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Family Diversity In Urban Schools
Author: Wendy Schwartz, Teachers College, Columbia University
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:
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
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).
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
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.
Schools can also employ the following strategies for promoting acceptance of diverse families (Limoge & Dickin, 1992; Okun, 1996; Wardle, 1987):
Curriculum and Classroom Activities
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).
Ayasse, R.H. (1995, October). Addressing the needs of foster children: The Foster Youth Services Program. Social Work in Education, 17(4), 207-16.
Carter, M. (1993, December). Supporting the growing identity and self-esteem of children in gay and lesbian families. Paper presented at the annual conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, Anaheim, CA.
Cormier, G.M. (1994). Increasing knowledge and assessment of foster care through in-service training for elementary school educators. Ed.D. Practicum Report, Nova University, Ft. Lauderdale, FL.
Hampton, F.M., Rak, C., & Mumford, D.A. (1997, Fall). Children's literature reflecting diverse family structures: Social and academic benefits for early reading programs. ERS Spectrum, 15(4), 10-15.
Limoge, S.J., & Dickin, P.S. (1992). The changing composition of families: Implications for parent/caregivers and educators. Unpublished paper, Saint Michael's College, Colchester, VT.
Miller, R.L., & Rotheram-Borus. (1994). Growing up biracial in the United States. In E.P. Salett & D.R. Koslow (Eds.), Race, ethnicity, and self (pp. 143-169). Washington, DC: National Multicultural Institute.
Okun, B.F. (1996). Understanding diverse families: What practitioners need to know. New York: Guilford Press.
Rubin, S.A. (1995). Children who grow up with gay or lesbian parents: How are today's schools meeting this "invisible" group's needs? Unpublished paper, University of Wisconsin-Madison, WI.
Stahl, P.M. (1990). Children on consignment: A Handbook for parenting foster children and their special needs. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
Wardle, F. (1987, January). Are you sensitive to interracial children's identity special needs? Young Children, 42(2), pp. 53-59.
Wickens, E. (1993, March). Penny's Question: "I will have a child in my class with two moms-What do you know about this? Young Children, 48(3), 25-28.
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