This column was first published in 2012 when I was still Executive Director of Kids’ Turn, San Francisco. Posting it now is timely as so many families prepare for back-to-school. And if Boomer Grandparents want valuable hints on how to stay engaged in their grandchildrens’ lives, I’m Still Your Grandma I’m Still Your Grandpa is a valuable, affordable resource.
Dateline: San Francisco, 2012. One of my memorable claims to fame as a parent was following the school bus on the first day of school when my five year old twin daughters started Kindergarten. Our family lived in a semi-rural area noted for isolated roads where drivers regularly exceeded the speed limit. Sure enough, on that very special and important morning, the bus driver sped along at a clip beyond the speed limit with a bus full of small children. I called the school Principal and reported the bus driver’s behavior, and I am sure I was forever identified as an assertive mother.
I think of that episode each year as back-to-school activities amp up remembering how parent involvement with their child(ren)’s school can encourage or hinder their education. Without question, if parents are separating, the circumstances at home significantly impact school achievement. It is fair to say the age, the stage and personality of each child are important factors related to education when parents split. But there are some generalities applicable whether children attend public school, charter school, independent school, boarding school or even home school.
School needs to be a place for children to go unencumbered by their parents’ problems. I did a training recently for early childhood educators in San Francisco challenged to work with preschoolers whose parents were separating. Those teachers suggested they often know parents are separating long before the split occurs just by the behavior changes in the children. The teachers wondered how to delicately approach parents to tell him their behavior was negatively affecting their youngsters even though the parents didn’t want to openly discuss the family difficulties. A child’s behavior is generally the tip of the iceberg on family stability overall. Just because parents don’t want to openly talk about their problems, children send strong signals at school things are amiss in the family.
Parents, whether together or apart, are experts on their children. Parents have been with the child from the beginning navigating developing personalities, habits, likes and dislikes. It is important for the parents to maintain that expert role in the relationship with the teacher and it is especially critical when families are reorganizing. When I was a public school administrator, I always encouraged teachers to ask parents: ‘What can you tell me about your child to help me work with him/her better.’ Granted, teachers are experts at academics, but the parents are the experts on what makes each child unique. Changes in the child(ren)’s habits, mood, health or well-being overall because of family changes must be shared with the teacher.
It is unreasonable for split parents to expect teachers to communicate twice about school progress or school activities. Separated parents need to proactively find a way to share information without expecting the teachers to double their communication activities. Since fifty per cent of all children in America’s classrooms experience parental separation, double communications by educators is a HUGE and unnecessary expectation. Innovations in technology have helped with school reporting as parents can now log on to online records and track their child(ren)’s school performance. One parent withholding school information from the child(ren)’s other parent is an serious example of putting the ‘kid in the middle.’
School is a place where children can (and should) develop their own relationships and identity as they learn to navigate the world outside of the family. Intrusions into their world, by problematic parent conduct can be discomforting for the kids. Think for a minute how a parent would feel if their children visited the workplace and misbehaved by arguing or overall poor behavior. This awkwardness is true for youngsters whose split parents cannot behave themselves at school functions. School events and activities must remain conflict free. Any joint appearance at a school event requires separated parents to be on their best behavior and cooperate for the sake of their children.
Using the workplace analogy again, consider how job performance is impacted when family difficulties are a distraction. That reality is also true for children in school. Family conflict….loud arguing parents……uncertainties about the future……feeling caught in the middle……feeling helpless…..starting a new school…..are typical scenarios children worry about and those worries are distractions from learning. The outdated notion that the ‘kids will be just fine’ when parents separate must be modified to: ‘the kids will be fine when parents thoughtfully plan ways to ease them through the family changes.’
I like to think that I would not have followed the school bus if my girls were fifteen at the time and not five. Our parenting impulses are tempered as our children grow older and cultivate attachments with their peers. For example, a separated parent may be excited about the new love interest in their life, but teen-agers may be embarrassed to explain who ALL these people are who show up for school events. (ex: “This is my mom; this is her boyfriend”; “this is my dad; this is his date”; and so on.) Use good judgment -- stand in your teens’ tennies or flipflops for a moment and see the world from their point of view. If you experience the impulse to involve new people in school activities, remember, your child lives at school forty hours each week and you do not. Be respectful of their space and remember your conduct reflects on them.
And if you parents decide to follow the school-bus on the first day, your child(ren) will appreciate you putting a few car lengths between you and the bus.