Parents and their children may be the ones most directly affected by divorce. But there’s another group who end up with a front-row seat to the post-split drama -- teachers.
With back-to-school season approaching, we spoke to teachers from across the country on the things divorcing parents often get wrong -- and what they think parents could be doing better.
Don't try to get back at your ex by buying your child's love.
Jennifer Little, who taught students from preschool to high school for almost 40 years in nine states, said she's seen it all. "I've worked with divorced parents who collaborate effectively and who support their children, as well as parents who sabotage their exes, and ultimately their children, by teaching their kids very inappropriate behaviors and attitudes." said Little, now based in Oregon. She currently runs <a href="http://www.parentsteachkids.com/" target="_hplink">Parents Teach Kids</a>, a resource for parents whose children need extra help in school. She said she's even seen parents use gifts of toys or clothes as a way of "buying" their children. "Parents sometimes try to buy their child's affection either through guilt or revenge on the ex-spouse, so the child gets what he or she wants, often to incredible excess," Little said. "Little girls soon have major doll collections, boys get pricey jackets and shoes. Parents will even purchase expensive cars when permits are obtained. If a car get wrecked, another one replaces it within a week."
Don't excuse your child's bad behavior.
Little said she's seen divorced parents "make lots of excuses for poor or inappropriate behavior, never once making the child accountable and responsible for his or her actions." This is often a result of feeling guilty, said Julia Simens, author of <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Emotional-Resilience-Expat-Child-storytelling/dp/1904881343" target="_hplink">"Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child,"</a> an international schoolteacher and counselor for more than 20 years. "However, kids need to be accountable and responsible for their own actions even during a divorce," Simens, now based in Nevada, said. "If children don't learn to take responsibility, what surprises could be waiting for them in adulthood? Parents who protect too much set their child up for failure."
Don't cause anxiety about the unknown.
Parents tend to dwell on the newness of their situation -- "the <em>new </em>apartment" and "the expectations in the <em>new</em> divorce situation" -- instead of inspiring confidence in their children that everything will be OK, both at home and at school, Simens said. "When faced with a new situation, a child needs to build on past strengthens," she said. "Talk about how 'Last year we had fun and made many friends,' or 'Remember how relaxed you were when you started your new baseball team' or 'I recall that last year by the third day of school you had a nice group of friends to eat lunch with.' These types of comments remind your child how successful he or she has been in new situations in the past."
Don't keep significant secrets from your spouse -- especially if they involve your children.
Simens recalled one parent-teacher conference with divorced parents and their 6-year-old son. The father started reading through his son's journal entries, which Simens had her students write each morning. At first, the entries made the parents -- and their son -- smile ("I am so hapy tht mommie is hapy.") But Simens said the mood turned after they came to one entry mentioning the mother's new love interest, Ron, and another, which read, "I hop I love ytah." "The mom looked more and more uncomfortable, but she offered no suggestions," Simens said. "Finally the child explained that he'd hoped to love Utah since they were moving there with Ron." Simens said the the dad was blindsided, creating a tense moment among the parents and their young son. "[At that point] the child stopped beaming and tears started to form," Simens said. "I knew I had lost him. He would no longer want to express his emotions or hopes and he would never ever express them again in writing."
Communicate for your kid's sake.
Cari Andreani, a teacher at a private high school in Jacksonville, Fla., said it's essential that parents continue to respect each other as the mother or father of their child. Parents who fail to communicate cause their child to feel stuck in the middle -- a complaint she's heard from many students over the years. "Sometimes the divorce is fresh and there are hurt feelings," she said. "But, as hard as it is, parents need to remember to not take things personally." Little added that parents must get on the same page with their child's life and talk regularly about what's happening, in terms of school assignments, projects, grades and their other activities, as well as what's on the horizon. These conversations are crucial during a marriage, and even more so post-divorce.
Come together to handle school-related tasks.
Stacey Ross, a teacher and counselor based in San Diego, Calif., who worked in both elementary and middle schools for many years, said parents need to figure out who will help with what regarding school, and what type of communication system will be in place to ensure their child's success as a student. "Agree in writing, if it comes to that, whom the teacher can depend on for lunch money, signed forms, field trips, conferences and updates," she suggested. And, when it comes to events like conferences, put aside any animosity toward your ex for the sake of your kids, said LuAnn Shindler, who taught high school English, speech, and journalism for 22 years in Norfolk, Neb. "I once had a student with divorced parents and when it was time for parent-teacher conferences, I had to schedule different times for his mother and father because the mom did not want to be in the room with her ex-husband -- which meant the student had to sit through two conferences and give his portfolio presentation twice," she said.
Another time to put the child's needs first is when he or she has school events like sports or plays. Shindler remembered a sophomore boy she taught who was involved in all sorts of school activities -- athletics, fine arts, leadership -- but had a hard time getting his divorced parents to support his extracurricular achievements. "I can't count the number of times he would tell me how disappointed he was because one of his parents would not show up to school activities," she said. "He felt like he wasn't a priority in his parents' lives and the bitterness seeped through in his conversations. Once, he asked if my husband and I would come to one of his activities because neither parent would be there."
Be consistent with your rules regarding schoolwork.
Andreani said that when parents have two sets of rules at each of their houses, it adds to the inconsistency in their child's post-divorce life, which can then affect his or her performance in school. "Parents need to agree on the same rules and enforce them," she said. "For example, both parents could establish that homework is to be done immediately when they get home from school -- not after dinner. This establishes good study habits in the child, and also a consistent a way of doing things. Another example might be that, for both houses, the student needs to provide some sort of planner where all homework is written daily and the parents sign it. If it is not brought home, there is a consequence, like no TV privileges."
Don't lie to your kids about your emotional state.
Parents "have a mystical hold over their children" Simens said. Their actions strongly affect their children's psyches, and therefore impact their kids' schoolwork. "During a divorce, many parents are not honest about their emotions to their children," said Simens. They feel awful and they look upset but they tell the children 'I'm fine, it's okay.' These mixed messages can be very harmful to children of all ages because they cause kids to doubt their own feelings or understanding of the situation."
Don't bad-mouth the other parent.
"In my experience, parents who are consistent, who communicate, and who don't fight unfairly have the best results with their kids in school," Andreani said. One of the biggest barriers to this, however, is when parents talk negatively to each other in front of their kids or to their kids about each other. "By bad-mouthing the mother or father, the parent is totally undermining the authority of the other," she said. "Not only does this cause children to feel 'in the middle,' but they will learn to get what they want -- and out of what they <em>don't </em>want -- by playing one parent against the other. Trust me, they will divide and conquer."
Realize that divorce makes a kid's day-to-day school life harder.
Lisa Niver Rajna, an elementary school science teacher in Los Angeles, said living in two houses and being prepared for school each day is an extremely difficult task for children. "It is hard enough to do your homework, go to extracurricular activities, have your life and then remember to bring the permission slip or get it signed," she said. "I often hear kids say during science fair, 'I left it at my other house.'" Simens said one of her younger students had a particularly hard time after his parents' divorce: He went to his mom's house Monday through Thursday, then spent Fridays and weekends with his dad and "was often confused on where his PE clothes, his latest library book and even his lunchbox were," she said. Parents need to make an extra effort to make sure their children are prepared and have everything they need -- and not come down hard on kids when they forget or lose things and need replacement supplies.