Tips for Teachers Working With Unique Family Structures

Just as our classroom practices and approaches to instruction have to change with the times, teachers need to remain adaptable to our changing society. As the concept of “family” evolves, teachers should be prepared to work with all structures, not just the traditional nuclear family. Becoming aware of a child’s unique family structure enables you to make certain that your classroom is one of comfort and welcome for all children.

Be ready for more than Mom and Dad

The slow economy of the past few years has forced multiple generations to share living spaces, so don’t be surprised if your primary point of contact with a student’s family is a grandparent, older sibling or other relative. As mothers and fathers work longer hours, primary point-of-contact duties fall to the person who may be home during the day.

Feel free to encourage your families to tell you the best person to contact, and to reassure them that you are willing to work with whoever the parent designates. The best way to gather this information is to offer it as an option on a feedback form you distribute at the beginning of the year.

Find out if students have enough space to do homework

With many generations sharing living spaces, don’t be surprised to learn your students have less and less room to complete their homework. They may not have a desk in their room and may be making do with the kitchen table after dinner.

Do your best to streamline your assignments so they don’t require too many supplies. You may also want to see what other options children have to complete homework. For example, your school could offer a homework club or you could find out if the town library has tutoring help. Also, a lot of high schools offer tutoring through student volunteer or Honor Society groups.

Expect more blended families

In today’s world, all teachers are going to work more with blended families. Examples may include adoption situations, two parents of the same gender and children from earlier marriages finding themselves in new family structures.

While it doesn’t matter which type of home the child comes from, you should be prepared to answer any questions from children who are familiar only with traditional family structures. As you work with developing relationships with your families, feel free to solicit their input on how to best answer questions that may come up.

Look after the little things

In recognition of family structures that different from the traditional “mother and father,” teachers should read through their website and paper communications to make certain that it uses inclusive and welcoming language. It’s also worthwhile to look at the activities your students complete. Older activities often assume that Dad goes off to work while Mom stays home and takes care of the house.

While such an activity may look innocuous and wouldn’t be that big of a deal in isolation, a variety of handouts and assignments like this may subtly reinforce that there is only one kind of “right” family structure.

Remember, the classroom is a kind of family

And lastly, don’t be surprised if many students come to your classroom looking for family. Some students today, whether it be due to busy parents, economic pressures or other situations, don’t always find “family” in their family.

For some students, the classroom experience — being treated respectfully by an adult, being listened to and being valued — is the closest thing they have to a working family relationship. If that’s the case, be certain to be there for your students. Remember, the work expected of you isn’t always in the job description.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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