Heading back to school can be an exciting time. But it’s also a time when teen parents enter educational institutions where they are often seen as walking stereotypes.
School staff—teachers, sexuality educators, administrators, and health or social workers—must prepare to serve teen parents without stigmatizing them. How can adult allies help expectant or parenting young people to define and reach their educational goals?
First, they’ve got to think outside the dominant messages of teen pregnancy and parenthood—which say that young parents are pathological and part of a public health epidemic. This framework is rooted in the idea that only certain sexual and reproductive choices are acceptable, which is a form of shame no person should have to carry.
I know what it’s like to be considered such a “problem.” I was the child of a teen mother, became pregnant at 17, and had to weather a storm of stigma during my senior year of high school. Despite graduating, pursuing a career in Silicon Valley, and following a trajectory that many would consider “successful,” I still see young parents nationwide fighting with adults who should support their rights.
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Adult supporters can do concrete things to aid teen parents while also doing the hard work: unlearning myths that say young people with children, especially adolescent parents of color, are doomed to drop out, make poor life choices, or live in poverty.
Teachers, administrators, and school systems can work together to ensure parenting students—of all genders—are supported. Within educational institutions, teenage pregnancy and parenthood are often associated with assumptions about the mother’s sexuality. Fathers are rarely included in dialogues around parenthood, which means they are left out of conversations that could support their desire both to be active fathers and to excel in school. Recently, Boston Public Schools addressed this reality by updating its Expectant and Parenting Student Policy to protect the rights of mothers, fathers, and LGBTQ parents within the school system; among the policy’s provisions, it says that students have the rights to parental leave; excused absences for pregnancy-related illnesses or when their child is sick; and continuation of their schooling during such times.
As a teen parent, I saw that being visible and asking for support mattered. Yet one of the hardest experiences I faced was how my educators treated me. During my pregnancy, my guidance counselor removed me from my honors classes and refused to help me with college applications, reminding me that less than 2 percent of teen moms go to college. Parenting or expectant students should not be automatically removed from advanced classes or transferred to alternative schools due to their reproductive status. A 2006 Civic Enterprises report found that teen parents who drop out of school have reported that they felt the school did not support them. But the stereotype that teen parents are not motivated to graduate from high school or college, or capable of doing so, is false. Thus, schools should ensure they are communicating high expectations for parenting students—as they should for all students. Educators can play such an incredible role in helping those interested in college research what resources and programs exist for parenting students.
School authorities also need to be up to date on laws and regulations around confidentiality, because these laws vary and affect whether or how schools communicate with parenting minors’ families or guardians. It’s important to know your state’s laws on emancipation of parenting minors and how they affect the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). FERPA is a federal law that grants parents the rights to access their children’s education records, to seek to have the records amended, and to have some control over the disclosure of personal information from those records. HIPAA protects the confidentiality and security of health-care information. In situations where students are emancipated, making any contact with their parents or guardians to discuss their health or education is considered illegal.
Having accurate and accessible information on complex laws is a challenge. But ensuring there is a Title IX coordinator in every school and/or district can help. The Title IX coordinator handles students’ claims of sex-based discrimination and is charged with protecting their rights under federal law. Every school staffer should be able to identify the school’s or district’s Title IX coordinator. But most importantly, anyone in contact with expectant or parenting students at school should reach out to the coordinator to find out if there are additional protections for these pupils.
Sexuality educators, in particular, have to eliminate teen pregnancy prevention as a desired outcome of their curricula. By treating teenage pregnancy as something to be avoided at all costs, educators often don’t consider the reality that many of the students they are talking to are the children of teen parents. And when we frame the children of teen parents as less valuable than their peers, what kind of self-worth can they develop in a society that tells them they are mistakes and their parents irresponsible? Instead, educators should focus on positive youth development that ensures young people have the information they need to prevent an unintended pregnancy but also feel empowered to make the right choices for themselves.
Because teen pregnancy may often trigger the involvement of medical and social services workers, the stigmatization of teen pregnancy does echo in clinics and doctor’s offices where teen parents seek medical care. But it doesn’t have to. Health-care professionals can provide documentation about the special needs of pregnant and parenting students. In my own situation, finally getting a note from my doctor explaining that I needed to eat crackers in class—when in-class food was prohibited—made a difference between skipping school from morning sickness to being present in my class again. Most importantly, health-care providers can help young parents understand their medical rights and agency over their own bodies. Young parents must have ethical and unbiased medical support that centers their needs, including conversations around healthy relationships and consent.
For every adult, please know that a teenage pregnancy is not the end of a young person’s life. Now, as a mother of a preteen, I know what it feels like to want the best for your child. But I also know that because many adults judged me, balancing my roles as a student, a young woman, and a mother was much harder than it had to be. So as educators walk school hallways and build relationships with students and their families, remember the teen parents who are pushing back against negativity just to be in school that day. And remember, it’s your time to learn too.