In recent years, the number of grandparents who provide primary care for their grandchildren has grown significantly. In 2019, approximately 2.5 million school aged children depended on their grandparents for primary care. Predictably, the disruption and mortality associated with the pandemic significantly expanded the number of children and grandparents who find themselves in this situation.
Of course, grandparents now parenting grandchildren face many of the same challenges encountered by parents of school aged kids. But grandparents often face additional difficulties.
Consider that grandparents may have had little notice before moving into the role. Thus, they are unprepared for the parenting challenges and expectations they face. Unexpectedly shifting from the role of grandparent to parent can be a daunting prospect.
Grandparents often have little recent experience in establishing expectations, setting limits, and disciplining children and young people. This can be further complicated when their grandchildren are coming from an environment filled with chaos, disruption, and lack of supervision.
Meanwhile, grandparents typically are unfamiliar with how schools operate today. Much has changed since they and their children were in school. Instructional approaches have shifted, the curriculum may be unfamiliar, and technology is much more pervasive and relied upon.
Often reaching advanced ages where their physical health is deteriorating, grandparents also may not have the emotional energy they had during the time their children were growing up.
Further, the ways in which schools engage with parents today likely is different than what grandparents experienced, even a few years ago. Websites, texts, emails, and other technology-based strategies on which school personnel depend to communicate with parents may be unfamiliar and intimidating. Grandparents may be much more familiar with written notes, telephone calls, and face-to-face meetings as a primary means for communicating with school personnel.
Fortunately, there are several steps and strategies we can employ to help these grandparents become more comfortable, engaged, and successful. Our guidance and support can play a crucial role in helping grandparents assist their grandchildren to succeed socially, emotionally, and academically during some difficult times. Here are nine ways in which we can help.
First, we can connect grandparents with public and private resources they can tap to meet needs beyond what the school can provide. Grandparents often don’t know where to start to access financial, social, and healthcare support in their efforts to stabilize their situation and support their grandchildren.
Second, we can build our understanding of the circumstances that led to the grandparents serving as parents. Students now parented by grandparents often face significant social, emotional, and behavioral challenges because of their circumstances prior to coming under their grandparents’ care. The more we know, the better able we are to effectively respond to their needs and provide support.
Third, we can establish clear, consistent, and convenient lines of communication. Some grandparents will be tech savvy and ready to secure information they need via websites, texts, emails, and other technology-based tools. Others may be more comfortable with and responsive to a telephone call, written note, or face-to-face meeting. Some temporary “hand holding” can make a big difference.
Fourth, we can share information about the content and organization of the curriculum in which their grandchildren will be engaging. Knowing what their grandchildren will be learning can remove some of the anxiety and uncertainty grandparents may feel. Also, we can share teaching strategies we employ with which the grandparents may be unfamiliar. For example, a focus on conceptual understanding and problem solving may be confusing to grandparents who experienced an education that depended heavily on memorization.
Fifth, we can offer grandparents specific suggestions regarding how to help with homework and how to support students in other ways as they experience challenges and setbacks in school. We need to be mindful of the academic background and skills grandparents possess to support their grandchildren. We must avoid overloading or establishing expectations that grandparents cannot meet.
Sixth, we can share with grandparents school-based and other resources their grandchildren can access to support their learning. After school academic support, online tutoring, and virtual learning supports are examples.
Seventh, we can encourage grandparents to become more involved. For example, they can join parent-teacher organizations, serve on committees, volunteer, and participate in other activities that help them to connect and contribute within the school community.
Eighth, we can connect grandparents with support groups specific to the needs of grandparents who are parenting. If this type of service is not already available, we can consider creating it. Mutual support, opportunities to learn more about parenting grandparent needs and issues, and building stronger relationships with the school can make a substantial difference.
Ninth, we can resist making assumptions about what grandparents know and need. Grandparents have varied backgrounds and often face unique challenges in their new role. Our asking, listening, and understanding can help us to avoid unnecessary missteps and provide insights regarding what we can do to help grandparents and their grandchildren to be successful.