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What My Students' Families Taught Me About Divorce and Co-Parenting

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I taught elementary school for 10 years before becoming a stay-at-home mom. One thing I observed during my years in the classroom is that the way parents divorce and co-parent has a profound effect on their children's academic and emotional behavior. So when my husband and I divorced, I used what I learned from my students and their parents in executing our settlement, writing our custody agreement and co-parenting our children.

During my early years of teaching, I taught a third grader who lived with each of his parents 50 percent of the time. Gavin stayed with one parent Monday through Wednesday and the other parent from Thursday to Sunday. They would alternate this schedule weekly and frequently adjust it to accommodate their business travel plans. While Gavin seemed to have loving parents, this schedule caused the boy so much anxiety that it interfered with his schoolwork. He would break down toward the end of the day because he could not remember if he was going to the after school program or if his mother was coming to pick him up. Occasionally, his parents forgot too, and the wrong parent would arrive or forget to show up on a given day. His parents had two sets of all of his belongings, right down to duplicate backpacks. The problem was that Gavin often left his homework or necessary supplies at the other parent's house and would come to school in tears. While this type of custody arrangement may work for some families, it certainly did not work for his.

At least Gavin had parents who seemed to be amicable toward each other. Robert, a fourth grader I taught, had parents who could not be in the same room together without fighting. During back-to-school night, Robert's father asked a question as I gave my presentation. Robert's mother wrinkled her nose and stuck out her tongue at him in front of a room full of parents. While I was shocked at her display of immaturity, I was hardly surprised when Robert had difficulty getting along with his classmates and respecting authority. His parents were not role models of appropriate social behavior at all.

Several times during my teaching career, I have taught children whose parents were in the midst of a divorce. Amelia, a fourth grader, showed some of the classic signs of emotional distress before I even knew what was going on at home. Her grades slipped, she forgot numerous homework assignments and became tearful in the middle of the day. When I met with her to discuss her academic issues, Amelia confided that her parents were divorcing because of her father's infidelity. She told me that her mother told her, "All men cheat. That's just the way they are." Expressing her beliefs may have made Amelia's mother feel better, but I wonder if she considered how a statement like that might affect Amelia's future relationships. At a time when children's lives are being turned upside down, they need their parents to comfort them. It should not be the other way around.

As my divorce became imminent, I knew I wouldn't act immaturely like Robert's parents or use my children as confidants like Amelia's mother did. While I wanted my children to spend time with both of their parents, it didn't seem fair to have them bounce from house to house like Gavin. I resolved to have a divorce that was more like Jacob's parents.

Jacob, a second grader, was an outgoing and well-liked child. He worked hard and his grades were above average. I met his divorced parents for the first time at our parent-teacher conference. They arrived together and acted friendly toward one another. When I told them how much Jacob enjoyed learning about space, they set a date to take him to the planetarium together.

My divorce was emotionally devastating, but after seeing so many of my students deal with family issues, I knew I needed to navigate the process carefully for the sake of my children. Even though I felt hurt, angry and betrayed, I suggested that my husband and I use a mediator to handle our divorce with as little conflict as possible. We worked out a parenting schedule that is fair to both parents and puts our children's needs first. My ex-husband and I co-parent by communicating civilly on an almost-daily basis. Is it difficult to do so? Yes. Is it worth it? Yes. When I consider how important my relationship with my ex-husband is to my children's well-being, I know our peaceful, friendly interaction is worth the effort. We are far from perfect, but I'm proud of the way my ex-husband and I co-parent. After seeing so many students struggle, this teacher learned a lesson about co-parenting peacefully.

*All students' names have been changed