Once you and your spouse are ready to start going public with your divorce, if you have minor children you’ll be wondering what your child’s school needs to know about your divorce.
My standard recommendation here is not to wait too long before talking to your child’s teachers. You certainly don’t want to wait until your child is struggling and their grades are falling and they’re missing homework assignments. Your child’s teachers can be integral members of your support team and giving them a heads up on changes in your living arrangements means they can be alert to changes in your child’s normal behavior and may be able to intervene early.
One of the first actions you need to take is to find out how your school handles sending communications individually to you and your STBX and that’s at both the classroom level and building level. Neither of you will want to be dependent on the other for receipt of notices such as field trips, conferences, grades and nor will you want to be responsible for forwarding communications. You are each responsible for ensuring that the school has the correct contact information for you.
I also like to remind parents that teachers and other school personnel are not mediators. You need to avoid putting them in the middle of disagreements between you and your STBX and nor should you expect them to take sides. If you and your STBX really can’t agree on an issue then do consider hiring a professional mediator to facilitate that discussion.
These three simple tips will get you started and there’s lots more you need to know. In this episode of my Conversations About Divorce radio show, I’m joined by single-parenting expert Dr. Leah Klungness. Listen in to discover:
- if you should tell your child’s teachers before you’ve told your child
- who needs to know and what do they need to know
- how to avoid putting your child in the middle, and
- why your child’s school isn’t responsible for knowing your parenting schedule
Not crazy about listening to podcasts? Not a problem! Here’s what Dr. Leah and I discuss:
Tell Your Child First
You may feel it would be expeditious to tell your child’s teacher about your divorce before you’ve had the conversation with your child but that could backfire down the road. It’s very rare that children are unaware that their parents are having difficulties and should it come out later that their teacher knew about your divorce before they did, they could easily feel betrayed.
You’re also creating the possibility for your child to learn about the situation from someone other than you. Let’s say for example on Friday afternoon when you’re picking your child up from school you mention to the teacher that you’re getting divorced and that you’ll be telling your child that weekend. Then, things just get too crazy at home, you remember the sleepover that was planned and there’s a big homework assignment due so you and your STBX decide to wait. Monday morning rolls around, you’ve forgotten to tell the teacher that the conversation didn’t happen as planned or you did send them an email but they haven’t checked it. Soon after the first bell, teacher pulls your child aside and says, “I know this must difficult for you. I remember when my mom and dad split up and I was in fifth grade…”
No one wants their child to hear their parents are getting divorced from someone else.
Once you have told your child, you may decide to wait a couple of weeks before notifying school. This will give you the opportunity to see how they are coping and then when you do speak to the teacher you can start the conversation with, “I’ve been wondering if you’ve noticed any changes in John’s behavior these past couple of weeks…”
Your Communication Is Not Confidential
Whether you tell the teacher by email or in person it’s worth remembering that what you say is not confidential or privileged like conversations you have with your attorney. It’s quite likely that the teacher may feel obligated to share what you’ve told them with other school personnel such as the guidance counselor, school principal and other teachers. With that in mind, you need to keep your communications factual.
Decide Who Needs To Know
While a teacher may share your communication with other personnel, it’s much better for you to identify all of the teachers who need to know, such as home room, core subjects and specials, and for you to communicate with each of these directly. Alternatively, your school’s guidance counselor may prefer you to communicate with them and then they will coordinate with others.
Email can make this task easier. You can write one message and send it to everyone including your STBX. This way, you know everyone hears the same message and you can make sure your STBX is included in any subsequent correspondence.
When you’re thinking of who needs to know, remember to include sports coaches and organizers of any after-school activities.
Stick To The Facts
As tempting as it may be to share your version of why your marriage is ending, all you need to share are the simple, basic details such as that your marriage is ending, if you’ll be moving and where your child will be living. If there are third parties involved, teachers don’t need to know how you feel about it or how you got to that place. They just need to know the person’s name since your child may refer to them.
Dr. Leah says it’s helpful to see your child’s school as their place of business. It’s where your child goes to do their work and your job is do what you can to keep that drama free. It’s also important to remember that what does communicate is not confidential and may be repeated to others.
Help Your Ex
Take the high road – if you’ve been the primary contact with your child’s school, you can help your ex step up by pointing them to the school’s website, electronic system for attendance and grade reports, key contacts and even making sure they know who your child’s teachers are. For a transition period, you can help by passing communications onto your STBX but the emphasis here is that this is a transition: your STBX needs to take responsibility for being in touch with the school themselves.
Your Child Is Not The Courier
Children with two parents who don’t live together are commonplace today and that means most teachers have a process that they follow for this situation that shouldn’t involve the child being the courier. With electronic communications, this is much easier now than it used to be when folders would come home with the child every Friday.
Do talk to your child’s teachers about the process they have for keeping both parents informed. If the approach won’t work for your situation, explain your concerns and try to brainstorm another solution. If necessary, you can get the guidance counselor or building supervisor involved.
Update Your Contact Information
You and your STBX both need to make sure that the school has the correct phone numbers and contact information for you.
You’ll need to decide how you want the school to handle emergencies. This could be no different from the instructions that the school already has. You might decide that one of you will be called first and the other, only when the primary contact is unavailable. You might also decide that you want the school to notify you both for any event. Whatever your decision, be sure to communicate it in writing to the school.
This contact information isn’t just for emergencies but also for occasions like when your child is sick and needs to be picked up early. You and your STBX will need to decide the protocol for who gets called and then communicate it to the school. It’s not the school’s responsibility however to figure out who has parenting time based on what’s written in divorce documents. You might consider printing out a month’s calendar and providing it to the school secretary or nurse especially if your child is prone to sickness.
Also be sure you understand how you’ll hear about school closings and have a clear understanding with your STBX about what that means for pickups and child care.
Mistakes will happen – it’s inevitable that the school will call you when they should have called your STBX. The gracious thing to do is for you to thank the school for letting you know and for you to call your STBX to figure out who’ll respond. Once the immediate issue is resolved, you can double check with the school on your communication preferences.
Elementary and middle-school kids love it when their parents volunteer for field trips, classroom help or school events and these are great ways for staying connected especially during your non-parenting time. But the last thing your child needs is for both of their parents to show up at the same time and to start fighting or being rude to each other. If you are planning to volunteer, then it’s appropriate to let your STBX know – it’s not up to the teacher to monitor for overlaps. Alternatively, if communications between you and STBX are strained then you might agree that you’ll only volunteer on the days that fall within your parenting time or, if you are both supportive of more frequent contact, during your non-parenting time.
Leah Klungness more widely known as Dr. Leah is the co-author of The Complete Single Mother — the best selling self-help book ever written for single parents. Visit her site DrLeah.com and follow her on Twitter @Dr_Leah.
You might also be interested in Mandy and Dr. Leah discussing What You Need to Know About Parent Teacher Conferences After Divorce.