The fact that divorce influences children in profound ways is common knowledge. What parents and educators may forget to consider, however, is how a divorce affects education.
Many adults can attest to the distractions, intense emotions, and physical changes that alter life after a divorce. For a child, those changes are often magnified by feelings of insecurity and a lack of understanding. As a result, many children undergo significant emotional changes. Attention and attitude difficulties are only the tip of the iceberg.
During and after a divorce, parents and educators can offer better support to children if they understand the potential difficulties that may arise.
• Precipitate behavioral changes. Everyone is vulnerable to depression, anxiety, and grief after a serious event like divorce. For children, loss of interest in school work, the development of new fears, and angry outbursts may result in lower grades and disciplinary problems.
Children with divorced parents have a more difficult time with areas that require concentration, such as interpersonal and math skills. Parents and educators who are willing to communicate regarding changes in the home have an opportunity to work together to provide children with the support they need in the aftermath of a divorce.
• Complicate mental health diagnoses. Emotional processing can mimic symptoms of serious mental health issues, including ADHD or clinical depression. In a post-divorce situation, educators, health care professionals, and parents must carefully examine a child’s life to determine if behavioral changes are the result of environmental adjustments or a deeper mental health disorder and act accordingly.
• Alter school district borders. In married parent homes, children reside in one school district and have access to the benefits of that district, including transportation. If one parent moves outside of a school district after a divorce, the parents may face some difficult logistical challenges. Depending on local laws, a school may only provide bus services to the home of the parent with primary custody. For parents sharing custody, this may mean either driving a student to school or making alternative arrangements.
• Create difficulties regarding educational decisions. Parents play a key role in a child’s education, and many schools try to keep the lines of communication between parents and the school system open. For divorced parents, schools must understand if both parents have a custodial right to make educational decisions. Parents who share custody and educational rights must often work together to make decisions. Conflicting communications from parents can easily cause confusion for a child and educators.
No one can predict the type or extent of educational complications that may arise, which is why preparedness is so important. Use these tips to minimize the risk of distractions, emotional processing, and logistics:
• Clarify expectations. If you and your spouse are going through a divorce, talk to your divorce attorneys and each other about education concerns. Create an outline of expectations regarding transportation, payment, and everyday school decisions (e.g. report cards conversations and signing permission slips).
• Create a practice for communicating with educators. Whether a child attends a public or private school, you may want to give administrators some background information. Doing so prepares educators for any difficulties a child experiences in the classroom and gives them the confidence needed to act appropriately when contacting a parent or taking disciplinary actions.
• Talk with children. Children may not always have an opportunity to change their situation, but open communication can prevent feelings of helplessness and despair. Provide children with the support they need (e.g., coping mechanisms, support groups, and outside tutoring) to succeed.
While you can’t erase the difficulties of life after a divorce, recognizing and addressing the signs of childhood educational challenges can help.