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Middle and high schoolers juggle a lot between school, friends and family life. But an estimated one in five have even bigger responsibilities — they are also caregivers for their families, at a time when most U.S. schools do not formally identify or support caregiving students.
It’s time for adults to recognize and help caregiving adolescents through federal, state and local educational policies, so they do not need to choose between caregiving and school activities.
Caregiving youth provide ongoing, time-intensive care at home to family members who have aging-related needs or are chronically ill, such as grandparents, parents and disabled siblings. They may also take care of younger siblings if their parents are working long hours, disabled or chronically ill.
That means that in addition to schoolwork, caregiving students may manage and administer medicines and medical treatments and finances; cook, feed, shop and clean; or transport and translate for their relatives. Given the pandemic and the U.S. aging population, more people have health-related needs, and it is increasingly common for those needs to be filled by caregiving youth. Our rising numbers of single-parent and intergenerational homes add to this upward trend.
Disproportionately, these caregiving youth are girls, from lower-income families and/or with historically marginalized racial and ethnic identities. That’s one reason why identifying and supporting caregiving youth can help reduce existing gender and racial educational disparities.
Although caregiving during childhood and adolescence can sometimes have positive impacts — young people can gain self-confidence, resilience and close relationships — it is often taxing and interferes with school endeavors, particularly when it is ongoing, time-intensive or emotionally draining. Caregiving adolescents report missing class, struggling to study and complete homework and feeling worried, fatigued and isolated.
It is no surprise then that caregiving adolescents are at heightened risk for learning disruptions and for dropping out of school. But before we can give caregiving youth the support they need, we must identify who and where they are.
Caregiving students are currently “hidden” from educational systems in the U.S. because they are not formally counted or supported, even though schools routinely identify other populations of potentially vulnerable students (e.g., homeless students).
Caregiving students could easily be identified through mandated statewide, school-based behavioral surveys. If we identify who they are, we can start to understand and support their academic and emotional needs.
For example, caregiving adolescents may need more flexible course schedules or assignment extensions. They may need help managing stress, connecting with other caregiving youth or accessing information and resources.
Federal, state and local policies should mandate counting caregiving youth in schools and districts and allocate funding for school-based support. In addition, the federal programs that support family caregivers but are currently accessible only to adults should be extended to include caregivers who are younger than age 18.
Caregiving adolescents report missing class, struggling to study and complete homework and feeling worried, fatigued and isolated.
The state of Rhode Island is very much leading the way in the U.S. First, the Rhode Island Department of Education partnered with my researcher collaborator and I from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the nonprofit American Association of Caregiving Youth. We surveyed 48,500 public middle and high school students across the state about their experiences providing care to their families.
That work helped bring national attention to caregiving youth, and has already had important impacts. Our 2021 survey, with results publishing in early 2023, reveals that 29 percent of middle and high school students reported caring for family part of the day; 7 percent said they were doing so most of the day. We also found that caregiving students are more likely than non-caregivers to experience ongoing sadness, highlighting the need to support the emotional health of caregiving youth.
Our Rhode Island findings corroborate prior evidence. In 2019, Florida identified caregiving youth in some schools (10,880 students) via a single item in the state’s student behavior survey. Our study of that data revealed that roughly 20 percent of students were caregiving, and they reported having more emotional problems and lower academic performance. Caregiving students in other states urgently need to be counted and supported, too.
Second, Rhode Island is designing policies to support caregiving students in schools. For example, the state is considering awarding these students community service hours for their caregiving work and designing flexible class schedules, skill-building groups and support groups for them.
The U.S. is trying to increase access to education and reduce inequalities. Targeted, school-based, local, state and federal policies can enable caregiving students to achieve their developmental and academic potential and reduce inequalities. Adding a measure for caregiving students to existing school-based surveys is one small but necessary step. Once we see and recognize them, we can and should meaningfully support the emotional health and educational success of the millions of students who are doing so much for others.
Emma Armstrong-Carter is a developmental psychologist who researches how children and adolescents provide caregiving for their families, and how this relates to their educational success. This work is also led by Elizabeth Olson, Connie Siskowski, and the Rhode Island Department of Education.
This story about caregiving students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.