By Jennifer Van Luven, MSW, LCSW, DM
The divorce rate in the United States has been high for a long time, leaving many children living between two homes. School aged children are the most effected by divorced parents. Teachers find themselves in the middle of divorcing families and parental conflict, not knowing how to support the parents or children who report to their classrooms every day.
Developing a strong working relationship with your students’ parents is never easy. When those parents are divorced, it is even more important for teachers to be sensitive to the needs of their students and both sets of parents. Here are a few tips to help you cultivate a successful relationship with everyone involved.
Learn the Custody Arrangement: Take the time to find out which parent is custodial. Your school probably has this information in the student’s permanent records. The custodial parent is the person to whom all correspondence and primary contact should be directed. This is the person you invite to attend conferences and contact when the need arises. If parents share 50/50 custody, it is important to include both in all correspondence. Always have a copy of the current custody agreement in the student’s file and request that both parents provide updated copies if changes are made.
Speak with Outside Resources: Do you need to speak with the child’s doctor, guardian ad litem, tutor, grandparent, or outside therapist? When working with families in legal transition, where both parents share custody, it is always necessary to obtain both parents’ signatures on release forms. Wanting to speak to helping professionals or include family members, such as a grandparent who provides transportation for the student, is wise. These conversations can provide information that assists the school to know the child’s circumstances and respond helpfully. The release is necessary, signed by both parents.
Be Sensitive to Seasons and Events: Be aware of the times of the year that may be more stressful for the children of divorced parents. Holidays, in particular, may bring out latent fears and concerns in children. This is a time when children fear their world will unravel and their old family rituals be gone forever. Another time that could be problematic is events such as a school play, banquet, or a sporting event where both parents may attend. Depending on their family’s circumstances, students may wonder if their parents will sit together or apart, if they will argue at the event, and if it will hurt one parent’s feelings if the child visits with the other parent after the event.
Include Both Parents: If both parents show up for a conference, treat them both with respect. Even in the most amicable of divorces, there is bound to be underlying tension. Stay focused on the needs of the child and direct the conference with that in mind. Avoid overly personal revelations from parents who want to dish the dirt on the other one, if you possibly can. Remember, no matter your feelings toward either or both parents, your first concern is always to work in the best interest of the student. If the relationship between the parents is a sound one, where they strive to work together for the good of their child, then the custodial parent will keep the other one involved. If not, it is not the role of a teacher to involve that other parent. If the school needs to do so, then a counselor would assume that responsibility.
Use Inclusive Wording: Always, always work to protect your student from embarrassment over his or her family situation. Even though, as adults, we are accustomed to relationships that do not always work out, in the eyes of a child, the broken relationship is one that is deeply personal and loaded with emotion. Always address letters home not just to “…the parents of…” but to “…the parents or guardians of…” Try to never say something such as, “I will call your mother if you do that again…” Substitute words such as “your family” or “your home” to avoid hurting the student.
Provide Support and/or Counseling: Schools should think about offering support groups and counseling for those students whose parents are divorcing or divorced. If you can offer such a program, and steer a student in that direction, they may find it incredibly affirming. Such groups normalize student’s experiences and provide support and problem solving assistance.
Jennifer Webbe VanLuven, MSW, LCSW, DM received her Master of Social Work from Saint Louis University with a concentration in family systems and law. Jennifer provides private therapy dealing with adult issues, depression, anxiety, marital and relationship issues, as well as adolescent development/ behavioral issues. Jennifer has extensive experience in family law and court room testifying. She assists couples in a peaceful resolution, where continued communication is imperative for raising healthy children. Along with private therapy services, Jennifer provides services to families who are in the midst of transition, as a Parent Coordinator, Co-Parent Counselor, Custody Evaluator and a Divorce Consultant.