Meeting the Needs of Today’s Modern Families

       Today’s early childhood and elementary students’ families look more like Modern Family than Leave It To Beaver. Their family structures are often much more complex than mom, dad, and 2.5 children. Family households headed by single parents, grandparents, stepparents, same sex parents, co-habitation non-married couples as well as multigenerational caregivers are more prevalent today than ever before.
      According to the 2010 United States Census Brief (2012):
- Only 48% of all households in the United States were defined as husband-wife families; down 7% from the 1990 census data.
- 4.2 million children were living with stepparents
- 7.1 million grandchildren were living with grandparents
- 21.1% of households were headed by individuals with no spouse
- Same sex partner identified households increased by 80% since 2000
- Multigenerational households increased by .7 % since the 2000 census
      What does this data mean for those of us working in the field of education? Simply put, these changes in family structure require us to take a closer look at the policies that govern our schools as well as force us to reflect critically on the teaching practices used in our classrooms.  If we truly want to meet the needs of all of our students, it is important to ask ourselves, “Are the policies and practices used in our schools and classrooms respectful of our students’ diverse family structures?”
       A research study that I recently conducted examined the prekindergarten and elementary school experiences of students from nontraditional families. The study’s data suggest that the majority of the nontraditional families who participated in the study felt alienated by various policies and practices used in the schools attended by their children. In many of these cases, it was found that it was not the school’s intention to marginalize nontraditional families, but rather the alienation occurred due to a lack of consideration for their needs when the policies and practices were developed. It was concluded that once nontraditional families’ needs were considered, small adjustments could be made to existing school policies and classroom practices to improve the school experiences of the students from nontraditional families. The study identified the following five (5) key areas which could easily be adjusted to make a school and/or classroom more welcoming for such students and their families.
Area 1: Intake/Enrollment Paperwork- Intake/enrollment paperwork is often the first communication that schools have with new families. Therefore, it is important to consider the wording used on your school’s intake/enrollment forms.
Questions to ask:
- How does your school ask for parental/guardian contact information?
- Is there a place on your intake/enrollment forms for families to write their information in a manner truly representative of their family structure?
       If you find that your school’s intake/enrollment forms are structured to only accommodate traditional families, consider recommending changes to the forms.
Suggested solutions:
- Revamp your forms to ask for guardian #1 and guardian #2
- Leave the blanks unlabeled to encourage caregivers to write in the titles that are used by their family.
Area 2: Correspondence Home- It is also important to think about the language used in other forms of correspondence sent home with your students.
Questions to ask:
- What kind of greetings do you use in your correspondence home?
- Do you begin your correspondence with greetings like, Dear Parents, or Dear Moms and Dads?
       If you find that your greetings exclude other types of caregivers, consider changing your greeting.
Suggested solution:
- Use a more inclusive greeting like, Dear Families or Dear (insert classroom/school name) Community in your correspondence home.
Area 3: Holidays- Even the most well intentioned holiday related activities can be problematic for students who come from nontraditional families. 
Questions to ask:
- Do you celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in your classroom?
- Do you have alternative activities to offer students who do not have a mom or dad in their household or may have same sex parents or stepparents
       Alternative activities are not difficult to implement and can easily be adopted.
Suggested solutions:
- Allow a student to make two Mother’s Day projects if he/she has two mothers or changing the wording on Father’s Day cards to say grandfather or stepfather.
- Forego Mother’s and Father’s Day activities all together and instead observe a Family Day where each student can celebrate the uniqueness of his/her individual family
Area 4: Displays and Posters- Items displayed on classroom walls have the potential for sending unintended messages to students and families. 
Question to ask:
- Do the displays and posters found on the walls of your classroom reflect various forms of family structures or are they primarily depictions of traditional families?
       If you find that your classroom displays and posters primarily depict traditional family structures, make an effort to also include posters and displays that highlight diverse family structures as well.
Suggested solutions:
- Purchase and hang posters/displays which feature nontraditional family structures.
- If purchasing such posters/displays is not feasible due to financial constraints, consider creating homemade posters/displays which feature your students. You can easily do so by asking your students to provide pictures of their families. You can also keep a digital camera handy at drop-off and pick-up and/or at Open House to capture candid shots of families. These pictures can be used to create My Family Posters to be displayed prominently throughout your classroom illustrating the diversity of your student population.
Area 5: Classroom Libraries- The books included in or excluded from your classroom library can send powerful messages to students and their families regarding the types of family structures accepted and valued by your school and classroom. 
Question to ask:
- Do you regularly review the books in your classroom library to determine the types of family structures represented in their text? 
       If your classroom library currently does not have books depicting different types of family structures, it is suggested that you purchase and/or create reading materials that depict a wide variety of family structures. 
Suggested solutions:
- Purchase or borrow books from your public/school library that depict different types of family structures. Examples of such books are:  
Families by Susan Kuklin
The Family Book  by Todd Parr
A Tale of Two Mommies by Vanita Oelschlager
Mommy, Mama, and Me by Leslea Newman
And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell
Daddy, Papa, and Me by Leslea Newman
My Uncle's Wedding by Eric Ross
Two Homes by Claire Masurel
My Bonus Mom: Taking the Step out of Stepmom by Tami Butcher
Sometimes It’s Grandmas and Grandpas: Not Mommies and Daddies by Mary Haverfield
- If purchasing or borrowing such books is not an option, consider creating individual Family Books featuring pictures and stories from each student’s family.  Once the books are complete, laminate them, and add them to your classroom library.
       Please note that this list of suggestions is not exhaustive.  May this article serve as a spark for you and your colleagues to begin critically examining how your school and classrooms meet the needs of the students from nontraditional families who you serve? You are encouraged to implement the suggestions provided as well as brainstorm additional ways to adjust your policies and practices to ensure that students from nontraditional families and their caregivers feel welcome in your school and classrooms.

Lofquist, D., Lugaila, T., O’Connell, M. & Feliz, S. (2012, April). Household and families: 2010 census brief.  Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration U.S. Census Bureau.

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