After a divorce, parents spend a lot of time and effort to establish a stable life and routines for their children, so they can regain a sense of security. Family, relatives, friends, colleagues and support networks have all been a part of this process. Now the kids are in school, but neither the school nor their teachers are in the loop. Here’s what can happen:
Scenario #1: After picking up the kids from their elementary school and shuttling them to their activities, a divorced mother of three stopped by her house and heard this phone message:
“This is Mr. King, Brian’s teacher, calling for Mr. and Mrs. Jones. I just wanted to let you know there was an incident on the bus this morning where Brian felt he was being teased for the book he was reading. This matter will not go unaddressed, in that we have a NO TOLERANCE policy for bullying. I asked Brian to talk with both of you at home, and I will follow-up with a phone call once the other student has been addressed. Please feel free to phone me…”
Scenario #2: And here’s an email sent to a parent of a middle school student:
“Dear Mr. and Mrs. Barnes, I’m sorry to have to contact you on a negative note so early in the year, but I wanted to let you know that Emily has not turned in her “I Am” poem which was due in English last week. Because we have so few grades at this point, she is failing English. This could affect her eligibility to play field hockey in the future. If you could encourage Emily to turn in her poem, I would appreciate it. I have spoken to her about it several times, hoping that she would turn it in without a parent contact, but that has not happened. Thank you for your help on the home front. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me. Mrs. Whitman”
Unfortunately, neither Brian nor Emily live in a two-parent home. Schools and teachers often make this assumption even though statistics refute it. Now his mother is faced with how to communicate this change to her son’s teacher. Is it a good idea?
And Emily’s simple assignment – write a poem – instead caused her great distress because the she wanted to keep her feelings private. In the above example, Emily felt the “I am” poem was too personal. She didn’t want to reveal her parents’ divorce. And she was reluctant to share this with her teacher.
Ideally raising children is a two-parent job. You take care of their physical need, making sure they have good nutrition, exercise and proper sleep. And you focus on their emotional development — love, attention, acceptance, consistency and structure that encourages them. Since children spend so much of their time in school, it only stands to reason that parents who positively co-parent around school matters will positively affect the emotional health of their child(ren).
So how do divorced parents navigate the many, many events of school life? The best place to start is to figure out your post-divorce relationship. Is it friendly, cordial, indifferent or angry? Identifying this determines how to approach the school and teachers. Second, each of you should honestly assess how much time you really have to participate in school matters. Thirdly, decide WHO should be the lead person for school communications.
Active, Cordial Co-Parenting
You may have open, cordial communications with your ex, so it’s easy to share information about school matters. In this case, the parent designated as the primary contact person commits to sharing information with the other. Where possible, both parents can attend events like Back-to-School Night and parent-teacher conferences together.
Cooperation based on Mutual Concern for the Children
Or your relationship might be more cooperative than friendly. In this situation, communications are still positive and one person is command central for school information to be shared. When it comes to events at school, you both may be more comfortable attending separately. Schools can and will accommodate individual parent meetings, parent-teacher conferences and often have multiple sessions for meeting the teachers on Back-to-School Nights.
Separate, but Engaged
The third type of post divorce relationship includes tension and angry feelings. This limits interaction between parents; communication is frequently avoided to minimize conflict. In this situation, each parent is responsible for communicating with the school and asking the school to distribute information to both households. Again, separate meetings with teachers and school personnel are a fair request and schools generally accommodate both parents.
Be Honest. The next important questions is, “How available am I for my child’s school events?” There’s no right or wrong answer, just what is possible or realistic. Work demands, proximity to the school, even health issues affect availability. It is important for a parent to be clear about what he or she can offer. This minimizes unrealistic expectations and so, minimizes disappointment.
Be creative. Get creative when it come to connecting with your child’s school when you can’t actually be there. Your child is the best source of information. Ask them what they are learning, what their teachers are like, who their friends are, what they had for lunch, and who scored the goal in soccer. Asking them “How was school today?” is a dead-end question. You need more than a one-word response. In addition, email and cell phones make access to teachers and schools more timely.
Be Involved. Schools have many needs and parents have many talents. Sometimes it’s just a matter of some creative thinking to find a way to connect. Not every parent can volunteer in the classroom, be a homeroom parent or coach a team. But you can contact the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) about ways to help during non-school hours or behind the scenes. Organizing a fundraiser, planting bushes on school grounds or soliciting donations for the spring fair are always welcome activities.
Get acquainted with the school’s website. You can get to know your child’s teachers, athletic schedules, homework assignments and upcoming events. And teachers often invite parents to communicate through email because of its convenience to both sides.
Make it Real. Kids are very sharp at gauging their parents’ interest. A parent can be physically present but not engaged or interested; or a parent who cannot be present physically, but still very involved and interested. In the words of a 13 year old, “Dad will drive me where I need to go, but I know he isn’t very interested in what I do.” A parent’s genuine interest in the child and school, regardless of its form, will not be lost.
How do You Know Who to Call at School?” Our schools today have many helpful positions including teachers, team leaders, principals, vice principals, counselors, nurses and office personnel. Every school has its own personality and style of organization. As a general rule, the best first contact is the guidance counselor. He or she will either be the person who can accommodate special requests or recommend the right staff person. If the post divorce relationship style is very open and relaxed, there may be very little to communicate. If conflict exists between parents, each parent will probably need to contact the school to set up an exchange of school related information and schedule separate meeting times.
A guidance counselor at a local high school recommends divorced parents “share as much as they can.” She goes on to explain that sharing this information initially can be awkward, embarrassing, annoying, and frustrating; but that sharing family logistical information up front can actually prevent more frustrating problems down the road.
From pre-school to 12th grade, children spend a tremendous amount of time in school and their events and activities. Knowing how and with whom to communicate at school and maintaining a cooperative, open relationship with your ex maximize a child’s success at school. When you are both involved and interested in the big issues — school and related activities and the small stuff — “did you brush your teeth?”, your kids have a the best chance to flourish.!
Today’s society usually often defines divorce as a negative. The expectation is for divorcing or divorced couples to NOT get along. As commonly believed, “There is no such thing as a happy divorce.” For children of divorce to have the best shot at success, in school or in life, parents should challenge the traditional way of relating post-divorce. Both parents need to be on board. And while there are emotions — fear, anger, sadness, loneliness, resentment — co-parenting remains a priority.
Here’s the opportunity in a flier sent home from school:
“Dear Parents and Guardians,
Now that your son/daughter is a 4th grade student, he/she can choose to play a musical instrument for the school band and orchestra. Instruments that are available to your child for instruction are… “
This opportunity can create great distress or great excitement in your child. If divorced parents are in conflict, learning and playing a musical instrument may not even be possible. Or it might be a tremendous burden, both in time and financially to one parent (not lost on the child). But if parents can put the child’s social and educational needs at the forefront, they are much more likely to find a way for Danny to have fun squawking out his first year on the alto sax with all his other friends!