Divorce doesn't just impact your children at home; it also can affect how they behave in school, how well they focus on their schoolwork, and how they feel about their relationships with their peers. Their adjustment, in turn, can affect the school community. We've all probably seen or heard of a situation in which one couple's divorce has made a classroom setting awkward and painful. As parents, we work hard to make our children feel safe and secure at home. We also may need to take steps to help them feel comfortable at school.
“There are many variables that affect how separation and divorce in a family can affect children in the classroom, depending on the age and temperament of the child and how long the divorce process has been going on,” says Laurie Hollman, a New York-based psychoanalyst, family therapist and author of Unlocking Parental Intelligence: Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior.
Some schools have programs in place to help kids deal with divorce, and training for staff to create a supportive and neutral space. The school's approach matters because the school sets the precedent for how teachers, other parents, and children behave in reaction to a divorce. "School districts and administrators have a stake in helping us keep the school environment free of toxic behavior, negative comments and simmering resentments," says Hollman.
Find out if your school has services to help kids in divorce. If your school is lacking, you might want to download the guidebook Helping Children Adjust to Divorce: A Guide for Teachers. Created by University of Missouri human development specialists Kim Leon and Leanne Spengler, the book suggests ways that schools, preschools and childcare centers can support a child whose family is facing divorce, such as helping kids focus on the strengths of their family, particularly those that might arise in relation to divorce such as a new flexibility, the presence of multiple role modes, and increased independence among children.
Not all schools have systems in place to help kids deal with the fact of their parents' divorce. As parents, we can step in and help teach the school how to support our kids.
Here are three steps to help your child's school get a better grade at dealing with divorce:
1. Meet with the teachers.
“Hopefully the parents have informed the teacher early on so that the teacher is sensitive to the child’s reactions,” says Hollman. Rather than hoping no one notices your divorce, meet with your child's teacher or teachers, and let them know what's happening at home. Explain your child's living situation, and which home the child is coming from each day of the week.
In the guidebook Helping Children Adjust to Divorce, the authors suggest two-way communication: parents keep teachers up-to-date on what’s going on at home, and teachers inform parents about talk and behaviors at school.
2. Encourage teachers to offer support.
Let teachers know that you'd appreciate their taking the time to get involved. They might tell your child that they understand there will be a period of adjusting to the new home routine, and that they're available to talk about it privately before or after school. Teachers can share their understanding that this is a difficult time, and reassure that they're there to help.
They can also help celebrate positive new behaviors that can accompany the change of divorce, such as more self-reliance and resilience. A teacher might give a child new responsibilities in the classroom, or new challenges in school work. Asking a child to do more helps build confidence and shows the teacher's respect for newfound abilities. This can be a positive way to acknowledge newfound maturity, even if it came though an unwanted shift.
3. Use the resources at the school.
Many schools have groups for children going through divorce, which can be quite helpful. If such a group doesn’t exist at your child’s school, create one. It’s important for children to know that they aren't alone in this family shake-up; divorce is common, and there have been many other children whose parents have split up. Group support helps children understand that they are part of a broader whole, and that there is nothing to be ashamed of in this transition.
You also might meet with the school psychologist or social worker and make them aware of changes at home. A school psychologist can be another supportive adult that a child can turn to during the school day.
We want children to feel safe and stable and happy during this period of change. Letting teachers know that children might need special attention can help, especially during the first year. Special attention doesn't have to be hard. It cab be as simple as offering extra smiles, praise, and extra support.
Mekeisha Madden Toby is a Los Angeles-based TV critic and journalist. The Detroit native has been a journalist since 1999, writing for outlets such as Essence, MSN TV, The Detroit News, The Wrap, TV Guide, CNN.com, Playboy.com, People Magazine, Us Weekly, The Seattle Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Minneapolis Star Tribune.