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On The Same Page – Divorced Parents and Schools

By Kim Weber Giantisos, MFT

This is a message left on the voicemail of a divorced mom with three elementary age children:

“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…”

A common mistake is this: the teacher and school staff are assuming this child lives in a two parent home. The beginning of school, school events, and issues that come up while a child is in school, like the above example, can highlight change in the home for both the child and parents.

An email sent to a parent of a middle school student:

“Dear 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”

The above examples are a common occurrence. An assignment at school touches on a child’s feelings of self and/or home life, which he or she wants to keep private. In the above example, Emily felt the “I am” poem was too personal, and she would have to write about her feelings revealing her parents’ divorce.

The raising of children, at its best, is a two-parent job. Children have an external growth process and an internal growth process. The external can be easily seen with increase in height, weight, and all the developments that come with puberty. Good nutrition and proper sleep will naturally allow this growth to occur. The growth of a child on the inside is more difficult to see. Energy from the parents in the form of love, attention, acceptance, consistency, and structure, to name a few, promotes this internal growth. Since children spend so much of their time in school, it only stands to reason, that parents who can positively co-parent around school matters will positively affect the internal growth of their child(ren).

Friendly, Cooperative, or Strained?

So how do divorced parents navigate the many, many events of school life? The best place to start is to know the post divorce relationship. Is it friendly, cordial, indifferent, and angry? It is important for one to know how he/she relates as adults/parents because that can determine how the school is approached. The second objective to determine is individual availability. This is a time to honestly assess how much time is realistically available to participate in school matters. The third thing to know is WHO is the best person to contact in the school. And the overall piece that allows for the best results is communication: communication between parents and communication with the school.

The post divorce relationship between parents can take different forms and can change over time. There may be a friendly relationship with easy and frequent communication. There may be an easy flow around matters that involve the children. If this is the case, talking together and sharing information regarding school matters happens easily. In this case, one parent can be designated as the primary contact person for the school and then, that parent readily shares the information with the other parent. There can be comfort for both parents to attend events like Back to School Night and parent-teacher conferences together.

Another ex-spousal relationship might be described more cooperative than friendly. In this situation, communication is still positive and designating one person as command central for school information to be shared would be most effective. When it comes to events at school, parents 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.

A third type of post divorce relationship may exhibit tension and angry feelings. This can limit interaction between parents, and communication is frequently avoided to minimize conflict. In this situation, school information may or may not be shared easily. As a result, each parent can be 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 tend to accommodate both parents.

Be Honest, Be Creative, Be Involved After defining a parental relating style, it is important to ask, “How available am I to my child and his/her school related events?” This is a critical and reasonable question. There is no right or wrong answer, just what is possible or realistic. Demands of work, proximity to the school, and even health issues can affect how available a parent is. It is important for a parent to be clear about what he or she can offer. Clear to him or herself, but then to the child, former partner, and school. This minimizes unrealistic expectations and, therefore, minimizes disappointment.

There are creative ways to connect with your child’s school, even when you cannot be physically present. First, stay connected through your child. He/she can be the greatest source of information. Invite them into conversations about 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?” will not cut it. Ask specific questions that require more than a one-word response. In addition, email and cell phones allow for easier communication between parent and school. Take advantage of today’s technology.

Not every parent can volunteer in the classroom, be a homeroom parent, or coach a team. But a parent can contact the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) to find if there are ways to help outside of school, during non-school hours or behind the scenes. Perhaps a parent can help organize a fundraiser, be part of a phone chain, help place wood chips on the playground on a weekend, plant bulbs on school grounds, or solicit donations for the spring fair. Schools have many needs, and parents have many talents. Sometimes it is just a matter of some creative thinking to find a way to connect.

Most schools now have websites that allow parents to know their child’s teachers, athletic schedules, homework assignments, and upcoming events. Teachers often invite parents to communicate through email because of its convenience to both sides.

Kids are very astute at gauging their parents’ interest. A parent can be physically present but not engaged or interested; or a parent cannot be present physically, but 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 his or her child and school, regardless of its form, will not be lost.

Who to Talk To

After identifying a relating style with your former spouse and assessing availability, the next question is, “Who do I contact at the 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 will be able to recommend the appropriate staff person. Once the proper person has been identified, specific needs can be communicated. 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 exchange of school related information and schedule separate meeting times.

Sam Varano, principal of Souderton Area High School, supports the “guidance counselor is the best first contact.” Mr. Varano recommends that both parents be on the mailing list for report cards and other materials that are sent home. He further recommends that a primary contact person is designated for sharing more immediate information such as, “the biology teacher called and said that Billy needs an A on the next test to pass the marking period.” When asked what doesn’t work, Mr. Varano explained, “Like all things with parenting, two people are saying two different things to the child and to the school. When both parents are communicating separately with the school, things always get complicated, even when both parents are truly doing good things.”

Louise Eckert, Director of Guidance and Kennedy Kenrick Catholic 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.

The Big Picture

From pre-school to 12th grade, children spend a tremendous amount of time in school and in events and activities surrounding school. Knowing how and with whom to communicate at school, knowing what energies there are to offer, and creating and maintaining a cooperative, communicative, co-parenting relationship with a former partner will only help maximize a child’s success at school. When a child of divorce knows both parents are involved and/or interested in his/her life, big (school and related activities) or small (did you brush your teeth?) that vital growth on the inside flourishes!

Today’s society most 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.” Often expectations like these can become pressure for an individual to follow in the traditional paradigm…to maintain separateness and conflict. For children of divorce to have the best shot at success, in school, or otherwise, it is important for parents to challenge the traditional way of relating post divorce. Both parents need to be on board. And while there are emotions, like fear, anger, sadness, loneliness, resentment, that come with divorce; co-parenting remains a priority.

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 can be an opportunity for a child that can create great distress or great excitement. If divorced parents are in conflict, a child may not be able to even pursue this opportunity; or it can be a tremendous burden, time-wise and/or financially, to one parent (not lost on the child). If co-parenting with easy communication between divorced parents exists, it is much more likely to find a way for Danny to have fun squawking out his first year on the alto sax!

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