There are a multitude of reasons why grandparents (or, kinship caregivers) take on the role of full-time care of grandchildren (or, relative kin) (Taylor, Baugh, & Bates, 2016). Recently, the opioid drug epidemic has caused a new wave of grandparents to bravely and sometimes reluctantly take on the caregiving role. Grandparents who are newly involved in kinship caregiving often must navigate multiple, complex social welfare systems to help their grandchildren become successful.
One system that often is challenging for non-parental caregivers is the school system (Brunissen, Rapoport, Fruitman, & Adesman, 2020; Peterson, 2017). In this fact sheet, the term schools will refer broadly to teachers, administrators, staff, and coaches who interface with students and their families. It also refers to the culture of family engagement adopted by a school or school district.
School policies related to safety and privacy can convey a feeling of distance and may put families at arm’s length. In addition, school systems are complex because of the legal requirements to gain access to a child’s academic performance outcomes and individualized educational plan (i.e., IEP), when applicable, not to mention simply enrolling grandchildren in school. Guardianship laws have made things easier for grandfamilies and kinship caregivers in this regard. A culture of inclusion, however, cannot be dictated by law; it must come from within the school.
Research on academic performance consistently finds that parental engagement in their child’s education improves outcomes (Behnke, Bodenhamer, McDonald, & Robledo, 2019; Mac Iver, Epstein, Sheldon, & Fonseca, 2015). Research also indicates that grandparents who are raising grandchildren can provide a stabilizing influence on a grandchild’s educational efforts (Solomon & Marx, 1995). While grandchildren in these families typically do not perform as well as children being raised by parents (Pilkauskas & Dunifon, 2016), there is evidence suggesting that grandchildren living with grandparents have a significantly higher likelihood of succeeding in mathematics, reading, and writing than their peers raised in foster care (Shovalia, Bright, & Emerson, 2020).
Given that grandchildren raised by grandparents are somewhat at an academic disadvantage, it seems likely that strengthening the school-family connection could help grandchildren by supporting grandparents in their efforts to raise grandchildren. Schools may be at a disadvantage and not know how to reach out to, engage, and support kinship caregivers (Peterson, Scott, Ombayo, Davis, & Sullivan, 2019). The question is: How can schools become more inclusive and welcoming to grandfamilies and kinship caregivers? This fact sheet explores these issues and provides suggestions to address what schools need to know about grandfamilies to encourage and facilitate their engagement.
What do schools need to know about grandparents as parents/guardians/caregivers to encourage engagement?
Kinship caregiving is not the same as traditional parenting, primarily because the child’s parents are not involved in day-to-day parenting. For some children that means adjusting to a new home life, school, and neighborhood. Because of the new caregiving arrangement at home, children must get used to different adults and their caregiving styles. Developing a trusting relationship with new caregivers takes time, even if they are the child’s grandparents and they have spent time together prior to living together. As kinship caregivers either formally or informally take on this role, they are also adjusting to their new responsibilities and exploring how best to work with the child(ren) in their care.
Each kinship caregiving family is unique, so schools should be cautious not to make assumptions about how well grandparents can navigate the school system. Below is a list of seven things schools should know about kinship caregiving families to help them engage with schools and their grandchild’s education.
- Grandparents raising grandchildren are likely experiencing stress and grief. In many cases, the causes of the caregiving situation were traumatic for the family and the children (e.g., parental incarceration, addiction, death, abandonment, abuse). Grandparents may be grieving for the loss of their adult child (the parent of the grandchild) and experiencing stress from the impact this trauma has on their grandchild.
- While some grandparent caregivers may be in their 30s and 40s, most are middle and later aged adults that could be experiencing challenges with their health. It is no secret that the body slows as it ages and vitality and energy levels are not what they were at younger ages. When the stress of caregiving is added to grandparents’ physical and functional challenges, they are at a disadvantage when it comes to keeping up with grandchildren’s play and physical development.
- Grandparents likely did not anticipate a sudden shift to a caregiving role and thus may not be prepared financially. Many retired grandparents may have to return to paid employment to make up the difference in grandchild-related expenses. Stress related to limited finances, work-life balance, and caregiving can have compounding effects on grandparent health.
- Extra effort by the school is needed to welcome grandparents and establish a comfortable relationship with the school. Traditional methods of communication may or may not work for these families. Be flexible and use communication tools grandparents are comfortable using. Phone calls or mailings may be more appropriate than email, for example. Grandparents who are more tech-savvy will engage differently. Find what works well for each family.
- Grandparents may need educational resources provided by the school or other organizations in the community to learn about the 21st-century child. For example, research-based parenting guidance may be a valuable resource for these caregivers.
- Grandparents may need additional support to help them know they are not alone in their caregiving role. Schools can help them connect with other grandparents raising grandchildren at the school or in the community. Many communities have grandparent (or, kinship) caregiver support groups. If yours does not, partner with your county Extension professional. They may be able to help form a group, sponsored by and held at the school. Marketing the groups specifically to grandparents and kinship caregivers using terms such as “grandparent,” “grandfather,” “grandmother,” or “kinship” demonstrates that schools are aware of such situations and that the group is specifically for them.
- Grandparents raising grandchildren are likely dealing with legal issues related to guardianship, power of attorney, or custody. The stresses of working through the legal system is tremendous. Gaining access to the grandchild’s grades, IEP documents, or health records without the proper permissions is difficult, and puts grandparents at a disadvantage when trying to support their grandchild’s growth and development.
Grandparents can be tremendous anchors of stability and resilience in their grandchildren’s lives (Bates, 2020). They can also become fully engaged partners with schools as the two entities work together in their communities to impact grandchild outcomes (Epstein, 1995).
Author’s Acknowledgement: Thanks to Anita Armstrong, Head Start Collaboration Director at the Ohio Department of Education, for her assistance and ideas.
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