What did you do over your summer vacation?
As the new school year gets underway across the country, it's time once again for students to take out paper and pencil and explain to their teachers all that's happened in their lives since the end of June. For many kids, this is an assignment filled with stories about Fourth of July cookouts, family vacations, and having fun with friends.
But what about children whose parents decided to separate or divorce sometime over the past two and half months? For these children, summer vacation was probably spent feeling worry, anxiety and even anger as they dealt with some pretty heavy topics... Is my parents' divorce my fault? Where am I going to live? Does my mom or dad (whoever moved out) still love me? Why do I have to move? Why can't I go to the same school?
With the hustle and bustle that comes with the beginning of the school year, I know that it can often go unnoticed that a new or current student is experiencing the transition of their parents' separation or divorce. Generally, school district student information forms do provide room for general custody information, but the information sought tends to be limited to providing a second address if parents do not reside together, or information pertaining to any situation in which a parent is not allowed to pick up or visit a child at school. I have never seen a school form that asks something as basic as, "Is this a new arrangement?"
No matter what grade they are in, children whose parents are recently divorced or separated need extra support, whether it's in the form of handing out an extra textbook because the child has two homes, providing a time to meet with the guidance counselor, or helping the student feel included in their new school. Are we doing all that we can? Here are some basic tips we and our school communities can take to keep them from falling through the cracks:
School Forms: In the thick pile of school paperwork required at the beginning of the school year, it would be beneficial to have a box that asks something along the lines of, "How long has the two-home arrangement been in place?" whenever separate parental addresses are given. This is so simple, but also gets right to the heart of the matter. For example, an answer of five years probably means something very different than five weeks in terms of what kind of support a child needs.
Guidance Counselor Assistance: As a divorce attorney, I am asked all the time by my clients for referrals to mental health counselors and family therapists who specialize in working with children of divorce. It would be beneficial for this kind of information to be available from other sources, such as a school guidance counselor. A list of local therapists that could be easily emailed to the parent would be ideal. Likewise, as the first layer of outside support that many children come in contact with, are the school guidance counselors trained and experienced in working with divorced families? As part of school district in-service trainings, this would be a worthy topic to explore.
The Role of Teachers: When it is learned that a child's parents separated or divorced over the summer, reaching out to the child's parents now can be a helpful way to start a more positive dialogue. On the part of the teacher, asking, "How can I help?" can open new doors for parents struggling to come up with effective co-parenting strategies concerning school. Even if it is just making sure both parents are invited to school events and receive school notices, or setting up an appointment for the parents to meet with the guidance counselor, these basic steps may do more than the teacher will ever realize to reduce stress and tension between parents.
Parents: Even if you live two towns over and have parenting time with your child over the weekends and not on school nights, consider yourself part of your child's school community. One of the easiest and most powerful ways to show your child that you are still a part of their life is to show that you care about their experience at school. In other words, attend back-to-school night, look over their school work or help out with homework when your child is in your care, and watch your child in their school sporting event. If possible, combining co-parenting and school obligations can be much more successful for children of divorce if it's a team effort. Open up about your recent divorce to other school parents; there can be a lot of useful tips that might come from others that have already gone through this. A recent Huffington Post article has added comments from divorced readers on tips for making the school season less stressful.
Are you taking these steps? And what about your child's school district? Have you told them about your divorce?