to go one step further. And that way, you might get what you want out of life. And then if you don’t, at least be big enough to live with what you do have. I used to tell the kids when they were little, if you have to be a bum, then be a good bum. Whatever, you are, be a good one. And then you’re satisfied with yourself. (Snow et al., 1991, p. 79)

Third, parents in these families routinely take time to teach their children how to persevere in the face of difficulty and how to evaluate their personal responsibility for their own circumstances. They often emphasize how to appraise what is possible to change and what is not. When students fail in a task or goal pursuit, parents offer reassurance and consolation. They try to teach the students to place failure in the appropriate context so that self-blame is avoided. Parents routinely reaffirm the student’s self-regard and sense of adequacy (ability) by verbally stressing their self-worth and importance to the family and repeatedly telling them they are deeply cared for. For example, one high school student reported how her mother’s comment, “Don’t ever let anybody tell you they’re better than you, always remember that,” had influenced her. Another student recounted how, when he was complaining about how difficult school was, his parents had told him, “Do your best, and that’s all you can do.”

One mother of three young girls stated:

We try to teach the kids everyone is not good in everything. Where one is good in math and the other in reading or one may be good in history or the other may draw well. Just like Janice and Marie can draw very well. Carla couldn’t even draw a stick doll. She used to say I gave her a “bad” pencil, and the other two had to show her it wasn’t the pencil; it was her ability, you know, but they can’t be good in everything. (Snow et al., 1991, p. 83)

As a result of these practices, students learn how to calm themselves and to tell themselves, “You are all right.” With this orientation, children are able to bounce back from failures and inadequacies and avoid using others as scapegoats for their personal shortcomings. Bempechat’s (1998) research underscores this pivotal role that parents play in encouraging children’s persistence and performance in the face of difficulty and challenge. Investigating parents’ influence on low-income fifth and sixth graders’ attributions for success and failure in mathematics, Bempechat (1998) discovered that not only were poor, minority parents involved in their children’s education, but also high achievers, regardless of their ethnic background, credited success to their innate ability and effort and tended not to blame failure on lack of ability. Hence, we can conclude that parents’ motivational support for children’s learning is crucially important, particularly the subtle messages parents convey about children’s abilities to persevere, in the face of stress or failure, in learning and mastering new skills. Now, reflect on how your own family encouraged you to succeed in school by examining Reflective Exercise 4.3.

REFLECTIVE EXERCISE 4.3 My Family’s Beliefs and Expectations

How did your family interact with you to encourage you to succeed in school? What might be an example of a time they conveyed their belief in your ability to succeed and to make something of yourself when you were struggling at something? Did they teach you to be optimistic or pessimistic in looking at a challenging situation? What impact might these experiences have on you as an educator?

4.5 Family Emotional Climate

Parents’ expectations for their children are conveyed within a particular emotional climate created by the way they interact with their child. Research reveals that young children (Jeynes, 2005) and adolescents (Spera, 2005) whose parents convey warmth, love, and respect for their child’s viewpoint as well as high expectations for their child’s performance tend to have children who are more academically successful. In these families, students view their families as a source of mutual emotional support and connectedness, and family members value spending time with each other to both celebrate good times and provide emotional support, guidance, approval, and reassurance in bad times (Orthner, Jones-Sanpei, & Williamson, 2004; Wiley, Warren, & Montanelli, 2002). In addition, these families engage in open and emotional sharing (Conger & Conger, 2002), clear communication, and collaborative problem solving (Cox & Davis, 1999). As a result, children in these families are taught how to express themselves emotionally, how to calm themselves when stressed, how to resolve conflicts and engage in collaborative problem solving, and how to take responsibility for their own feelings and behavior rather than blame others when experiencing personally demanding situations.

In her classic study, Baumrind (1967) followed a longitudinal sample of children from preschool through adolescence and reported that the parents in her study demonstrated three distinctive styles of parenting that resulted in the development of very different emotional climates for their children: (a) authoritative, (b) permissive, and (c) authoritarian. Later work by Baumrind and others (Scalfani, 2004) resulted in a a refinement of the permissive style to include permissive–indulgent and permissive–neglectful styles as shown in Table 4.1.

TABLE 4.1 Baumrind’s Four Parenting Styles

  Accepting, Responsive Rejecting, Unresponsive

Authoritative parents set firm controls on the behavior of their children and make strong demands for maturity, but are willing to listen to their children’s point of view and even adjust their behavior accordingly. Parents who engage in authoritative parenting exercise control and demonstrate warmth, nurturance, and open parent–child communication. In contrast, permissive parents, although they are responsive to their children, often avoid controlling their children or making demands for them to behave in a particular way. These parents often have unrealistic beliefs about their children’s growth and development and fail to impose limits on them. In contrast, parents who demonstrate an authoritarian parenting style assert their power without warmth, nurturance, or two-way communication. These parents value obedience, respect for authority and preservation of order, and attempt to control and evaluate the behaviors of their children with an absolute set of standards.

Baumrind (1989) investigated the influence of each of these parenting styles on White, middle-class preschool children’s school and home adjustment. She reported that the preschool-age children of authoritative parents tend to be more socially responsible, more independent than other children, and higher in social and cognitive competence. They were also better able to regulate their emotions and behaviors and tended to have good tolerance for frustration as well as the ability to delay gratification. These traits translated into competence and resistance to substance abuse during adolescence, according to a later study (Baumrind, 1991). Authoritative parents took into account their children’s needs as well as their own in dealing with situations. These parents respected their children’s needs to make their own decisions, yet they exerted control. They reasoned with their children and explained things more often than did parents demonstrating the other styles. In contrast, the children of authoritarian parents demonstrated much lower levels of independence and social responsibility. These parents believed that children need restraint and to develop respect for authority, work, and traditional structure. Verbal give-and-take between parent and child was discouraged.

Baumrind (1989; 1991) describes a third pattern, the permissive parenting style, in which parents demonstrate a moderate level of warmth and responsiveness to their children’s needs (i.e., some parents are high and some are low). However, these parents were excessively lax in their expectations for their children’s level of maturity and their tolerance of misbehavior. When socializing their children, permissive parents were usually dismissive and unconcerned. According to Baumrind, permissive parents were tolerant and accepting toward their child’s impulses, used as little punishment as possible, made few demands for mature behavior, and allowed considerable self-regulation by the child. She reported that preschool children of permissive parents were immature, lacked impulse control and self-reliance, and evidenced a lack of social responsibility and independence.

The fourth style of parenting, permissive–neglectful parenting, was added to Baumrind’s typology by Dornbush and Ritter (1992). A permissive–neglectful parenting style is characterized by low levels of parental warmth and responsiveness to children and low levels of parental demandingness. These parents do not routinely “take charge” or manage their children’s activities and are not consistently responsive to their children’s needs and demands. Few predictable role expectations are evident in these families as to how parents and children are to interact with one another. Instead, family patterns of decision making and communication are chaotic and inconsistent.

To examine whether these findings were stable across time, Baumrind (1989) revisited these families during adolescence and examined the relationship between parenting style and school achievement. She found that the parenting styles and their relationship to school outcomes were consistent with the early preschool findings for this group of students and their families. Following Baumrind’s early work, Dornbush and his colleagues conducted a series of studies to explore the influence of parenting styles on adolescent achievement. Using data collected from 7,836 students ages 14 to 17 and 2,996 parents, Dornbush and Ritter (1992) examined how these four parenting styles related to student academic performance in adolescents from diverse ethnic and economic groups. These researchers discovered that low grades were associated with neglectful and, to a lesser extent, permissive and authoritarian parenting styles. In contrast, authoritative parenting was associated with high grades. These patterns were consistent across gender, diverse family structure (i.e., biological two-parent, single-parent, or stepfamily structure), student age, ethnic group, and family social class.

However, several later research studies have shown that the relationship between authoritative parenting and school achievement is not consistent across diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. For example, Baumrind (1989) found that authoritarian parenting, although eliciting fear and compliance in White children, elicited assertiveness in African American females. Several researchers have reported that a firm, “no-nonsense” parenting style was very characteristic of many African American families rearing children living in low SES communities for school success. For example, Young (1970) observed in her ethnographic study of Southern African American families that the use of very firm and vigilant parenting practices was used within emotionally warm relationships. This form of parenting has been associated positively with African American children and adolescents’ self-regulation, academic achievement, and psychological adjustment (Mandara, 2006; Mandara & Murray, 2002; Murry & Brody, 1999). A firm and authoritarian parenting style has also been reported to be characteristic of many Hispanic families and more effective in rearing children living in low SES communities for school success (Murry et al., 2004). However, it appears that this authoritarian parenting style is combined with affection rather than harsh arbitrary control.


As you go about your activities for the day, notice how parents are interacting with their children in the grocery story, mall, library, church, or other locations. What are some differences in how parents appear to be talking to their children? Is it mainly commanding a particular behavior with little discussion or explanation, or is there some discussion or explanation about their expectations and demands of the child?

Providing Emotional Warmth and Belonging

Researchers note that a distinctive characteristic of the families of successful students is the high levels of warmth, affection, and emotional support they express to one another. These families “make time and space” for each other. They sustain emotional connections with each other through promotion of shared family rituals, family celebrations, and spiritual connections and traditions (Crosnoe, Mistry, & Elder, 2002; McCubbin & McCubbin, 1996; Orthner, Jones-Sanpei, & Williamson, 2004). Various researchers have described how the simple family rituals of hair grooming and styling, nail cutting and polishing, bathing and massaging, dancing and singing, storytelling, television watching, grocery shopping and cooking favorite foods, serving and eating meals, and joking sessions as well as family celebrations served as vehicles for family members to share affection and good times, and were also excellent situations for (a) verbally validating the child’s importance as a person; (b) expressing to the child that he or she is loved, appreciated, and understood; and (c) soothing, reassuring, guiding, and protecting the child (Clark, 1983; Wigfield, Eccles, & Rodriguez, 1998; Wiley, Warren, & Montanelli, 2002). In addition, family members regularly offer practical and emotional support during crises periods and provide a reliable support network that reduces anxiety and assists in the resolution of the normal conflicts that all families face. As one 12th-grade student observed:

My parents don’t get tore down when something goes wrong. They stick together. Like if we need something and know we can’t get it, but we really need it, we all stick together. Like when my mother’s purse got stolen. We all stuck together. We really needed that. We didn’t criticize her about what she should have done. Instead, we gave her understanding and let her know that it was not her fault that her purse got stolen. I like my parents because they stick together in times like that. (Snow et al., 1991, p. 89)

Open and Emotional Sharing

Families of successful students have frequent nurturing conversations in which children receive affirming messages about their strengths and uniqueness (Conger & Conger, 2002). In addition, family members show empathy for each other and make themselves available for emotional support and guidance during crises times (Conger & Elder, 1994). For example, one mother (Amatea, Smith-Adcock, & Villares, 2006) reported how bedtime was often a time when her young son would talk to her about matters that were upsetting him:

I started the practice of reading a story to my son every night at bedtime when he was little and we continued the practice of my sitting down on his bed to read a story together or talk about the day’s events all through elementary school. This was usually the time when he would come out with the things that were bothering him…. He seemed to wait till that time of night to get things off his chest… I guess he knew that I had made space and time for him then and he would have my undivided attention. (p. 182)

Moreover, family members view each other as capable, competent, and basically healthy in mind, body, and spirit (Orthner, Jones-Sanpei, & Williamson, 2004; Wiley, Warren, & Montanelli, 2002). Parents recognize and respect the individual strengths of each child, and convey positive verbal and nonverbal (symbolic) evaluations about the child (Clark, 1983; Edin & Lein, 1997; Seccombe, 2002). Another mother described how she attempted to engender feelings of pride in herself and in her children as human beings:

I’m like [nationally known minister] Jesse Jackson. They are somebody. They are people. You don’t run a person down if they make a little mistake or they don’t get a grade as high as what they think they should. You always just encourage them to try just a little bit harder, and let them know they are people, that whatever they do, it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. But if a momma or father is forever telling the kids, “You’re no good” or “You’re dumb” or “You could have done better,” or something like that, they don’t believe they’re somebody. I make them feel that if they don’t do it, they’re letting their own self down, not me. But they have to have a certain amount of pride to want things nice themselves, to want to know a little more than the next person because, you know yourself, you feel good if you think that you are a little smarter than somebody else. (Clark, 1983, p. 34)

As illustrated in this quote, there are a variety of family evaluations that form the self-image that a child perceives, internalizes, and, ultimately, identifies with. This parent conveyed that her child was capable, competent, and basically healthy in mind, body, and spirit.

Clear Communication

Families of successful students also use clear communication in their interactions with each other. Consistency is evident between what is said and what is done. In addition, family members discuss personal fears, stresses, criticisms, complaints, and other feelings with each other rather than censoring such topics from conversation. Moreover, adults attempt to clarify ambiguous situations to children, explaining their own expectations or feelings in terms that children can understand, and encouraging children to express their own fears and feelings and to have a voice in family decision making and problem solving (Conger & Conger, 2002). One middle-school student from a low-income family described how this operated in her family:

In sixth grade I felt I was kind of left out because it was a new school and everything. I didn’t know anybody. I felt scared; it was an altogether new environment, and I just didn’t know how to cope with it. So my parents started asking me about how I felt and really pushing and encouraging me to go. I might or might not have gone to school and they knew this, so they pushed me about going…. My mom helped me get my head together. She said, “Oh, it’s gonna be all right. Don’t be afraid.” So then I went and found that most of the people on this block went to school there, and I got over it. (Snow et al., 1991, p. 132)

Collaborative Problem Solving

A spirit of family togetherness and support is nurtured in the families of successful students through positive communication and shared problem solving and conflict management (Clark, 1990; Conger & Conger, 2002; Cox & Davis, 1999). Even when facing difficult financial circumstances, such families exhibit confidence in their ability to solve problems and to pull together and depend on each other (Edin & Lein, 1997; Orthner, Jones-Sanpei, & Williamson, 2000; Seccombe, 2002). Family relationships are not highly conflictual; instead, parents keep a degree of control and maintain a reasonably cooperative and consensus-based relationship with their children by encouraging a generally pleasant mood in the home, by showing patience, by providing plenty of opportunity for communication, and by sharing decision making while continuing to seek voluntary compliance and avoidance of a direct conflict of wills with their children. One single parent of three teenage girls described this style of family communication and problem solving as follows:

At least twice a month we sit around the kitchen table. I encourage each of my girls to speak about anything or anyone in the household. I let them know that anything they say—positive or negative—is okay. I believe that they need to be able to bring up what they are upset about and not worry about getting punished for it. They need to say whatever is truly on their minds. We try and work it out then and there. (Amatea, Smith-Adcock, & Villares, 2006, p. 182)

Such parents are able to get voluntary compliance with their authority-derived demands by encouraging a generally pleasant mood in the home and never allowing the parent–child bond to deteriorate into irreparable discord and hate. Engaging the child in regular communication rituals and traditions that involve verbal comforting, praising, hugging, kissing, smiling, showing, helping, instructing, questioning, and responsive behaviors accomplishes this. In summary, the emotional connectedness that some families—despite poverty, slum environments, or natural tragedies—can provide for their children turns up repeatedly in studies carried out in various parts of the world as a factor linked to the development of a successful and competent child (Garmezy, 1981). Now, reflect on how your own family expressed affection and support by examining Reflective Exercise 4.5.

REFLECTIVE EXERCISE 4.5 My Family’s Affectional Expression and Support

How did your family show affection and support? What types of activities did your family enjoy together? How did your family support each other during stressful times? How did they teach you to deal with conflict and difference of opinion? What impact might these experiences have on you as an educator?

4.6 Family Organizational Patterns

Academically successful children tend to have families that are clearly organized and in which role relationships of family members are appropriate and well defined. Parents assume an active leadership role in forging a strong caregiver alliance with adults inside and outside the family, in developing cooperative sibling relationships among the children, and in developing a strong social support network with extended family and community members (Conger & Conger, 2002; Edin & Lein, 1997; Furstenberg et al., 1997).

Strong Leadership and Clear Expectations

There are distinctly different role expectations and power differentials for parents and for children in the families of academically successful children (Baldwin, Baldwin, & Cole, 1990; Clark, 1983; Conger & Conger, 2002; Edin & Lein, 1997; Furstenberg et al., 1997). Parents define themselves as having the primary right and responsibility to guide and protect their children’s academic and social development. In addition, a strong alliance is present among those family members who make up the caregiver alliance as to who is in charge and with what responsibilities. Adults, both in the family and outside it, communicate regularly and consistently about their expectations concerning children’s behavior (McCubbin & McCubbin, 1996). There is a low level of conflict between caregivers and between children and caregivers. Instead, children accept their caregivers’ decision-making authority across a diverse array of activity contexts. Researchers (Clark, 1983; Mandara, 2006) who study the home life of low-income African American families with high-achieving and low-achieving students report that, regardless of whether the family was headed by one or two parents, parents in the families of successful students assert their “legitimate right” to set house rules, delegate role responsibilities for each child, and consistently supervise and monitor the children in the performance of these activities. However, parents do this in a way that enlists their children’s voluntary and enthusiastic adherence to the parents’ rules, standards, and expectations for responsible behavior.

In addition, in the families of academically successful children, caregivers delegate responsibility to children. Children may be asked to assume leadership while engaged in home academic tasks, leisure tasks, or household maintenance tasks. However, when asking their children to assume a leadership role, parents carefully organize and clearly explain the children’s roles and functions for particular activities in ways that the child perceives as legitimate, and then provide evaluations about how a role is to be performed. As a result, children feel responsible for their siblings, as depicted by a high school senior who talked about her responsibilities for caring for her younger sister: “My little sister is kind of hard-headed. I have to fuss at her to make her study. I want her to do more than what I’m gonna do. I always want us to get ahead” (Clark, 1983, p. 32).

As a result of sharing leadership roles, children experience the benefits of having older siblings as well as parents serve as mentors and guides in their lives. A high school senior interviewed by Snow et al. (1991) depicted the central role that siblings can play in shaping her academic aspirations and providing her with moral support: “My brother is more than a brother. He’s also a friend and a confidant. If I have a problem it becomes his problem. He’s really helped me get through some rough times in high school” (p. 189). These opportunities for taking on family leadership responsibilities enable the child to develop greater skill in accepting and meeting adult expectations while learning to adjust to a more expansive variety of role responsibilities.

Using a Firm but Friendly Parenting Style

One of the most striking features in the families of successful students is the parents’ supervisory strategy. Parents know where their children are and take a strong hand in structuring the child’s time. They set definite and consistent time and space limits on children’s behavior, both while in and outside of school (Clark, 1983; Crouter et al., 1990; Mandara & Murray, 2002). Children have a routine daily and weekly schedule that includes certain before-school activities, after-school activities, evening activities, and weekend activities throughout their childhood and teenage years. Parents carefully set rules defining “socially acceptable” out-of-home environments and activities for their children based on their perceptions of the quality of the out-of-home environment and their assessment of the child’s level of development or maturity. As one high school senior noted:

My mother is the undisputed boss on the issue of curfew. She simply but firmly insists on a reasonable time I am to be back home. Even now when I am a high school senior, although she gives me more of a voice in negotiating when I can be in at night, she gives final approval to whatever I propose. (Amatea, Smith-Adcock, & Villares, 2006, p. 183)

As their children become older, parents of teenage children adjust their expectations by carefully setting rules defining socially acceptable out-of-home environments and activities for their children. For example, one low-income parent who lives in a Chicago housing project who was interviewed by Clark (1983) spoke about the managerial role over her teenage daughter’s activities which she continued to perform:

There are certain limitations you put on children. You don’t put them out there to be tempted to do anything wrong. It’s stupid for anybody to say, “OK, I trust my child so it can go anywhere it wants to go.” You wouldn’t send a kid, because you trusted him, into a dope den. If you have no guidelines for a child, then you’re not raising the child. You have to have a certain amount of rules and then let the child live within those rules. They’re going to stray from them a certain amount because they’re not gods. They’re not perfect. But they don’t go so far as to make it bad. (p. 37)

Parents’ enforcement of these rules is based on their own perceptions of the quality of the out-of-home environment (e.g., “Is it acceptable to my standards?” “Is there adult supervision?”) and their perception of the child’s level of development or maturity (e.g., “You’re too old for that kind of thing”). Parents expect their children to act in a responsible, self-reliant, and honorable manner when participating in school-related activities, athletic and sport projects, shopping, certain dance parties, and church activities. Sometimes parents believed a child would behave maturely in a questionable setting (e.g., a party with neighborhood punks) but would still refuse permission to go. In these situations, parents were censoring how much of the “bad elements” the child would be exposed to. Hence, a student’s friends, buddies, girlfriends, and associates are also observed and questioned by parents to screen out the “problem children” and “troublemakers” who might have a negative influence on their child. The home environment and parents of these friends are also evaluated, and decisions are made whether to support a continuance of a friendship between the children. Objections by the child were often met with parents’ forceful assertions: “I don’t care if every parent on this block lets their kids do that, you are not going to do it.”

Yet parents also attempt to make these expectations reasonable to their children rather than merely announce them and demand obedience (Brody, Flor, & Gibson, 1999; Mandara & Murray, 2002). First, they explain how their decisions can be justified by fundamentally good ethical standards and by labeling children’s conformity with these decisions as the “good and right” thing to do. Second, when the child is being tutored on certain moral and ethical standards that define correct behavior, parents shower their child with verbal and physical signs of affection, praising the child’s personal worth to the family and providing liberal emotional support. This typically results in the children accepting the ways of the household and committing themselves to behaving in a trustworthy and responsible manner (Clark, 1983; Man-dara & Murray, 2002). This is an example of what Hoffman (1983) terms induction, whereby parents provide explanations (i.e., reasoning) with respect to their actions, values, and disciplinary behaviors. Hoffman suggests that when parents use induction, it encourages children to focus on learning the reasons behind their parents’ actions and to realize the influences and consequences of their behavior on others (e.g., peers, siblings, teachers).

Disputes and conflicts among siblings or parents and children are usually given due process so as to resolve them in a fair and loving way. Parents attempt to “get to the bottom” of conflicts and trace the source of the conflict to the children’s needs. On those times when enforcement of rules is needed to get the children “back in line” with their role responsibilities, parents typically warn the child of impending punishment before they actually mete out the punishment. The two types of warnings that parents use are (a) verbal, such as, “If you keep it up, I’m going to spank you”; and (b) nonverbal, such as using distraction techniques to draw the child away from undesirable experiences or quietly staring at the child with disapproving looks or the “evil eye,” which the child has come to understand as being the precursor of a more direct form of parental confrontation. When parents do use more corrective feedback sanctions, they consist of a temporary withdrawal of privileges, spanking, and face-to-face talks with the child about the behavior in question.

This firm but friendly style of parenting characterized by clear and consistent expectations implemented in a warm and inclusionary style is reported to be associated with high levels of social and academic achievement in children by a variety of different researchers. In summary, parental expectations of their children’s behavior and their style of enforcing those expectations appear to influence children’s academic success strongly. Parents who assume authority over their children and clearly and regularly delineate their standards and rules for their child’s conduct while also attempting to make these standards reasonable to their child tend to raise children who not only understand what to do at home, but also find it easier to understand and follow the instructions and requirements of adults at school. Now, reflect on your family’s childrearing style by examining Reflective Exercise 4.6.

REFLECTIVE EXERCISE 4.6 My Family’s Childrearing Style

Think back to a time you may have misbehaved when you were in elementary school. Was it clear who was responsible for responding to your misbehavior? How did your caregiver respond? How did other adults in your family support your caregiver’s response to your misbehavior?

Creating a Strong Social Network

The families of successful students may develop relationships with staff at their children’s school and show great concern about the school’s effectiveness/success in educating their children (Eccles & Harold, 1996). They may visit the school, even when not invited to do so, ostensibly to check on their child’s progress. They may actively advocate for assessment of their children’s needs and provision of necessary educational opportunities for their child. However, many families from culturally diverse backgrounds do not come to school. These families may believe that the expertise of the school should not be questioned and demonstrate their involvement only in non-school activities. Yet these families may build strong social support networks in their extended family and in their community to help them in rearing their children. In these social networks, other siblings, neighbors, and friends are actively solicited by parents to keep an eye out for their child (Barber & Eccles, 1992; Ensminger & Slusar-cick, 1992). Obviously, the effectiveness of this strategy depends on clear and consistent communication between the parents and these surrogate authority figures (Salem, Zimmerman, & Notaro, 1998). Yet these perceptions of community social support appear to be a powerful source of strength, particularly for low-income families. When the interpersonal connections in a neighborhood are strong, parents are more likely to get their children into organized programs and, in general, to feel safe being part of the community (Conger & Conger, 2002; Furstenberg et al., 1999). Moreover, this sense of safety and belonging significantly enhances parents’ perceptions of efficacy and, in turn, their parenting practices (Jackson, 2000).

4.7 Family Learning Opportunities

The influence of family functioning on academic achievement is most apparent in looking at how families develop particular in-home routines to support their children’s learning. Not only do parents engage in frequent conversations with their children about their current school performance and monitor their children’s performance, but they also organize and delegate tasks and duties in the home to teach specific academic and interpersonal skills (Eccles & Harold, 1996; Sui-Chu & Willms, 1996; Wigfield, Eccles, & Rodriguez, 1998). These activities may not be school educational tasks but instead may involve parents’ instruction of their children through games, reading and storytelling, or other literacy-enhancing activities. In addition, these parents may engage their children in household maintenance and leisure-time activities from which the children learn diligence, independence, and commitment. In each of these types of home learning activities, parents create a positive emotional experience for their children by providing them with frequent verbal support and praise and giving them regular explicit feedback.

Developing Family Routines That Support Achievement

The families of successful students expect to be actively involved in their children’s learning (Eccles & Harold, 1996; Wigfield, Eccles, & Rodriguez, 1998). With younger children, parents often use learning activities that involve sensory simulation, learning by rote, sorting, classifying, and memorizing. To prepare their children for school, parents use specific strategies during home conversations, study encounters, and other activities to help their child learn to speak, read, spell, and solve challenging problems. For example, one parent described the learning activities that she engaged in during her children’s early years:

I played games with them to build their number recognition. For example, I would play cards or dominoes with them to teach them the difference between a 6 and a 4. My daughter learned to just look at a 6 and know it was a 6. She’d look at a 4 and would not have to count. She knew the difference. It helped her catch on to numbers. (Clark, 1983, p. 29)

Another parent recounted her expectations about engaging in learning activities at home during her child’s early years:

It was just something I always did with my kids. The first step was training them for the toilet; the next step was teaching them the alphabet. I was always trying to teach them something; and it was just a habit. But I made it a game we enjoyed together rather than serious teaching. (Clark, 1983, p. 65)

During their children’s older years, parents instead try to discover their interests, encourage learning by doing, and systematically help their children to draw on their past experiences to solve current problems (Clark, 1983; Mandara & Murray, 2002). They expose their children to a wide array of instruction in academic and social skills through a process of discussion, modeling, and feedback. Parents encourage their older children to explore their own intellectual interests and ideas and to explore resources that might expand their learning. For example, parents often talk about showing their upper elementary-age children how to use the dictionary and encyclopedia to find answers to homework questions. These home lessons usually occur spontaneously as children demonstrate a readiness for more complex home learning tasks. Parents also encourage their children to engage in outside activities to expand their vocabulary through listening, speaking, and reading.

In addition, these families offer explicit social skills training to their children in behaving responsibly in both the classroom and the wider community. Parents specifically impart information to the child about how to prepare for the teacher–peer–pupil relationships in the school environment and how to handle themselves in socially complicated situations. Parents also consciously train children in interpersonal diplomacy. Such lessons are often transmitted in a matter-of-fact fashion through dialogues, study sessions, routine verbal labeling of events, and observation of selected television programs with the child. Examples include such statements as, “Look at people and speak your mind when you talk to them,” “Don’t look down or away,” and “Don’t be afraid.” These parents expect their children to interact positively and fairly with others, and they coach them actively in developing these skills.

Finally, in the families of high-achieving students, homework and study are regularly performed, almost ritualistically, and are generally done in the early evening hours (Clark, 1983; Snow et al., 1991). In these families, the student is expected to accept responsibility for completing homework assignments and to devote sufficient time and energy to successfully complete school assignments. Yet the parents believe that it is their responsibility to see that homework gets done and to guide their child’s study efforts until they see that children can operate self-sufficiently. Routine family dialogues are used for parents to not only stress how schooling is important, but also to praise the child’s efforts at homework performance.

Explicit Skill Instruction

Parents of high-achieving students are very conscious of how they design learning opportunities for their children by the way they delegate tasks and duties in the home (Conger & Conger, 2002; Taylor & Dorsey-Gaines, 1988). Obviously, those home activities that have the greatest instructional power are those that become routine and ritualized into the frequent and everyday practice of the family. Such home activities might be divided into two general categories: (a) deliberate activities believed to lead to specific information, knowledge, or academic skills; and (b) activities that family members engage in for enjoyment yet are an occasion for indirect educational instruction. Of course, families differ in terms of which home activities they engage in and with what frequency. They also differ in the degree to which they establish strict specific rules about when and how such activities should occur. For example, parents in one family may insist that beds be made without a wrinkle each morning, whereas another family may only check up on bed making on Saturday, when bed sheets are to be changed. One family may carefully monitor the amount of time spent watching television as well as the nature of the programs their child views, whereas another family may allow their child to determine when and what television programs they watch. Such home tasks provide opportunities for children to practice problem solving and enable children to develop skills for solving challenging classroom problems. The more implicit forms of instruction offered by home maintenance activities and leisure activities are also occasions in which parents teach their children leadership skills, time management, money management and budgeting techniques, reading skills, and troubleshooting and problem solving.

Can you remember some of the things that your parents did to encourage the development of your skills and interests? By means of Reflective Exercise 4.7, describe how your family and other members of the community influenced your learning and schooling.

REFLECTIVE EXERCISE 4.7 Reflections on Me and My Learning

Reflect on your own memories of your education and schooling. Use the following questions to recollect the role of your family in your or your siblings’ education.

1. In the opening of this chapter, one woman commented on an important self-management skill that her father taught her and her sister. What were some important skills that your family taught you? How did your family teach you this skill? As an educator, how do you teach such self-management skills?

2. What important things do you think your caregivers believed they should teach you? How did they teach these things?

3. Who were other members of your family or community who were considered wise? How did they share their knowledge with others?

4. What did you know about reading before you entered school? How did you learn about it? How do you think you learned to read?

5. What are your earliest memories of school? Did school learning seem similar to or different from the kinds of learning you participated in before with your family?

6. How would you describe yourself as a student? What were some of your experiences in school?

7. What do you recall about your family’s involvement in your school experiences? What type of school functions or activities did they participate in? What do you think were the school’s expectations in this regard? Looking back, what do you think about the match between the school’s expectations and your family’s involvement?

8. How were your experiences in school different from those of your sibling(s) and those of your parents or caregivers? If you have spent any time volunteering in a classroom, how do the students’ school experiences differ from your own?

4.8 Strengthening Families’ Capacities to Help Their Children Succeed

But what of those families who do not demonstrate these ways of interacting with their children? Often, teachers are quick to say, “These are not the parents we worry about. How can I get the parents who do not even come to school or seem to care about their children’s learning to act differently?” An important first step in strengthening these families’ efforts to rear children who will be successful in school is to become conscious of the biases and expectations that we may bring to understanding how families influence children and how schools influence families. Educators often have been guilty of making sweeping generalizations about family functioning based on family structure or status explanations. For example, a strong line of research depicts how teachers differentially explain children’s classroom behavior or academic performance based on whether they live in a single-parent or two-parent family (Santrock & Tracy, 1978). Moreover, we often overhear colleagues not only justify a child’s school difficulties based on a structural status that is unalterable (e.g., being poor, belonging to a divorced or single-parent family) but also dismiss a family as hopeless and beyond repair (e.g., they just don’t care; they never come to school; they don’t spend time with their child). A family strengths perspective fundamentally alters this deficit-based perspective. Rather than looking at families as damaged and children as in need of rescuing from hopelessly dysfunctional families, we can choose to see children’s families as competent but challenged by life’s adversities and as having strengths that may be hidden from our view and from theirs. You must consider whether are you ready to view these families in a different way.

Benefits of a Family Strengths Perspective

Use of a family strengths framework has several benefits. First, it can help you think more positively about the role that families play in their children’s schooling and, as a result, help you fortify your relationships with students’ families. Second, it can help you when you are involved in problem solving with families to engage families with respect and compassion for their struggles, to look for and affirm their strengths, and to help them build on their strengths so as to develop those key family processes that contribute to student success. However, using a family strengths perspective is not without its challenges. Schools have not had a history of soliciting families’ involvement for positive reasons. Instead, parents have usually been contacted by the school only at times when their children were experiencing difficulty. As a result, parents across the socioeconomic spectrum expect that any invitation from the school will be bad news about their child. Moreover, parents often view the school problems that their children experience as negative reflections on their parenting skills or as signs of future difficulty for their children, over which they have little or no control. Parents may also be experiencing stress in other areas of their lives and already feel like a failure, to which their child’s difficulty in school represents yet another failure. In addition, some parents may have had bad school experiences themselves and may have mixed feelings about interactions with school officials. As a result, parents often respond defensively to the school’s invitation or demonstrate reluctance about coming to school or seeking special services out of the belief that they will be judged by the school as disturbed or deficient and blamed for their children’s problems.

Scanning for Strengths

This book is designed to help you overcome these perceptual barriers so as to see the strengths existing in many families labeled as deficient, and to change your beliefs about how these families might be engaged in their children’s learning. You will learn about many educators (Amatea, Daniels, Bringman, & Vandiver, 2004; Delgado-Gaitan, 1991; Weiss & Edwards, 1992) who are redesigning their common family–school routines so as both to recognize families’ contribution to their children’s learning and to increase families’ opportunities to foster such learning. These educators, rather than simply trying to get parents involved, actively search for opportunities for parents and students to interact with them in ways that use the family’s strengths in their children’s planning, decision making, problem solving, and learning. As a result, these educators embed a collaborative focus into a variety of different school events (e.g., orientations, classroom instruction, homework routines, celebrations, presentations of new curriculum, transitions to new grade levels and programs, procedures for home–school communication, for resolving difficulties). For example, in one school, students are taught to conduct student-led parent conferences in lieu of the traditional parent–teacher conference in which the teacher is central and the student is usually not in attendance. In this student-led conference format, students share their school progress (academic and behavioral) and develop a plan together with their parents for how they can move forward. This new format demonstrates an approach to cooperative planning and problem solving in which students and parents are encouraged to communicate in a respectful and cooperative manner (Amatea, Daniels, Bringman, & Vandiver, 2004).

Such non-problem-oriented interactions can also aid in the identification of those families whose children are struggling in school or dealing with other problems that have a negative impact their children’s learning. In interacting with these families, educators should first focus on identifying those strengths, resources, and abilities the family is already demonstrating and guide the family in using these resources for change in resolving a student’s problem, and then help the family develop additional strengths, resources, and abilities to apply to the problem situation (Amatea, Smith-Adcock, & Villares, 2006). In the following section, strategies that educators might use to strengthen particular family processes further are described.

Family Beliefs.

Rather than judge some families “Effective” and others “Flawed and Deficient” in their manner of parenting their children, it is more useful to attempt to understand families in terms of the stressful life conditions they operate in, the style of parenting and family–school interaction that they have learned from their own families, and the ways of handling stress that they develop. Family members must be viewed as intending to do their best for their children and for one another and as doing the best they know how to do. Parents also must be viewed as experts on their children. To counter parents’ fears that they are being summoned to the school to be told what they are doing wrong, Nicoll (1997) recommends educators carefully shape the tone of parent–school interaction so that a no-fault perspective is conveyed in which staff operate with the assumption that “No one is to blame, but everyone is responsible.”

One way to foster parents’ sense of efficacy in rearing their children is by helping them make sense out of stressful and challenging situations involving their children or their larger life context. To eliminate helplessness around these stressful events and to build mutual support and empathy, an educator should first encourage families to share these stories of adversity openly and without judgment. To facilitate a positive outlook and provide a sense of purpose or value, teachers might choose to reframe these difficult situations as shared challenges that are comprehensible, manageable, and adaptable. For example, when a family is experiencing divorce, children may act out at school. The custodial parent may be unsure how to manage their children’s emotional reactions and behavior and may be ashamed of their divorce. Often it is helpful to hear what the parent is experiencing, and to affirm the parent’s concerns and commitment to their children and to acknowledge the strengths they do have before discussing new ways to respond to their children’s increased emotionality.

Drawing out and affirming family strengths in the midst of difficulties helps to counter a sense of helplessness, failure, and despair and reinforces parental pride, confidence, and a can-do spirit. Furthermore, contextualizing family members’ distress as natural or understandable in a crisis or stressful situation can soften family members’ reactions and reduce blame, shame, and guilt. In evaluating family strengths, parents’ beliefs and styles of childrearing and child management are of particular interest to educators. Examining parents’ beliefs allows us to understand the motivation underlying their behavior. These ongoing conversations may reveal how the parent interacts with their child and whether a parent believes that she or he is an important and capable facilitator for her/his children’s school success. If parents report low parenting efficacy, the teacher can identify strengths unseen by parents and suggest ways that parents already help their children. By ascertaining the parent’s beliefs about their own efficacy, a teacher can redirect or highlight parenting behaviors that promote children learning at home. In addition, teachers can bolster families’ efforts to persevere in their efforts to overcome barriers and to focus their efforts on setting goals and accepting that which is beyond their control. Seefeldt, Denton, Galper, and Younoszai (1998) report that parents’ beliefs about their perceived control over their child’s learning was an important mediator between participating in Head Start transition demonstration projects and parents’ involvement during the kindergarten year. In this ethnically diverse sample, parental beliefs about perceived control were more strongly correlated with increases in parents’ active involvement in their children’s classrooms than participation in a transition program.

Family Emotional Connectedness.

How might teachers create opportunities for enhancing the emotional connections among students and their families as well as between themselves and families? At first glance, this family intervention focus is not usually considered the domain of the school. However, family scholars (Epstein, 1995; Jeynes, 2010) are now urging educators to consider how they might create a more loving and supportive environment in their family–school relationships. As Jeynes (2010) notes:

Parents still tend to view their children as their jewels and regard sending their children to school—to a teacher who is usually a stranger—as an act of trust. Therefore, few things will more inspire parents to become involved in educating their children than a belief that the teacher and the school staff love their child. Ultimately, if parents believe that this is the state of affairs, then they will trust and cooperate with the teacher. (p. 757)

Moreover, if parents are treated with respect and kindness, they are more likely to demonstrate care and concern for their child. Creating school events or activities in which family members have opportunities to listen and share their ideas and feelings with each other is another means of changing the emotional climate of the home. Using existing classroom-based programs to model effective listening, communication, and problem solving, provide opportunities for students and parents to work together toward educational and social goals for their child and encourage parents to share their hopes and fears concerning their child’s education. For example, student-led conferences (Amatea, Daniels, Bringman, & Vandiver, 2004), which we describe in Chapter 10, have been shown to be a powerful means for helping parents and children make time and space to talk with each other about school and thus promote such family connectedness.

Exploration of the feelings that parents have for their children’s education might be one of the greatest untapped strategies that teachers might use. Teachers can join with parents; help them share their dreams with their children, and then help them garner the resources needed to meet their educational expectations. Some specific questions that showcase a family’s strengths include the following:

■ What are some of the most successful experiences your family has had in school?

■ Does your family talk about (your child’s) future?

■ How do you get through difficulties in (your child’s) schooling?

■ What would you like your family to be like in 5 years or 10 years? (See Echevarria-Doan, 2001.)

Walsh (2003) emphasizes the need to examine what families do well, what works for them, and what their “healthy intentions” are. When parents are given an opportunity to explore their connections to their children and positive expectations for their future, a valuable resource emerges for intervening with them.

Family Organizational Patterns.

Most parents learn how to parent from their own families and may unthinkingly use the same style of parenting with their own children to which they were subjected as children. For example, many parents use an authoritarian parenting style—characterized by a high level of demandingness and a low level of warmth—because that is what their parents used with them. They may be unaware of the consistent research finding that an authoritative style—depicting both high levels of demandingness and high levels of warmth—is more effective in preparing children to be successful in school than other styles of parenting.

To help authoritarian parents move toward a more authoritative style in which they consider the child’s perspective in responding (rather than their usual style of demanding obedience), teachers might acknowledge that although their parenting style has the strength of predictable and consistent standards, for children to internalize those standards (such that they follow them even when parents are not around), it helps to explain one’s standards/demands so that the child understands the reasons for a parent’s disciplinary response (rather than just arbitrarily announcing and enforcing a standard/ expectation). In this manner, teachers affirm authoritarian parents as having strengths in terms of the degree of demandingness they demonstrate in their current style while also encouraging these parents to strengthen the warmth aspect of their parenting.

To help permissive–indulgent parents develop a more authoritative style, such parents must understand the benefits to a child of making a particular demand of them (as well as how to implement such demands). We have found that permissive parents often fear that making a demand for a particular behavior from their child will alienate the child or hamper the child’s development unnecessarily. It is often useful with such parents to first underscore the unanticipated negative consequences for the child of not learning when they must accommodate to the reasonable demands of authorities (e.g., child is confused as to what is expected of him or her, child is confused as to who is the leader in the family, child experiences conflict with other adults who expect him or her to follow their leadership). Next, it is necessary to associate positive consequences that result from the parent insisting that the child obey the parents’ demands (e.g., child clearly understands what is expected and experiences doing it successfully, thereby experiencing social competence; child experiences receiving leadership from adults).

By means of helping parents learn how to develop more flexible parenting styles, share leadership, and foster mutual support and teamwork, parents can be assisted in navigating many challenges, including structural changes as with the loss of a parent or with post-divorce and stepfamily reconfiguration. Myths of the ideal family can compound families’ sense of deficiency and make their transition more difficult. When families experience instability, these disorienting changes can be counterbalanced by means of coaching parents to develop organizational strategies and behaviors that reflect strong leadership, security, and dependability. Such organizational strategies can reassure children when the family is undergoing change.

Families can also become more resourceful when interventions shift to a proactive stance of anticipating and preparing for the future. Efforts that are future-focused and that help families “bounce forward” (Walsh, 2003, p. 203) help families learn how to be proactive, to envision a better future and take concrete steps toward their hopes and dreams. Helping families maximize their control over the amount, timing, and methods of support, resources, and services can be an important first step in reaching their goals. It is always useful to include families in decisions versus make decisions for them. Some families are capable of “struggling well”—that is, even when faced with difficult choices and decisions, they find a way to success (Walsh, 2003). One of the goals of a family resilience approach is to help a family identify what their resources are and how they currently use them. Although some families do this naturally and effectively without intervention, many families can adapt and begin to struggle well and become more able to recognize and capitalize on their available resources through recommendation of seeking family counseling.

Family Learning Opportunities.

Creating family learning opportunities may be one of the most time-consuming tasks for parents and thus represents a challenge for educators. However, this is also the family process that is most structured and task-oriented. Teachers can provide families with information about what they can do at home to foster their children’s academic development. These may be ideas about how to help their child complete homework successfully and avoid procrastination or how to help their child resolve conflicts. However, the way such information is framed is crucial to its utilization. These suggestions should not be intended to make the home like a replica of the school. For example, in many low-income families, if parents are working long hours, it may be difficult for them to spend a lot of time supervising the homework activities of their children. However, from a resilience approach, limited time for homework activities is not necessarily a liability. Each family can structure activities according to their own strengths and resources. In addition, not only must families be recognized and responded to as experts on their own children, but also as a source of knowledge about strategies and resources for helping their children. Developing parent information networks (which capitalize on what other families know), formally acknowledging the expertise of families, and soliciting feedback from families about their reactions to school events are important conditions for building a families’ capacity to develop learning opportunities for their children.


The shift in family research perspectives to looking at the internal processes of family life refocuses a longstanding overemphasis on deficits inherent in much of the early family–school research and practice. This family process perspective challenges the outdated assumption that the family is the exclusive cause of a child’s educational or mental health problems. As a result, educators are now being invited to shift their attention from looking at family status and deficits (i.e., what families are not doing correctly) to looking for family strengths and resiliencies that can be used to facilitate children’s learning. Four aspects of family life are described that have been strongly tied to student academic achievement: (a) family beliefs and expectations, (b) family patterns of emotional connectedness, (c) family organizational patterns, and (d) family patterns around learning.

To understand how these aspects of family life influence students’ academic achievement, we describe how teachers might use this family strengths framework to first assess their own family’s functioning and then to apply it to all families regardless of their economic and social resources. Finally, we offer suggestions for how educators might help families further develop their ways of supporting their children’s learning.

Activities and Questions

1. Thinking about diverse family forms and compositions, have you ever heard anyone make a negative comment about a particular family form or family structure? If so, what was it? How did it affect you?

2. If you recall in Chapter 3, one of the key skills to building strong relationships with students’ families is being aware of our own attitudes and personal reactions to the caregivers and families with whom we work. How will your experiences affect, both positively and negatively, the way you interact with your students’ families? What strengths/experiences do you have that will enhance your interaction with families? What stereotypes/barriers do you foresee hindering your interactions? 3. A key skill we describe in Chapter 3 is that of understanding and valuing family strengths. What are/were some of your family’s strengths? How did these strengths affect or benefit you growing up in your family unit? What might be the benefits of having a strengths perspective?


National Council of Family Relations 33989 Central Avenue, NE, Suite 550 Minneapolis, MN 55421 Phone: 612-781-9331

The National Council on Family Relations (NCFR) is a professional association for family life educators, counselors, and researchers. Its purpose it to increase education, understanding, and research related to family life.

National Parent Information Network

The National Parent Information Network (NPIN) offers research-based information about the process of parenting and family involvement in education. It has numerous links to other sites related to education.

CHAPTER 5 Understanding Family Stress and Change

Silvia Echevarria-Doan, Heather Hanney Rask, and Daniella Porter


Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you will be able to:

■ Describe the diverse forms or structures in which families might organize themselves.

■ Explain what is meant by family life-cycle stages and transitions.

■ Describe important non-normative transitions that families might experience.

■ Explain the impacts made on families by normative or non-normative family transitions.

■ Describe how families might respond to stress and crises.

■ Describe roles that educators might take so as not to increase the stress felt by families who experience transition and change.

In today’s world, the modern family may consist of multiple forms, generations, races, cultures, and religions. A family may be headed by two parents, grandparents, or by a single parent. It may have the luxury of financial freedom or may be struggling to make ends meet. Although the typical 1950s-style family with a breadwinner father and a stay-at-home mother was once considered the norm, this family type reflects the living arrangements for only 43% of two-parent households in the United States (U.S. Department of Labor, 2007). Moreover, two-parent households represent only 66% of all U.S. families raising children ( Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2011 ). Whatever the family structure and circumstances, each family goes through times of stress and change that include both normative and non-normative events. The ways in which families confront these events are indicative of their resiliency and, in turn, suggest the impact on each individual family member’s emotional stability.

Acknowledgment of a student’s family situation gains even greater significance when teachers look toward greater family involvement in their students’ education. Although numerous studies document the positive outcomes of active participation by family members in children’s education, many educators are beginning to recognize that expecting caregivers to demonstrate greater involvement than they are capable of may have negative effects on both the student and the family. We believe that deciding to collaborate with families requires that we commit ourselves to learning more about the families of our students—their values, daily demands, stressful circumstances, and resources—and their impact on their children’s lives. Only by doing so can we appreciate what our students and their families are dealing with, support them in their efforts to function effectively, and foster a level of educational participation that is both realistic and comfortable for a given family.

In this chapter, we first introduce you to three families who serve as illustrative examples of families you might be involved with as teachers and school staff. For the sake of variety in terms of age, we include families with children of preschool age, school age, and in high school. Besides these three families, we may also interject examples of other family situations that exemplify certain points. We also examine the diversity of family forms and structures depicted by today’s families and make use of family life-cycle theory to describe two types of family changes that most families experience: (a) developmental, normative changes; and (b) unpredictable, non-normative changes. We explore how these changes affect family relationships and functioning, which, in turn, affect student performance in the classroom. We then examine the various resources that families use to interpret and cope with stressful events. Finally, we consider the role that educators might play in helping families who experience such stressful life changes.

5.1 Meet the Families

Within the typical classroom, children behave very differently from one another. Sometimes a teacher’s natural reaction is to categorize each child based on that behavior. For example, a child who often disobeys the class rules or does not turn in work on time may be labeled “disruptive,” “uncooperative,” or “difficult.” In contrast, a child who is always quiet and earns high grades may be labeled “successful,” “well behaved,” or “good.” We create these labels without truly examining what the behavior might reflect. Rather than taking a child’s behavior in the classroom at face value, teachers can benefit from looking deeper into each child’s situation to discover the impacts that family circumstances and other related matters have on their behavior. Consider the following family situations.



Harold Miller is a student in your multiage 3- to 5-year-olds preschool classroom. He is an extremely intelligent 4-year-old and has been a student at your school since he was 2 years old. Harold’s father is an engineering professor at the local university and his mother is a stay-at-home mom. The family members are White and of Jewish descent. Harold has one sister who is 9 months old and she stays home with their mother while Harold is at school. Over the years that he has been at your school, you and other teachers have addressed concerns with Harold’s parents about his social development as well as some behavioral issues. Recently, you were able to help his parents make the decision to get Harold assessed by a school psychologist. The results revealed that Harold has Asperger’s Syndrome, an Autism Spectrum Disorder.



James Madsen-Walker is a 12-year-old student in your 7th-grade class. About 2 months ago, James mentioned that he wanted to “end it all.” As you probed a bit further, he told you about his parents’ separation and some teasing and taunting from other kids in school about his size. As you thought about this, you could see how this seemed to fit with his recent drop in grades and incidents of reactive angry outbursts toward others. After some discussion with his parents and the school counselor, James was hospitalized for 72 hours for psychiatric evaluation and care. James lives with his mother, Selma Madsen, age 38, and 5-year-old brother Timothy. His dad, Stan Walker, age 39, moved out of the home 3 months ago and is living with his girlfriend in a neighboring city about 40 miles away. His mother holds a very responsible administrative assistant position in city government and his dad is an unemployed insurance auditor. The family is African American.



Michael Yang is a student in your 11th-grade Language Arts class. Michael was born and raised in this town, but he has told you that his parents moved here from Singapore several years before he was born. Michael has two siblings, an older sister, Mie, and a younger brother, Mark. You have learned from other teachers that Michael’s father is often away from home because of his job and his mother speaks very little English. Michael is a hard-working student who excels in his classes but socially keeps to himself and has few friends. He has aspirations to go to college but is unsure of how he and his family will pay for it. Michael’s parents did not attend open house at the school, and because he takes the bus each day, you have yet to meet his parents.

Now reflect on your initial expectations about these families by means of Reflective Exercise 5.1.

REFLECTIVE EXERCISE 5.1 My Assumptions and Expectations about Families

What are your initial reactions to the descriptions of the families? Which family would you expect to provide the most assistance in your classroom? Which family would you expect not to attend various school events? How do you think your expectations of these families will affect your interactions with them throughout the year? Were any of your answers to the previous questions influenced by your thoughts about the family’s race, ethnicity, family structure, or assumed socioeconomic status?

5.2 Diverse Family Forms

Throughout history there has been a multiplicity of ways that families have structured themselves, including traditional nuclear families, single-parent families, gay and lesbian families, blended families, multigenerational families, and adoptive families. In contemporary U.S. society, it is not the configurations of the family that are new but the changes in the number of such family configurations. For example, although single-parent households are not new, the number of such families has doubled since the early 1980s. Other changes include the increased incidence of mothers in two-parent families who are working while their children are young, the increased age of first-time parents, and the increased role of fathers in parenting.

According to data collected in 2010 by the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics (2011), of U.S. children 0–17 years of age, 66% lived with two parents (down from 77% in 1980), 23% lived with single mothers, 3% lived with single fathers, and 4% lived with neither parent (e.g., lived with grandparents, foster parents, other relatives, nonrelatives). Four percent of all children lived with two unmarried parents in 2010, and 75% of White, non-Hispanic children, 61% of Hispanic children, and 35% of Black children lived with two married parents (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2011).

Another very important change that must be noted since our first edition is the impact of our recent economic recession on children and their families. This is most obvious in the increasing number of children living in poverty. Data from the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics (2011) indicates that 21% of all children ages 0–17 (15.5 million) lived in poverty in 2009. This is up from 16% in 2000 and 2001, 18% in 2007, and 19% in 2008.

Among all children, the poverty rate is three times higher for Black children and nearly three times higher for Hispanic children, compared with the poverty rate for White, non-Hispanic children. In 2009, 36% of Black children, 33% of Hispanic children, and 12% of White, non-Hispanic children lived in poverty. These were increases from 35%, 29%, and 10%, respectively, since 2007 (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2011).

The effects of poverty on families have also affected family structures, as many families have had to move in with relatives or nonrelatives in order to weather their misfortune with unemployment, home foreclosures, and so forth. Not surprisingly, this has caused an increase in the number of intergenrational and multigenerational households in the United States (discussed in more detail later in this section of the chapter). Let’s look more closely at the characteristics of the possible family forms or structures in which children may live.

Traditional Nuclear Families

Generally, the traditional nuclear family refers to a father, mother, and their children in an intact first family, with mom staying at home to care for the children and household and dad working outside the home. In our changing and diverse world, this may not be representative of most of the families we encounter, or like the one that we are a part of daily, and it is only one small part of the history of American families. Yet for many, it is often the type of family that is idealized as the norm. The term nuclear family is considered limited and outdated. McGoldrick, Carter, and Garcia-Preto (2011) prefer to use the term immediate family, which they believe to be more inclusive of “household members, other primary caretakers, or siblings of children (regardless of family composition), whether in a heterosexual couple, single-parent, unmarried, remarried, gay, or lesbian household” (p. xxiv).

Traditional has generally referred to two types of families and two eras in history: the extended families of pre-industrial America and the nuclear families of the postwar 1950s (Walsh, 2003). In the 1950s and 1960s, nuclear families were depicted on TV in shows like Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best in which the Cleavers and the Andersons (respectively) were suburban, middle-class, and White. The father was the head of the household and had a white-collar job, and mom stayed at home and took care of the family and household. Even though this did not apply to the vast majority of American families in that era either, it became the image of the 1950s family for generations. It may have been the “ideal American family” depicted in the media, but it was neither typical nor traditional. Although this family structure may very well work for some, it is problematic when the traditional nuclear family is held as the standard for healthy families. This only pathologizes or stigmatizes others that do not conform to this particular family form, like dual-career, single-parent, same-sex, adoptive, or stepparents who may be viewed as deficient because they are thought of as less capable or not as valued as “natural” or “real” parents might be (Walsh, 2006).

Our thoughts about the traditional family are best captured by Ball (2002):

The concept of the traditional family, that is, the ‘natural reproductive unit’ of mom, pop, and the children all living under one roof, is not an immutable one. It is a social construct that varies from culture to culture and, over time, the definition changes within a culture. (p. 68)

Statistics show that in 2010, 23% of married-couple family groups with children younger than 15 had a stay-at-home mother, up from 21% in 2000. In 2007, before the recession, stay-at-home mothers were found in 24% of married-couple family groups with children younger than 15. The percentage of children younger than 18 living with two married parents declined to 66% in 2010, down from 69% in 2000, and from 77% in 1980 (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2011). More important, there is abundant research indicating that children can be raised in a number of family arrangements—in multiple, varied structures wherein effective family processes and the quality of relationships are what matter most when it comes to the well-being of children (Amato & Fowler, 2002, as cited in Walsh, 2006, p. 32).

Blended Families

The latest U.S. Census (2010) data reveals that about half of first marriages are destined to end in divorce. At least 70% of divorced people remarry within 5 years of their divorce, and many of these remarried couples bring children from previous marriages into their new union to form a blended family (a term preferred to the older one of stepfamily). As a result, 16% of children in the United States live with one stepparent and one birth parent (U.S. Department of Commerce, 2009). The successful adaptation of children to blended family relationships can be quite challenging, especially because of the quality of the stepparent–child relationship. In addition, issues of jealousy can be a major source of tension in these families that can spill over into school. Furthermore, school staff must often interact with a wider variety of adults who may have differing levels of power to make decisions about the child’s welfare. For example, a parent–teacher conference might involve a mother, a father, and a stepmother—each committed to developing strategies to help their child.


In our example of the Madsen-Walker family, we can see how the parents’ separation and dad’s sudden live-in relationship with his girlfriend, Patty, brought up a number of remarried/blended family issues that James was trying to understand and deal with. Following James’ hospitalization, both individual and family therapy were ordered. With the family’s consent, you were able to stay informed as his teacher, and found out that one of the major difficulties for James was visiting his dad at Patty’s house where he lived. James was reluctant to establish any kind of relationship with his dad’s girlfriend or her children (who he had actually enjoyed spending some time with). James believed that any sign of acceptance of Patty or a relationship with her might be construed as acceptance of his dad’s choice to leave their home. More important, he believed this would be disloyal and hurtful to his mother. James was concerned about his mother’s well-being and tried to do everything he could to avoid causing her any more emotional hurt and pain—quite a bind for any child this age. The adults realized that it was up to them to assume responsibility for the children’s adjustment to the whole situation. In so doing, they lowered their expectations of the children and dealt with their own issues regarding the dissolution of the marriage. This helped in slowing down the process of developing new relationships, as they reestablished new roles and rules in both households. However, what really seemed to help James the most was his father’s willingness to answer questions that James had as things moved along, rather than being avoidant and closed off to conversations. Once things settled down emotionally in both homes, James’s grades and behavior in school improved substantially.

Single-Parent Families

Single-parent families include children and an adult who is divorced, never married, or one who has experienced the death of a spouse. Although there are a growing number of such families headed by men, women most often head single-parent families. Between 1970 and the late 1990s, the number of women who raised children alone increased from 3.4 million to approximately 10 million (Tutwiler, 2005). In the past, children from single-parent families were described as coming from “broken homes.” Single parents continue to be evaluated as less capable in meeting the needs of their children in comparison to two-parent families. In fact, living in a single-parent home has often been identified as a key characteristic of children at risk for failure in school settings. A growing body of research suggests, however, that the impact of limited economic opportunities of the parent or family—not the families’ characteristics—determine the ability of single parents to run their household and raise their children. In 2009, 44% of all families who lived below the poverty level were single-parent families headed by women (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2011). According to Tutwiler (2005), “Nearly half of female-headed families live below the poverty line, making them disadvantaged in terms of housing, health, and other family support resources many two-parent families are able to purchase” (p. 40). As a result, being a single parent can be quite stressful because the lack of financial resources influences the parent’s ability to purchase adequate housing, health insurance, childcare, food, and clothing for the children.

Gay and Lesbian Families

An estimated 3.5% of the total U.S. adult population identify themselves as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB), and 0.3% are transgender (Gates, 2011). More than 270,000 children were living in households headed by same-sex couples in 2005 (Romero, Baumle, Badgett, & Gates, 2007). Children enter gay families in many different ways; some may be adopted or born to a heterosexual union before a divorce. In some cases, lesbians may choose to become parents through surrogate parenting, foster parenting, or through artificial insemination with an unknown or known donor.

Opinions vary about the impact of gay and lesbian parenting on children. Two comprehensive reviews of research conducted since the early 1990s came to the same conclusion that children raised by gay and lesbian parents do not differ significantly from children raised by heterosexual parents, with respect to their gender roles and social and emotional development (Fitzgerald, 1999; Tasker, 1999). Although acceptance of gay, lesbian, and transgendered lifestyles has increased, prejudice and discrimination persist. Same-sex couples continue to be stigmatized and often face legal and moral challenges in their desire to become parents.

Many gay and lesbian parents worry about the reaction of school personnel to them and their children. Two research reports point to the great likelihood that these children will experience stigma, bullying, and societal discrimination. Australian researchers interviewed more than 100 gay and lesbian parents and 48 children and youth with gay or lesbian parents (Ray & Gregory, 2001). Their findings document the societal discrimination that these parents and students faced; 73% of the parents said their most common concern was whether their children would be teased and bullied. In addition, 62% were concerned that there would be no discussion in the preschool or school curriculum about gay and lesbian families, and slightly more than half of the parents worried that their children would have to answer difficult questions. The actual experiences reported by children in this study were particularly worrisome. Bullying was a major problem reported by almost half of the students in grades 3 through 6. In addition, the bullying that usually started around third grade became progressively harsher as students moved into middle and high schools. Educators must be aware of their personal views and how they may hinder their ability to establish strong working relationships with these families or to create respectful school environments for students who have gay and lesbian parents (Lamme & Lamme, 2003).

Intergenerational and Multigenerational Families

An increasing number of grandparents are raising children in their homes. This family structure may be intergenerational and consist of grandparents and grandchildren or a multigenerational family that includes grandparents, adult children, and grandchildren. In a Pew Research Center Report (2010), it was determined that as of 2008, a record 49 million Americans, or 16.1% of the total U.S. population, lived in a family household that contained at least two adult generations or a grandparent and at least one other generation. Research analysis revealed that more than 5%, or 2.6 million, more Americans were living in multigenerational households in 2008 than in 2007. Most of this sudden upward spike was primarily attributed to the recession and economic struggles that families were experiencing, but also related to a rising population of immigrants since 1980. Families living in multigenerational homes were at the highest point in 50 years in 2008. From an ethnic/racial perspective,

Hispanics (22%), blacks (23%) and Asians (25%) are all significantly more likely than whites (13%) to live in a multi-generational family household. The rates of three of these four groups have increased significantly since 1980, with the exception of Black families. However, the rates of all four groups have gone up from 2006 to 2008—a time when the recession brought on a wave of joblessness and foreclosures. (Pew Research Center, 2010, pp. 7–8)

Grandparents generally become the primary caretakers as a result of the death of a parent, divorce, parental substance abuse, or when children are abandoned. Grandparents may also assume the role of parents for children born to teenage parents, as well as for children born to parents who are chronically ill, incarcerated, substance abusers, or parents who engage in child neglect or abuse. Although grandparents may be willing to take on this responsibility, the financial and psychological demands may exceed their existing resources. Researchers have reported that children in the care of grandparents are often exceptionally needy as a result of a combination of congenital and environmental factors. Many grandparented children have experienced abuse and neglect as a result of living with a drug-involved or otherwise poorly functioning parent (Dannison, Smith, & Nieuwenhuis, 2007). As a result, grandparented children deal with many troubling emotions, including grief and loss, guilt, fear, embarrassment, and anger (Dannison, Smith, & Nieuwenhuis, 2007).

Grandparents who are raising grandchildren span all ethnic groups and all social and economic levels. In addition, over half of custodial grandparents are caring for two or more young children, and approximately half are grandmothers without partners. Thirty percent of children in grandparent-headed homes are living with grandparents who have not received a high school diploma, whereas only 12% of children who live with parents have parents without a high school diploma (Dannison, Smith, & Nieuwenhuis, 2007). As a result, teachers must be sensitive to the possible vulnerability of these children and needs for additional family supports.

Adoptive and Foster Families

Some couples or single adults create families with children through adoption or foster care. As of 2008, approximately 2.5% of U.S. children had joined their families through adoption, including adoptions from foster care, private domestic adoptions, international adoptions, and stepparent adoptions. Sixty-seven percent of international adoptions and 59% of private domestic adoptions occurred before the child was age 2, compared with only 28% of foster care adoptions (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2011). Adoptive or foster care families occur in a number of forms, ranging from single female- or male-headed families to those headed by a heterosexual or a gay or lesbian couple. There is some disagreement concerning whether adopted children suffer more psychological and nonpsychological problems as compared to nonadopted children. In a review of literature examining the emotional health of adopted children, Miller, Fan, Christensen, Grotevant, and van Dulmen (2000) reported that adopted children receive more mental health services than nonadopted children. However, in a study of two nationally based matched groups of adoptive and biological parents, Borders, Black, and Pasley (1998) found no significant differences between the two groups in parental well-being, attitudes toward family life, discipline practices, and at-risk status of the children. In their report of key national indicators for children, the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics (2011) state that in 2008 there were differences in measures of well-being by adoption type among adopted children. Positive social behaviors were exhibited by 83% of children adopted from foster care, compared with 91% of children adopted privately within the United States.

Adoption is generally viewed as a more preferable living situation for children than foster care (with the exception of foster placements in which the children are placed in the homes of relatives who have been approved as foster parents). Foster parents have the permanent or temporary custody of children who are in the care or custody of a state’s children protection agency because they have been abused, neglected, or otherwise maltreated by their natural parents. The foster parents do not have the same legal status as the children’s natural parents or parents who legally adopt a child. In 2009, in the United States, there were approximately 424,000 children in foster care placements (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2011). Approximately one-fourth of the children and youth in foster care are placed with relatives, and approximately one-half are placed with nonrelatives. Others are usually placed in group homes or institutions (Behrman, 2004), spending an average of approximately 33 months in foster care. According to Turnbull, Turnbull, Erwin, and Soodak (2006, p. 32), “The longer children stay in foster care, the greater the likelihood that they will experience many different foster care placements (i.e., foster care drift).” As a result, children in foster care have high rates of school absenteeism, midyear changes from one school to another, discipline suspensions from school, and a need to repeat one or more grades (Emerson & Lovitt, 2003). Hence, as Tutwiler (2005) notes, educators must have a plan for enrolling and integrating foster children into their school on short notice. They must also become accustomed to working with both the foster parents and the children’s caseworkers. Finally, because the attention and resources of the foster parent may be divided among several unrelated foster children living in the same home, educators may have to take a more active role in ensuring that these parents understand how to assist the child who may be below grade level or in need of special services.

Immigrant Families

In 2010, 20% of children in the United States were native children with at least one foreign-born parent, and 3% were foreign-born children with at least one foreign-born parent. Overall, the percentage of all children living in the United States with at least one foreign-born parent rose from 15% in 1994 to 23% in 2010 (U.S. Department of Commerce, 2010). This rapid growth, combined with the large proportion (88%) with origins in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, or Africa, is transforming the racial and ethnic composition of America (Hernandez, Denton, & Macartney, 2008). The emergence of racial and ethnic minorities as the majority U.S. population is rapid and will soon become a reality.

By the middle of the 21st century, the nation will be more racially and ethnically diverse, as well as much older, according to projections released by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2008. Minorities, now roughly one-third of the U.S. population, are expected to become the majority in 2042, with the nation projected to be 54% minority in 2050. By 2023, minorities will make up more than one-half of all children. In 2050, the nation’s population of children is expected to be 62% minority, up from 44% in 2012. Statistically, this presents both opportunities and challenges as we prepare to foster the success of our students and families in a rapidly changing landscape.

Differences in cultures of origin and ethnicity also imply distinctions in faith and religious affiliation among the students and families we encounter. Most Latin American immigrants come from countries with predominantly Christian (mainly Roman Catholic) populations. Among all children in immigrant families in the United States in 2008, 37% had parents from Asia, the Caribbean, or Africa, and although many parents identified as Christian, there were others who were Confucian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Shinto, Sikh, Taoist, or Zoroastrian, all of whom spoke a stunning variety of languages (Hernandez, Denton, & Macartney, 2008). The cultural, religious, and language-based aspects of family life are central to what families experience historically and over time. Family relational patterns are crucial in the family’s response and adaptation to stress. The racial, cultural, and ethnic variations on which these relational patterns are based can contribute to family competence or vulnerability, according to family stress theory.

5.3 Using Family Life-Cycle Theory to Un…

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5.3 Using Family Life-Cycle Theory to Understand Family Stress

Whatever their form, all families change constantly as time and events alter their lives. Some events are developmental and predictable, such as when family members are born, grow up, leave home, bring in new members through marriage or other permanent relationships, retire, or die. Other events occur that are unpredictable and out of sync with usual expectations, such as divorce, unexpected death, immigration, unemployment, or natural catastrophes. Families experience varying degrees of stress in responding to these events, depending on the resources that they possess and their interpretation of the events.

Think about your own family. What have been some key family events and changes that your family has experienced, and how has your family marked these changes? Some families emphasize marker events, or the transition points of human development, more than others do. A child’s first steps or entry into school, a confirmation or bar/bat mitz-vah, a teenager’s driver’s license, or a wedding may serve to mark major changes in the family. Other families emphasize unpredictable events as significant symbols of family change. For example, the premature death of a new baby, a divorce, or a parent’s heart surgery may symbolize the greatest moment of change for some families. Whether the event is expected or unexpected, the family is forced to respond by changing its ways of relating and functioning. How a family responds to a stressful event depends on the organizational structure of the family prior to the stress, its available resources, and its guiding values and beliefs.

5.4 Family Life-Cycle Theory

Relationships with parents, siblings, and other family members shift in response to expected developmental changes in the family (McGoldrick, Carter, & Garcia-Preto, 2011). We are born or adopted into families, then grow and develop, and perhaps raise our own families, in which case, we may watch our children and grandchildren do the same. A family’s life cycle is made up of these normative transitions through time that are rather expected and somewhat predictable, but also include non-normative transitions that consist of unexpected life events that uniquely affect families through time (e.g., untimely deaths, disaster, illness, unemployment). As a moving system through time, families are constantly dealing with change while also needing to remain stable. Therein lies the challenge of balance that keeps families full of activity throughout their lifespan (Table 5.1).

5.5 Family Life-Cycle Stages

Table 5.1 depicts the normative developmental changes that are more typically consistent with two-parent, middle-class American families. Keep in mind the importance that different family forms (e.g., remarried or blended families), cultural factors (e.g., associated with multiple generations in the home), or societal trends (e.g., marrying or having children later in life) tend to shift a family’s developmental transitions throughout their life cycle.

As Table 5.1 shows, each stage requires family members to go through key emotional processes to proceed developmentally. To accommodate needed developmental changes, families must also be flexible enough to shift their family rules that dictate how they behave with one another.

This stage-oriented family life-cycle framework serves as a way of understanding family changes over time. Even though it may not account for different values and beliefs associated with diverse cultural groups and family forms, it offers unifying principles that define stages and tasks in general developmental terms. The creators of this life-cycle framework (McGoldrick & Carter, 2003) acknowledge that

most descriptions of the typical family life cycle, including our own, fail to convey the considerable effects of culture, ethnicity, race, religion, and sexual orientation on all aspects of how, when, and in what way a family experiences various phases and transitions. (p. 395)

TABLE 5.1 The Stages of the Family Life Cycle

Family Life-Cycle Stage Emotional Process of Transition: Key Principles Second-Order Changes in Family Status Required to Proceed Developmentally
Leaving Home: Emerging Young Adults Accepting emotional and financial responsibility for self a. Differentiation of self in relation to family of origin

b. Development of intimate peer relationship

c. Establishment of self in respect to work and financial independence

d. Establishment of self in community and larger society

Joining of Families Through Marriage/Union Commitment to new system a. Formation of partner systems

b. Realignment of relationships with extended family, friends, and larger community and social system to include new partners

Families with Young Children Accepting new members into the system a. Adjusting of couple system to make space for children

b. Collaboration in child rearing, financial, and housekeeping tasks

c. Realignment of relationships with extended family to include parenting and grandparenting roles

d. Realignment of relationships with community and larger social system to include new family structure and relationships

Families with Adolescents Increasing flexibility of family boundaries to permit children’s independence and grandparents’ frailties a. Shifting of parent/child relationships to permit adolescent to move into and out of system

b. Refocus on midlife couple and career issues

c. Beginning shift toward caring for older generation

d. Realignment with community and larger social system to include shifting family of emerging adolescent and parents in new formation pattern of relating

Launching Children and Moving on at Midlife Accepting a multitude of exits from and entries into the system a. Renegotiation of couple system as a dyad

b. Development of adult-to-adult relationships between parents and grown children

c. Realignment of relationships to include in-laws and grandchildren

d. Realignment of relationships with community and larger social system to include new structure and constellation of family relationships

e. Exploration of new interests/career given the freedom from child care responsibilities

f. Dealing with care needs, disabilities, and deaths of parents (grandparents)

Families in Late Middle Life Accepting the shifting generational roles a. Maintaining of own and/or couple functioning and interests in face of physiological decline: exploration of new familial and social roles

b. Supporting more central role of middle generations

c. Realignment of the system in relation to community and larger social system to acknowledge changed pattern of family relationships of this stage

d. Making room in the system for the wisdom and experience of the elders

e. Supporting older generation without overfunctioning for them

Families Nearing the End of Life Accepting the realities of limitations and death and completion of one cycle of life a. Dealing with loss of spouse, siblings, and other peers

b. Making preparations for death and legacy

c. Managing reversed roles in caretaking between middle and older generations

d. Realignment of relationships with larger community and social system to acknowledge changing life-cycle relationships

Source: McGoldrick, Monica; Carter, Betty; & Garcia-Preto, Nydia; Chapter Contributors, The Expanded Family Life Cycle: Individual, Family, and Social Perspectives, 4th Edition, © 2011. Reprinted by permission of Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.

They explained that although these variables were left out for the sake of theoretical clarity, in practice it was important to help families develop rituals that correspond to their life choices and transitions, especially in cases in which they are not validated (e.g., life-cycle patterns of multi-problem, poor, as well as gay families). For instance, even though certain ethnic groups strongly emphasize close extended families and may not place great importance on the need for adults to leave the parental home, they must deal with the separation and redefinition of the parent–child relationship as children move into adulthood.

In an effort to stay current and make their framework more consistent with changing family trends, McGoldrick, Carter, and Garcia-Preto (2011) updated their family life-cycle table (see Table 5.1), adding additional stages that families of divorcing and remarrying families tend to go through.

Given the high rates of divorce and remarriage, you may very well encounter students whose parents have remarried and are living in blended family households. Remarried families with older children from first marriages and younger children from the current marriage also find themselves dealing with several family life-cycle stages simultaneously. Societal trends related to marrying and having children later in life can also have families who experience several family stages at once as families deal with tasks associated with young children in the home, midlife career issues, and older parents.

In the following section, each of the stages of family development over time is discussed. Despite the fact that certain stages refer to individuals and families you may not work with, presenting all of the stages of the family life-cycle framework is important to give you a holistic view of a family’s developmental process through time. The first stage of becoming an adult is a unique feature in this framework because others tend to begin with couplehood.

Leaving Home

According to McGoldrick, Carter, and Garcia-Preto’s (2011) family life-cycle stages, young, single adults must deal with separation and leaving home to form their own relationships and future families. Emotionally, they are faced with the need to tolerate independence while remaining connected. Young adults may struggle with uncertainty often associated with career choices. They also contend with a range of emotions associated with developing intimate relationships and making lifestyle choices outside of their family. Leaving home is a time of defining yourself separately from your family while also remaining a part of the fold. During this time, young adults establish peer networks, complete school, make career choices, and find close friends and intimate partners. The aim is for healthy interdependence to develop between the young adult and his or her parents or caregivers.

The Couple

The family life-cycle stage framework purports that successful completion of tasks associated with young adulthood prepares individuals for couplehood. Gaining a greater sense of self, exercising individual choice and self-reliance, and independent management of your life adds to your readiness for coupling and marriage. A great deal of negotiation is required when a couple first comes together. In marriage, coming together also requires negotiations with extended family members on both sides. In marriage or domestic partnerships, partners/spouses face major decisions related to commitment, power, and closeness (Galvin, Bylund, & Brommel, 2012). Commitment requires that each one become the other’s primary partner, implying that ties with others are lessened. Another task the couple must deal with is exercising self-determination and influence in the relationship, while also yielding power for the enhancement of the relationship. Third, the couple must decide what is mutually satisfying for both of them as they balance the need for individual self-determination and attachment as a couple.

Becoming Parents

The key emotional process associated with parenthood is the acceptance of new members into the family system. This requires that the couple adjust their marital system to make space for the children. They must also realign relationships with extended family members in terms of roles and find ways to join in childrearing and household and financial tasks. Two-paycheck, dual-worker couples must sort through significant work–family dilemmas as they try to juggle their new parental roles, keep up with employers’ demands, and attempt to fit in time for individual and relational needs.

Typically, with young children, parents contend with sleep deprivation, endless chores, changing schedules, and the constant care that the baby demands. This can put an enormous amount of stress on any individual or couple “since no amount of doing ever seems enough to get the job done before it needs to be done again” (Carter, McGoldrick, & Petcov, 2011, p. 211). The threat of divorce is high during this family life-cycle stage, given the serious role conflicts and socioeconomic strains that couples go through at this time. From a gender-based perspective, the stress associated with issues of money, time, isolation, chores, and sexual dissatisfaction can often lead to a shift in power from previously “equitable” ways before having children to more traditional ways after children come along. This perspective is usually based on the strong assumption by the workplace, and by couples themselves, that juggling work and family is a dilemma for mothers, not fathers.

For students who reside in single-parent households, different stressors are considered during this life-cycle stage that may be associated with lack of available resources and supportive networks. However, assuming that all single-parent families are deficient or lacking, based on structure alone, is problematic. Being a single-parent family is not the problem; to view them as such is. Like any other two-parent/caregiver-headed family, they can range from highly functional to very dysfunctional. As you read in Chapter 4, factors associated with a family’s beliefs, their organization, and their communication and emotional connectedness with each other and with their community make the difference.

Families with Adolescents

The key process that families with children in this phase of development find themselves focused on is how to prepare them successfully for the responsibilities and commitments associated with the outside world. Obviously, it is understood that the family’s handling of previous stages throughout the earlier years has a bearing on this stage as well. The challenge for most families lies in the profound shifts that must be made in terms of relationship patterns across generations. In other words, families define this stage of development based on their view of adolescence as a life stage and the acceptable roles and behaviors that are expected in this stage (Garcia-Preto, 2010). Therefore, cultural and socioeconomic factors weigh heavily in this process. For instance, socioeconomic status can dictate the difference between a 13-year-old from a middle-class environment that can lead a more typical, school-oriented, carefree adolescent lifestyle, as opposed to a 13-year-old from a poorer or more marginalized background who may be required to work instead of attend school.

For the most part, after some degree of chaos and disruption, families manage to reorganize themselves in ways that accommodate new rules to allow the adolescent some autonomy and independence. For others who end up struggling with the renegotiation of relationships, roles, rules, and limits, family counseling can help strengthen emotional bonds between family members and facilitate a way for them to sort through their differences.

Often, the parents’ own unresolved emotional issues with their parents can resurface in their struggle to redefine relationships in the family. Family issues may also get complicated with other developmental demands experienced by individual family members (e.g., the adolescent’s own body/physical changes and peer influences, parents dealing with midlife issues related to marriage or career, older family members’ ailing health). Adolescent risk factors to be considered during this life-cycle stage are associated with drug and alcohol use, early and unprotected sexual activity, delinquency, depression, and eating disorders (Garcia-Preto, 2011). Staying emotionally connected in a culture that pulls parents away from their adolescents is a challenge. Yet teenagers who feel close to their parents and feel trusted and heard are less likely to resort to risky behaviors.

The Launching Phase

From a family perspective, by midlife, most parents are faced with numerous tasks and experiences of exits and entries into their family systems. This includes the launching of grown children and the entry of significant others, spouses, and children. As children exit the family home, the marital couple is faced with the task of renegotiating their relationship (without the children) and realigning boundaries to include in-laws and grandchildren. Grown children and their parents must forge new adult-to-adult relationships. As elder members of the family age, illness can bring up significant issues related to caregiving (with major emotional, financial, and role-related implications) and, eventually, death.

On a more individual level, this stage may be viewed as a time to explore new opportunities and roles, which is especially true for women who cared for others most of their lives and can move on to focus on friendships, educational and employment opportunities, and other leisurely activities. Men, however, may yearn for greater intimacy with their wives and closeness with their children when they reevaluate what they missed out on because of their focus on achievement, productivity, and work. So, although women with limited opportunities outside the home may not be as sorry to see childrearing come to an end, in contrast, men may find themselves wanting to “do it better” (McGoldrick & Carter, 2003).

As our society becomes more diverse in terms of changing demographics and patterns of childrearing, we are finding that “the parenting cycle now extends from early teens to as late as age 50 for women and 60 for men” (Carter, McGoldrick, & Petcov, 2011, p. 213), with diverse couple and parenting arrangements as well. Those who may still be dealing with childrearing in midlife must contend with the tasks and demands associated with the stages of family members (e.g., young children and elderly parents), the so-called sandwich generation. This can place a great deal of pressure on individual family members and significantly strain relationships, especially when elders live in the home. Yet this multigenerational arrangement can present children with opportunities for closeness and learning from grandparents that may not otherwise happen.

Families in Later Life

As increasing longevity and greater diversity contributes to the rapidly increasing aging population worldwide, more elderly are having to deal with issues concerning retirement, financial security, grandparenting, chronic or debilitating illness, end-of-life situations, and loss of loved ones (Walsh, 2010). It is worth noting that families tend to approach these challenges in ways that are related to how they were (or were not) able to adapt to losses and flexibly meet new demands in the past.

A key transition for families in later life is the shifting that occurs in terms of generational roles and status for elder members of a family. Most often, this is associated with their acceptance of lessening powers (e.g., ability to drive or live by themselves), the views of the younger generations in the family toward them, and the role reversals that may occur in terms of dependency and competence. In most cases, individuals must adjust to retirement at this stage of development. Generally, relationships with young adult/adult children must be redefined during this stage, and a different focus on the elder family members’ pursuits and interests may also take place. However, in many cases, parents may also still be providing financial assistance and emotional support to their children who may still be in school or, for economic reasons, return home.

In our classroom, we often encourage students to reflect on their family of origin. These reflections not only assist in understanding our own family and the influences they have had on us, but also it can help us to be more sensitive to the changing dynamics of other families. In Reflective Exercise 5.2, we ask you to describe key characteristics of your own family. Let these questions serve as a basis for understanding the concepts presented in the rest of this chapter. Reflect on what life has been like for you and your family of origin.

REFLECTIVE EXERCISE 5.2 Key Characteristics of My Family of Origin

Who are the members of your family? Which of those members live together now?

Where has your family lived? Where did you go to school?

What kinds of work do you and other family members do?

What types of schooling have you and your family members had?

What were these school experiences like?

How might these experiences of schooling compare to the experiences of your parent(s) or care-givers?

5.6 Understanding Family Stressors

To account for the unexpected events and unique challenges that families face through time, McGoldrick, Carter, and Garcia-Preto (2011) revised their previous model depicting the types of stressors that affect a family’s well-being and functioning (see Figure 5.1). This figure still mirrors Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory (as discussed in Chapter 4) because it depicts the levels of system influences on children and families’ development operating over time. However, the figure is more specific in describing the nature of the predictable–developmental and unpredictable–nondevelopmental stressors that may have an impact on a family. As shown in Figure 5.1, within the same family, individual members may experience and react differently to these stressors as a function of both the age of the family member and their position in their life cycle. We suggest that educators use this model to more fully understand their students’ lives within the context of their families and the larger cultural contexts in which they are embedded.

The model depicts the sources of family stress that families may experience over time. The revised version of the vertical dimension depicts stressors that encompass biological, familial, and behavioral characteristics based on a given temperament, physical nature, or genetic makeup. In terms of history, these factors also include unique family patterns of relating and functioning that are “handed down” across generations, including family attitudes, values, expectations, secrets, rules, and societal pressures related to poverty, politics, and discriminatory practices. Many of these stressors are the myths, rules, boundaries, and expectations of how people are to relate with each other in the family and with persons outside of the family. Think of it in terms of what we inherit and what is handed down in terms of experiences and relationships.

The horizontal dimension depicts stressors, including the individual family member’s development (emotional, cognitive, physical, and interpersonal) over time within a given historical context. The anxiety that a family experiences on the vertical and horizontal axes are key determinants in how well they end up managing their transitions through life (McGoldrick, Carter, & Garcia-Preto, 2011). The horizontal flow of stress in a family through time is associated with its developmental demands on the system, the unpredictable nature of family life events (e.g., death, chronic illness, accidents, unemployment) and significant historical events we live through (e.g., war, political climate, economic changes, natural disasters). Enough stress on the horizontal level can make any family appear to be rather dysfunctional. Families also experience a great deal of disruption in their transitions through time when vertical and horizontal stressors intersect. For instance, when a family is already dealing with discrimination as a result of their illegal immigrant status and that intersects with a horizontal stressor like the loss of a job, no matter how menial it might be.

Figure 5.1 Flow of Stress Through the Family


Source: McGoldrick, Monica; Carter, Betty; & Garcia-Preto, Nydia; Chapter Contributors, The Expanded Family Life Cycle: Individual, Family, and Social Perspectives, 4th Edition, © 2011. Reprinted by permission of Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.

In some cases, you may find that some families breeze through certain developmental demands (e.g., children transitioning from one school to the next, such as preschool to kindergarten), whereas other families may experience the same normative transition very intensely, depending on contextual issues surrounding their situation. For example, let’s assume that Ethan Doherty is a 5-year-old student in your multiage 3- to 5-year-old preschool class.



Ethan has been a student at your school since he was 8 weeks old, and today is kindergarten graduation day. His mother and father are divorced, and they both have significant others who are attending the ceremony. Also attending the ceremony are Ethan’s paternal grandparents and his maternal grandmother, all of whom are taking tons of photographs. Ethan’s mother and stepfather came to the ceremony wearing sunglasses and each carrying their own package of tissues, already crying as they walked in the door. Ethan’s father has never worn his emotions on his sleeve, but it is obvious that this is a meaningful day for him as well. There are seven preschool graduates this year and you have become very attached to each and every one of them. The ceremony is always tough for you to get through without shedding a tear or two. After the ceremony, you make a point to connect with each of the graduates and his or her family. Many request pictures, which you happily wipe your tears away for. While reassuring Ethan’s mother that Ethan is ready to move on to kindergarten, she tells you that she feels like this is the end of an era because Ethan and his friends will all be going to separate kindergartens all over town. She is also sad that they will not have the same everyday relationship with everyone at your school ever again. But most of all, she is worried about Ethan entering the “big bad world.”

The emotions and concerns that Ethan’s mother expressed are all very typical for parents whose children are transitioning into kindergarten. According to Kreider (2002), the transition to kindergarten can evoke a number of emotions and worries. Parents who are confident about their child’s intellectual abilities are excited for the new experiences he or she will have. Some parents see this transition as creating new and engaging social relationships as well as intellectual growth. Many parents feel sadness about their baby growing up or about the unknown world their child will be exposed to. Transitioning into kindergarten is a milestone for families with young children. Most often, the transition is relatively smooth for both the child and the family, but often the anticipation can be filled with anxiety and emotions for all involved.

5.7 Unpredictable Stressors and Family Coping

Even under normative circumstances, stress is often greatest during transition points when family members must readapt and realign in terms of roles and relationships, respectively. Crisis and stress are often grouped together and can be easily confused. At various points in life, we all experience different levels of stress. Sometimes, the stress is easily manageable and requires little effort to balance it and move forward. At other times, major adjustments are necessary to maintain healthy functioning. When these stressors exceed the control of the individual or family, the potential for crisis is high. In other words, stress precedes crisis, and crisis does not occur without the onset of stressors. As we learned in the previous section, major stresses can throw a family off balance. Crises and persistent challenges have an impact on the entire family. Although some may be shattered by crisis or persistent hardship, remarkably, others emerge stronger and more resourceful. Key family processes that enable family members to rally together through hard times can mediate the recovery of family members and their relationships, making relational transformation and growth possible through adversity. Resilience is the ability to withstand and rebound from disruptive life challenges (Walsh, 2006).

In Chapter 4, you learned about the specific family processes that contribute to children’s school success. You should recognize that these are the same internal family strengths and resources that enable individuals and families to recover and grow from experiences associated with difficult and challenging stressors. This process involves the family’s ability to “bounce forward” and “struggle well,” effectively working through and learning from adversity, and identifying and fortifying key resilient processes (Walsh, 2006, p. 7).

Family Crisis

To understand and address crisis and stress in children and their families, we must first generate a clear definition of what it means to be in crisis. What may be a crisis for one individual or family may not be viewed as a crisis for another individual or family. The experience of stress and crisis is truly individual. However, more generalized definitions of crisis categorize it as a state in which a complication arises that impedes an individual or family in some way. In general terms, “A crisis is a challenge to the previous structure of the family in the sense that in order for the family to remain functional, the structure must change” (Becvar & Becvar, 2009, p. 105). Although normative in nature, the transitions that families must go through as part of the family life cycle can also be thought of as crisis states. The typical ways of reacting to past circumstances are not effective when faced with the crisis, and as a result, a sense of disorganization and immobilization may ensue (James & Gilliland, 2001).

From a developmental perspective, some crises are considered to be normal steps in the progression of life. With each step, an individual is required to draw on his or her repertoire of concepts and skills to master that step before moving onto the next one (Blackburn & Erickson, 1986). Successful completion of that step prepares the individual adequately for the next developmental challenge. Within the system of the family, each individual who encounters a developmental challenge often requires the support of the entire family to overcome the crisis successfully.

stressor is an event that causes a change in the family system (Walsh, 2006). Stress-ors within a family may show their “faces” in many different ways. They may serve as an opportunity for growth or may become debilitating to the family. For our purposes, stressors are divided into two categories: developmental stressors and non-normative stressors. Note the importance of recognizing the differences between the two, along with understanding how a child as well as his or her family may react to stressors in their family.

As Patterson (2002a) points out, “there are times when demands on a family significantly exceed its capabilities” (p. 351). If this imbalance continues, families experience a crisis that may cause them significant instability and disorganization as a family. Often, this crisis can become a turning point that could lead to major change in the family’s relational patterns and its structure. The disruption experienced by the family may have an impact on them in ways that result in improved functioning, or it may lead them to poorer functioning. Improved functioning is considered an indicator of resilience. As Walsh (2006) proposes, we think of resilience as both a capacity (a resource) and as a process. The processes by which families restore balance (by reducing demands, increasing capabilities, or changing meanings of their crisis) can happen at the individual or family level. In stress theory, this is referred to as regenerative power that has been defined in several different ways—family bonadaptation (Patterson, 2010), protective factors/ characteristics (Boss, 2006, as cited in Weber, 2011), strengths (Stinnett & DeFrain, 1985, as cited in Weber, 2011; Echevarria-Doan, 2001), and protective/adaptive processes (Walsh, 2006). Family functioning leads to poor adaptation, is aligned with vulnerabilities, or risk factors, in stress theory (McCubbin & Patterson, 1983, as cited in Weber, 2011). Family resilience is similar to family regenerative power when good outcomes follow significant risk situations experienced by a family.

In this chapter, stressors are associated with either normative (or developmental) crises (referred to earlier as vertical stressors) or with unexpected, non-normative crises (discussed earlier as horizontal stressors). A non-normative crisis can occur with the onset of unforeseen stressors. According to James and Gilliland (2001), these crises may be situa-tional, existential, or environmental. Situational crises occur unexpectedly and often result in feelings of shock or fright, and a lack of preparedness, in contrast to developmental crises (or vertical stressors), which may leave those affected by them in a state of distress.

Family researchers and theorists have examined stressors and crises in families since the mid-1940s. A noteworthy contribution is Hill and Hansen’s (1960) classic family stress model from which current stress models have evolved. It was one of the first to classify family disruptions that cause crises in a family, and included the loss of members (e.g., death), the addition or return of family members (e.g., birth, reunification), a sense of disgrace (e.g., resulting from infidelity, alcoholism, or nonsupport), and a combination of all of these factors for particular types of losses (e.g., suicide, homicide, imprisonment, mental illness). Another early theorist, Bain (1978), associated a family’s coping capacity with the following factors: the number of previous stressors faced by family members in recent years, the degree of role change in coping, and available social and institutional support for family members. A family’s level of cohesion (emotional bonding) and adaptability (flexibility in terms of leadership and roles and rules in relationships) also have an impact on the family’s response to stressors and crises. For instance, families with greater adaptability and a more balanced level of cohesion are likely to cope better than other families who might be somewhat more rigid and disengaged (Olson, 2000). The original stress model developed by Hill and Hansen (1960), referred to as the ABCX Model, proposed that A (the stressor event) interacted with B (the family’s resources to cope with the stress), which interacted with C (the family’s definition of the event), that produced X (the crisis). Based on Rueben Hill’s work, McCubbin and Patterson (1983) developed a Double ABCX Model that extended the model to include postcrisis variables (i.e., the family’s efforts to recover over time). This led to their development of the Family Adjustment and Adaptation Response (FAAR) Model, an expansion of the Double ABCX Model. The expanded model included the families’ precrisis adjustment as well as their postcrisis adaptation. After Joan Patterson and Hamilton McCubbin parted ways, Patterson continued to develop the FAAR Model to include situational and global meanings (which was changed to worldview meanings later). McCubbin went on to create the Typology Model of Family Adjustment and Adaptation (which added the component of family types to the Double ABCX Model) and the Resiliency Model of Family Stress, Adjustment, and Adaptation. The Resiliency Model expanded the Typology Model by attempting to explain how more resilient families weather crises better than others (Weber, 2011). Although each of these models contributed greatly to the understanding of family stress and adaptation, it is beyond the scope of this chapter to cover each of them in any great detail. A good overview of family stress models is included in Janice Gauthier Weber’s (2011) book titled Individual and Family Stress and Crisis. For the purposes of this chapter, we believe it might be more useful to provide you with a stage model of family crisis that encompasses many of the processes that most stress models address.

Stages of a Family Crisis

Walsh (2006) reminds us that a crisis can serve as a wake-up call, offering family members an opportunity to reassess priorities and stimulate greater investment in meaningful relationships and life pursuits. Patterson (2002b) also suggests that “A crisis is very often a turning point for a family, leading to major change in their structure and/or functioning pattern” (p. 237). Crisis can occur in countless ways and undoubtedly has an impact on the entire family system. The family’s response to the crisis determines the severity of the impact and the family’s resiliency in the aftermath.

In the aftermath of crisis, a significant breakdown in the family’s organizational structure can occur. Communication patterns can be altered, boundaries broken, and the power hierarchy shifted, potentially leading to role confusion, limited support, and a downward shift in family functioning. Depending on how this is handled, this shift could bring on a long future of vulnerability to crisis that could prevent a family’s full recovery.

Individually, people react to crisis with intense emotions, typically fear, shock, distress, and insecurity. Families can react to stress with these same emotions. In addition, as mentioned previously, the potential for more severe reactions, such as anxiety or maladjustment, are also present (Jackson, Sifers, Warren, & Velasquez, 2003). The stages usually associated with an individual or family’s response to crisis are shock and denial, recoil, depression, and reorganization (Galvin, Bylund, & Brommel, 2012). Responses to crisis situations happen very differently for individuals and families. In some cases, “stuckness” may occur, such that they do not reach the final stage. This stage model is based on family members’ responses to loss surrounding death, but it has been applied to a range of other losses. After providing a brief explanation for each of the stages, we provide you with illustrative examples based on two of the families we introduced you to earlier in this chapter.

Shock and Denial

The initial response to a crisis is most often associated with disbelief and denial of the actual event or the minimization of its severity. Eventually, as reality sets in, the numbness wears off, and the feelings and reactions more closely linked with the experience come. For example, in the case of death or loss, feelings of pain, grief, withdrawal, or quietness may be noted. As the crisis begins to take on fuller meaning (e.g., “My child will never be the same”), denial is transformed into an intense desire to recapture what was lost or to reexperience what previously existed before the crisis event (e.g., expecting a loved one to walk into the room as they were before).


At this stage, individuals and families may find themselves blaming, bargaining, or expressing anger directed at the event or persons most directly involved or close to the situation (e.g., oneself, doctors, family members, God). Blaming self or others is often associated with a person’s attempt to seek reasons for what happened (e.g., “If I would have only stayed home that day,” or “We never got the whole story from those doctors”). Anger is often associated with a sense of injustice and may be directed at the event itself, at others more directly involved, or may even be displaced onto others like family members, friends, or co-workers (Galvin, Bylund, & Brommel, 2012). Bargaining efforts are aimed at trying to restore things to normalcy (e.g., “If my son is spared from being diagnosed as autistic, I will quit smoking forever”).


Gradually, anger turns into depression and sadness. The feelings of anger that were directed outward are turned inward as individuals take in all that has happened. Coming to terms with daily life and the future implications of the crisis event can be overwhelming. Rather than avoiding discussion about their feelings and experiences, family members can benefit from sharing their story with others (whether they are directly involved in or outside of the situation). In some cases, sharing with outsiders may actually offer the greatest source of support, and, therefore, it is important for those less directly involved to remain available and open in their supportive roles. Otherwise, if family members are not able to talk about their loss or if they cut themselves off from others, they may become stuck and unable to complete their recovery process.


As individuals and families recover from stressful crisis events, they come to a point where gradual progress is made, which is often associated with a decision related to a turning event that signals they are moving on (e.g., getting rid of mementos or daily reminders, joining a group, dating). Their ability to communicate about the loss or experience of the critical event facilitates reorganization. In terms of time, moving through all of these stages can take days, months, or years, depending on the level of loss, trauma, severity, and impact of the event. No one frame of time is to be prescribed or expected.

Crisis presents both threat and opportunity in that it can potentially impair the individual family member or family to the point of pathology or it can serve as a strengthening learning experience, through which new coping skills and resources are developed and defined. It presents a challenge for families to find a way to “balance family demands with family capabilities” (Patterson, 2002b, p. 234) to reach successful acceptance and adaptation as part of their reorganization.

In order to give you an idea of how this might work, following are some actual case scenarios of families going through these stages of crisis and coping, using two of the families we introduced you to earlier.



For years, Harold’s preschool teachers approached his family with concerns about his social development and disruptive behavior, and for years they resisted the recommendations to seek more information through testing. The Millers experience of shock, characterized by disbelief and denial, was most evident in their response to these requests. Both Harold’s mother and father informed teachers that he had been tested for language development at 22 months and went through 6 months of speech therapy. Because he had been tested for speech and “graduated” from speech therapy, Harold’s parents believed that further testing was superfluous. Although the teachers kept their suspicion in check that Harold might have some form of Autism Spectrum Disorder (because they were not qualified to diagnose), they were also reluctant to keep pressing the issue because his parents specifically said that they were certain Harold was not autistic. This was mostly based on the fact that Harold’s paternal grandmother worked with children with autism and she had assured them that that was not the case.

The next stage that families move through during a crisis is recoil, when behaviors such as blaming, bargaining, and anger are seen most. Harold’s parents eventually agreed to have him evaluated by specialists. After his assessment was completed, Harold’s teachers requested another meeting with his parents. This was the first meeting that Harold’s father did not attend. Harold’s mother was extremely emotional at the meeting and told teachers that Harold’s father was demanding a second opinion. She also told teachers that the more she learns about Asperger’s Syndrome, the more she believes that her husband has many of the typical characteristics of the disorder, implying some degree of cause as part of her understanding.

For weeks after the diagnosis and subsequent meeting, Harold’s mother was on the verge of tears every time she picked Harold up from school. If Harold had a hard day at school, she would not be able to contain her fragile state, and she would begin sobbing. She told teachers that she was feeling consumed with what this diagnosis would mean for Harold’s life. This is typical during the depression stage of family crisis. The assistant teacher, who had played a major role in convincing Harold’s parents to assess him in the first place, had a daughter who had been diagnosed with a more severe case of autism the previous year. This teacher served as a major support for Harold’s mother. Besides offering some perspective on how she handled the devastating news about her daughter, she offered her a shoulder to cry on, an ear for listening, and resources for Harold that were helpful for her daughter.

The assistant teacher’s support and advice helped Harold’s family move from depression into the final stage of family crisis—reorganization. Harold’s mother requested another meeting with his teachers to discuss what the best school environment would be for him, given the new information we had. She believed strongly that Harold would benefit from the smaller classes and structure he would receive in the pre-K classroom that the public schools offer for children with disabilities. Although Harold’s teachers believed that exposure to typically developing children was essential for him, they respected her decision. Shortly after the meeting, Harold was placed in the public school pre-K disabilities classroom. Harold’s teachers followed up with a few phone calls and emails to his mother to check in. She reported that he was adjusting well to his new classroom and she was very pleased with his experience there.



After recognizing increasing changes in Michael’s behavior at school, one of his teachers began reaching out to the family through phone, mail, and Internet in an attempt to learn of any changes at home. His father was unable to be reached and his mother, who speaks very little English, implied that everything was fine. The teacher had heard through the grapevine at school that Michael’s father had lost his job and brought this up to his mother by phone. She adamantly denied there were any problems and reported that her husband had left his job for “something better.” At this stage of shock in their experience of crisis, Michael’s mother responded with denial and minimization of the severity of the situation. She continued to avoid contact with the school and communicated only through notes sent in by Michael.

As time progressed, Michael began spending much of his time out of school at several odd jobs he found to contribute to the family. It was expected that with his father gone and in his role as the oldest son, he would temporarily take over as the man of the house, caring for his mother and siblings. Because it is customary to keep family problems within the family only, Michael did not share his circumstances with anyone in an effort to maintain both his pride and the pride of his family. At this point, Michael was shifting into the recoil stage of crisis as he began to internalize much of the stress he was experiencing. He often blamed himself on days or weeks when the family struggled more than usual, or if his mother’s symptoms of diabetes worsened. He believed that he could handle it all and do it well if he just worked harder. He was very hard on himself when things did not improve. He knew his parents would be disappointed if he ever discussed what they were going through with his peers and he began to feel helpless.

Eventually, internalizing his feelings led to symptoms of depression and Michael began to feel sad and hopeless on most days. He isolated himself from others and rarely engaged in social activities in or out of school in an effort to protect his family and tend to his responsibilities. Michael’s schoolwork was also suffering because he spent most evenings working for extra money rather than studying, as he had done in the past. At this point, Michael had entered into the depression stage of crisis, as his emotional response to the situation became overwhelming. He was beginning to believe that his dreams of college would slip away and he would be responsible for supporting his family forever.

Michael’s English teacher, Ms. Jameson, had been watching him for quite some time and began to worry that the changes she was seeing in him would worsen with time. She began to connect with Michael in passing whenever she could, and did her best to let him know that she could be a confidential ear for him. His naturally introverted nature made it difficult for him to respond much to Ms. Jameson, but she stayed consistent and let him know that he could trust her. Eventually, Michael opened up to her about his fear of not going to college and the worry he felt for his family. She listened, but offered little advice. She let him know that she was available to listen whenever he felt overwhelmed and that he could rely on her, or the school counselor, at any time. Michael was worried that he was betraying the pride of his family by discussing the matter, and Ms. Jameson assured him that the information was safe with her.

As time went on, Michael met with Ms. Jameson briefly on two other occasions to vent about his feelings and concerns. Even though Ms. Jameson could tell that some stress was still evident, Michael seemed less isolated with time, and interacted more often with peers and teachers. He had entered into the reorganization stage of crisis and began to shift his thoughts from hopeless to productive. Eventually, his father returned home with a part-time job. Though Michael was still expected to contribute to help the family, the stress reduced significantly and he seemed more hopeful for his future. He maintained a positive and communicative relationship with Ms. Jameson and disclosed that by discussing his thoughts and feelings through the experience, he was able to reframe his situation in a more positive way.

As teachers, we must recognize that we cannot adequately handle every crisis we encounter among our students because of our own limitations in skill, capacity, or time. However, it is worth noting that regardless of how minimal our support might be, the difference that it makes can go a very long way. By means of Reflective Exercise 5.3, think about the developmental and non-normative crises discussed in this chapter.

REFLECTIVE EXERCISE 5.3 Comfort Level with Type of Stress Experienced

What might be a type of crisis or stress that you might experience that would exceed your comfort level?

What might be the underlying factors behind this discomfort?

What resources would be useful to have if you observed a student or a student’s family experiencing this type of crisis or stress?

What might be the underlying factors behind this discomfort?

Family worldviews affect a family’s perceptions of the stresses that enter its world. If one family perceives the world as chaotic, disorganized, and frequently dangerous, any change may be upsetting. If another sees the world as predictable, ordered, and controllable, change may be perceived as manageable. How a family responds to stress depends on the organizational structure of the family prior to the stress and the values it upholds. The family’s first response to stress may be to try to maintain organizational continuity and emotional balance, but this may fail if the shock to the family is too great.

Family Resilience Theory

As families move from the initial shock and denial of a crisis event to reorganization and healing, there are key family processes that mediate the recovery of all family members and their relationships. If families are able to tap into these key processes for resilience, they can emerge stronger and more resourceful in meeting future challenges (Walsh, 2006). Walsh developed a framework that describes key family processes that are useful in overcoming hardship and difficulties. Her family resilience framework serves as a conceptual map to identify family processes that can help families reduce stress and foster healing and growth when faced with crisis and adversity.

The key processes of family resilience proposed in Walsh’s framework are divided into three primary areas: (a) belief systems, (b) organizational patterns, and (c) communication/problem solving. Belief systems can significantly influence how families think about a crisis or suffering. Beliefs are also instrumental in decision making that can lead toward reorganization and recovery. Within this framework, the meaning that family members make out of a crisis situation, their outlook, and their level of transcendence and spirituality can make a difference in their process of adaptation. If, for instance, a family has a strong sense of affiliation with each other that allows them to feel supported by each other in approaching adversity (e.g., “We shall overcome this together”), then there is a stronger chance that they can buffer the stress toward more optimal adaptation.

In terms of outlook, families who are more likely to bolster themselves out of challenges and crisis events are those who hold a more optimistic outlook, have hope, share a sense of confidence in their abilities to overcome situations, and focus their energies on making the best out of their options. Transcendent beliefs and spirituality provide meaning and purpose beyond our own experience. When families are able to tap into the strength, comfort, and guidance that cultural or religious traditions offer them, they are more likely to emerge from adversity a stronger family.

Another key process in Walsh’s framework is based on the family’s organizational patterns, or their structure. Resilience is sustained in families whose organization is flexible (in terms of structure) and connected (in terms of relationships). The availability and use of social and economic resources also have an impact on their sense of organizational structure (e.g., kin, community, financial, and social networks). Finally, in terms of communication and problem solving, families benefit most from clarity, emotional expression that leads to open communication, trust, empathy, tolerance, and collaborative efforts to manage conflict and solve problems. Families must find their own culturally relevant ways through adversity that facilitate personal strengths and resources. In some cases, they may simply need to be heard or allowed to explore their own set of possibilities. In the next section you will see an example of this in which the first author developed a method of interviewing families in counseling that helps them elicit, discover, and use their internal strengths and resources as part of their own therapeutic process. Although we are not proposing that teachers take on the role of a therapist, this method illustrates how listening and strength-based conversation can be instrumental in getting families to trust you and, most important, believe in themselves.

Resource-Based Reflective Consultation

Resource-based reflective consultation is a consultative method that encourages therapy professionals to invite their client families to inform them of their family resources and strengths. Family resources and strengths are conceptualized as “those individual and systemic characteristics among family members that promote coping and survival, limit destructive patterns, and enrich daily life” (Karpel, 1986, p. 22).

By its very nature, the consultant’s request that the families come up with this information about themselves and their family, rather than expecting their counselor to do so, affirms a family’s voice and level of expertise (Echevarria-Doan, 2001). This interviewing method has been implemented and used with seriously troubled, multi-stressed, ethnically diverse families of lower socioeconomic means, indicating that strength-based practice can bring out the best in families regardless of their status, level of hardship, or culture. Some family resources identified by these families were Family Formation (associated with related and extended family forms); Family Service (associated with age- and gender-related family functions); Family Adaptability (which revealed strengths associated with temporal dimensions); Shared Past (associated with transgenerational links and lessons learned); Shared Present (brought up in terms of humor, togetherness, preservation of family, perception of hardship); Shared Future (with focus on hope for children’s future); Family Connectedness (referring to time spent together, shared interests and experiences, and passing down traditions); and Ethnic Affiliation (associated with traditions and rituals that held them together).

The family’s identification of their own strengths and resources allowed families (and their therapists) to challenge their own deficit-based views that can be constraining and detrimental to change and recovery. We believe this interviewing method might also be applied by educators in ways that might help them have families they work with talk about and acknowledge their own resources and strengths.

As a teacher, you must be familiar with the various types of stressors that can precipitate a crisis for both students and families. This knowledge allows you to recognize a potential crisis, either in its early stages or before it arises, so that you might provide the support and resources necessary for the student and his or her family. As you gain knowledge about the stressful events in your students’ lives, you may find yourself challenging your own belief systems and thoughts that get in the way of staying engaged and supportive, which is especially true when we think that only certain families who look a certain way, or are formed a certain way, are functional. Remember, family form does not equal family function (Walsh, 2003). Think for a moment about the characteristics of your own family by means of Reflective Exercise 5.4.

REFLECTIVE EXERCISE 5.4 Strengths in My Family

Think about a time when your family experienced stress or crisis.

What are some of the strengths or coping skills that helped your family through that difficult period?

What cues might you have given your teacher(s) during that time to let her or him know that your family was experiencing stress or was in crisis? helped your family through that difficult period?

5.9 The Importance of Teacher Advocacy for Families

One of the wonderful aspects of being a teacher is that you have an opportunity to get to know your students. Particularly in elementary school, children spend a great deal of time with one teacher. As their teacher, you often have time to learn about them, predict their behaviors, and watch them grow throughout the year. You are in a unique position to recognize when a student is making dramatic improvements and reward them when they do. Unfortunately, you may also be one of the first to notice problem behaviors. Children may act out and become disruptive, or they may internalize their feelings and become more withdrawn. When these changes are apparent, the child may be at risk for experiencing crisis.

When future teachers are asked what they might do once they have encountered a child or family under stress or in crisis, a common response might be to send the child to the school counselor. The school counselor can be an excellent resource for talking with the child; however, the counselor may not always be available. Because the problem might require immediate attention and an ongoing relationship with the student’s family, teachers may be in a better position to share their concerns about a child with his or her family. As we know, teachers spend a great deal of time with their students and often know them quite well. During this time, students may form a relationship with their teacher in which they feel comfortable and secure. It may cause students additional distress to leave that comfort zone and be referred to the school counselor, whom they may not know. This certainly does not mean that teachers should take on all responsibility, but it does suggest that teachers can be knowledgeable about the resources that their students or students’ families might need. (In Chapter 13, we discuss the types of resources and process by which you might link a family to outside support services.)

The key idea for teachers is to maintain a sense of teamwork. Building relationships with other faculty and staff and learning from one another can make a big difference in your efforts to make things happen. This extends beyond the bounds of the school into the community, where you can also tap into resources that can provide specialized assistance and care for your students and their families.

5.10 Schools and Stress

When most of us think of a typical school, we might imagine a place where children come together each morning, learn from their teachers, and return home in the afternoon. We may even think about the social interactions between students and how they learn from one another. What we usually do not think about are some of the negative effects that schools can unknowingly have on their students and their families. In this section, we briefly review the three paradigms of family–school relations that we discussed in Chapter 2. Through this discussion, note that some of the patterns of interactions that school staff may have with families can have an adverse effect on families and can result in less family participation in school activities.

The three paradigms of family–school relations include the separation, remediation, and collaborative paradigms. As you can probably guess, the purpose of this book is aimed at creating a more collaborative paradigm within schools, one in which families are considered a powerful ally in educating each child. In shifting our thinking toward this direction, we are moving away from the separation paradigm. Note, however, to not only move ahead, but also to look back and recognize how these assumptions about learning may have contributed to both individual stress on each student in the classroom, as well as stress on the family.

For decades, the separation and remediation paradigms held by educators and families shaped the ways in which family–school relations were structured within schools. Students and their families functioned under the assumption that schools provided education in its entirety, and that learning did not actually occur in other arenas. Teachers and administrators were considered the experts and their methods and presented content generally went unquestioned (Senge, Cambron-McCabe, Lucas, Smith, Dutton, & Kleiner, 2000). Most parents of today’s children were educated in settings guided by either of these paradigms.

Some parents welcome the change in thinking from separation to collaboration and enjoy playing a vital role in their children’s education. For other parents, the memories they have of their own school experiences can create a sense of anxiety and inferiority before even setting foot in their children’s classroom. They often remember that their own parents were called to school only if there was a problem and, in turn, come to negative conclusions about their children before a meeting or school event occurs. They may have also experienced times in which their attendance at school or teacher meetings resulted in a message of their inadequacy as parents. (Finders & Lewis, 1994). These negative incidences result in lesser involvement by parents, thereby making it more difficult for them to reach out to teachers.

In many cases, the culture of a family may also have an impact on their involvement in their child’s schooling. It can potentially heighten the amount of anxiety and inferiority discussed previously. Many students and their families believe that cultural boundaries prevent them from succeeding in school and becoming involved, respectively (Senge et al., 2000). Research has shown that African American students, particularly males, show consistent underachievement in school. One factor that contributes to this problem lies in low teacher expectations (Mandara, 2006). Very often, negative general assumptions by educators about the culture or race of their students may actually contribute to the student’s underachievement in the classroom. It may also be assumed that providing extra attention to this student will not be successful because the environment in which he is raised will not be conducive to retaining the material taught in school. This mentality prolongs a cycle in education that may likely have been present when this child’s parent was in school.

As you can see, teachers and schools can unwittingly create stress for individual students and their families without even being aware that such stress is being created. The social climate of a school, although planned to be conducive to a child’s learning, may actually serve as a source of anxiety for the parents of students. Over time, invisible boundaries may develop, separating families from schools regardless of the efforts made by the school staff to integrate families into their children’s education. In the end, the students are the victims, missing opportunities to enrich their learning experiences because of the lack of communication between the school and the families. Teachers and school administration must recognize this as a potentially hazardous problem and take the appropriate preventative steps. Now that you understand the importance of recognizing these potential problems, you can be equipped with the tools to prevent and cope with them. But first, by means of Reflective Exercise 5.5, think back to your own experiences in school and note how some schools may either have unwittingly created stressful conditions for families or have found ways to counteract these conditions.

REFLECTIVE EXERCISE 5.5 Thinking Back to My Elementary School Days

How did your school encourage parental/family involvement in your education?

What are two examples of your family’s involvement in your schooling then?

5.11 Supportive Schools

As discussed, every family is different and every family undoubtedly experiences times of stress or crisis. In the educational system, we have the opportunity to use our positions to provide assistance to families to create a positive learning environment for our students. To do this, we must move away from the traditional paradigms of education, in which there is a clear separation between family and school. Teachers must work together with the caregivers of their students to have a greater understanding of each student and to design a classroom in which students benefit to their individual maximum potential. Teachers must welcome the involvement of their students’ families and celebrate the diversity present within the classroom.

Diversity within the classroom not only exists as a result of differences in race or religion of the students in your classroom, but also in family composition and family culture. Although two children may appear to be of a similar race, their family experiences may vary greatly. The diversity among students is sometimes considered a hindrance in the classroom, requiring extended efforts from teachers to find a common ground among the students. Within the collaboration paradigm, diversity is celebrated among students. Each student is encouraged to educate peers about their culture, creating an environment of acceptance and appreciation. In Chapter 6, you will learn more about the divergent values of families from different cultural backgrounds and will be introduced to several of the strategies that teachers are using to create more culturally sensitive classroom environments. Chapters 2 and 3 presented the family–school collaboration paradigm that serves as the foundation for developing strong relationships with the families of your students. By using the concepts presented within the paradigm, you begin to see the benefit of incorporating families into the classroom, resulting in an enriched educational experience for each student. In Chapters 10 and 11 you are presented with such techniques as student-led conferences and family–school problem-solving meetings. These techniques embrace the collaboration paradigm and can be used throughout the school year to promote this approach to education.


Students’ experience within the classroom is strongly influenced by their families’ social world. Today’s families come in many different forms that strongly influence the nature of their social worlds. Moreover, from a developmental perspective, families evolve and change through time in response to individual and systemic demands placed on the family system. Normative–developmental changes and unpredictable–non-normative changes in the lifespan of a family were discussed in this chapter using a family life-cycle framework that provides a useful perspective on change within a family from young adulthood to later life stages. Normative and non-normative changes have an impact on family relationships and functioning. The stressors and critical events associated with these changes can have an effect on student performance in the classroom. Families and individuals respond to stress and crises in unique ways, based on factors associated with belief systems, organizational patterns, and communication/problem-solving skills. School-based examples of family situations have been used throughout the chapter to illustrate theoretical concepts. Reflective exercises have also been introduced for teachers to gain self-awareness and perspective as they prepare to deal with family-related situations in their schools.

The importance of a strength-based perspective was highlighted as a way of supporting students going through stressful family events and changes. Methods that challenge deficit-based assumptions and practices were introduced as a way of engaging families and students in need of your support and understanding. Using a collaborative paradigm, we considered the role that educators might play in helping students’ families during stressful life changes. Situational stressors within schools were addressed, as were aspects of supportive schools that promote teacher advocacy for families.

Activities and Questions

1. Imagine that you are teaching in a school in your hometown. Think of at least three vertical and three horizontal stressors that most of the students in your classroom are experiencing. Would you say that these stressors have an impact on your students at school (e.g., in terms of schoolwork, peer relationships, behaviorally, physically, psychologically, emotionally)? If so, how did you learn about these stressors, and how did you respond? Have these situations altered your method of teaching or changed the way you interact with your students and their families? If so, please explain.

2. Using the key processes of family resilience proposed in Walsh’s framework (divided into the three primary areas of belief systems, organizational patterns, and communication/problem solving), think of specific families you have come to know that have dealt with normative family life-cycle transitions well. Describe the families’ resilience using Walsh’s framework to explain how they were able to cope as well as they did.

3. Suppose that you must discuss a particular difficult situation that one of your students is experiencing with their parents, such as in the Miller family example. As you prepare for your meeting with the parents, consider how this might lead to a crisis situation for the family. Use the following questions to determine how you would like to approach this, considering each of the stages of crisis that the family may encounter:

How will you state your case?

What information/resources will you bring to the meeting?

What words and phrases will you use or avoid?

What will you do in cases where parents are reluctant to follow through with steps that must be taken (e.g., evaluation of student, special placement)?

How will you be able to maintain the positive working relationship you have built with them, while also trying to make sure that your student gets what he or she needs?

Are there any specific roles you can assist the family with during their crisis (e.g., supportive or advocacy role)?

Who might you go to for guidance and support?


American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy 112 South Alfred Street Alexandria, VA 22314-3061 Phone: 703-838-9808

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) is a professional association with more than 25,000 marriage and family therapists as members. Its major mission is to increase education, understanding, and research related to the priorities of couples and other family members. AAMFT hosts an annual conference and training institutes and produces several publications (journal, magazine, and brochures).

Stepfamily Association of America 215 Centennial Mall, Suite 212 Lincoln, NE 68508 Phone: 402-477-7837

The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Grandparent Information Center 601 E Street, NW Washington, DC 20049 Phone: 1-888-687-AARP (or 1-888-687-2277) from 7 a.m. to midnight E. S. T.

The center provides information and resources to help grandparents cope with thei

CHAPTER 13 Creating a Support Network for Families in Crisis

Catherine Tucker and Sondra Smith-Adcock


Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you will be able to:

■ Explain how an educator might assess whether a family is experiencing difficulties.

■ Identify resources within the school or larger community to assist families.

■ Describe the steps educators might use to help families access outside help.

■ Discuss how educators might build strong working relationships with the helping professionals in the broader community.

■ Describe the innovative “full services” programs for families.

Teachers see children every day and get to know them very well. As a result, they are often the first to notice when children’s classroom behavior is being affected by their families’ difficulties. As a teacher gets to know a child’s family, that teacher may discover that the family is attempting to handle an extremely stressful life situation. Mental health issues, such as substance abuse, family violence, divorce, child maltreatment or neglect, homelessness, and unemployment, are among the many stressful life circumstances that can overwhelm a family’s capacity to care for and rear its children. When a teacher notices that a family is facing stressful situations, he or she may want to help. Often, however, the stressors that affect students’ families are complex and exceed the resources of any one teacher or school. Moreover, traditionally, schools have not been organized to help children and their families address complex problems ( Dryfoos & Maguire, 2002 ). Therefore, learning how to provide emotional support to families under stress and how to link them to community resources outside of the school are important skills for teachers to master.

How can teachers access the resources of schools and the larger community to help students and their families? First, the teacher must discover what is occurring within the family by observing the child and his or her family closely. Learning about the family entails discovering the difficulties they are facing and how they are coping with those issues without judging or blaming the family members. Second, once a teacher has identified that a family needs assistance, he or she should identify resources to assist the members within the school or larger community. In this chapter, we describe the steps teachers might use to help families gain access to outside help. We then discuss how educators can build strong working relationships with the helping professionals in the broader community, and showcase several of the innovative full-services programs for families that schools and communities are developing.

13.1 Assessing Family Strengths and Difficulties

As a first step to helping families in crisis, assessing their current strengths and needs is important. Examine Case Study 13.1, concerning Vance and his family, and identify what you consider to be the strengths and the difficulties faced by this family. We revisit this case throughout the chapter to illustrate the various skills involved in working with families in crisis.



Read the following case and identify this family’s strengths and stressors.

Vance Tyler is a kindergarten student in Ms. Farmer’s class. Ms. Farmer is a 1st-year teacher and has her hands full learning the “in’s and out’s” of school policy and procedure. Vance is presenting her with a particular challenge. He is a bright and verbal boy who tells her he “wants to do good” at school. However, Vance is constantly fighting with other students in the class. It seems that he wants to be in control during any group activity and reacts badly when others balk at his “orders.” Ms. Farmer is frustrated by Vance’s lack of academic progress and the disruptions he often causes in the classroom. Ms. Farmer asks her mentor teacher for help. Mrs. Parsons has been teaching for 20 years and has been very successful with students like Vance. She advises Ms. Farmer to invite Vance’s family in for a problem-solving meeting to find out what is going on at home that could be leading to some of Vance’s behavior at school. Ms. Farmer knows that Vance lives with his younger sister Nora and their father. She phones Mr. Tyler and explains that Vance is having trouble getting along with others and she invites him to come to school to make a plan together to help Vance be successful at school. They arrange a mutually convenient time to meet. Prior to the meeting, Ms. Farmer prepares Vance by explaining when and why his father is coming to school, emphasizing to him that the meeting is designed to find ways to make school better, not to punish him. Ms. Farmer also makes sure to have a problem-solving form ready. When Mr. Tyler arrives, Ms. Farmer welcomes him warmly and explains the family–school problem-solving meeting steps. Then she goes over in some detail concrete examples of Vance’s recent behavior. When she asks for Mr. Tyler’s input, he explains that he has been punishing the child for behaving poorly at school but realizes that the punishment (sending him to his room and taking away TV watching) has not helped much. When Ms. Farmer probes to find out more information about Vance’s history, his father reveals that he is a single father of two young children. Mr. Tyler and his children, Vance and Nora, live on what he makes as a technician at an automobile tire store. It has been easier financially for them this year because Nora started preschool in the fall, so he’s no longer paying for day care. The three of them live in a rental house near the school, although Mr. Tyler hopes eventually to move into a place he can own instead of renting. However, since Vance and Nora’s mother left, his finances have been in a tangle. Mr. Tyler says his wife Michelle has a serious alcohol and drug problem. At this point, Ms. Farmer remarks that the stress of being a single parent must be difficult to cope with, and asks when Mrs. Tyler left. He replies that she left “for good” after she got out of jail for a DUI about 3 months ago. When Michelle got out of jail, the marriage continued to deteriorate, and her drug use continued to escalate. After a few more weeks, Michelle left to live with a new boyfriend in a nearby town. Her calls and visits to him and the children are probably the cause of Vance’s current problems at school, because he did well in day care and preschool. Ms. Farmer comments that this must be a very hard time for the family. She asks Mr. Tyler if he would like to talk to a family counselor about the problems with his wife. He replies that he is willing to do anything to help his children. Ms. Farmer makes a list of a few counseling centers in the area, along with the number for Al-Anon, and says she will ask the school counselor to start seeing Vance at school. Then the conversation shifts back to the issues in the classroom. Ms. Farmer explains to Vance that although he may feel upset, they will work together to help him achieve in school. Together, Ms. Farmer, Mr. Tyler, and Vance decide to implement a reward system, so that on days Vance does well, he can earn extra free-choice time. His father agrees to reward his improvements at home as well.

Question to Consider

What are this family’s strengths?

In first examining this case, notice the considerable number of stressors that Vance’s family is facing. However, turning your attention to this family’s strengths, notice several strong coping strategies they have developed. First, Mr. Tyler is very committed to his children’s success at school. He is as involved at school as he can be, given his demanding work schedule and his role as a single parent. He is also forthcoming with information when talking with the teacher, and obviously feels a level of trust in communicating with her. It also appears that he sets reasonable and clear expectations for his children. Finally, Mr. Tyler, Vance, and Nora seem close and have developed ways to meet their daily needs, in spite of their limited resources. It takes some training to see the strengths demonstrated by different families. Take a moment by means of Reflective Exercise 13.1 to consider what strengths the families you know demonstrate.

REFLECTIVE EXERCISE 13.1 Family Strengths

What are your family’s strengths? Are they similar or different from Vance’s family’s strengths?

Is it more difficult to find a family’s strengths when they are different from your own?

13.2 Working with the Family to Seek Help from the Community

Teachers often notice behavioral changes in the classroom when children are experiencing stress in their home environment. Yet how a child demonstrates the impact of a family problem is often difficult to predict or interpret. Children manifest changes in their behavior for many reasons; however, noticing a significant change in a child’s behavior should always trigger the teacher to consider whether there is a problem at home that needs attention. The child’s change in behavior can first be addressed directly with the child, by simply asking: “Is there anything you want to talk about?” during a private moment.

If a child discloses a family problem, it is important to be supportive and accepting, not judgmental. Simply acknowledging that you are there to listen can relieve a great deal of stress for a child. Referring the child to the school counselor, social worker, or psychologist for further assessment of the child may be helpful when behavioral changes occur, especially if the child’s behavior seems extreme or you suspect the child might be neglected or abused. When a child discloses problems the family is experiencing, the teacher should follow up with parents to determine what, if any, help is needed. When teachers reach out to parents in these circumstances, parents are often cautious. Parents who are undergoing stressful situations are often reluctant to talk to school personnel about their circumstances for fear of being judged or pitied. Furthermore, families who are from marginalized groups (e.g., low income, cultural or ethnic minorities) are often suspicious of school personnel who enquire into their personal life as a result of prior experiences with agencies that have discriminated against them (Boyd-Franklin, 2003). As is true with the various family stressors discussed in this chapter, it is crucial not to view the family with disdain or pity, but to search for their strengths and resiliencies. Many parents fear they will be blamed and seen as “less than” if school personnel know about their situation. Whether based on previous experiences or hearsay, this fear of judgment is a very real issue for parents who are responding to teachers’ well-meaning questions.

Conveying an open and nonjudgmental stance with families may seem simple and straightforward, but it often requires teachers to rethink how they might approach families. School personnel who have embraced the separation and remediation paradigms, as discussed in Chapter 2, may expect that students and parents will accommodate to the school’s viewpoint without resistance. When parents do not come when called or respond favorably to the school’s recommendations, parents may be viewed by school personnel as not caring, deficient, hard to reach, and as having little to offer to the education of their children (Comer, 2004; Lott, 2001).

When parents at first do not respond to phone calls or notes, make sure your communications are caring and nonjudgmental, and try not to leap to conclusions that the parents are deficient in some way. We recommend that if parents do not respond the first time they are called, that teachers continue to reach out and reiterate to parents/caregiv-ers that they are available to listen and may be able to help them get needed assistance. What are effective ways to invite families to disclose issues to you as a teacher? How do your words or actions help families develop trust with you? What words and actions should you avoid when trying to build trust with families? Consider the questions in Reflective Exercise 13.2.

REFLECTIVE EXERCISE 13.2 Teacher–Family Communication Skills

What are effective ways to invite families to disclose issues to you as a teacher?

How do your words or actions help families develop trust with you?

What words and actions should you avoid when trying to build trust with families?

Recall the communication skills that we discussed in Chapter 8 that can be used to help you build your relationship with students’ caregivers. These skills are equally applicable for talking with caregivers experiencing stress or crises. For example, when asking a caregiver to disclose sensitive information, adopting a physical posture of listening and attention is important. For most people, if you lean forward and make eye contact, they feel that you are listening to and accepting of them. Also, if you are surrounded by a large group of school staff, do not expect parents to feel comfortable or to disclose much. To reduce feelings of intimidation for parents, plan to keep the number of school staff attending meetings with you and a caregiver/ parent to a minimum. Privacy is also important, so be sure you are not meeting in a place with a lot of foot traffic or other interruptions. When listening, be sure to use furthering responses (e.g., nodding, using responses of affirmation such as “Yes” or “Okay”), ask open-ended questions, and refrain from replying with judging or blaming statements (e.g., “You really should think of seeking some help for this problem; your child is not doing well in school”). If people perceive that you are judging them for their personal problems, little will be disclosed, and they will be unlikely to allow you to help them. You may remember the discussion of these communication skills in Chapter 8. They are most essential to apply in dealing with families experiencing stress or crises.

13.3 Common Family Challenges

Families today face numerous stresses that can make parenting an even more difficult task. Dealing with natural disasters, financial problems, family violence, child maltreatment, or mental health problems, such as substance abuse, can create a very stressful family environment, which, in turn, can create stress for children’s lives in school. When families encounter these non-normative stressors (as discussed in Chapter 5), the family’s usual organization and roles are rendered “off-balance.” As a result, they often need assistance in a variety of areas to help them restabilize and function effectively. Also, keep in mind that families of all ethnic and most cultural groups can experience these problems. However, educators should familiarize themselves with the beliefs and practices of the cultural and ethnic groups represented in their schools to create strong positive relationships with families from diverse backgrounds (Boyd-Franklin, 2003; Boyd-Webb, 2003; Loue, 2003). In the following section, we describe several stressful circumstances that families may experience, discuss the impact of these circumstances on family functioning, and suggest some possible intervention strategies. In addition, we list a variety of school and community resources found in the Resources at the end of this chapter that teachers may consider when working with children and families in the school setting, as well as linking families in crisis to helping professionals.

Financial Problems

Although any family can experience financial stress, it has the most profound impact on working-class and poor families, who tend to have the fewest resources to fall back on. Poverty is defined by Raphael as “a condition that extends beyond the lack of income and goes hand in hand with a lack of power, humiliation and a sense of exclusion” (Raphael, 2005, p. 36). Seeing poverty in this way means that a considerable number of children and their families often feel ashamed and excluded from the institutions that are positioned to assist them. In contrast to 2000, when 16.1% lived in poverty, the percentage of American children who lived in poverty (defined as earning less than $22,162.00 for a family of four with two children by the U.S. Census Bureau) in 2010 increased to 19%, and one in four families in the United States with young children earned less than $25,000 a year (Children’s Defense Fund, 2011). With the current economic downturn, it is likely that even more children will endure living in impoverished conditions over the next few years.

Living in poverty often puts a great deal of stress on the family, making sustaining effective family functioning more challenging (as discussed in Chapters 4 and 6). For example, families who are living with financial strains are frequently more engaged with survival issues, such as keeping a roof over their heads and putting food on the table, rather than responding to notes from their children’s teachers. This should not cause the teacher to believe that the parents are uninterested in their child’s education, but that the parents are currently more focused on meeting basic needs. For some families, this situation is temporary, caused by loss of a job or unexpected expenses resulting from divorce, illness, natural disaster, or other life-altering event. In other cases, living in or near poverty is a long-term problem. In either case, family emotional resources are often stretched thin along with family income.

Families from any cultural group or socioeconomic class can experience financial distress and may handle stress differently, so generalizations are hard to make (Chow, Jafee, & Snowden, 2003). However, some characteristic reactions to family financial distress demonstrated by students are listed next to help teachers begin to think about what might be triggering a child’s atypical behavior. The child

■ May either act out aggressively or withdraw from friends

■ May have fewer extracurricular activities than before

■ May seem very upset over lost or broken items

■ May seem embarrassed about clothes, toys, or other social status items

■ May not invite other children over to his or her house

■ May become upset if any money is needed for field trips, and so on

■ May not have appropriate clothes for weather (e.g., coat, boots)

How might you respond to a student reacting to his or her family’s financial distress? Some useful tips for working with students or families in financial distress are as follows:

■ Be sensitive to lack of money for field trips, extra outings, and so on. You may wish to find out whether your PTA or other school group has money to cover such expenses.

■ Do not embarrass the child or parent by discussing their financial problems when other people are present.

■ If you notice the child seems hungry, underfed, or is not wearing clothes appropriate for the weather (e.g., has no winter coat), consult your school counselor or social worker to learn of ways to link the family with community resources. These can be symptoms of a financial crisis or possible signs of neglect.

■ Find out about other resources and strengths the family has and build on them. Families in financial crisis often feel ashamed of their circumstances. Hence, it is very important to recognize their positive attributes to enhance the parents’ feelings of self-worth and lessen their reluctance to work with you and the school.


About half of all first marriages in the United States end in divorce (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012). Each year, about 1 million American children under age 18 experiences the divorce of their parents. These rates have remained fairly stable since the early 1980s, following a dramatic increase during the 1970s. What these statistics mean for educators is that it is highly likely that many of your students will live in single-parent homes or blended families, and that you will have students in your classroom who are currently experiencing the divorce of their parents. Although rather commonplace in today’s society, divorce is a highly stressful experience for both parents and children. Although all families are unique and experience divorce and remarriage in different ways, when parents break up or remarry, children always experience a period of loss and grief. Some common consequences for children of divorce are

■ Reduction in family income

■ Moving to a new home, neighborhood, and school

■ Legal battles, often involving child custody

■ Having to learn two sets of rules for operating in two different homes

■ Trying to maintain loyalty to both parents

■ Confusion and sense of loss

■ Fear of not seeing one parent as often, or at all

■ Being used as a go-between to relay messages or, worse, as a “spy”

How might you respond to children and families who are experiencing a divorce? Following are some suggested actions to consider:

■ Acknowledge to the child, in private, that you are aware of the situation and are available to listen.

■ Keep classroom routines as “normal” and stable as possible. School is often the calm place within a storm for children.

■ Consider referring the child to your school counselor, social worker, or psychologist if he or she displays ongoing symptoms of sadness, anger, or becomes withdrawn.

■ Do not “take sides” with either parent. Understand that there are two sides to every story.

■ Be sure to stay in touch with both parents unless and until one of them is awarded sole custody of the child. Parents have the legal right to request and receive all school records and correspondence. If legal custody arrangements change, the parent is responsible for notifying school personnel. Always keep a copy of any legal documents that parents bring to school, and share a copy with your principal, school counselor, social worker, or other designated person.

Death in the Family or Community

Of all possible family or community tragedies that teachers may encounter, death may be the most difficult to respond to. Death is, of course, a natural part of the life cycle; however, it continues to be a taboo topic in many cultures and usually takes a significant emotional toll on a family. When a student faces a death in his or her family or close social network, many types of reactions are possible and normal. Some children may react with anger toward the deceased, whereas others may primarily exhibit sadness or withdrawal, or even blame themselves (Kübler-Ross, 1997). Many factors influence how children respond to the death of a person close to them, and include the following:

■ How the person died. Was it a sudden death, or a death following a long illness? Was it someone the child’s age, such as a classmate? Sudden, violent losses (unanticipated), rather than losses that result with aging (anticipated), are often more difficult for children. Being able to say goodbye to a loved one sometimes helps children cope better with that person’s death. When deaths are unanticipated, as in the sudden death of a classmate, children may need crisis intervention services.

■ How well the child knew the person, or how often he or she saw the deceased. Obviously, the loss of a parent, sibling, or other very close family member is likely to be more difficult to grieve than the loss of someone who is not as close. The death of a parent can also have long-term financial implications.

■ The way the family explained the death and dealt with the aftermath. Culture plays an important role in determining how a family deals with death and grief. Rituals of closure, such as funerals, wakes, or sitting shiva, can be comforting and help restore order following the chaotic time after a loved one dies (Kübler-Ross, 1997). If the family does not allow the child to express a full range of post-trauma emotion or denies the death, the grieving process for the child can become extremely difficult.

■ The age and developmental level of the child. Very young children do not have an understanding of time or permanency and may expect the dead person to return (Piaget, 2001).

Following the death of a loved one, children generally go through several stages of grief (Kübler-Ross, 1997). These stages are not linear, meaning a person can go back and forth through the stages many times before finally gaining a sense of peace and acceptance. The stages of grief are different for each individual and can vary even for individuals according to the circumstances of the loss. The five stages of grief identified by Kübler-Ross are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The stage of denial usually means that the person is still in shock, and the true nature of the loss has not yet “sunk in.” The person may feel numb or emotionless. This stage can last quite a while, particularly if the death was sudden. Anger, especially in children, can include the feeling that the deceased has abandoned them. Anger is an emotion that is often misunderstood; as a result, it is sometimes discouraged. However, anger is a very normal reaction to loss and should not be stigmatized. During the bargaining phase, people, especially children, who are still “magical thinkers,” sometimes try to bargain with God to return their loved one. Depression and extreme sadness usually signal that the impact of the loss is being truly felt. This stage can last a long time and, in some cases, may require attention from a mental health professional if it continues to interfere with normal activities after a period of several months. Once the depression improves, a grieving person may feel a sense of acceptance of the loss. They may retain a sense of sadness, but are now able to return to their normal way of life and integrate the loss into their life story.

In working with bereaved students,

■ Allow students to express sadness, anger, and so on, without judging them.

■ Refer the student to the school counselor for extra support.

■ Try to have the students’ schedule remain as normal as possible; maintaining routines can be very comforting to children.

■ Consider having other students in the class draw pictures or make cards for the child and his or her family to express support and care.

■ Do not be surprised to see some regressive behavior (e.g., thumb sucking, crying easily) for a while after the loss.

■ Most school systems have crisis intervention services/programs for losses that are sudden and unanticipated, such as in the sudden death of a classmate. However, these are immediate interventions. Your ongoing attention to children’s adjustment is critical.

■ Be prepared for questions about death and loss from your students. The school counselor, school psychologist, or local hospice staff can help you prepare to discuss these issues.

Family Violence

The American Psychological Association (2012) defines family violence as “acts of physical, sexual, or psychological maltreatment, aggression, and violence that occur in a family unit whereby one family member with more power or authority attempts to gain control over another family member” (cited in Boyd-Webb, 2003, p. 316). Women represent 73% of all victims of family violence in the United States, and 76% of perpetrators are male. About half of all violent crime in the United States between 1998 and 2012 involved violence between spouses, and another 11% occurred between parents and children (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2012).

Although the number of violent incidents between family members has decreased since the mid-1990s (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2012), family violence is still a widespread societal problem that continues to affect schoolchildren. Children who witness violence between their parents or other adult caretakers are at greater risk for depression, anxiety, and aggressive behavior (Jaffe & Sudermann, 1995; Sternberg, Lamb, Guterman, & Abbott, 2006). In addition, children who witness violent acts are at risk for developing physical health problems, such as asthma, gastrointestinal disorders, allergies, and headaches (Graham-Bermann & Seng, 2005).

The probability that a teacher will have a child in the classroom who has witnessed at least one act of violence in his or her home is extremely high. Graham-Bermann and Seng (2005) surveyed children in a low-income area in Michigan and discovered that 46.7% had been present during one or more violent incidents in their homes by the time they entered preschool. If a teacher suspects a child is witnessing domestic violence at home, the teacher should contact the school counselor, principal, psychologist, or social worker immediately. Most states require educators to report suspected domestic violence to child protective services. In working with children whose families may have experienced violence, consider the following guidelines:

■ Safety is always primary. Do not meet alone with any person you know has, or is suspected of having, a history of violent behavior. Always have others present and meet in an open and public place. Do not go to the home of any person who you suspect may have been violent toward others.

■ Be sure you have the most recent copies of any restraining orders and emergency custody decrees on file, and leave explicit information on this matter for substitute teachers.

■ People who are victims of domestic violence may go to great lengths to cover up the violence in their home, sometimes out of fear of reprisal or personal shame. If someone discloses violence to you, he or she is taking a risk and must be treated with the utmost respect.

■ Abused partners are at the highest risk for attacks, including homicide, just after leaving a violent situation. Monitor the child carefully during this time, especially on field trips and when leaving for the day.

Child Maltreatment

Unfortunately, many children not only witness family violence, but also are its victims. In 2009, approximately 3 million child abuse reports were made involving an estimated 6 million children (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2012). An average of 5 American children die every day from abuse, and 3 out of 4 of them are under the age of 4 (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2012). Teachers play an important role in identifying and reporting child maltreatment (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2012).

As defined by the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS), maltreatment of children is organized into the following types: neglected, physically abused, sexually abused, psychologically maltreated, medically neglected, and other (e.g., abandonement, threats of harm, congenital drug addiction; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2012). The psychological damage inflicted by neglect and emotional abuse can be equally as serious as physical maltreatment (Kagan, 2004). Children who suffer from parental neglect often develop insecurities about how others will respond to them. Milder cases of children suffering from neglect include symptoms such as clinging to adults, being very shy and withdrawn, and being fearful of new situations. When there is more severe neglect or maltreatment, the symptoms are more serious, and include rage, aggression, lying, stealing, and lack of concern for others (Cassidy, 1998; Kagan, 2004; Karen, 1998).

Neglect from caregivers early in life can also lead to slower brain development, reduced language skills, and difficulty interpreting social cues in later life (Cassidy, 1999; Karen, 1998; Karr-Morse & Wiley, 1997). Some researchers believe that many learning disabilities may stem from early parental neglect or abuse (Karr-Morse & Wiley, 1997). Children who have been neglected or abused may appear to be less attentive or more aggressive in the classroom. Abused or neglected children sometimes exhibit symptoms of inattention or hyperactivity, when in fact they are suffering from the effects of trauma. Common indicators of family violence or child maltreatment demonstrated by children are as follows:

■ Appears fearful or hyper vigilant

■ Has unexplained bruises, burns, or other injuries not common among children in their age group, or in unusual places (e.g., neck, stomach, thigh)

■ Acts out sexually, talks about or draws sexually explicit situations

■ Complains of genital pain or itching

■ Shifts from usual behavior to being withdrawn or aggressive

■ Often comes to school dirty, hungry, or dressed inappropriately for the weather

■ Reports going home to an empty house (younger children)

■ Is avoidant of police or other authority figures

■ Acts too mature for age, such as taking care of classmates

■ Is anxious about being picked up at school by certain individuals

To work with children who might be abused or neglected, consider the following:

■ Children who have been abused often have trouble with trusting adults to care for them. Be extremely careful not to break promises, no matter how small, to build a trusting relationship.

■ Depending on the circumstances surrounding the abuse, children may be fearful of the dark, of being alone in small spaces, of being alone in the bathroom, or of certain types of people (e.g., tall men). Be alert to these issues and report them to the non-offending parent and mental health care provider for the child. Do not punish the child for a fearful reaction.

■ Children who have been sexually abused sometimes act out their abuse on other children. If this occurs, contact the child’s parent and your principal right away. Calmly explain to the child that this behavior is not acceptable at school, but avoid being overly harsh or punitive with the child, as he or she is acting out a traumatic memory, not being intentionally malicious.

One of your major obligations as a teacher is to recognize and report situations in which you suspect maltreatment of a child. However, you must use caution when developing a hypothesis about what is happening in a child’s home. On the one hand, educators must be conscientious about reporting suspected child maltreatment or family violence; on the other hand, you must be sure not to alienate the family by making erroneous reports. This requires extreme delicacy and diplomacy.

So what should you do if you suspect a child has been maltreated? First, make sure that your suspicions are based on facts and that you have reasonable grounds for concern. Second, be aware of your school’s policy and procedures regarding reporting child maltreatment within the school. For example, in some schools, you may be required to report to the school counselor, social worker, nurse, or principal, depending on school procedures. Some schools have developed the policy that the principal or another person (e.g., a school counselor or social worker) has been designated as the person required to place the call to social services, although the teacher is responsible for notifying this person of a problem. In other schools, the policy is that teachers must make their own reports to social services. Third, call the local or state child protection agency. If you are unsure of what agency to call, contact your school counselor, social worker, or principal. Every state requires people who have any childcare responsibility to report maltreatment. If you do not report it, you are violating the law and are subject to civil or criminal punishment. When you are making a direct report, you must have the following information on hand:

■ Child’s name, date of birth, and home address

■ Parents’ or caregivers’ names, addresses, and telephone numbers

■ Suspected perpetrator’s name and any contact information you have

■ Names of siblings who live with the child and where they are in school

If you are missing any of this information, make the report anyway. Having complete information makes investigating alleged child maltreatment cases easier, but you should not delay reporting a potentially dangerous situation if you are missing some contact information.

As with so many issues in society, an ounce of prevention in family violence is worth a pound of cure. Many states have implemented formal curricula designed to help children identify and avoid potentially dangerous situations and give them skills for reporting abuse to trusted adults. If your school system does not have a formal program, you can take the initiative in teaching your class about safety planning. This might involve talking with your students about (a) how (and when) to call 911, (b) the differences between “good” and “bad” touches, and (c) how to tell an adult they trust if someone hurts or scares them. Many Web-based resources are available for teachers interested in developing such prevention programs that can be accessed through the government clearinghouse (e.g.,

Substance Abuse

The first exposure some children have to alcohol and other drugs may be before birth. Mothers who use alcohol or other drugs during pregnancy pass the drugs onto the fetus, which can cause birth defects such as mental retardation, learning disorders, and behavioral problems (Steinhausen & Spohr, 1998). Because of the stigma and possible legal repercussions for pregnant women admitting to substance abuse problems, the number of children who are affected by prenatal drug and alcohol abuse is difficult to determine. However, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (1990) estimates that between 1.3 and 2.2 out of every 1,000 live births every year in the United States have fetal alcohol syndrome, and another 3 or 4 per 1,000 have some less serious birth defects caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol. More recent reports suggest that the number of women who drink alcohol during pregnancy has remained relatively stable (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2012). However, the number of children who are born addicted to other substances, especially opioids, is climbing steadily and may be of epidemic proportion (CDC, 2012).

Children who are living in families where substance abuse is an issue face many challenges regardless of whether they were exposed to drugs and alcohol before birth. According to Boyd-Webb (2003), some common stressors children encounter in substance-abusing families include

■ Living in dangerous neighborhoods, often with unstable housing arrangements and frequent moves

■ Financial strain and often homelessness

■ Lack of family or other social support systems

■ Parents with poor coping and management skills

■ Addicted parents are sometimes so consumed with the need to obtain and use drugs that children may be neglected, abandoned, or abused

■ Parents who have active drug use problems may be arrested and jailed often, leaving children as wards of the state if no relatives can care for them

■ Family life is often chaotic, leaving children anxious and unsettled (p. 288)

At school, the anxiety and chaos of living in a substance-abusing family can manifest in many different types of behavior. Teachers might observe children sleeping in class, being disorganized or poorly prepared for class, seeming distracted or daydreaming, or acting out aggressively. Children in substance abusing families may also seem “older than their years” and may assume a care-taking role (Loue, 2003).

In the case of substance abuse, families are often defensive or secretive about the problem, largely because of fear of legal reprisal or social embarrassment. If you have established a positive relationship with a parent, he or she may be more likely to discuss the issue with you. However, many factors determine whether a person is ready to enter treatment. Some general guidelines in working with children of families with substance abuse problems include

■ As the child’s classroom teacher, you can provide a positive environment at school by keeping daily schedules consistent to counterbalance a chaotic home life, being firm but fair with school rules, and being a listening ear for the child when needed.

■ Often, homes where one or more people struggle with addictions are not well organized. Rules and schedules, which are highly reassuring to young children, are not well established, and the child may feel like he or she is living in a whirlwind of emotion, conflict, and chaos.

■ Families with addictions often have financial and legal problems as well as the addiction itself, which add stress to the child’s environment.

■ Addicted adults often suffer from mood swings and may have erratic behaviors. Teachers can help ameliorate children’s stress in these situations by being extremely organized, consistent, and compassionate.

■ Do not make different rules or exceptions for a child based solely on a parent’s addiction. Treat the child the same way you treat all of the other students. This helps the child feel “normal” and lessens his or her possible feelings of not fitting in because of family difficulties.

Large-Scale Crises: Natural Disasters and Acts of Terrorism

Although fires, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and other forms of natural disasters have always been a part of the human experience, the effect that living through one of these frightening events might have on children has only recently been acknowledged by professionals.

The struggles of child survivors of extreme weather events, such as the tsunami in Southeast Asia in 2005 and Hurricane Katrina in September 2006, brought international attention to the difficulties that children sometimes face in the wake of such events.

Acts of war or terrorism are often very similar to natural disasters in scope and consequences. Daily routines are interrupted, people may be killed or injured, and resources that are usually easily available may become scarce. Children often react in similar ways to large-scale disasters, whether natural or created by humans. In the case of acts of war or terrorism, however, children may need more reassurance and may have more questions about why the person or people responsible chose their course of action.

Many factors contribute to how well a child copes with a large-scale crisis. Children are generally highly resilient and recover at least as quickly as adults following a disaster (Kirschke & van Vliet, 2005). However, some children do suffer with various emotional disturbances in the aftermath of traumatic events. According to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) (2005), some common symptoms children may exhibit following a large-scale crisis disaster include

■ In young children, thumb sucking, bed-wetting, reverting to baby-like behaviors, eating more or less than normal, nightmares, irritability

■ In older children (ages 6 to 12), aggression or withdrawal, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, clinging to adults, distractible, irritable behavior, nightmares

■ In teenagers, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, less interest in favorite activities, increase in irritability, headaches, and stomach upset

Children who exhibit some or all of these symptoms generally begin to feel better in 2 weeks to a month. If symptoms persist, or cause major disruptions in a child’s school or family life, teachers should advise parents to seek help from a licensed mental health professional.

School personnel can do several things to help children recover from the terrifying experience of a large-scale crisis. Schools often have crisis response teams in place, made up of school and emergency personnel, to deal with the aftermath of traumatic events. Crisis plans are developed by crisis response teams and are specific, written documentation of what should be done in the case of an emergency. If your school does not have a crisis plan, talk to your administrative team about creating one. Crisis response plans defuse much of the distress of deciding how to handle a trauma by giving clear guidelines to teachers and providing a list of support resources available in the community. Some general guidelines for handling the aftermath of a large-scale crisis in the classroom include

■ Keep school schedules and routines as normal as possible. Decreasing the amount of change and chaos is critical following a disaster.

■ Allow children to talk about their feelings or create artwork about the event and discuss how similarly you all feel about the event. Normalize the children’s feelings of anxiety and sadness, and let them know that most people feel better within a month or so after such an event.

■ Talk about child survivors of other disasters who have now returned to their usual routines. Illustrate that, although it is not easy to do, people do return to “normal” after traumatic events.

■ Communicate with parents as often as possible. Share information from credible sources, such as the Red Cross or NASP, about helping children cope.

■ Talk about healthy ways to relieve stress and cope with difficult situations.

In Reflective Exercise 13.3, please identify the particular problems that Vance’s family faces, and consider how these problems might be affecting Vance’s in-school behavior. Also, if you were his teacher, what might you intervene?

REFLECTIVE EXERCISE 13.3 Impact of Stressors and Challenges on Family

Which problem areas affect Vance’s family?

How might these stressors affect his behavior at school?

As his teacher, what would you do to help?

Vance’s family is struggling with divorce, financial problems, and substance abuse. Vance is acting out his feelings of distress and lack of control by trying to control other children. The distress also contributes to his becoming easily frustrated and very distract-ible. His teacher can refer him to the school counselor and refer his family to services in the community for family counseling. The teacher can also work with Vance in the classroom to better control his distress by (a) rewarding him for positive coping by talking to her when he feels upset instead of acting out; (b) allowing him to take short “time-outs” as needed; or (c) assigning grade-level appropriate reading about dealing with emotions positively or anger management.

13.4 Assessing Available Resources

As stated in Chapter 4, families have multiple functions and roles. They raise and socialize children; provide food, clothing, and shelter to members; provide daily care and spiritual and emotional support to each other; shape members’ personal identity; share recreational activities; and provide life skills to members. All these functions are critical in the life of a family, especially to children within the family. When a crisis occurs, some or all of these areas of function can be affected negatively by the stress of the changes caused by the crisis. Students may exhibit a need for extra help and support because of the stress experienced by the family and the temporary loss of family functioning in one or more areas. Family resources may become overtaxed and may lead to violence between adults or in the form of child abuse or neglect. To facilitate a family’s return to effective functioning, teachers must be aware of existing resources within the school or the larger community that might assist them. The following sections list various resources commonly found in schools and communities.

Inside the School

Often, professionals within the school can be helpful to families in crisis or to teachers seeking to assist those families. Although each school, in all probability, has its own set of rules about how and to whom to refer a student or student’s family, these professionals can be helpful to families in times of crisis in a variety of ways. For example, school counselors, school social workers, and school psychologists can provide emotional support during and after a crisis and offer further referrals for such care. Nurses and social workers can assist students and families with health-care issues, including helping families

gain access to specialized care for children with disabilities. Special educators and speech pathologists can assist families of children with special needs to identify and gain access to services that can help their child be successful in school as well as help the families connect with support services for emotional needs they may have as a result of the child’s condition. Administrators, counselors, psychologists, special educators, reading specialists, mentor teachers, attendance officers, and behavior specialists can assist teachers in managing a child’s behavioral or academic needs in the classroom, and can act as consultants for problem solving with teachers and families as well. As a result, teachers are well advised to identify and contact these school-based professionals early and often. Although titles and functions may differ between states and school districts, most schools employ some or all of the following professionals: counselors, psychologists, social workers, nurses, truant officers or attendance coordinators, special education teachers and directors, behavior resource teachers, reading specialists, speech and language pathologists, principals, assistant principals, and mentor teachers. Teachers should become familiar with the professionals in their buildings and districts. Find out what each person’s specific responsibilities include and how to go about referring students to that person.

In the Community

In many communities in the United States, the local United Way produces and distributes a directory of community service agencies. Usually, the United Way directory includes descriptions of the services provided, hours of operation, and location. These directories are tremendously helpful to teachers and others who must refer families to a variety of local services. If your community has a United Way directory, much of the legwork described here is already done for you, and you need only to obtain and read the most recent version of the directory to get an overview of local resources. (Note: Because United Way determines to which community agencies funding is given, there is some concern that agencies in low-income communities may not be supported adequately.) If your community does not have such an agency that has developed such a service directory, your job becomes a bit more complex. You must first find out what types of service agencies exist in your area. Most communities have at least some of the types of services listed in Figure 13.1.

Once you have identified key local resources, you should gather the following information about each agency:

■ What services are provided?

■ What fees are charged?

■ What are the hours of operation?

■ Where are they located?

■ Are translators available for non-English speakers or deaf parents?

■ Who is the main contact person within the agency for the school?

■ Is transportation available? Are they on a bus or train line?

Having a personal relationship with key agency staff is often crucial for helping families gain access to services. If your school has a social worker or school counselor, in all likelihood, that person has cultivated such relationships with local agency personnel and can guide teachers to the key people in each agency. Furthermore, in some schools or districts there are policies concerning which staff members may make referrals for services outside of school, and teachers are encouraged to defer to the school’s social worker or counselor to streamline the referral process. Be sure to become aware of your school’s policies.

Figure 13.1 Types of Community Service Organizations


In Reflective Exercise 13.4, we ask you to consider what resources within your school or in your community might be available to you and the families.

REFLECTIVE EXERCISE 13.4 Linking Family with School and Community Resources

What resources within your school or in your community might be available to you and the families?

Do you know how and when to contact them?

With what resources might you link Vance’s family?

(Answer: Vance’s family could be connected with a counseling service for divorce counseling. If available, his father might benefit from parenting classes. If their financial problems are serious, they might also benefit from using either emergency aid from the Department of Children and Families Services or from consumer counseling services.)

13.5 Engaging with Families in Crisis

Regardless of whether a crisis currently exists, engaging with families is not a discrete, one-time occurrence. As stated many times in previous chapters, collaborative family–school relationships are built over time using a variety of skills and methods. Hopefully, the teacher has already built a respectful and caring relationship with the family prior to the family facing a crisis so that helping the family now find and access school- and community-based resources is far easier because the family and teacher already trust and understand each other.

Once a crisis surfaces, whether it is a school-based issue with the child or a family-based issue, the teacher must use her or his communication skills and the strength of her or his relationship with the family to be of help. When the teacher and family are racially or culturally different, the issue is particularly critical. Because of a long history of maltreatment, discrimination, and abuse of minority and low-income people by the European American and more affluent people in this country, building trust between a Caucasian middle-class teacher and a (for example) low-income African American family takes more effort on the part of the teacher to prove that he or she is trustworthy and has the child’s and family’s best interests in mind (Boyd-Franklin, 2003; Gibson & Abrams, 2003).

When engaging with families who are experiencing a crisis, whether it is a mental health problem, loss of a parent’s job, or a natural disaster, keep in mind that people in crisis may not respond the same way as they did prior to the crisis, or in the same way another person would in the same circumstance. Common effects of experiencing a crisis are numbness or feeling inhibited in your ability to experience and express emotions, fear, helplessness, and shame (Brewin, 2001).

When speaking with families in crisis, remember to be a good listener—ask for clarification when needed, probe for more information when appropriate, and paraphrase to show you are hearing their message. Also, it is important to identify the underlying emotions parents are feeling. For example, a teacher might respond to a story about a family member’s death by saying, “It sounds like this has been a very sad and difficult time for you and your family.” Acknowledging and naming their emotions can help people recognize and clarify their own feelings and let them know you truly comprehend the situation. Expressing your own feelings about the situation as a means of supporting the family is also appropriate. By expressing genuine caring for the family, you build trust and facilitate communication with its members.

If appropriate, a teacher may choose at this point to refer the family to another professional in the school or to a community-based service agency. Crisis situations often lower a person’s abilities to remember facts and issues, so be sure to write down all relevant information about the referral for a family member. Caregivers in crisis may anger more easily than usual, so take care not to sound judgmental or blaming when making referrals. Use the blocking blame skills described in Chapter 11 to avoid making a parent feel that you are accusing him or her in some way.

After making the referral, create a plan to follow up with the caregiver/parent about his or her progress in accessing services. Remember that, unless you ask the caregiver to sign a form granting permission to obtain information from a community agency, you will not be able to get any feedback from the agency as to whether the family has made an appointment or has received services. If a family has not followed up on your recommendation, you should contact the family and ask what you can do to help them gain access to the services or enquire about any barriers they may have encountered. In some cases, you may need to make the appointment for the family and help them arrange transportation. However, you must also remember that families cannot be forced to follow a school professional’s recommendations. Creating negative consequences for not following your recommendations will not make family members more likely to comply and will have a negative impact on your relationship with them. By means of Reflective Exercise 13.5, identify the steps the members of the school staff took to respond to the Tyler family’s crisis.

REFLECTIVE EXERCISE 13.5 Responding to a Family Crisis

What steps did Ms. Farmer take to help Mr. Tyler?

Which of her words or actions do you believe facilitated communication most?

How do you think you would have handled the situation?

What would be the most difficult aspect of the conversation for you?

As you probably noticed, Ms. Farmer did not jump to conclusions about Vance’s behavior. She listened carefully and was open to input from his father and from Vance. She worked with the family in a nonjudgmental way to facilitate collaborative problem solving.

13.6 Community and School Service-Delivery Models

Creating a network of community resources means teachers can help families respond to stressors that can affect their children’s schooling. The efforts of classroom teachers to link families to community services can bring about remarkable changes in children’s overall academic and psychosocial development and the families’ ability to care for and rear their children. As individual teachers and other school personnel try to help children and families confront stressors in their life, they often develop ongoing relationships with staff at community agencies. These relationships have varying degrees of formality, but many are helpful and function smoothly to help schools reach out to and support families. Although creating these relationships is important and beneficial for schools and families, many communities are formalizing these relationships into a continuum of community service–delivery models.

Some schools and school districts have developed specific community partnership initiatives that are systematic and ongoing. These School–Family–Community Partnerships are action teams organized at the school level or the district level and are composed of members of the school community and the larger community (Epstein, 2010). Other school districts have developed Full-Service Community School models that bring community agencies and schools together into one entity (Dryfoos, 2000; Dryfoos & Maguire, 2002; Dyrfoos, Quinn, & Barkin, 2005). Each of these models is discussed in more detail in the following section.

School–Family–Community Partnerships

School–Family–Community Partnerships are structured ways to organize school efforts to meet the needs of students and families. The National Network of Partnership Schools (NNPS) developed the model under the direction of Joyce Epstein, professor of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University (Epstein, 2010). Since the early part of the 21st century, these partnerships have grown in number, and there are now School–Family–Community Partnerships in 550 schools from 28 states (Hutchins & Sheldon, 2012).

Family–School–Community Partnerships are based on improving student achievement. The first step in creating these partnerships is to form an action team made up of school personnel and community agency representatives and can be organized at the school, in the school district, or in the state department of education. The action team is responsible for developing specific plans for the partnership and getting the work of family–school–community collaboration started. Because the collaboration is different across communities, these plans vary. However, according to Vogel (2006), these partnerships usually aim to change the interaction of the school, family, and community in several ways. First, schools can redefine family involvement in schools. Although many schools define family involvement as getting the parents to visit the school, it can be much more extensive than parents attending a book fair or PTA meeting. For example, the school might help parents improve their childrearing skills or get parents more involved in decision making about their children’s immediate educational program or state-level initiatives. Changing the ways that schools collaborate with the community, which involves coordinating resources and services for families, students, and the school with businesses, agencies, and other groups, and providing services to the community, is also important. Support and encouragement for school personnel, family members, and community partners and building relationships are crucial as these shifts in school, family, and community involvement are made.

Some detailed and ongoing research efforts have shown that School–Family–Community Partnerships yield positive results. The NNPS ( at Johns Hopkins University has conducted studies since 2005 that have shown that family, community, and school partnerships improve students’ achievement and other indicators of success (Epstein, 2010). By improving community collaboration, schools addressed the problems of more of the families who have traditionally been considered “hard to reach” families (Sheldon, 2003). As discussed in Chapter 7, the success of family–school–community collaboration efforts means that traditional ideas of community–school relationships must be reconsidered. The school is no longer positioned to address only educational questions but also to facilitate the development of children in a much more systemic and profound way. This requires changing the way that schools have traditionally reached out to families, but, moreover, this shift requires thinking about education differently. According to Joyce Epstein, founder and director of NNPS:

It’s nice to have parents feel more comfortable in the school, or have local stores support the football team. But considering the depth of resources that parental and community involvement can bring to a school, it’s a mistake to pass on the opportunity to harness this energy to provide a better education. (Cited in Vogel, 2006, p. 68)

Full-Service Community Schools

Full-Service Community Schools combine quality education and comprehensive support services at the same site. In their book Community Schools in Action, Dryfoos, Quinn, and Barkin (2005) describe the full-service model, in which children are provided high-quality education through individualized instruction, team-teaching, cooperative learning, parent involvement, and a healthy school climate. Support services, such as childcare, health screenings, dental programs, nutrition education, crisis intervention, community mentoring, mental health services, and basic welfare assistance, are included at the school. These schools operate at longer hours and through the summer. Full-service schools are organized according to the presenting needs of children and families in a particular school community, such that no two full-service schools are the same (Dryfoos, Quinn, & Barkin, 2005). More recently, however, the DeWitt-Wallace Reader’s Digest Extended Services Schools Initiative selected four full-service school models as exemplary (as cited in Dryfoos, Quinn, & Barkin, 2005). Full-service schools can take a variety of forms. For example, the following initiatives were recognized:

Children’s Aid Society Community Schools

The Children’s Aid Society Community Schools partner a community agency with a school system. Each community school has a built-in primary health center and mental health services. Two schools were designed with family resource centers and after-school activities (Moses & Coltoff, 1999).

University-Assisted Community Schools

The University-Assisted Community Schools partner the University of Pennsylvania with the West Philadelphia Improvement Corps (WEPIC). The resulting partnership, called the Center for Community Partnerships (, was based on bringing together university faculty, students, principals, and teachers to transform school buildings into community centers (Somerfield, 1996).

Beacon Schools

Developed in New York City, Beacon Schools provide grants to community-based agencies to go into school buildings and open them to the neighborhood from early morning until late evening throughout the year. Each of the 76 schools is different. After-school programs, family and cultural events, health centers, drug-prevention programs, small business programs, tutoring, literacy, and parent education are examples of the on-site services offered (Dryfoos, Quinn, & Barkin, 2005).

Bridges to Success

Founded by the United Way, Bridges to Success partners public and nonprofit agencies with educational programs to establish schools as learning and community centers. In this model, local United Way agencies extend their services into schools. Each school has a council that plans and organizes services and is made up of the principal and other school staff, service providers, parents, and community members. A wide variety of services have been offered, including health and dental care, case management, after-school activities, mental health services, community-service learning, tutoring, and job-readiness training (United Way of America, 1999, Research evidence suggests that full-service schools have many benefits. In these schools, students are less truant and mobile and have higher academic achievement than are children in comparable schools without social services on-site (Whalen, 2002). Other research shows that full-service schools can also improve parent involvement, teacher involvement, counseling services, and parent development (Boston Children’s Institute, 2003).


The connection between children’s health and well-being and their academic achievement is clear (Adelman & Taylor, 2000; Whalen, 2002). Learning is optimal when children’s needs are met and their families are not worried about financial problems, physical or mental health issues, or other problems. Teachers connect with students in schools every day, so they are in a unique position to help children and families who are experiencing stressors. Because schools are not always expected to help families in crisis, teachers may find it challenging at first to do so. Furthermore, the enormity and range of emotions faced by families in crisis can make helping these families seem overwhelming.

In this chapter, we describe the steps educators can take to link families with effective community supports. Increasingly, schools are also being called on to provide a wide range of services systematically to children and families. Ideas about family–school–community collaboration have been evolving since the beginning of the 21st century. Therefore, models that go beyond the efforts of the classroom teacher to more system-wide efforts are also needed. Dryfoos, Quinn, and Barkin (2005) predict, “We can see the emergence of creative ideas and partnerships, and, in the future, we can expect many more new versions and visions of community schools” (p. 17).

Activities and Questions

1. What are ways that teachers/school staff can facilitate communication with children and families about their challenges without intimating or alienating them?

2. When you identify a problem that a family is facing, how do you go about identifying community agencies and helping families to access their assistance?

3. What are examples of “full services” programs, and how might they be beneficial in your school community?

4. Because of your role as a teacher, you must plan how to build support for two children whose families recently immigrated to the United States. You know that the families are struggling economically, and are also trying to learn a new language and culture. How might you support these children and their families?

5. Develop a local resource file using the categories in Figure 13.1 to organize information to support your work with children and families. Share your resources with others in the group.

6. Find a copy of your state’s statutes regarding child maltreatment. Itemize the steps you are to take in reporting suspected abuse, then discuss with a teaching colleague your responsibility and its implications.


Books for Children about Divorce

Brown, L. K., & Brown, M. (1986). Dinosaurs divorce. Boston: Little, Brown.

Heegard, M. (1991). When Mom and Dad separate: Children can learn to cope with grief from divorce. Minneapolis: Woodlands Press.

Heegard, M. (1993). When a parent marries again: Children can learn to cope with family change. Minneapolis: Woodlands Press. Heegard’s books are interactive coloring and reading books for elementary-age children to use with adult guidance.

Levins, S., & Langdo, B. (2005). Was it the chocolate pudding? A story for little kids about divorce. Alexandria, VA: APA Press.

Macgregor, C. (2004). The divorce help book for teens. Atascadero, CA: Impact Publishers.

Masurel, C. (2003). Two homes. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick. For very young children.

Pickhardt, C. (1997). The case of the scary divorce: A Jackson Skye mystery. Washington, DC: Magination Press. This book is designed for children about 9 to 11 years old and is written as a mystery story in which the “detective” lends support to a friend whose parents have separated.

Prokop, M. (1996). Divorce happens to the nicest kids: A self-help book for kids. Warren, OH: Algera House Publishers. For older elementary or early middle school students.

Books for Children about Family Violence and Child Maltreatment

Burber, L. (1995). Family violence: The Lucent overview series. Hoboken, NJ: Lucent. For children ages 12 to 18.

Davis, D. (1984). Something is wrong at my house. Seattle, WA: Parenting Press. For children ages 5 to 10.

Holmes, M. (2000). A terrible thing happened: A story for children who have witnessed violence or trauma. Washington, DC: Magination Press. For children ages 4 to 8.

Namka, L. (1995). The mad family gets their mad out: Fifty things your family can say and do to express anger constructively. Minneapolis: Educational Media Corp. For parents and children ages 4 to 12.

Schor, H. (2002). A place for Starr: A story of hope for children experiencing family violence. Indianapolis, IN: Kidsrights. For children ages 5 to 10.

Velasquez, R. (1998). Rina’s family secret: A Roosevelt High School book. Houston, TX: Pinata Books. For children ages 11 to 14.

Books for Children about Family Substance Abuse

Black, C. (1997). My dad loves me, my dad has a disease: A child’s view: Living with addiction (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Mac.

Brotherton, M. (2006). Buzz: A graphic reality check for teens dealing with drugs and alcohol (FlipSwitch series). Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah.

Hastings, J. (2000). An elephant in the living room: The children’s book. Center City, MN: Hazelden.

Heegard, M. (1993). When a family is in trouble: Children can cope with grief from drug and alcohol addiction. Chapmanville, WV: Woodland Press.

Hornik-Beer, E. (2001). For teenagers living with a parent who abuses alcohol/drugs. Lincoln, NE:

Kulp, J., & Kulp, L. (2000). The best I can be: Living with fetal alcohol syndromeor–effects. Minneapolis: Better Endings New Beginnings.

Leite, E., & Espeland, P. (1989). Different like me: A book for teens who worry about their parent’s use of alcohol/drugs. Center City, MN: Hazelden.

Books for Children about Natural Disasters and Other Large-Scale Disasters

Mark, B., & Layton, M. (1997). I’ll know what to do: A kid’s guide to natural disasters. Washington, DC: Magination Press.

Holmes, M. (2000). A terrible thing happened: A story for children who have witnessed violence or trauma. Washington, DC: Magination Press.

Masterson Elementary Students. (2002). September 12th: We knew everything would be alright. St. Mary, FL: Tangerine Press.

Schwartz, T. (2002). The day America cried. Briarwood, NY: Enduring Freedom Press.

Winter, J. (2004). September roses. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Books for Children about Disabilities

Meyer, D. (Ed.). (2005). The sibling slam book: What it’s really like to have a brother or sister with special needs. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine.

Penn, S. (2005). Disabled fables: Aesop’s fables. Retold and illustrated by artists with developmental disabilities. Long Island City, NY: Star Bright.

Porterfield, K. M. (2003). Straight Talk about learning disabilities (Straight Talk about). New York: Facts on File.

Thomas, P. (2005). Don’t call me special: A first look at disability. Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s.

Woloson, E. (2003). My friend Isabelle. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine.

Books for Children about Death/Dying

Thomas, P. & Harker, L. (2001). I miss you: A first look at death. Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s Educational Series.

Mundy, M. & Alley, R. W. (2010). Sad isn’t so bad: A good-grief guidebook for kids dealing with loss. St. Meinrad, IN: One Caring Place Publishers.

Schweibert, P., & DeKlyen, C. (2005). Tear soup: A recipe for healing after loss (3rd ed.). Portland, OR: Grief Watch.

Useful Web sites

LD Online

A leading Web site on learning disabilities, dyslexia, attention deficit disorders, special education, learning differences, and related issues for families, teachers, and other professionals.

National Association of School Psychologists

National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information

The National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information is an organization that collects, organizes, and disseminates information on all aspects of maltreatment.

National Coalition for the Homeless

The National Coalition for the Homeless focuses on public education, policy advocacy, and technical assistance to end homelessness and increase economic and social justice for all citizens.

The American Red Cross

The National Institute of Mental Health

The PEW Charitable Trust-Pre-K Education


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