18 May 2021 - Article
When a child’s life is turned upside down by an acrimonious divorce, school is often their one constant, and this is something which can often be overlooked. They might have a new home, new routine, sometimes a new adult partner to adjust to, but a child keeps going to school every day, having the same lessons, seeing the same friends, same teachers. School life carries on after a marriage has broken down.
Your child’s teacher, particularly at primary level, will see your child every day, and a secondary teacher or tutor gets to see them in a light you do not: interacting with friends, working in class, playing sport, or being on their own. Teachers will not want to be drawn in to bitter rows or to take sides, but the likelihood is they will want to help your child. Communication is key. Your child will not be the only one whose parents are separating, and the school is likely to have dealt with similar situations before, so use their wisdom and resources.
Many teachers have experience of pupils being caught in the middle of warring parents. Parents’ evenings can be especially fraught, particularly if parents argue publicly or cannot help but make passive aggressive comments to one another in front of teacher and child. Other behaviour can be more underhand – for example, the mother who contacts the school to try to prevent the father from ordering their child’s school photograph (although he is entitled to do this), or the father who puts pressure on a form tutor to endorse certain living arrangements.
Almost always, both parents have parental responsibility, which means decisions about their child’s education need to be made jointly. Unless there is a court order in place to the contrary, the school is able to send communication to both parents and allow a child to be collected by either parent and should do so.
Competitive parenting (like extravagant weekend trips) can exhaust pupils, and having two bases can cause problems like forgotten PE kit or reading books, or (for opportunistic children) a ready excuse not to do homework. Children tend to need a lot of support at this time, practically and emotionally, and the best way of providing this is usually for parents and schools to work together.
Here are ten tips we have gathered from primary and secondary school teachers on how to help your child and your child’s teachers through a marriage or relationship breakdown:
1. Be upfront. Tell the school you are separating. Tell them about any new partners. Tell them what you have told your child, and how much your child knows.
2. Be proportionate. Ask the school to provide copies of all standard communication to each parent, including parents’ evening appointments and school reports – but don’t ask them to copy all communication to both parents. Especially at secondary level, when your child will have several different subject teachers, schools cannot guarantee their staff will always contact one parent to say the other has been in touch, or that all emails will be copied to both parents.
3. Be involved. Go to as many school events as you can: school plays, sports days, parents’ evenings, volunteer to go on school trips to support your child. Don’t underestimate how much younger children especially love to show off their mum or dad, and have the comfort of their presence – it feels special to have them in the classroom or on a class trip. The level of parental support and involvement at secondary school is increasing, so if possible, make the most of that.
4. Be positive. Remain as positive about each other as you can in front of your child, and in front of the teacher. Teachers are not judges or referees.
5. Be organised. Try to attend school events at different times if you cannot be in the same room as each other. Most plays will have two performances and parents’ evenings will have various slots available, and if that is not possible, wait in different places when you arrive.
6. Be consistent. Where possible, keep a consistent routine for your child and try to ensure they can continue going to the same activities and clubs as before. Give the school clear guidelines: at primary age, a written timetable can be helpful so that class teachers know who is collecting, and when.
7. Be appropriate. Teenagers can appear to grow up quickly when parents separate. Avoid involving them in adult discussions or burdening them with having to tell staff about parenting arrangements.
8. Be timely. Get to know the calendar – the school diary can make for stressful situations for children. Christmas in particular can cause a child to be anxious with all the preparations and festivities at school. Not knowing who is coming to what, and whether there will be arguments only increases anxiety levels.
9. Be collaborative. If you have any concerns or complaints about your child’s education, try to speak to each other first. Do you agree on this issue? If not, why not? Then approach the school (preferably in person and if possible together) to discuss it.
10. Finally, be mindful. Lean on the school. Ask for help with emotional support for your child. Most schools now have counsellors or Emotional Literacy Support Assistants (ELSAs) who are trained to help children cope with difficult situations, including family breakdown.