Working With Head Start Families Coping With an Addiction

Amy Phillips, CFLE-P
Amy Phillips
Amy Phillips, CFLE-P

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Education and Career Path

When I decided to go back to school in 2009, I had no idea I would end up in a Head Start program helping children and families in poverty. Head Start was no stranger to me: I attended when I was 4 years old, as my daughter did years later. My memories of Head Start are ones of happiness and success.

I earned my B.S. degree in 2014 in Child and Family Studies, and I am currently working on becoming a Certified Family Life Educator with full status. I was hired as a preschool teacher right after graduating from college. Although some college courses prepared me for what would happen inside the classroom, what has really stood out has been the number of transitions the children and their families go through in a year—both inside and outside the classroom. My job is to help families through these transitions.


Family Life Education in the Head Start Setting

The beginning of the school year can be both an exciting and an anxious time for preschoolers and their families. For some parents and caregivers, leaving their child for the first time causes anxiety and worry. Additionally, it doesn’t take long to discover which children are in the foster care system or which are being raised by a relative, usually a grandparent. More often than not, these children are separated from their parent(s) for the same reason: drug addiction. The smiles on their faces can be deceiving. The children and their families are here because they need help. They have come to the right place.

Meeting the families is always a highlight for me. It is the first stage in bonding and getting to know with whom I will be working. Every year is different and every family unique, but what never changes is the love that these children and their families have for each other. My first home visit with the families can be a little tense initially. I thank families for having me in their homes and let them know that my job is not to judge; I am there to help them and their preschooler. We talk about academic, social-emotional, and physical goals. I ask about struggles that they are having at home; I then try to tie together the children’s developmental needs and struggles at home so that we are helping support their needs as a family unit. I let the families know that I am not only an educator but also a family resource and advocate and that I look forward to spending this school year with them.

This is usually the point when the topic of opioid addiction comes into the conversation. In getting to know the families, we ask about their family background to assess what goals or services would be appropriate for them. By gaining this information, we start to see a bigger picture. The parents are incarcerated, deceased, in treatment, or have had their rights taken away. The picture looks different from family to family. Whatever the case, we assure the guardians that we are here to support and help them in any way we can.

As an educator, I have seen more and more grandparents stepping into the role of parent to their grandchildren. Ellis and Simmons reported in “Coresident Grandparents and Their Grandchildren: 2012” (, published in 2014 by the U.S. Census Bureau, that 2.7 million grandparents had primary caregiving responsibility for their grandchildren under 18 years of age who were living with them. I try to check in weekly with the children’s grandparents at drop-off or pick-up. I see the looks on their tired faces. I try to get an update on the parents’ visitation status, which can affect who is picking up or dropping off, or any other news that may be pertinent to the family dynamics.

These grandparents weren’t expecting to raise a family and then do it all over again for their absent children. Some grandparents already work, some have had to go back to work to be able to provide adequately for their grandchildren, and some spend their retirement funds raising their grandchildren. Others live on a fixed income and are unable to work.

What we try to do is alleviate some of the stressors that raising their grandchildren has created for the grandparents. As part of our program requirements, when we do family assessments, we work with the families to set goals. The goals might include concerns such as getting winter coats or being able to afford haircuts for the children. We try to see where they are in the process of raising their grandchildren and what their family plan with the Department of Human Services includes. Is there a plan for reunification with the parents? Are the parents out of the picture completely? Are the families eligible for food stamps, subsidized health care, or housing? It isn’t easy to bring up and talk about these stressors with families; however, I find more times than not that doing the family assessments and setting the goals result in the families finally having some relief from the day-to-day stress of caring for their grandchildren.

As a CFLE-P, I try to think outside the box when helping to support families. For example, when grandparents report that their grandchildren act out or do not listen to or follow directions, they may not know or realize that the children’s behaviors may indicate they are trying to cope with trauma they have experienced. Further, if these same children were born addicted to drugs, they may have neonatal abstinence syndrome, which can have effects throughout infancy and across their life span, including difficulties with regulation of emotions, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or an auditory processing disorder. When I start to see children exhibiting such behaviors at school, I want to make sure that I present the information to their grandparents in a way that doesn’t blame them. I will make a referral for services so that my mental health team can come into the classroom and do a quick assessment to get the families the help that they need. Once we get a plan in place, we meet with the grandparents to discuss our plan for what we will be doing in the classroom and to suggest how they can implement similar strategies at home. It is much easier for all if everyone involved is on the same page. 

Whether a single grandparent, two grandparents, or a foster family, struggles exist for these caregivers. Children with a parent who is addicted to opioids have usually been through the wringer. Life has been a roller-coaster ride they were not prepared for. The same can be said for grandparents who have stepped up to raise their grandchildren. There are going to be some tough days ahead for both grandparents and the children, but I have heard from grandparents that they were able to offer stability, something the children didn’t have before. For these children, their overall outcomes will be positive.

You will find two things in my classroom that express who the children are. The first is a picture display of the children with their families—images that describe what their families are like and what they mean to the children. Some children chose a picture of them with their mother; for others, it is a picture with their grandparent(s); most recently, a child brought a picture with an incarcerated parent. Family is more than just a word. For these children, family is who they are and where they come from. Their family photo means the world to them, and they are more than happy to share their family photo with others.

Artwork is the second thing that allows children to express who they are. Each month, we hang their artwork under their family picture. They chose what to make or draw. The art shows their individuality, and hanging it shows them they are important and loved.

One of the things I focus on is the relationships I have with all my students and their caregivers. Family Life Education in the Head Start setting has taught me that the relationships I build with families are essential to their success. I want all my families to feel successful when they leave my classroom and take their next step in life.


Amy Phillips is a Head Start teacher at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Oregon. She has a bachelor’s degree in Child and Family Studies and hopes to become a Certified  Family Life Educator with full status next year. [email protected]