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."

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."

Watch your child for warning signs

Parents should be on the alert for changes in their child's behavior. These can be signs that the stress of divorce is taking a toll. Collins advises parents to be proactive and expect that there will be difficulties along the way. "Don't wait until your child shows symptoms. Be proactive," she says.

"Look for warning signs that stress levels may be affecting performance — changes in temper, sleeping or eating," says Crow. "Does your child lock himself in his room? Is he spending too much time on the computer? Are his grades changing? It's a sign other behaviors are changing, too." She advises talking to the child, reading books about divorce written for kids and getting help from a counselor or support group if necessary.

Doing exceedingly well in school can be a sign of problems too. Garon adds, "Be aware of a child who is getting all A's but isn't doing anything else." This can be an indication that the child is burying himself in his schoolwork to the exclusion of everything else, and that's not necessarily healthy either. "Often parents are not sure when it comes to behavior what is divorce-related and what is not," she notes. "When in doubt, parents should not hesitate to reach out for help and get their child assessed by a child psychologist or counselor. It's a sign of health and strength to reach for support when it's needed."

Alpert advises parents to work closely with their child's teachers and to trust their advice. It's difficult if teachers suggest tutoring or extra help and one parent disagrees. "You have to move away from your ideas and opinions and defer to them," she notes.

Think about how to handle parent-teacher conferences

Whenever possible, it's best if both parents who take an active role in their child's education attend the parent-teacher conference together. That way what one parent hears, the other parent hears, too, and at the same time. If the relationship is too contentious or logistics make it impossible, then separate conferences at the very least keep both parents involved.

Stay in touch even when a parent lives far away

Regardless of distance, it's important to communicate regularly about the child's progress in school. With email, a parent far away can communicate with the school and the teacher to stay informed. A parent far away can request to have school information sent separately. When there's regular communication, there will be fewer surprises and less to argue about as issues arise. "It's very tough to be a parent from a distance," says Crow. "The custodial parent should take it as her responsibility to see that the noncustodial parent is informed about what is happening in school. Have a telephone conference with both parents and teacher if necessary."

"Just because there is distance doesn't mean one parent doesn't need to be involved," notes Garon. "The parent who is far away should try to have consistent communication with the school and the teachers, and should take responsibility for making an effort to show up when there is a significant event at the school. Kids create mental pictures and remember when parents make an effort, put their differences aside and come together for their sake."