Kids, divorce, and school success
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Dos and don'ts for divorced parents
- Do make the extra effort to stay involved. "It may be a challenge to take the first step to get involved at your child's school," says Hill, "but it's well worth it."
- Do focus on your child's needs. No matter how contentious your relationship with your former spouse has been, remember that you're the adult. "Ask yourself, 'What does the child need from both of us?'" Garon suggests.
- Do provide consistent discipline, security and structure. Don't overcorrect the situation by becoming too strict or too lenient. Your child will do better if there are common rules and expectations.
- Do spend time with your child and provide support. Garon observes that once parents have separated, they are often better able to focus attention on their child, and to learn more about the child's strengths and weaknesses. In this way, the parents are more apt to support their child, provide a loving environment, and foster success in school.
- Don't just present the bills. Collins advises keeping the other parent in the loop, especially when expenses are involved. Let the other parent know about school-related expenses and all after-school activities. "A dad might get resentful when he gets the bill for ballet without knowing about the actual activity," she says.
- Don't put kids in the middle. "Don't talk negatively about the other parent in front of your child," advises Garon. Don't refer to your ex-spouse as your ex in front of the children. Say "your dad" or "your mom." Don't use kids as messengers when you should be the one communicating with the other parent (i.e., Avoid saying things like "Tell your father to pick you up after basketball practice."
- Don't act as though you're the only parent. "It makes things hard when one parent sabotages the other. It's better if both parents can be on the same plane," says Alpert.
- Don't be hostile, even if you're angry at your former spouse. "Hostility limits any willingness to listen to each other's point of view or consider differing opinions about the children's needs," authors Lewis and Sammons write in Don't Divorce Your Children. "Hostility also lessens receptivity to children's requests for more time with one parent or for activities that limit parental time, including after-school activities, classes or just hanging out with peers."
By GreatSchools Staff
Figure out how your child's time will be divided
Unless there is a family history of violence or abuse, says Crow, children need to spend time with both of their parents. In joint custody arrangements, the key is coming up with a schedule that allows kids to spend significant time with each parent without creating too many unnecessary transitions for the child. Jennifer Lewis and William Sammons, authors of Don't Divorce Your Children, advise having blocks of time with the child. They advise consulting friends who have been through divorce to find out what works and keeping the plan flexible or agreeing to an initial trial schedule that can be reevaluated after six months or a year.
One creative solution that has worked for some parents is the "nesting" arrangement, where the children stay in the primary household, and the parents take turns going back and forth to a separate residence.
"I don't think that there is any one solution that is best in all situations," says Wilde. "Some parents believe that the kids should have one primary residence and see their other parent for dinner once or twice during the week and then have sleepovers once a week, usually on the weekend. This works well if the parents live close enough. What you gain in cutting back on transitions, you lose in the child feeling that there's no primary residence. It all depends on what the kids want, too. If they're too young to know, then the parents should think about what is best for the kids."
It's a good idea to make sure the child has an organized way for transporting things from one house to the other, including important schoolwork, homework assignments, materials needed to complete assignments. Both parents should be aware of student schedules including when assignments are due, extracurricular activities, emergency procedures, so that there will be no surprises and stress will be greatly reduced. Agree ahead of time on parental responsibilities around assignments. Avoid putting your child in the middle by saying things like, "Get your father to help you with that."
The schedule should have clear expectations but in the best situation, allow for flexibility. One child of divorce suggests that schedules can be kept flexible and problems avoided, if parents communicate via email and keep a central calendar, for example, on Google Calendar on the Internet. This young man suggests that both parents can mark important school dates and other events. Parents should plan to have a conversation once a month, he says, to discuss their child and answer the question, "How is he doing in school?" They shouldn't wait for report cards to come out to discuss his progress.
Wilde suggests that if a child has a computer at both homes, she should email drafts of a paper or project to her own email address. That way, she can always access her work at either home and avoid the frustration of not having the latest version with her.
Rethink the schedule as your child grows
As kids grow and activities change, parents should take another look at the schedule and decide what is best for the child. "Even a satisfactory schedule requires some flexibility to respond to immediate crises or the acute needs of an individual child, " authors Lewis and Sammons write in Don't Divorce Your Children. "We would advise that every separation or divorce agreement should provide a simple mechanism for changing the schedule, or else, as happens in too many families, the schedule becomes a straightjacket resented by the children and one or both parents."
Lexine Alpert, a San Francisco Bay Area divorced mom, advises that as the child gets older, he should be allowed to weigh in on the schedule, too. It should take into account his activities and his need to be in the home where he can see his peers, practice the piano or work on a paper on the computer.
Get both parents in the communication loop
Unless there is a legal reason not to, most experts agree that both parents should be listed as emergency contacts on school forms. When possible, both parents should receive communication from the school, including report cards and notices of important events. Parents should take responsibility to stay informed, and both parents should also be sure the other parent is in the communication loop.
"Parents may need to take an active role to work with the school to become an accepting place for all kinds of families," says Wilde. "Teachers need to be brought along. They shouldn't just talk about one type of family as the norm. It's better if they can say, 'Look at the wide variety of families we have and that's OK.'" Garon advises school personnel to avoid terms like "broken homes" and focus instead on family strengths.
Jerry Hill, a California divorced dad, county supervisor and founder of the Fatherhood Collaborative of San Mateo County, offers this advice specifically to divorced dads: "It's important to go to school on the first day. Talk with the teacher and let her know your goal is to be an equal parent, that you want to be included in all discussions and problems that may arise. Volunteer at school. It's OK for a dad to be a room mom. It's a good experience."
"Parents need to understand a school's communication cycle, how the teacher communicates and plug into it," says Debra Collins, a San Francisco-based licensed marriage and family therapist. "The teacher is more likely to contact both parents if they know both parents. Teachers tend to favor moms so be aware of that. Dads need to raise the flag and say, 'I am here, too. How do I stay involved?'"
"I think it's better if both parents are equally involved at school," said one young woman, now 18 years old and a college student. In her family, only her mother was involved at school, and she spent one or two days a week with her dad.
Erratic behavior from a parent — whether divorced or not — can be confusing for the child. One divorced mom, who asked that her name not be used, said that her ex-husband showed up unannounced at a parent-teacher conference. "When my ex did that, my son's reaction was, 'What is he doing here?' It made him feel more uncomfortable than having him not be involved at all."