8 Teacher Tips When Dealing with Divorced Families

Posted
9/10/2019
Jon Konen
School Principal
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It is not uncommon to have over half of your students coming from a divorced family. Unfortunately, that percentage continues to climb. Hopefully families can work together to find what's best for the kids, even though there can be contentious and difficult situations.

Communication becomes difficult from a teacher's standpoint when communication breaks down in divorced families. In fact, teachers are sometimes thrown into the battle between mom and dad. They want us to take sides. We try to remain unbiased, to not choose sides. It does become difficult, sometimes, to stand our ground when we see what's happening to our students.

Some families fight over everything, and the school can become a battleground. They battle over when students are to be picked up when the custody changes. They can even battle over what is packed in their lunches or who is paying for school lunch. Homework and other information can cause difficulties, especially when a student transitions midweek to the other parental figure. In order to have a successful parent-teacher conference, we sometimes have to meet separately with mom and dad.

Behavioral issues seem to ramp up in students when parents are fighting. This causes teachers to implement strategies in order to assist in regulating the student. Some parents have difficulties visiting the school at the same time and a plan must be put in place by the administration. Transitions between homes seems to be the most prevalent struggle for families, especially with regard to the student who has to acclimate themselves to the different rules and expectations. Unfortunately, when all else breaks down, the Department of Family Services may be used to support the families and school in order to regulate communication.

Here are eight tips and strategies teachers can use to support divorced families and avoid making school a battleground.

1 - Tracking Lunches/Lunch Money: Ensuring Students Have Proper Nutrition

We try not to pass judgment on any family and work with all parties in order to put the student first.

When both lunches and lunch money become a problem, we must have some words and strategies we can use to take the stress off of the student. At times students internalize the strife between parents over their lunch problems. This is obviously an adult problem and an adult failure.

Sometimes the lunch that is brought to school by the student is inadequate from one or both parents.

Sometimes the parent is responsible for packing it, while other students pack their own lunch. We usually don't make this an issue until we see a pattern.

Students with lackluster lunches are not getting the proper nutrition they need in order to be successful.

For example, if one parent is letting their kid pack Mountain Dew and Flaming Cheetos every day, you may want to have a conversation. Another example is when there isn't nutritious food in the home and the student brings marshmallows and crackers. Both of these examples are based on true stories.

When a teacher or administrators make the call home to both parents, this can cause a fight between parents and unfortunately we may have to step in to support.

We can offer support through a food pantry, suggested lunch items, nutritional guidelines handout, and even offering financial support with school lunches. Every school has dietary guidelines that require certain types of food to be offered to students. Sometimes parents are too proud to sign up for free or reduced cost lunch programs. We must support them in taking away this stigma and having them fill out the paperwork. We may even have to fill out the paperwork with them. We know that proper nutrition is directly connected to better behavior and academic success.

Some teachers and administrators may shy away from having these conversations, ultimately saying it is something not under their control. As an educator, I would argue that point. We have these students in

Classrooms for six to eight hours a day, and we must make sure their basic needs are being met in order for them to learn. Letting mom or dad know that you will work with them helps them understand that nutrition is important.

2 - Managing On-time Arrival and Dismissal

When divorced families have difficulties with arrival and dismissal, teachers and administrators may need to step in or step up and support families. When parents are fighting, transitions between the homes can affect both drop off and pick up. Some divorce decrees do not specifically state the day or time that transitions between households occur, and that may affect us in school. Undefined school transition times makes it much harder for parents and the school to hold everyone accountable.

Unfortunately, students get caught in the middle of this by showing up tardy, and at times even being absent for the day.

Educators can look for patterns in students' arrival time, as well as when they are being picked up. We can communicate with parents that missing just two minutes per day equates to one full day of school missed over the course of the year. As the tardy time increases, say 10 minutes per day, the student misses a whole week of school. Letters, emails, and face to face conversations with parents can help with this. We know that one of the best deterrents for tardy behavior is a strong teacher relationship with both the student and the parent.

Dismissal and pick up may also be an issue for divorced families. Parents trying to get off work and deciding who is picking up the student are the two most prevalent responses when parents are questioned regarding tardiness at dismissal. Many times a student's tardiness is due to a parent and it is out of the student's control. When working with the family, educators will need to include some type of plan that can be agreed upon by all stakeholders.

Here are several Ideas that can be used for managing arrival and dismissal. You may choose more than one to implement depending on the situation.

  • Student-parent-teacher contract/compact
  • MTSS/RtI plan (Multi-Tiered Systems of Support and Response to Intervention Plan)
  • Incentivizing on time behavior
  • Phone call home when successful
  • Data tracking: time missed/days tardy
  • Include the RtI or MTSS team
  • Parent-Teacher conference
  • Purchase alarm clock and teach the student how to use it (buy one for the parent, also)
  • Proactive phone call before school starts, or before dismissal
  • Principal picks student up (use in emergency situations or rarely)
  • Before or after school daycare program

3 - Facilitating Parent Conferences and Mediation Sessions

Educators like to be able to give the same message to parents on a student's progress both academically and socially. A divorced family may make a request for separate meetings. Most educators are happy to do this as they would rather communicate with parents than not! Though this creates a longer schedule for teachers, it is important that both parents get the same information.

Some parents cannot be in the same room, or even in the same building together. Their constant battles end up coming to school as one parent or both have expectations of how the school should manage the situation that may not be in the best interest of the student. In these situations, as educators we have to play the mediator role. Educators may think this is not their job. Trying to support both parents and staying neutral is going to require setting boundaries and a lot of positive communication. At times, the arguments and intensity may be directed back at the school. We need to remember that this energy is misdirected and the parent is frustrated with the situation and not with us. This is a good time to remember not to take sides.

When both parents can attend the parent-teacher conference meeting, it is best that the teacher set some proactive guidelines before the meeting starts. Here are some words, phrases, and ideas that can support positive meetings:

  • "While we are here, we are going to have a positive solution-based meeting."
  • "I am here to support the student as best I can."
  • "Let's find some common ground for all parties."
  • "Let's stick to our schedule."
  • "Let's stick to communicating progress on the student's goals."
  • "I cannot take sides, but I can support you by…"
  • "Let me see if I am understanding you correctly; I will summarize (or rephrase) what you said."
  • Set up a specific time allotment for the meeting.
  • Let parents know we may not be able to get to every topic today, but we can schedule another meeting.
  • Schedule meetings and set goals for each meeting.
  • Before the meeting, send out an agenda through email or a note home.
  • Ask for topics that the parent would like to discuss prior to the meeting, heading off any controversy with a phone call or meeting prior to the parent-teacher conference.
  • Take notes during the meeting that can be emailed, printed off, or given to both sets of parents.
  • Be proactive with time by giving a five minute warning before your next meeting starts and you must move on (no matter if you have a meeting or not). Sometimes splitting a meeting into two separate times can be more fruitful.

4 - Sending Homework and Information Home and Making Sure Both Parents Get It

Information going home, like homework, needs to be consistent between the two homes. One of the biggest arguments against schools, and subsequently teachers, is that the parent is not getting informed like their ex-spouse. Some of us would like to tell the parents to get along and communicate with one another, but that most likely won't happen. Sadly, there are family situations, especially those involving a history of abuse, where the parents should not be communicating or sharing information. As educators, we must then think of ways to remedy this situation for the sake of the student's success.

Homework packets for two households may seem ludicrous, but it is one solution when a student has parents with a toxic relationship. Making sure each parent has access to the curriculum and the education of their child is imperative. Here are a few more ideas to support divorced families with information and homework.

  • Dedicated homework time in both households
  • Use an app similar to Remind that communicates homework or information going home to all involved parties.
  • Make double copies of all information going home; two packets of information - one for each parent.
  • Put homework and other documents online on a cloud platform like Google Docs so it can be accessed by both families
  • Make homework consistent so it can be done easily in both homes (ie…20 minutes of reading, 10 minutes of math facts, etc…)
  • Phone calls, emails, and face to face communication with both parents (including both parents on the same email so they read the same message)

5 - Behavior Strategies to Use at School and at Home

Kids that are in divorced families, where the fighting between the mom and dad is intense, sometimes bring that behavior to school. It may come out differently at school through inattentiveness, disruptions, tantrums, and more. As educators, when this occurs we must support the student and put a plan in place.

When these types of behaviors occur, as educators we would like to be meeting with divorced parents together to create a plan. Understandably, we cannot meet with some parents as it is too toxic between them. One parent may be holding the other parent responsible for their child's inappropriate behavior.

We have to objectively let parents know that this is what we are seeing at school and also be giving them some insight into the frequency, duration, and intensity of the behavior.

We ultimately want to be able to create a behavior plan that uses the same phrases, strategies, and teaching points at school and in both homes. The consistency between both homes and school is crucial for this behavior plan to be successful. Using what works for parents in their households is a great place to start. Offering advice when there needs to be some compromise between the two homes becomes imperative for educators.

Here is a list of behavior strategies that can support a student in a divorced family situation

  • Behavior contract
  • MTSS/RtI Plan for behavior
  • Incentivized goals
  • Goal setting
  • Meaningful work
  • Mentor buddy
  • 1:1 meetings
  • Tracking behaviors: duration, frequency, intensity
  • 10:2 Strategy (10 days with 2 minutes of positive communication)

6 - Getting the Department of Family Services Involved When Necessary

The Department of Family Services (DFS), or whatever it is called in your area, typically has a negative reputation, and mostly because they have a hard job of keeping kids safe. They sometimes have to remove a child from a family, and this can be difficult for everyone involved.

What we do not talk a lot about is the school's viewpoint on this topic. All school employees have a legal obligation to report signs of abuse to DFS. This can be difficult for educators as we think about the ramifications if the family finds out we made the call. We worry both about the relationship we have with the family and any repercussions to the student.

Many schools set up a team that deals with all calls to DFS. A counselor, principal, and the employee making the call can team together. They review past information and help decide the next steps. This is not necessarily a filtering process, yet it does give the employee some support in making the right decision. It also lets them know they are not alone in supporting this student and family. The counselor and principal hopefully have a better understanding of the background of the situation from past events. We need to remember as educators, we are not responsible for investigating the situation, but we are responsible for reporting it to DFS.

Let's be clear, abuse in families is found in all types of households, not just with divorced families. When we see how toxic a divorced family is and the student is being neglected or abused, we must step in and make the call. We must continue to team with our colleagues and DFS to support students for their success.

7 - Managing and Facilitating Parent Visitations at School

Parent visitations can occur at all times of the day and any day of the year. School employees must know and ask for parent plans when a family is divorced. The situation only becomes more difficult when there is language in the parenting plan that limits or prohibits one of the parents from being able to meet at the school. Some plans place restrictions on what days the other parent can visit, and some plans even have a restraining order against the other parent. School administration and corresponding teachers must read through these plans and be able to implement steps immediately if the plan is violated by a parent.

As an educator, being proactive and asking questions helps make sure these awkward situations are minimized. Here are several ideas you can use to support parents and children of divorced families.

  • Special situations and guidelines put into your computer system (ie..PowerSchool)
  • Proactive calls ahead of time when you know both parents may attend school (especially with your most contentious parents)
  • Phone calls or emails from the parent a day prior to their visitation
  • If both are attending and refusing to follow the plan, inviting a student resource officer (SRO) to your event may be necessary.
  • SRO calls parents proactively before the event if a call from the principal doesn't suffice
  • Parent check in with principal/administrator every visit
  • Parent meeting with principal to set up guidelines according to parent plans (even more necessary if there is no parenting plan)
  • Parent meeting with principal and SRO to set up guidelines (avoiding future disorderly conduct)
  • Set up odd/even days of visitation for the divorced family members
  • Set up a rotation or every-other-event visitation schedule for the divorced family members
  • Set up a split time for an event for each parent (ie…1-2 PM Dad, 2-3 PM Mom)
  • Plan for a parent when they show up unexpectedly
  • Last resort for a school when a parent will not follow expectations is to remove them from the campus

8 - Dealing with Custody Transitions Between Two Homes

When we work with divorced families the most difficult aspect is dealing with custody transitions between homes. As educators, it seems each home can be vastly different in how they parent according to their accounts. We try to find common ground between the two homes and build on those areas.

Again, this may be a topic that educators think is out of their control, yet we have to work with the students every day. We know that if the student just transitioned back from mom or dad's house, then we must implement some interventions from our plan to help them regulate, or co-regulate.

Tracking these transitions is something we may put into a notebook to follow, but be careful to remain objective when writing the entry. Teachers get subpoenaed frequently to talk about what they see in the classroom. Good advice is to keep your writing entry to only vital information: name, date, time, location, behavior observed, trigger, at mom or dad's or transition day, and consequences given. Leave out your opinion on what you think happened and why, or your opinion on who has the better household for the kids. This is not our job as an educator, even if the parent is a good friend. School officials must remain impartial and not pick sides. Also, by taking sides as a school official, you may find yourself in litigation yourself.

Here are some ideas to support a student that is having difficulties with transitions between households.

  • Communication with parents on parenting plan
  • Copy of the parenting plan that is easily accessible
  • List of interventions you can use to support the student when they are having a tough time transitioning (meaningful work job, reading to buddy class, delivering stuff, flexible seating, counselor, earning time with buddy, etc…)
  • Parent meeting on observed behaviors
  • Get principal involved in meetings if your attempts as a teacher are not working
  • Goal setting with student and parents
  • Incentivized rewards for successful transitions
  • Last resort, transitions occur outside of school (ie…DFS, police station)

Supporting a Student in a Divorced Family

It may seem our job continues to change as an educator. We know many of our teachers did not have to worry about divorced families when we were attending school. As the divorce rate increases, it is going to become even more imperative that we support students, and give support to the parents in these families.

Nothing is more difficult at school than dealing with a divorced family and observing as things become toxic. As you may have noticed in this article, the more we have to support families with communication and planning, the more we get other agencies (DFS, SRO, etc..) involved to support us. Our first priority is to make sure our school is safe, and we may have to make some tough decisions in order to accomplish that. We know that ultimately the students lose if we cannot find a way to communicate in a civil manner. We want families to try the easiest interventions and strategies first. This all starts with communication.

We are here to support, come talk to us.

Jon Konen

Jon Konen is a father, husband, K-6 elementary principal, and freelance writer in Great Falls, Montana. He has taught most all grade levels K-6, and has been a K-12 principal of a rural school. As a 5th grade teacher in 2010, he won the Presidential Award for Elementary Math and Science Teaching (PAEMST). As a principal, his school won the 2012 Blue Ribbon Award. In 2018, he won the National Distinguished Principal Award (NDP). He is the author of two guides, An Educator's Guide to Combat Bullying & Bully Prevention and Teacher Evaluation: A Transition Guide to Exemplary Performance. He has authored a children's picture book that will be released in October, 2018 titled, Principal Reads and Benjamin's Visit to the Office…Not the First!
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