ERIC Identifier: ED434188
Publication Date: 1999-09-00
Author: Schwartz, Wendy
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Urban Education New York NY.
Family Diversity in Urban Schools. ERIC/CUE Digest, Number 148.
From 30 to 60 per cent of students in urban schools live with caregivers
other than their biological parents (Hampton, Rak, & Mumford, 1997).
Although these children usually have a nurturing home life, they seek
reassurance that they are the same as their peers with more traditional
families. The parents of some of these children, such as multiracial and gay and
lesbian couples, require only acceptance and full inclusion in school
activities. The families of others, such as foster parents and grandparent
guardians, need more services because their children suffer from the effects of
traumatic early life experiences.
This digest identifies several common types of nontraditional families, and
presents a few of their characteristics relevant to their children's education.
It also offers some recommendations to help schools provide support for the
families to ensure their inclusion in all aspects of schooling.
TYPES OF URBAN FAMILIES
While some social critics assert
that the institution of the family is crumbling, in fact, new types of families
are emerging as social service agencies strive to provide children with
supportive homes and as individuals previously discouraged by society from
becoming parents now do so. Therefore, using traditional criteria to define
families may leave many children feeling unlike others. A recommended
alternative definition of family is that it is "any group of individuals that
forms a household based on respect, the meeting of basic needs, as well as those
of love and affection, and one in which assistance is freely given to maintain
social, spiritual, psychological, and physical health" (Bozett, cited in Limoge
& Dickin, 1992, p. 46). In urban areas, school are likely to include the
following types of families:
This family group comprises both
children whose parents have different ethnic heritages and those who themselves
are different ethnically from their parents. The development of a multiracial
identity of such children, which extends through adolescence, is mediated by
parental attitudes about personal classification and ethnicity in general.
Society's attitudes, particularly racist attitudes, toward multiracial
individuals also influence the identity of these children (Okun, 1996; Wardle,
Educators can promote the positive development of multiracial students by
treating each child according to his or her unique characteristics instead of
lumping together children of various ethnicities as generically multiracial.
They can also learn and honor how the family wants the children to be
identified: classifications range from "human" and "multiracial" to
"monoracial," which indicates that the family has selected to designate only a
single heritage for their children (Miller & Rotheram-Borus, 1994).
FAMILIES WITH GAY OR LESBIAN PARENTS
Children who live with
gay or lesbian parents may be either adopted or the biological offspring of one
parent. They have no more socioemotional problems and are no more likely to be
homosexual than children raised by heterosexuals. However, some may suffer from
the emotional consequences of a bitter legal custody battle that denigrated
their gay parent, or be victimized by homophobic peer ridicule. Children in
middle childhood are more likely to treat their home life matter-of-factly,
while adolescents may be more critical of their home life (Rubin, 1995).
To respect family decisions about disclosure, teachers should refrain from
publicly asking children very specific questions about their home life, and help
the children of "closeted" parents deal with any logistical or emotional
problems that result from the need for family secrecy (Rubin, 1995).
Inservice training can help teachers deal with any personal negative views
about homosexuality by explaining why acknowledging a student's home life does
not necessarily imply agreement with it (Wickens, 1993).
Some foster children have developed crucial
survival skills and exhibit minimal behavior and adjustment problems. Others,
perhaps the majority, demonstrate the effects of past neglect and abuse, grief
over separation from their biological family, and the trauma of frequent
placement changes. Repeated school transfers force foster children to adjust to
different learning environments. And they may not have developed learning
skills, may never have received educational supports at home, and may be more
concerned about meeting their survival needs than their educational needs
Because some foster families include several children of different ages, and
parents' attention may be divided, schools need to design responsive programs to
involve parents. New parents may need help in creating a home environment
conducive to learning, and, particularly, doing homework (Stahl, 1990).
To help foster children feel welcome in the new school, administrators need a
specific plan for enrolling and integrating them, possibly on short notice.
Foster children respond especially well to praise, but many perform below grade
level. They need educational supports that not only increase their skills but
also their self-esteem and commitment to school; therefore, retention and
special education classes may further alienate them from school (Stahl, 1990).
To ensure that foster children receive necessary medical treatment and
psychotherapy, schools can arrange for them to visit on-site or community
clinics and counselors (Cormier, 1994).
FAMILIES WITH GRANDPARENTS AND RELATIVES AS PARENTS
growing segment of foster parents consists of grandparents or other relatives of
children. Frequently, they must assume responsibility for children with little
notice and while they are all in the throes of grief. Grandparents may be
concerned about having too little energy for parenting again, but they
nevertheless usually thrive in their role and mitigate the negative consequences
for children of moving into a new home situation (Okun, 1996).
Children residing with relatives need most of the same services from schools
and social service agencies as do other foster children. Since grandparents can
benefit especially from programs that free them temporarily from caregiving
responsibilities, it would be helpful for schools to collect and provide
information about after-school, weekend, and summer activities for children.
SCHOOL STRATEGIES FOR FAMILY INCLUSIVENESS
To promote the
positive development of all students, and especially those with nontraditional
families, it is crucial for schools to establish high universal performance
standards, celebrate family diversity, and extend equal respect and support to
all members of the school community. Schools also need to affirm students'
feelings, take their concerns seriously, and enforce regulations against hate
bullying, especially when students perceived as different are targeted (Carter,
1993). Some specific ways schools can support students from nontraditional
families are discussed below. SCHOOLWIDE
Schools can help staff focus on the stability and quality of a student's home
environment rather than on its composition by providing inservice training that
includes the following information (Limoge & Dickin, 1992; Wardle, 1987):
The great variety of lifestyles that promote children's ability to achieve
academically, and develop into personally satisfied and productive adults.
Ways to identify, understand, and overcome personal feelings of bias.
Legal issues related to family composition, including custody, consent,
confidentiality, and the rights of non-custodial and non-related caregivers.
Ways to respond effectively and sensitively to student misbehavior.
The characteristics of individual students and their families, as the
information relates to their education and to behavior and communication with
Schools can also employ the following strategies for promoting acceptance of
diverse families (Limoge & Dickin, 1992; Okun, 1996; Wardle, 1987):
Provide library and classroom resources that reflect family diversity.
Select and use inclusive terms for caregivers in all family communications.
Use student and school contact forms that allow families to identify themselves
in the way that they choose and to report all the information they believe is
Give families the opportunity to provide relevant information, such as the way
interracial children want to be identified; to express concerns; and to review
the school's handling of diversity issues.
Develop a curriculum strand to increase student knowledge of the various types
of families that exist both in their school and in general, and invite family
CURRICULUM AND CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
As children learn,
particularly through reading, they "develop paradigms of what is good and bad,
correct and incorrect" (Hampton et al., 1997, p. 11). Therefore, reading
engaging stories about different types of families and successful individuals
with nontraditional families develops literacy skills, encourages appreciation
of diversity in all children, and validates the homelife of individual children.
Books can also be therapeutic as they help children relate their own problems to
those of the characters. Teachers can further promote students' appreciation of
family diversity in the following ways (Carter, 1993; Limoge & Dickin, 1992;
Identify, or invite for a presentation, role models from nontraditional families
and a variety of cultures.
Provide examples of several types of families, identifying the unique strengths
of each, and encourage students to talk about their own families (if they feel
comfortable doing so).
Use language that indicates acceptance of family diversity, such as "co-parent,"
"caregiver,""person you live with," as well as "mother" or "father."
Whereas some children growing up in nontraditional families have reference
groups comprised of relatives or friends, others may not and feel isolated,
marginalized, and even rejected by society (Rubin, 1995). Therefore, to be fully
inclusive, schools need to maintain an environment where all children and
families feel a sense of belonging, acceptance, and support from peers and
school personnel. Further, all children need to be treated equitably (Rubin,
1995). Schools must "focus on the health of families instead of passing judgment
on their composition" (Limoge & Dickin, 1992 p. 47).
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children and their special needs. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
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