Diverse Families: A Dialogue about Reflective Practice

Vol. 12, No. 2
ISSN: 1546-2676

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Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM,
Vol. 11, No. 1. 
1546-2676. Editor: Dorothy I. Mitstifer. Official publication of Kappa Omicron Nu National Honor Society. Member, Association of College Honor Societies. Copyright © 2000. Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM is a refereed, semi-annual publication serving the profession of family and consumer sciences. The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the society. Further information: Kappa Omicron Nu, PO Box 798, Okemos, MI 48805-0798. Telephone: (727) 940-2658 ext. 2003

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Kappa Omicron Nu


Grandparents Raising Grandchildren: An Application of Reflective Human Action Theory

Sandra J. Bailey, Ph.D., CFLE

Associate Professor & Extension Specialist, Department of Health & Human Development, Montana State University



Family and consumer sciences professionals are in a position to provide leadership in addressing family issues in their states. This article discusses how a statewide program is being built to assist grandparents raising grandchildren using reflective human action theory as a framework.

Family diversity is often equated with racial, ethnic, or religious diversity. However, there have been an increasing number of structurally diverse families in the past 30 years. Although families have always been diverse (Coontz, 1992) structural diversity is more prevalent today. One such family structure is that of grandparents raising grandchildren.

Grandparent involvement in raising grandchildren is not new however a grandparent serving as primary caregiver to his or her grandchildren has dramatically increased in the past 10 years throughout the United States (Fuller-Thomson, Minkler, & Driver, 1997). Western rural states in particular are experiencing a dramatic increase in the numbers of grandparent headed households. Of the states that have shown an increase in grandchildren in grandparent headed households, 14 of the top 20 are in the west (U. S. Census, 2000). These grandparent headed households include working professionals, retirees, and those working minimal wage jobs and range in age from 30s to 80s. Some are great grandparents raising their grandchildren.

I became aware of the prevalence of the grandparents raising grandchildren in rural areas when I started my position as an Extension Specialist in a western state. My first few months on the job were spent traveling the state meeting with Extension Agents and other constituents, asking for their thoughts on the pressing needs for families in their counties. Repeatedly I heard that grandparents raising grandchildren needed information, resources, and support. These families were not exclusive to our American Indian Reservations where grandparents raising grandchildren is a cultural norm, but rather throughout the state in both our urban and rural settings. Based on this information, I began exploring more about this fast growing family structure and sought to bring people together to address the need. From this, the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Project in our state was born.

What is known about Grandparents Raising Grandchildren?

There are many reasons why grandparents are called upon to care for their grandchildren—children being removed from the parents due to child abuse or neglect, parental chemical dependency issues, chronic illness, parental immaturity, teen pregnancy, abandonment, death of a parent, difficulties with finances, military deployment, divorce, unemployment, and incarceration of parents (Weber & Waldrop, 2000). Often it is a combination of factors that lead to children living with their grandparents. In almost all cases this family structure is created due to a crisis or loss.

Grandparents are stepping in to provide care, however for most it comes with an emotional, psychological, and financial cost. Grandparents often experience physical and emotional health concerns, financial issues of raising another child, legal concerns, and strained family relations. Grandparents may have to navigate a variety of systems in order to enroll the child in day care or school, apply for medical insurance, obtain financial assistance by means of food stamps and welfare, and obtain custody or guardianship of the child. The requirements to attain some of these services can be restrictive and daunting.

In addition to the complex systems grandparents may have to navigate, they are often faced with providing for the child on a fixed income. The average income for grandparent headed households with children present is less than $20,000 (AARP, 2003). More than 38% of grandparents who are primary caregivers to their grandchildren are below the poverty line (Kirby & Kaneda, 2002). When a child is added to the household, the family often is thrust below the poverty line, and the grandparents are forced to find a way to meet the needs of their new family, which often means returning to work or applying for aid.

Some literature suggests that difficulties controlling grandchildren’s behavior, coping with generational differences in values and parenting styles, and assuming firm parental control can lead to psychological distress in grandparent caregivers (Sands & Goldberg-Glen, 2000). Grandparents may feel out of touch with changes in parenting practices and discipline techniques, the educational system, and even pop culture as it relates to how children behave and interact socially. Other research indicates that many grandparents feel socially isolated from their peers, which in a rural setting can be compounded by low opportunity to participate in social networks, poor physical health, and transportation problems (Kelley, Whitley, Sipe, & Yorker, 2000; Revicki & Mitchell, 1990). Grandparents raising grandchildren may be able to prevent or manage stress with the support of community resources, but research indicates that there are inadequacies in public programs designed to meet the needs of these families (Sands & Goldberg-Glen, 2000). The increase in this family structure and the paucity of services available is an issue that can be addressed through the leadership of family and consumer science professionals.

Meeting the Needs of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren

In my role as an Extension Specialist, I conduct applied research as well as develop and deliver programming. When it became apparent that there was a dearth of resources and programming for grandparents raising grandchildren, I sought to fill the void. Budget limitations and vast distances between communities in our state require successful statewide programs to be collaborative in nature. Additionally, as a professional in family studies, I frame my work from an ecological perspective (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). Using this perspective I sought out others who might have contact with these families, specifically AARP, our state office on aging, early childhood professionals, and county agents. What has developed is an informal partnership among state-level agencies and organizations committed to providing support to grandparents raising grandchildren. The model lends itself to reflective human action theory (Andrews, Mitstifer, Rehm & Vaughn, 1995) in that it is professionals in the field of family and consumer sciences who can be part of social change. Andrews, et al., propose a new way to view leadership citing the core principles of the theory as sharing information, developing relationships, accepting chaos, and embracing vision. All of these principles are evident in the grandparents raising grandchildren project.

Reflective Human Action Theory in Action

Sharing Information

Sharing information became the focus of the first statewide partners’ meeting. Representatives from the various state-level agencies and organizations came together in June of 2002 to share information about resources they had or could make available for grandparents raising grandchildren. We found that the more that was shared, the more the synergy built to create a project that would benefit an underserved and underrepresented family type in our state.

Others working on the issue of grandparents raising grandchildren found that support groups were of benefit. This became the first major focus of the project. Through support groups grandparents can share their stories, find support from others, get updated on child development and parenting, and learn about available resources.

In order to set up support groups we developed a day-and-a-half training for support group facilitators covering such topics as group logistics, child development, understanding grief and loss, legal issues, and issues related to working with state social service agencies. The training was designed for professionals who would be leading the support groups; however we were surprised when we had more grandparents raising grandchildren sign up for the training than agency or organization staff. We had been advised that grandparents raising grandchildren repeatedly reported being very tired due to taking on their additional roles. Due to the reported fatigue we were advised to have an agency or organization sponsor the support group rather than the grandparents. Having an agency or organization sponsor the groups also would help to institutionalize the project. What we found was a wonderful blend of agency staff and grandparents who wanted to take on the leadership to start support groups in their communities. At the local level, leadership and partnering blossomed as grandparents sought out agencies that could assist them in advertising the support groups, finding a location to hold the groups, and facilitating other logistical needs. Some of the groups are held in agency meeting rooms, churches, and in grandparents’ homes. Each group is unique in who is facilitating the group and who the facilitators are partnering with to offer the support. The variation in groups represents the different services and agencies available in a given community. For example, while an Extension agent covers an entire county he or she may not be available in a particular community. There may however be a child-care resource and referral office in the community that has taken on local ownership of the project. To date we have trained 77 support group facilitators and have 11 groups operating across the state.

Developing Relationships

The second principle of reflective human action theory—developing relationships—became important at our first partners’ meeting. Strong relationships among the major partners have developed and continue to grow. Additional partners are being brought into the project as we reach out to other agencies and organizations, as others hear about what we are doing, and as we discover the resources of other groups. Our state office of public instruction is now involved and the project is listed on its website for parents. Staffs from the state office of public instruction and the office on aging are presenting a seminar for grandparents on working with the schools and advocating for children with special needs. These relationships have enhanced the visibility of the project, allowed us to collaborate with others, and provided a statewide network to offer the program.

Several of the Native American tribes in our state have been interested in the project. We have found that although grandparents raising grandchildren is traditional and culturally expected, in many cases the grandparents are finding themselves in this situation due to the aforementioned reasons: substance abuse, death, disability, deployment, and/or economics. We are finding that these issues for grandparents cut across cultures. We are continuing to work with the reservations to adapt materials and information that are culturally appropriate for the Native Americans in our state.

Accepting Chaos

Through all of this there has been a certain level of chaos as we tried to determine where to begin and how to implement the project with minimal resources, but perhaps the chaos has also led to creativity. We found that many grandparents did not know where to go for services, which led us to start by identifying services available in the state. The grandparents in general had limited incomes; therefore we offered the training in various parts of the state and offered scholarships to grandparents so that they could attend. Navigating the legal system has proved daunting, and knowing related laws on each of the seven Indian reservations in the state has proved to be a great challenge. We are still seeking resources in this area. The emotional aspect of dealing with grandchildren with special needs and the guilt associated with the failures of the adult children has become apparent. Although we are still sorting out the needs, the informal nature of the training and building of friendships during training and in the support groups appears to be very helpful for the grandparents.

Through the chaos we have started three other aspects of the project. We have a listserv for grandparents and those working with the families to share information and issues with one another. A bimonthly newsletter specifically for the grandparents in our state has been developed and disseminated to over 200 individuals. And a website has been devoted to the issue. All three of these projects are maintained through the Extension office at our university and are used to distribute information across the state.

We are still in a certain state of chaos as we work to define short- and long-term goals for the project. For this coming year we have been working on increasing the number of support groups and developing a statewide pamphlet of services for grandparents raising grandchildren.

Embracing Vision

Although we are gaining clarity on the issues, there is still much more that needs to be done. The vision of providing support to these families is starting to become a reality however this project is dynamic in nature and will continue to change and grow. Ideally, enough local leadership would develop that would eventually lessen the need for state-level leadership to keep the project operating in the communities. To date this has not occurred. It is our regular contacts with the support group facilitators and the distribution of information over the listserv and in the bi-monthly newsletters that seem to keep the program on track. Perhaps we could eventually offer leadership training to those in the communities so that they might feel more empowered to develop stronger community programs.

The Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Project would not have been able to get started without the vision and support of the statewide partners and the commitment of a handful of grandparents interested in this issue. With this support we applied for and received a small seed grant from the Brookdale Foundation of New York to start support groups across the state. This organization, in a sense also operates from a reflective human action perspective by offering seed grants that encourage people to join together, share resources, and create a vision for impacting the lives of grandparents who are raising grandchildren. Because of the synergy and framework we have been able to create, a second grant from our state Children’s Trust Fund has helped us to expand our efforts to two other areas of the state.

Project Assessment

Extension is interested in documenting the impact of programs offered. We sought to assess whether or not the project was making a difference in the lives of grandparents in our state. Through a research grant from Kappa Omicron Nu we have been able to survey and interview grandparents across the state to determine what is working, where the program could be improved, and how parenting a second time around was impacting grandparents. Data are in the process of being analyzed. Initial information indicates that grandparents value the support groups and find comfort in being able to share their challenges and successes in parenting with others in a similar situation.

Implications and Conclusion

The experience in designing and implementing the grandparents raising grandchildren in our state has documented how family and consumer science professionals can take action to assist families and individuals in improving their lives. Professionals must first be willing to partner with others and truly collaborate so that the maximum resources and expertise may be engaged to develop a quality project. Second, they must be willing to invest in developing sustained relationships that will weather the course of time as the project starts up and becomes institutionalized. Third, an acceptance of uncertainty and chaos must be allowed, for without the chaos creativity cannot be expressed. Finally, family and consumer science professionals can be the leaders who bring together others to develop a vision for what a project might be today as well as in the future. Perhaps one of the greatest rewards of being in the family and consumer sciences profession is the opportunity to work directly with individuals and families to develop grassroots programs to meet their needs.


AARP (2003). Financial assistance for grandparent caregivers. Retrieved November 11, 2003 from

Andrews, F. E., Mitstifer, D. I., Rehm, M., & Vaughn, G. G. (1995). Leadership: Reflective human action. East Lansing, MI: Kappa Omicron Nu.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Coontz, S. (1992). The way we never were: American families and the nostalgia trap. New York: Basic Books.

Fuller-Thomson, E., Minkler, M., & Driver, D. (1997). A profile of grandparents raising grandchildren in the United States. The Gerontological Society of America, 37, 406-411.

Kelley, S. J., Whitley, D., Sipe, T.A., & Yorker, B. C. (2000). Psychological distress in grandmother kinship care providers: The role of resources, social support, and physical health. Child Abuse and Neglect, 24, 311-321.

Kirby, J. B., & Kaneda, T. (2002). Health insurance and family structure: The case of adolescents in skipped-generation families. Medical Care Research and Review, 59(2), 146-165.

Revicki, D. A., & Mitchell, J. P. (1990). Strain, social support, and mental health in rural elderly individuals. Applied Psychological Measurement, 1, 385-401.

Sands, R. G., & Goldberg-Glen, R. S. (2000). Factors associated with stress among grandparents raising their grandchildren. Family Relations, 49, 97-105.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2002). Children under 18 living in their grandparents’ household, by state. Retrieved September 13, 2003 from

Weber, J. A., & Waldrop, D. P. (2000). Grandparents raising grandchildren: Families in transition. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 33(2), 27-45.

Acknowledgements: This project is funded in part through the Brookdale Foundation of New York, the Montana Children’s Trust Fund, and Kappa Omicron Nu. I would like to thank my graduate student and research assistant Annie Conway for her work on this project.