Written by Belinda Huang
When your students leave the classroom, odds are that family is one of the most important parts of their life. But what makes a family? Is it the people who live with, the people who feed you, or the people you spend the most time with? For some children, there are many answers to these questions. There may be important extended family, or neighbors who are so close they may as well be cousins. That a student’s primary caregivers are two married biological parents of different genders can not be assumed.
As populations and demographics change, we may not always be able to guess or assume the gender, age, degree of relatedness, or marital status of our students’ family members. As a CDC report states, since 2002 people have become much more accepting about people living together before marriage, having children without marriage, and gay and lesbian adoption. Meanwhile, 50% of marriages end in divorce, and even Sesame Street is addressing a growing group of children with an incarcerated parent. With these statistics, it is clear that teachers must learn to be flexible and understanding about what family might mean.
What do you know about your students’ backgrounds? If you don’t know enough about their families, make a space for students to talk or write about the important people in their life. If at first you have to take written notes of special cases, that is okay: the important thing is to be informed. Once you have a sense of the kinds of families represented in your classroom, here are three tips to make your classroom even more inclusive:
1. Use inclusive language where possible
How do you talk about family in the classroom? Do you talk about moms and dads, parents, and/or guardians? Once again, knowing your class makes a big difference. Some years, you may want to use different language to be inclusive for the people in your classroom. With more school-wide or standardized paperwork and events, take a look at the way you address or refer to family members. For example, “parent-teacher conferences” might be renamed “family-school conferences,” recognizing that parents aren’t always able to attend. It is a small gesture, but it helps students with nontraditional families feel included and welcome.
2. Expand the definition of “family”
Yes, there is a legal definition of guardian for a child. That is the person or people who should sign important permissions forms or school documents. But why limit your communication to just the legal family? If there is an opportunity to invite parents into the classroom, make sure students feel comfortable asking other important adults in their lives to attend too. Give your students the chance to request extra copies of report cards, artwork, or praise, to be shared with different families — one for each fridge for a family with divorced parents, for example. It’s worth the little extra work to build student confidence and family relationships.
3. Rethink The “Family Tree” project
A classic school project for students of all ages, the family tree is a great way to learn about heritage and family history. However, the family tree can be a difficult task for students with complex family structures. If you want to use this project, let your class know that all types of families are welcome, and give them some creative options for how to present their work if a tree structure won’t suffice. Another option is to let students create family trees for interesting historical figures like John F. Kennedy, or fictional characters, so they can develop those communication and research skills without having to reveal uncomfortable family information.
Family is one of the ways teachers help students connect the classroom to their home life, and to the outside world in general. These small ideas aim to create an environment where students feel like they can bring their whole self into the classroom, including different family types and situations, and engage fully with your teaching.