HomeHealth & BehaviorEmotional Well-Being

Kids, divorce, and school success

It's best to keep the focus on the kids, and leave parents' egos aside to help kids achieve success in school. Here are some tips to help.

By GreatSchools Staff

Going through a divorce can be a painful process for everyone involved. Children often feel caught in the middle, and the stress can affect their performance in school. But it doesn't have to be all doom and gloom. Experts and parents who have been there say that with good communication, effective planning, heightened awareness of problems that might arise, and time to iron out the difficulties, families can emerge with positive, supportive relationships and kids can be successful in school, too.

Keep the focus on the child

Family counselors, authors, parents and even the kids who've been through it agree: The main thing is to focus on what's best for the child. They provide us with a wealth of tips for helping divorced families cope and helping their kids achieve academic success.

"When there's a divorce, it can feel like your whole world is crashing in," says Mary Lynn Crow, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of education at the University of Texas at Arlington. She sees a tendency for divorced parents to focus on survival first because of the intense turmoil and fears that a divorce can cause. "But maintaining support for the child," she adds, "gives parents something positive to focus on. Sometimes that can help to ease the strain of divorce as well as benefit the child."

"Just as there are good and bad marriages, so there are good and bad divorces," says Marian Wilde, a senior editor at GreatSchools and a divorced parent. "In a good divorce, parents can continue to co-parent and communicate with each other. Much of what divorced parents need to communicate about is logistical: Who has homework? When is it due? Who needs a permission slip signed? It can be tough the first year of divorce when parents are focused on creating arrangements and dealing with lawyers. But it's important to be aware of what's happening with your child." She adds that with good communication, family relations do get better over time. "Things tend to mellow out," she says.

Make a plan — for homework, after-school activities, and college costs

Effective planning is key to lessening conflict, making sure everyone is in agreement about expectations and helping your child focus on school. The more that can be clearly laid out the better — that includes communication with teachers, household policies on homework and TV, who will attend school functions, and even what kids should wear to school.

"For younger kids, they should agree on the same homework procedures down to the details. For example, when the child gets home from school, will she have snack, then playtime and then do homework or will she do her homework first? It's better if both parents can agree on the same routine," says Crow. She suggests parents come to an agreement about after-school activities, too — how many activities the kids will do, who will pay for what and how school performance and concerns will affect after-school activities. She adds, "It's key that parents sit down together, if they can, and draw up these procedures. If necessary, they should hire a mediator to help devise a plan they can agree on."

Risa Garon, author of Stop! In the Name of Love for Your Children: A Guide to Healthy Divorce and executive director of the National Family Resiliency Center in Rockville, Maryland, advises parents to agree on academic concerns for older kids, too, and plan accordingly. Do both parents agree that the child should go to college? Can they agree on a range of costs and what each parent is willing to pay for tuition? They should agree on what courses the child should take in high school to prepare for college. They should agree on what types of colleges the child will consider and who will take the child to visit colleges, and whoever accompanies the child should agree to report back to the other parent.

Have consistent rules and provide support

"It's important to have consistent rules, have expectations and provide support," says Crow. "There can be a tendency for divorced parents to be permissive, to think, 'Well, he's had so much stress, I'll just do his homework for him or I won't check to see if he is getting and doing his homework.' That is a mistake," says Crow. Garon adds that it's important for kids going through a divorce to have discipline. "Consistency in parental expectations and discipline provides security and structure," she says.

Think of the other parent as your business partner

"Parents need to communicate as co-parents. Think of being a co-parent like being a business partner. This will take emotion out of the equation," says Garon. She suggests that parents agree to communicate once a week and always away from the child. They should agree ahead of time about the topics of the conversation and keep their focus on what is going to help their child be successful in school. Keep the conversation short, respectful, and keep blaming and judging out of the dialogue.

"Most parenting agreements are about how much time the child will have with each parent, and where the child will be for holidays," she notes. "But it is more important to focus on what the needs of the child are, rather than time spent with each parent. Focusing in this way can help to take away anger as part of the conversation." For example, if a child has a science project due, discuss the logistics of how it is going to get done. If the child will be with one parent for three days, then that parent should inform the other parent where the child is on the project and make sure the child has everything he needs to complete his assignment when he is with the other parent.

"When you have a conversation about your child and school, it should be as two parents talking about their child rather than as two ex-spouses talking to one another," says one child, now in his 20s, about his parents' divorce. "And the focus should be proactive rather than reactive."

"Parents should act like adults in front of their children," says a young woman, now in college, about her parents' divorce. "I remember having hurt feelings when I would hear my parents fighting on the telephone. I would feel especially bad for my dad, and it would turn me against my mom and make me feel bitter."

Comments from readers

"What if there is a Temporary Restraining Order on the Father? He can't talk to the Mother, and the Family Court ordered that the children can go on unsupervised visits every other week?"
"People know all this information, yet there are still so many children worldwide who are put under stress, which can cause depression. Sometimes when a child is under depression, things like suicide can be commited. The real question is, why can't it be solved?"
"am doing a speech on children and how it effects them . need stories of children who been throught it thank you "
"Reading the article is a relaity check. I have been seperated for 5 years and during that time my ex doesn't take the initiative to attend school activities or ask about our daughter's academic performance. It is hard for a single parent like me who supported our child since birth and the ex would chip in once in a while. I am thankful that i have parnets who have been supported during those dark times and working overseas made me thankful that there is the internet to have constant communication. I suggest that this article be shared not to only in the internet but other printing materials. For seperated parents and soon to divorce parents (which I hope not) will make us think of our decisions and what would be the outcome of our kids"
"Interestingly enough, the last post is exactly my situation. I have a 14 year old stepson and a 21 year old stepdaughter. My husband and I have a 6 year old son. For years we were kept out of the loop and we really failed the 21 year old by not doing the right thing and going to the school and getting actively involved. We learned everything after the fact. The kids had been taught to keep stuff from their dad to 'protect' themselves (in their mom's opinion). It was more a control tactic. We were never told of any important events, etc. pertaining to their education. All questions relating to homework, projects, etc. were always answered 'everything is great'. When report card time came around and we would hound them we would find out that that was not so. I do not blame this entirely on their mom as my husband should have done something more long ago. I finally called my stepson's guidance counselor and made an appointment for his dad to meet with her. We are now both authorized to contact teachers, receive progess reports and report cards as well as being listed on the contact info. With my husband's full suport and since I am a stay at home mom, I have been keeping on top of things and helping my stepson to improve. He is very smart but lacked organizational and planning skills which affected his grades negatively. We are working together on this and I approach it in a very positive manner and he actually seems to be enjoying the attention! It has helped my relationship with him immensely at a time in his life that really matters since he is entering high school in the fall. It has been a turning point in our relationship. I have respectfully kept his mom in the loop via telephone and email but she could care less. I will continue to do so regardless of whether or not she is responsive because that is what I would want if my child had a step-mom. My husband and his ex refuse to communicate with each other in a positive manner and I try to be the go between in the best interest of the kids. I show her respect even if she does not deserve it. So my advise to the non-custodial parent is to stop putting off getting involved and take the first step. Keep it positive and respectful. You have as many rights as far as the school is concerned but you have to make yourself known for that to happen. Good luck, it is not easy. But, it is possible. "
"When my ex and I broke up it was a bit stressful to communicate. For the love of my child I kept trying and kept the lines of communication open. We went on to become good friends and communicated well. Friends and Family viewed our relationship strange because we seemed more like brother and sister the way would get along. We would even spend family gatherings together. Later on when I became engaged we would all travel and spend holidays together with my new partner. We relocated north (1200 miles ) and he stayed to fix up our home (the one my fiance and I owned) so we could sell it. We helped relocate him up north to live with us. Sounds Crazy doesn't it? We all got along. And then it happened. He went on and met someone. I even helped him make his final choice.This is when our problems began. The person he was now involved with didn't share in our beliefs about parents communicating for the better of the child. Without going into too much detail the last 2 ye! ars have not gone as well as I would have hoped. Needless to say the reason I am witting today is to offer hope to those that need encouragement. I continued my plight for good communication. I am not saying there were not any arguments because there were many. What I am saying is I sent this article to him along with the school web site /password so he could watch the school grades. For the first week not much change and now weeks later after he's had a chance to fully read the article and absorb it.... the original good communication that we had worked so hard for originally has returned on several occasions. I guess the moral of my story is perseverance and allowing time in between for the other person to absorb everything. I hope others can gain from my insight and wish you all the best.Now we just have to fix the other side of the picture for my fiance' and his ex.Good luck all."
"These are all great ideas but there is no incentive for custodial parents to cooperate. All of the incentives are for custodial parents to reduce joint decisionmaking since the courts don't uphold this provision in divorce decees. Nor do courts punish parents for perjury. In addition, the less well your child performs the longer the custodial parent can keep him/her in the house and demand post-secondary support. Furthermore, the child support that is paid is not audited so custodial parents regularly divert this money for purposes not to the child's benefit. Then they turnaround and ask for more money. This is the circumstance in the vast majority of the States. Without a level playing field with parents, this is the result. Children are harmed while custodial parents and lawyers profit financially. True... Support true shared parenting..."
"Oh boy... I sure wish my ex would read this and take it seriously. For years I have tried to get her to read and understand these ideas. Sure, we have joint custody, but b/c she got the title of 'residential parent', she feels its her right to NOT communicate and NOT come to the table when I have a concern about some aspect of our daughter's life. I meet single or divorced moms and when I end up sharing my experience, I usually get the 'she doesn't know what she's got, I wish you were my ex' type comments I am ahead on child support. I always pick up my daughter when it's time. blah, blah, blah... Basically, I just hope that one day, she will come to her senses and work with me. Who knows, maybe someone she trusts will show her this article and it will trigger something inside her. But I won't be holding my breath. Wishing it was different in Ohio"
"The article is great for 'normal' divorced parents. I live in another state than my ex. I am the custodial parent and have sole custody but do allow her to visit him in the summer and for Christmas. I have tried to include my ex in our daughter's academic life. I get the blame when things aren't going so well with her. Either that or no response. I agree with what someone else posted-it should not be my responsibility to report on her successes or failures. I call the school and email the teachers if need be for anything that I deem important. Why can't he do the same or at least call or email me? I work, have a spouse and another child as well. I no longer email him or ask for his help in dealing with any problems our daughter has. My husband is a great help in that department since he's known my duaghter since she was 10 months (she's now 9 years old). I consider him to be her father because he's always here for her and provides consistently for her unlike her biological father. I don't even initiate phone calls anymore unless she asks. We moved in the middle of the school year and she was a little behind in the new school. She went to visit him for spring break and after I explained both on the phone and by email that I sent some schoolwork to get done so she could catch up, she returned with nothing completed. Now I have to keep her here for the summer so she can catch up. She will be upset of course because she loves her father. He will be upset because he loves her and also likes to have some type of control over her schedule and summer is basically the only time he has to do that. Do I let her go and risk her being even further behind or do I have her stay, catch up and start 4th grade off more confidant in her abilities? This is not the first time he's neglected to get important schoolwork done either. And guess who will be blamed and cursed out because of this-ME! On top of that, he's been remarried for over a year now and I have yet to meet the new wife or speak to her on the phone. I will! not ask to be introduced since he is a controlling type of person and again that should not be my responsibility (he's met my husband and had long converstions with him) besides, he will not do it just because I asked. So write an article that tells you how to deal with uncooperative parents."
"That's a nice article in a perfect world. My former spouse (a man - but I know sometimes it is the woman who acts as he does) is barely involved, only calls/contacts a few times per year except to suddenly call and demand 'parent' time or to try to get involved. I am remarried and my current spouse is and has been there for our daughter every day since they met (8 years ago - she's 9.) It is easier to have a baby than to be a parent. Having a baby biologically isn't and shouldn't give a person equal say as an actual parent in any legal or school decisions. "
"It's about time somebody cared about a situation that has become more the norm than the exception. "
"Great information but would have liked to see some information on 'What if you have one parent that choses to be absent?' What do you do for the child then? Besides counseling."
"Recently I moved to Florida to move near my boyfriend's family. My ex and I have three children together. After we separated he would take the children either everyother weekend or once a month. Our marriage ended two and a half years ago and we have never had stable visitation because 'he gets them when he wants them'. So now that I live in Florida he doesn't see them at all but he calls every now and then to say Hello. I let him and my children know that they can call him anytime or even write as much as they want. My son has used the comment when he's angry that he wants to go live with his dad because his dad doesn't punish him or take his games away. I understand the transition has been difficult, trust me it has been difficult for all of us. But in all fairness, if their dad wanted more time with him he would have used the time when he had it. I love my children with all my heart and would do anything in the world for them. Their dad has another family and he has made ! it known to me that he doesn't want our children to live with them. Which I agree so that is not a problem. We do not argue or disagree about anything, I just need to help my son understand that his dad loves him but I am the one that is here for him. I told him that we will go back to Texas to visit for a week or two and he can stay with his dad then and he liked that idea. But I don't want his dad to disappoint him in anyway but then again I want him to know the absolute truth. His dad is not his scapegoat. I discipline him because I love him. My girls are more understanding. They all know that their dad and I are not together anymore and the reasons behind it but I know the move was more for my benefit. After I felt my children were comfortable with the separation, I was ready to move on. "
"This really is a great article for divorced parents that plan to remain single until their children become adults. Think about it; if both divorced parents re-married other previously married spouses who also had children from those relationships and maintained this type of interactions with their ex. How could their be any time for their new marriage. Hopefully, the readers made since of what I just typed. With the way things have changed now a days, and a lot of the resentments that ex spouses carry towards one another, it's very difficult for that not to spill over into the new relationships as everyone move on. That's what I think is hurting the children involved in the divorces of today. So again, if the parents remained single until the children became adults, or if there were no divorced adults that ran off on their children, then the article above when be used at a much higher number by many parents I'm sure!!"
"I enjoyed the article on coping with divorce by Lisa Rosenthal, both in terms of practical tips and in normalizing reshaping families. However, I would add Marriage and Family Therapists (MFTs) to the list of professionals to whom to refer if families are in crisis or facing difficult situations at any time (pre- or post-divorce). MFTs represent one of five distinct core mental health disciplines recognized by the Federal Government. MFTs are unique in that they are trained to assess, diagnose, and treat mental health issues, yet they conceptualize and provide treatment from a systems perspective. In other words, MFTs are the only professionals who are trained in relationships by definition of their title. Therefore, if fallout from a divorce or trouble is being faced by a family member or the whole family, MFTs are trained to work with individuals, couples, and entire families to help them find ways to interact in more healthy ways and, thereby, improve the mental health o! f all individuals involved."
"As a divorce mother of three for almost a year now, I would have to say that to attempt to co exist and engage the father of my kids in their lives have been extremely challenging. Recently, I experienced letting go to include him in picking up the kids report cards due to conflicts with my work schedule. I realized that it didn't change his cluelessness about what it takes to raise them and be totally involve in their lives. We have managed to joggle the overnights during the school week with some hurdles along the way. There are still problems with timeliness as they are getting to school late on those overnight days. But overall, I think that it is important to attempt to stablish a routine and a cordiality for the kids sake."
"I am a father who is the primary custodian of my son. My ex-wife is disrespectful, and refuses to provide support, other than child support, which is constantly late, such as school supply needs. I am blessed with a wife now, who loves my son deeply and takes a very active role in my son's life and she helps tremendously, more so than his mother, to keep him focused and on task. I wish my ex-wife would really heed to this article and put our son first."
"I agree that the above is the ideal way to co-parent. However, I have struggled with years of a less than responsible, disrespectful ex-husband. I wish it were as easy as you make it sound in this article..."
"Focusing on my children is what made me take the responsibility to get divorced! My parents stayed unhappily married and as a result I grew up in a dysfunctional family---I did not want my kids to suffer from the same negative effects. So, please, stop being judgemental of divorced parents!"
"I agreed with everything that was written here, it happened to me and now I can see how divorce has changed my daughter behaviors,she has lack of confidence, does like to socialize easy, and she is over weight, lack of sport activity, and distance relation with my side of family and relatives, never spend time with me in my house I am glad that I have done whatever I could to help her feel like there is a father there for her, her mom in the meantime was not cooperative with me and has created a distance between me and my daughter. she is 15 now and we have been divorced for 10 years. I was kept in distance at all this time by her mom and her family and my right of visitation was abused and disregarded many times, I have never taken it to the attention of authorities, since I did not want to see my daughter is forced to visit me , she was never encouraged to do so by her mom, I have done whatever I could in this time to make sure that she does not feel that we are divorced and I am no longer there with her, this divorce has also left an emotional scar on me and has changed my life and my jobs and I have lost many jobs and had negative income effect, as I am getting older it is harder for me to find a job in order to support my self and give good support to her as she is growing and getting ready to g! o to college, I will be blamed for that sooner and later, I have applied for numerous jobs, I have been denied jobs,it is very hard to survive, I just sold my house since I could not afford it anymore, and my life is nightmare how to pay my bills on daily bases,her mom on the other hand just bought a more expensive home with her unmarried sister and sharing their expenses together, she divorced me without my knowledge and I was served by a surprise from her lawyer, after all this divorce had very negative impact on my life and I am sure to my daughter, I am giving her and showing her a positive influence so she does not think that her dad is going down financially, I am sure that there are many parents like me out there who were caught in the middle of financial and emotional crisis and now they could be a burden on this society without their will. thank you for letting me speak up the truth of what are the results of divorce and how parents and children are affected by it."
"Articles like this tend to feed the assumption that both parents being involved is best. Whereas that may be best for the parents, it must be recognized that there are toxic parents that do not have a positive impact on the kids. The school and authorities should support the child. There is a tendency for mandatory reporters of child abuse not to take that seriously enough."
"Awesome article, I have been divorced almost 9 years and two kids from that marriage are awesome, they do try the manipulting thing and play each parent on each other and the woe is me number once in a while, but they are productive members of their schools one is 15 and one is 11. I can't say enough about them they are awesome, well rounded good students with great social skills and thus far seem to have no problem asking questions and coming to us as their parents with any turmoil they may be dealing with. I do have to say that I am a bit more leniant than their dad and the walk a very straight line over at his house when I tend to be a bit softer, but still consistent and with high expectations of them both. Although there dad and I do nothave great communication skills when it comes to eachother, but I have never used my kids as a go between and I think this is a very important decision to take and follow through. I also did something years ago, one I took them to co! unsling to make sure they were ok and I went myself for a few sessions to help me vent so that I would bad mouth their dad. They children did great and I was told they didi not need to come back. The other thing was that the school they attended offered a counsling progrma for children of divorced parents, I declined that program as I felt that once my children were labeled and grouped they would use that as a scape goat for the rest of their lives and I think those important decisions have made them the productive members they are today. Great article. I often think about writing a book about our experiences and how we have overcome things for thte sake and well being of the children. I have so many friends that are divorcing and are just starting what I have been through and really think there is no light at the end of the tunnel. There is even with a stubborn ex the kids can be fine. "
"My ex and I divorced when our arguing and his drinking was affecting my daughter who was 12 at the time. By the next year her teacher's said that she was a totally different and improved student. I told my ex that whatever our problems were we needed to set them aside and do everything we can for the children. My son was 1 years old when we divorced. My daughter is graduating college this May and my son is active in sports and doing excellent in school. Both of our children love math and science. We haveso many complements on how well behaved and polite they are. I was semi strict with what they can do and their father, when he sees them sort of spoils them but they know the rules that I have set down and so does he. We are get along for the children and that is what it is all about. My daughter came up to me last year and sctually said thank you for the way I raised her. She is getting her B.S Degree in Medical Imaging and we are really proud of her."
"I agree that this article is great if it were one that BOTH parents would read (and practice) as well as the judges and mediators who impact childrens lives forever. In my situation, I was the nurturing parent that stressed the importance of education while preparing ones self to become a productive part of society. I have always attended the school meetings, assisted with homework/projects & provided unconditional love & support. Unfortunately my divorce affected us all as they always do, except my ex's bitter plight for revenge is all the mediator & judges heard in court as HE is now the custodial parent. I still go to the schools & fight to stay abreast of my kids educational development, but it is usually in response to an issue instead of being proactive. The teachers do NOT call when homework's not turned in for weeks or tests are poor, yet I can get a copy of a straight F report card AFTER the damage in written in stone. They have ALL of my numbers & I AM interested. He on the other hand is quick to accuse a teacher of racism but doesn't attend conferences or even check to see if they've done their homework. No rules or boun! daries are enforced! Our kids have suffered tremendously. In 2 yrs their grades have gone from A's B's to D's F's. I am so frustrated because our kids (12 & 14) are smart but need encouragement & structure which they're NOT getting. How is a parent to give what he never received? His own education level is poor, so our kids are unable to turn to him when they hit a brick wall. I try to help all that I can, but am constantly excluded from the loop. My ex & I...NEVER communicate! I have pleaded with him to talk to me about our kids... to no avail. He constantly sends messages through our kids for everything from drop off times to financial needs. This is not my 1st divorce unfortunately, but my 1st ex & I made a conscious decision (for 14yrs) to put our personal differences aside for our child's sake & he is now away at college. We had legal orders but chucked them as need be to allow our child to have the most normal childhood without all of the guilt & ill feelings. I guess I was being too optimistic when I assumed that this time around the same type of cohesiveness could be achieved in the interest of our children. I wish all parents would put their children 1st. Some divorces for whatever reasons are inevitable, but our children are sponges so we need to remember that they learn how to interact good or bad by what they've witnessed their parents/ caretakers do. Parenthood more than a right is a blessing & we need to cherish the miracles that God created through us. We are responsible for breaking the cycle or keeping the ball rolling. I hope if I help just one parent rethink their bitterness & try a little harder to CO-parent & LOVE THEIR CHILDREN UNCONDITIONALLY then ALL that I've been through won't be in vain & more children can have an easier time transitioning through divorce."
"Great article. The only thing missing is how to deal with the situation of step parents. Especially when only one of the divorced parents gets married again. Should the step parent be able to go to the parent teacher conference? Thanks!"
"I appreciate these suggestions. I have one of the 'good' divorces--my ex and I talk all the time about my daughter's school work, extracurricular activities, and social life. We are blessed to have a well-adjusted child who views both residences as 'home' and both step-parents as 'more relatives who love me.' While it's not possible to have all the ideal behaviors and attitudes recommended in this article, adopting even a few of them can help foster a stable family/school relationship which will hopefully result in a successful academic life for our children."
"Thank you for these comments about kids and divorce. I never really thought of having my ex stay involved in the kids school, maybe because he didn't when we were together. But that is a great way to involve him in their lives and it would be appreciated by our boys too. Our boys and their success in life are very important to us both. "
"I agree with one of the comments posted earlier. This article is helpful in a perfect world - which I, unfortunately, do not live in. 'Suggestions of dealing with an ex-spouse who has difficulty being civil and objective about the children and their needs would be helpful.' This is what I need to read about as well. How do you deal with a controlling, self-centered ex that yells at you (the dad's new wife) and cuses you out in public and in front of the kids?"
"What do you do if you are getting a divorce because you constantly fight about HOW to raise the kids? My wife doesn't discipline, nor, try and create a consistent, supportive environment. How can I get her to provide this environment now that I've initiated the divorce?"