Serving Children of Incarcerated Parents: A Case Study of School Counselors’ Experiences

Added June 6, 2018

School counselors may provide services to children of incarcerated parents (CIP); however, little is known about the work of school counselors with this group of students. This research study used an instrumental case study design to consider the experiences of professional school counselors who served CIP in a single school district in a Southeastern state. The primary investigator for this study conducted focus groups and/or individual interviews with 15 school counselors in the school district. Observations and document review also provided contextual information for the case.

Findings from this study indicated participants sought to meet the needs of CIP using skills inherent in their professional role. They provided individual and crisis counseling as they worked to establish supportive relationships, reduce stress and anxiety, and build coping strategies with CIP. School counselors also served CIP through group counseling, consultation with stakeholders, and referrals to other mental health or social services. However, participants experienced barriers in their services when seeking to protect student privacy and circumvent stigma while responding to complex needs. Participants described concerns about custody and student welfare as well as challenges working with caregivers of CIP. Participants also described the need for additional training or resources to respond to the needs of CIP.

These findings offer several implications for school counselors working with CIP. First, school counselors need to understand the needs of CIP, and they may seek additional training through resources such as those provided for professionals and advocates by SFCIPP ( With increased understanding of the needs of CIP, school counselors can use leadership and advocacy skills to train staff, promote empathy for CIP, and offer support for the individual needs of CIP. For example, school counselors could provide teachers with a tip sheet for supporting CIP (see the Resources section of School counselors may provide evidence-based interventions designed for students with trauma exposure to respond to complex needs. Participants in the study were particularly concerned about confidentiality with group counseling interventions, so school counselors offering group counseling targeted to CIP should anticipate this challenge and seek to minimize these risks.

School counselors can utilize interprofessional collaboration and build partnerships with social workers, mental health counselors, families, teachers, administrators, nurses, and school resource officers as a way to provide wraparound services and holistic support for CIP. For example, collaborating with school resource officers may encourage open communication with law enforcement about the needs of CIP. Collaborating with teachers and administrators can also provide additional opportunities to inform them about risk factors and encourage patience with academic and behavior problems.

School counselors may use interventions such as bibliotherapy, play therapy, psychoeducation about addiction, or tools such as the Sesame Street incarceration toolkit when providing services to CIP. School counselors may need to be creative when serving the needs of CIP and their families. For example, visiting incarcerated parents in jail or prison to obtain signatures on forms or complete paperwork may be necessary. Other creative suggestions for school counselors include asking caregivers for permission to mail letters or pictures to incarcerated parents or arranging phone calls or televisits with incarcerated parents.

Overall, this study provided empirical evidence regarding ways school counselors in the district served the needs of CIP. School counselors may use these results to promote responsive services for this vulnerable group of students.

Emily C. Brown, PhD, University of Missouri–St. Louis; Casey A. Barrio Minton, PhD, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.


Emily C. Brown, PhD, Casey A. Barrio Minton, PhD