The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Imprisoning fathers makes their kids unprepared for school

(Benjamin C. Tankersley/The Washington Post.)
Placeholder while article actions load

Tomorrow is Father’s Day but just like any other day in the United States, approximately 2.7 million children are estimated to have a parent in prison or jail. Over the past four decades, the United States has sent high numbers of its citizens to prison, especially poor minority men. The price has been paid by young children. Nearly one of every 10 U.S. residents under 18 has been affected by parental imprisonment. This has important consequences for children’s educational development.

One measure of early educational development, “school readiness,” suggests how prepared children are to learn in formal classrooms. Readiness involves skills such as problem solving, word knowledge, and number recognition as well as a child’s ability to pay attention, follow directions and control their anger and frustration. Readiness has been shown to affect success in kindergarten and early grades and predict success in college and the workplace. Readiness also affects decisions by teachers and school counselors — such as whether to assign children to special education classes — that affect children’s future paths and opportunities.

Why might paternal incarceration affect school readiness? Children can be traumatized by separation or by social stigma. As a result, they may become more likely to suffer from emotional or behavioral problems and setbacks in physical or mental health. My study probed such possibilities by tracking development for a large number of urban U.S. children and their parents. Looking at children who in other ways were similarly at risk for poor educational development, I compared children whose fathers did and did not go to prison between ages one and five. Here is what I found:

  • Paternal incarceration does not have any clear-cut effects on children’s cognitive readiness for school. But it does hurt young children’s emotional and behavioral readiness — and the setback is equivalent to a loss of nearly two months of schooling. Children of imprisoned fathers arrive at kindergarten less able to pay attention or obey teachers and more likely than other youngsters to be hyperactive, aggressive, or easily frustrated.
  • Boys were set back most by such emotional and behavioral unreadiness — which helps to explain why, overall, researchers find that boys are less prepared for school than girls.
  • Having a father sent to prison leads to similar setbacks for  white and black children, but of course black children are much more likely to have their fathers imprisoned.

The harmful impacts of paternal incarceration also matter for the longer run, in part because emotionally and behaviorally unprepared boys are often assigned to special education classrooms. I found that boys whose fathers are incarcerated during their preschool years are more likely to be placed in special education by age nine. Special education placement has been linked to later shortfalls in academic achievement and research has shown it is associated with higher incidence of dropping out of school, trouble with the law, and unemployment.

Thus, a significant part of the difficulty black boys face in school is traceable to having so many of their fathers in prison. Because black fathers are the ones most likely to be sent to prison, far too many black boys start the race of life well behind other children.

What can be done? Preschool education programs can certainly help children succeed at school, and they can be designed to provide prisoners’ children the extra support they need.

But preschool opportunities alone are unlikely to be enough, unless the United States finds alternatives to imprisonment so that fewer fathers, especially minorities, are removed from their families and communities at a critical stage of life for their children. As Americans on both sides of the political spectrum work to reform prisons, such as by reducing mandatory minimum sentences, it makes sense to consider the number of American children, particularly boys, who through no fault of their own end up behind in life before they even get to the first day of school.

Anna R. Haskins, a sociologist, is an incoming assistant professor at Cornell University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.