A new school year is poised to begin, and along with new school clothes and supplies, thousands of children will also carry divorce in their backpacks.
New teachers, classmates, and this week's spelling test are already enough stress for a child to endure without worrying about what's going on between mom and dad.
Many divorced parents also find the school to be a battleground for access and information. Parents want to be informed and feel a part of their children's important academic issues; yet, one or both may feel left out of the loop of communication or unsure how to proceed. Some parents even go so far as to play games to prevent the other parent from being informed or present for school activities.
How do divorced parents navigate through meetings, school events, contact with the teacher, completing annual forms, and more?
Six teachers shared their best advice to help children of divorce succeed in school, and aid their parents in a more peaceful interaction with the school, and with each other.
Angela, a lead teacher for Head Start in Los Angeles, described how the pre-kindergarten program eliminates many sources for divorce drama by collecting forms from the parents to designate who is allowed to pick up the children and communicate about the child's needs and progress. Part of their intake process includes assessing the family's needs and referring parents for mental health services to assist them in coping with stress and co-parenting.
Angela also shared that mental health professionals coach the Head Start teachers about divorce dynamics and how to effectively dialogue with parents through difficult conversations. Divorced parents who are fortunate enough to begin co-parenting during the preschool years with this additional guidance and support have an advantage to prepare for kindergarten and beyond; however, many parents are left to figure out how to survive on their own.
Lisa Arends, a math teacher, DivorceForce contributor, and popular divorce blogger, shared that school software systems may only allow for one e-mail contact for parents or guardians, eliminating the possibility for both parents to receive communications. Lisa explained that it can be difficult for busy teachers to remember to send out duplicate messages; so, she suggests that co-parents set up a joint Gmail account that both can access for school communication.
Michelle, director of a private school in Iowa, recommends that parents attend parent-teacher conferences together, even if they have difficulty getting along. She has had parents request separate meetings, and has accommodated these parents by trying her best to provide duplicate information in each meeting; but, she said that often different questions will arise in each meeting, prompting new or different information to be discussed. Michelle urged parents to communicate with one another about school assignments from week to week, especially if the child is struggling, to ensure that work is not left at one home or the other, and to make sure important information follows the child.
Hope, a Texas 8th grade multiple disabilities teacher, believes it is beneficial for parents to share the fact that they are divorcing, or that the child resides in two homes, with the school so that changes in behavior and performance might be better understood, and help offered to the child as needed. She also thinks that it's helpful to know that a child has an alternate living arrangement, because differing routines and parental involvement may explain fluctuations that are noted in the child, and the teacher will know to ask the child questions like: "are you at mom's or dad's this week?"
Supporting the Child’s Wellbeing in School
Children may feel self-conscious about their dual home status or the fact that their family is no longer together. Kids will benefit from minimizing drama at school and not drawing attention to the conflict that may embarrass the child, or make it difficult for them to focus on their school work.
Marion, a primary school teacher in Germany, stressed the importance of parents working together to parent as a unit in the school setting. She suggested that kids benefit from the presence of both parents attending school parties, meetings, and other activities because it makes them feel more secure.
Lisa pleaded for divorced parents to not bring teachers, or the school, into the middle of their problems. She expressed that the school should be an objective and neutral "safe" place for a child; when parents act out divorce issues through school or the teacher, it robs the child of the security they need during a difficult time of their life.
Examples of Co-Parenting in School
Hope shared the example of divorced parents whom she praised for their excellent co-parenting efforts. She described the parents as individuals who have differing parenting philosophies, which has caused plenty of conflict between them; but, when it comes to their son, they do a remarkable job working together during his IEP (Individualized Education Program) meetings.
Hope stated that these co-parents are able to enter the meeting room and be pleasant to each other, to the point of even complimenting one another's parenting strengths, and regularly put their heads together to solve problems. Hope applauds the fact that they are not caught up on being right, blaming, or exerting control over the situation. Instead, they allow themselves to be creative—together—because they know their son, with multiple special needs, relies on them to put his well-being above their disagreements.
Josalyn, a social studies teacher from Colorado, noted that she has witnessed plenty of bad examples of co-parenting with the school over her years of teaching. Among her examples:
- Parents going behind each other's backs to change contact information and sabotage communication with the school.
- Parents hiding, or failing to share, information about special activities in an attempt to prevent the other parent from attending, or to make them look bad to the child or school. The problem with these tactics is that it hurts the child when both parents aren't there to surround the child with love and support.
- Parents refusing to agree in order to spite one another, forgetting what might be best for the child.
- Parents bad mouthing one other to the teacher, or school, to try to get them to "take sides" or favor one parent over the other.
- Parents having verbal or physical fights on school property, making fools of themselves, and hurting their child in the process.
Most relations between divorced parents and the school are improved with free and open communication and willingness to put the child's happiness and best interests before animosity between exes. These teachers acknowledge that co-parenting is often a difficult task in the midst of pain and anger held over from the divorce; however, when parents are able to put their differences aside long enough to do what supports their child's needs best, the process is more effective and painless for everyone.
Written by Audrey Cade
Audrey Cade is the author of Divorce Matters: Help for Hurting Hearts and Why Divorce is Sometimes the Best Decision, and the matriarch of a blended family of eight. She is experienced in the areas of co-parenting, step-parenting, parental alienation, and remarriage, and enjoys sharing these experiences with others who are also committed to raising happy and healthy kids.