11/11/2011 03:51 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

How Good are Online Divorce Education Programs?

Most divorcing parents with minor children are required to participate in a divorce education program in order to get divorced. A recent estimate suggests that almost all states have this requirement. These programs focus on strategies that parents can use to minimize conflict and to develop effective parenting plans that provide regular routines for children. Sometimes parents have difficulty participating in class on a specific day so some courts and divorce educators have created online divorce education programs that take the place of attending a class in person. If you have participated in an online divorce education class, please comment on your experiences in response to this blogpost.

Although scientists have begun to document the effectiveness of divorce education programs in the classroom (see my post about one program), there is relatively little research about online programs.

Jill Bowers, Elissa Mitchell, Jennifer Hardesty and I recently conducted a review of several online divorce education programs (summary; full paper) to assess whether the programs were based on current scientific knowledge about divorce and if the programs were engaging to parents.

We contacted the designers of several online divorce education programs and asked for the ability to log into those websites to review the content and types of educational strategies that were used to teach divorcing parents.

In terms of the content, we found that most of the programs included information about children and the ways in which parents can be help children deal with divorce, but the programs had limited information about the legal system and how it worked. The most glaring omission from most programs was a failure to deal with issues such as substance abuse and domestic violence that can completely change the strategies and advice for parents in dealing with divorce and parenting after a split.

Overall, we found that these programs largely used text to convey their educational messages. There were some programs that included video vignettes, and they were much more engaging than just written materials. Despite the wide range of educational strategies that can be used online, these programs were mostly quite limited. Most programs could be improved and made more effective. For example, rather than simply describing the need to develop a parenting plan, these programs could include an activity in which divorcing parents can actually begin to write a parenting plan. Likewise, parents could be shown examples of different parenting plans and asked to rate and/or comment on the strengths and weaknesses of the plans. These strategies would transform the online programs from a required, passive exercise into an active process that could help parents figure out their own strategies for dealing with divorce. In the long run, exes who co-parent together, reduce the amount of conflict between them, and foster good relationships with their children will live healthy and happier lives.

As I noted in the beginning of this piece, this work was conducted by colleagues and me. We are very interested in hearing the reactions of parents who have taken these online courses. If you have taken an online divorce education course, please comment on this post about the ways you found it helpful and what might be done to make the courses more interesting and helpful.