If you and spouse decided to divorce at some point during the summer, have you considered what the upcoming school year will be like for your kids?
Yolanda and Brian didn't. When the pair, married for 11 years, split up last summer, the end of their marriage seemed pretty amicable -- at first. There were no real disagreements over how the assets would be divided, child support discussions were progressing smoothly and both parents voiced their dedication to co-parenting their two kids, ages 8 and 10.
But then the school year began and tensions began to rise almost immediately. Yolanda complained that Brian picked up the children early one afternoon in order to leave for a weekend away, making her frantic when they didn't get off the bus. Brian was upset when he didn't get the notice about back-to-school night and was not told about a parent conference with his younger child's teacher. Both were upset and accusatory over homework not getting done. A huge fight broke out about after school activities; it turns out, each had signed a permission slip for a different activity. The two found fault with just about any issue that could possibly relate to school, right down to which parent was responsible for collecting recycled soda bottles for a science project.
What's more, Yolanda and Brian's arguments about school began to bleed over into their divorce proceedings. What had seemed like an easily mediated, uncontested divorce suddenly hit road blocks as first Yolanda, and then Brian, started to change their settlement demands in ways that were obviously motivated by emotion.
Eventually, both saw the light, but it took time -- precious time that greatly diminished their children's enjoyment of school and the time they spent with each parent.
Could this situation have been avoided? As any divorced parent can tell you, navigating the school year takes skill, tenacity and a real willingness to embrace co-parenting. In other words, it's no easy feat. Got a pencil and a notebook ready? Here are five tips to get the school off to a good start for your kids when you're going through a divorce:
Map out the year: Schedule a meeting with your ex at some neutral locale and make sure you each bring a calendar. Obtain a copy of your child's school calendar (typically available on the school website) and map out the school year schedule from September to June, making visitation plans and custody arrangements for school breaks, long weekends and/or early release days, keeping in mind your child custody arrangements. Things may change as the year progresses, but having a basic plan in place is a good starting point.
If meeting face-to-face is still too contentious, consider using an online shared calendar type document, like one found in Google docs, to create something that you both have access to edit. Bonus points: with an online calendar, you can see who made changes and when.
Outline who is responsible for pick-ups: While filling out that mountain of forms that comes home at the beginning of every school year, make the following items very clearly understood: the child's primary physical residence, addresses and contact information for both parents, the name of the parent responsible for picking the child up from school on a daily basis, which adults are allowed to pick up children from school (or as the case may be, who is not allowed to pick up the child), and which parent to call first in case of emergency. Often, there is a box to check off or fill in with this information for divorced or separated parents. Make sure your ex understands and agrees to the responsibility of picking up the child in case of sickness, or if an emergency on your part prevents normal pick up.
Keep child custody swaps away from school: Even if your child's visitation with her other parent begins on Friday afternoons, avoid making school the spot where the two of you meet. Because seeing your spouse may be filled with tension or outright anger, save yourselves the embarrassment and further stress of putting these issues on display for your child's school. If your former spouse lives in the same town, it might be possible for your child to ride the school bus to a stop closer to the other parent's house, provided the other parent is there to see the child home from the bus. If not, pick a neutral spot like the mall or library.
Don't make your child a messenger: "Mom says we have an early release day next week so you need to pick me up." "Our class field trip is an overnight one so I won't be here next Friday." "Mom, Mrs. Whipple wants to have a conference with you and Dad." It seems easy enough to task your child with letting your ex-spouse know about upcoming meeting and special events, but this information really needs to be coming from you. Want to talk to your ex as little as possible? That's what e-mail is for! E-mail also creates a written record, so your ex can't later claim, "but I didn't know."
Everybody should help with homework: If you are not the custodial parent, still make the effort to help your child with homework. Though this is rarely written into any child custody agreement, the burden of keeping up with homework assignments and long-term projects typically falls on the shoulders of the parent who has custody or who is taking care of the child at the time the work is due. Want to really help your child feel consistency and stability, even as they shift between two homes? Ask them to pull out their assignment notebook and see what you can help with; this works especially well with big projects that can be worked on over the weekend. Have weeknight visitation rights? Instead of going out to dinner, why not go to the library instead?
Looking for extra credit? Here are four more tips for navigating the school year as a divorced parent: 10 Back to School Tips for Divorced or Separated Parents
Also see Natasha Burton's article sharing information about what teachers think about children and divorcing parents: Back to School 2012: Teachers Reveal Parents' Biggest Divorce Mistakes.
Follow Bari Zell Weinberger, Esq. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/weinbergerlaw