It does not take too much insight to realize that families today look much different from the way they did just a generation or two ago. The idyllic picture of mom, dad, and two or three children living happily down the street in the house with the white picket fence is just not as likely today. Family situations vary widely, and educators not only must know what those possibilities look like but must be ready to work effectively with diverse family patterns (Hildebrand, Phenice, Gray, & Hines, 2000). In the following paragraphs, a number of important family characteristics are described to help you better understand the diverse mix you will encounter in your future classroom. For each of the family characteristics identified, some general implications are presented. Be aware that although these implications may be typical, each family situation is unique. For example, although many single parents may find it difficult to commit the time and energy needed to be involved in the schools, single parents in your future classroom may not fit this pattern.
The Extended Family
Not too many years ago, it was fairly common to find families and their relatives living in the same community or general area. Aunts, uncles, and grandparents were available to help with child care and give advice on how to parent. This support system was often helpful, especially to new parents as they struggled with the many challenges of raising children. Although some of these extended families still exist, they are now the exception rather than the rule. Despite the fact that many parents still need and want the support the extended family provided, few have found an adequate replacement (Berger, 2004). Teachers and schools can assist in this process by helping parents create a network with other families in similar situations to provide one another with support. In some instances, the extended family provides the primary care for young children.
Divorce and Single-Parent Families
One of the most significant family situations that teachers will encounter is the single-parent family. National statistics indicate that 25% of children under age 18 are living in families with only one parent (Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2006). In most circumstances, the missing parent is the father. Single-parent families headed by mothers are far more likely to be living at or below the poverty level than two-parent families. It is estimated that approximately 40% of all single-parent families headed by women are poor, compared to only about 8% of two-parent families (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2006). In addition to low incomes, single parents as a group tend to be busy with work commitments and child-rearing responsibilities, which may leave less time for things like parent–teacher conferences and helping out in the schools. Teachers need to be sensitive to these time constraints and find ways to creatively work with single parents and their children. It is also important to communicate with and involve non-custodial parents (typically fathers) when legally possible. For example, it may be necessary to schedule separate parent–teacher conferences for non-custodial parents so that they can be included in their child’s learning and development.
Divorce, as previously described, impacts a great many families. It leaves young children without one of their parents and creates many stresses for all involved. In many circumstances, family dynamics are further complicated by the eventual remarriages that frequently occur. As in the previous example of Ramon, these blended families create challenges for both parents and children as new relationships are established. Approximately 15% of American families today include a stepchild or stepparent (Hildebrand et al., 2000). While adults are learning to mesh parenting styles and combining efforts to manage complex households, children are adjusting to a variety of new relationships (Berger, 2004). Socially withdrawing or acting out behaviors may be the responses of children in new blended families. Careful observation and sensitive interactions may be required of the teacher to assist children and families with these complex changes.
Gay and Lesbian Families
A small but growing number of children in America have either two moms or two dads. In some cases, these children were born into a heterosexual family that later dissolved when one of the partners discovered his or her homosexual inclinations. Others were either adopted by their gay or lesbian parents or were conceived through artificial insemination (American Psychological Association, 2006). Although gay and lesbian families currently make up only a small percentage of family totals, there is every indication that teachers and schools will see increasing numbers in the future. The latest U.S. Census data indicate that 96% of all U.S. counties have at least one same-sex couple with children under age 18 (Gates, 2003). As state and federal laws continue to become more supportive of gay and lesbian couples and society in general grows more accepting of this family configuration, it becomes increasingly likely that you will be working with gay and lesbian families in your future teaching career.
Today’s economic realities find a great many intact families in which both parents work outside the home so that the family can maintain a desired lifestyle. In other two-parent families, both husband and wife have career aspirations and are employed full-time outside the home. Because of these two sets of circumstances, children in two-parent families today tend to have less time to spend with their parents (Berger, 2004). In addition to less family time, when both parents work outside the home, parents may have fewer opportunities to be actively involved in school activities. While there are numerous exceptions to this generalization, the complexities and time-constraints of two-career families make it more difficult to get actively involved in classroom activities. Teachers of young children need to understand the complexities of this family type and make adjustments in their involvement strategies to ensure that busy lifestyles and limited flexible time can be managed.
Older and Younger Parents
Another change in family composition that impacts schools for young children is the age of parents themselves. People are having children at both older and younger ages. Teen pregnancies and birth rates among unmarried women remain high in the United States as compared to other industrialized nations, despite many efforts to make young people aware of the major challenges facing teen parents (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2006).
At the same time, many couples are choosing to wait until later in life to begin families. This older group of parents tends to be well educated and brings a diversity of life and work experiences to their interactions with schools. Statistics on older parents are sketchy, but it appears that the numbers are growing (Martin, Kochanek, Strobino, Guyer, & MacDorman, 2005).
Another fact of life today in the United States is that families continue to grow more diverse in terms of ethnic/cultural background (Hildebrand et al., 2000). It is estimated, for example, that the non-Hispanic White population in this country will decrease from nearly 75% in 1980 to approximately 47% by the year 2020 (Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2006). With relatively stable birth rates for whites and considerably higher birth rates for the Hispanic population in particular, family diversity continues to grow (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000). Family diversity will also grow because of the number of immigrants from Asia and other parts of the world. One additional reason for the growing ethnic/cultural diversity of families is that there is an increase in multiracial families (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000).
In addition to modifications that need to occur in the curriculum because of these changes in demography (see Chapter ), this increasing diversity will also influence the kinds of interactions that teachers have with parents and families. For example, Asian American parents tend to have high academic expectations for their children but also feel that the school should have considerable autonomy in dealing with academic and discipline-related issues (Olsen & Fuller, 2003). Consequently, they may be less likely to get involved in some aspects of school life. Adults working with young children and their families need to be aware of these cultural/ethnic differences and adjust to them as plans are made to involve parents and families in the educational process.
Another characteristic of families today that significantly impacts teachers is the relocation of families in new communities (Gestwicki, 2007). In some cases, this movement is brought about when one or both parents are promoted to a higher position in a corporation or relocate to find a better job in a new community. Members of the American military community also move frequently. For other families, regular moves are a necessary condition for employment. Hispanic migrant workers, for example, move around the country taking seasonal agricultural jobs. In many parts of the country, the children of these workers move in and out of schools on a regular and predictable basis. Regardless of the reason, family mobility frequently leads to stress and can impact the family’s willingness to be involved in school. In a military family, for example, the husband may be deployed overseas, while mom and the children remain on a military base. In addition to the same stresses faced by a single parent, this mom may have high anxiety over her husband’s safety and have little extra energy and time for the schools.
Each night in the United States, approximately 100,000 children are homeless (Berger, 2004). They may spend the night in a shelter, an abandoned building, or the family car. While statistics on homelessness are sketchy, it appears that the number of homeless families with children is a large proportion of those seeking shelter in missions (Union Mission Ministries, 2006) and that these families make up nearly 40% of the homeless (Berger, 2004). Clearly, the stress level of homeless families is high, and involvement with the schools tends to be a low priority. In many instances, homeless children either do not attend school at all or participate only sporadically. Teachers and caregivers should make a special effort to assist these families by directing them to community agencies that can provide them with services. And, despite the challenges, it is also critical that homeless families remain connected to the schools. The school setting may be one of the few areas of relative stability for these children.
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