Modeling the Ecological System for Children with Incarcerated Parents

This activity pushes students to think about the impact of parental incarceration by engaging them in theoretical readings and model-building. 


  • To reinforce students’ factual understanding and familiarity with the key components of course readings
  • Have students synthesize and apply knowledge gained from empirical research on the impact of parental incarceration, to Bronfenbrenner's ecological systems theory.
  • Have students wrestle with the complexity of young children's lives and articulate how experiences in one developmental context were relevant to experiences in another developmental context.
  • Have students demonstrate their knowledge and understanding with models AND verbally in a presentation.
  • Develop classroom community by assigning to students to work in groups with students from different graduate programs.
  • Hone students close reading skills.


This activity was held in the second week of a 6-week module in the Fall Semester. The majority of students in this course were enrolled in Master's programs at HGSE (there was also one student from the GSD and one student enrolled in the leadership doctorate (EdLD) program), which meant that this was the second week of graduate school for most students. Close reading of texts was a skill that the instructor wanted students to develop.


Before activity.

  • The instructor prepared this activity by developing specific instructions and assigning the students to groups all of which was projected in the classroom via power point.
  • The instructor also reserved and requested HGSE materials cart from the Learning Lab. This cart included assorted materials that students used to build their models, such as: glue, popsicle sticks, construction paper, markers, playdoh, pom poms, pipe cleaners, etc.
  • Prior to the activity in a session, the teaching team addressed questions that arose for students as they were reading the assigned texts. In this session, the instructor also gave a 1015minute lecture on Bronfenbrenner's ecological systems theory.
  • Prior to the activity students read/listened to the following:
    • Emory, A. D. (2015). What Children Experience when Mothers, Fathers, or Both Parents are Sent to Jail or Prison
    • Haskins, A., R. (2014). How Fathers’ Imprisonment Undercuts Childrens’ Readiness for School - Especially Hurting Black Boys.
    • Dallaire, D. H., Ciccone, A., & Wilson, L. C. (2010). Teachers’ experiences with and expectations of children with incarcerated parents.
    • Nichols, E. B., Loper, A. B., & Meyer, J. P. (2015). Promoting Educational Resiliency in Youth with Incarcerated Parents: The Impact of Parental Incarceration, School Characteristics, and Connectedness on School Outcomes. Journal of Youth and Adolescence.
    • Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration - Tool Kits - Parents. (n.d.).
    • Watch at least 5 of the video clips, skim the resource guides
    • Idaho Criminal Justice Commission. (2012). Parents Behind Bars: Children of Incarcerated Family Members-- An educator and caregivers’ toolkit to Idaho’s criminal justice system.
    • Wong, A. (2015, November 11). How Parental Incarceration Affects a Child’s Education. The Atlantic
    • Week 3: Push Out & The School to Prison Pipeline: School Discipline Policies and Law enforcement in schools
    • Guest Speaker: Judge Blitzman
    • Fabelo, T. Breaking Schools Rules: A Statewide Study on How School Discipline Relates to Student’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement.
    • Blitzman, J. (2015). Are we Criminalizing Adolescence?
    • Mckenna, J. M., & Pollock, J. M. (2014). Law Enforcement Officers in Schools: An Analysis of Ethical Issues.
    • OUSDNews. (2013). Restorative Welcome and Reentry Circle. Retrieved from [Video]
    • California Education Code: Suspension and Expulsion
    • Holloway, L. (1998, September 17). Board Votes to Give Police Control Over School Security. The New York Times. Retrieved from
    • Breaking the School-to-Prison Pipeline. (2014). Retrieved from [Podcast]

In class.

  • In class students reviewed questions about the reading
  • The instructor projected the instructions on the board as part of the power point slide deck for class
  • In groups of 4-5, students were asked to create a tangible, visual depiction of the ecological system of a child who experienced/is experiencing parental incarceration. They were told that the depiction should:
    1. refer to specific subsystems, and
    2. reflect the major findings of the empirical and theoretical readings for the class session.
  • In groups, students began by discussing the assignment and coming up with a plan for their models. In most groups students went back to their readings and notes and listed the information that they wanted to build in their model.
  • After their initial discussion students spent about 35 minutes constructing their models using the various craft materials in the room.
  • After building the model, students uploaded a photo of the model and a 3-5 sentence description of their model to the course Canvas site and presented their models to the whole class.
  • Next, students took 5 minutes each to present their models using the following format:
    1. describe the model
    2. indicate how the model reflects ecological systems theory AND the empirical evidence from the week's readings
    3. share the process of model building
    4. note anything that was difficult to convey with a tangible model, and
    5. any insights gained from constructing the model.


  • The instructor notes that an important benefit of this activity is to provide students with the opportunity to synthesize and apply their knowledge, while in dialogue with one another. Additionally, building the ecological model of a child with an incarcerated parent deepens students' understandings and applications of research and provides an alternative inroad to learning course content for students whose preferred learning modality is not reading or lecture.
  • The instructor advises that students should be provided with very specific instructions that remain visible throughout their collaborative work time.

Submitted by Abena Subira Mackall, Social Sciences

educational_impact_of_an_incarcerated_parent.pdf3.37 MB