“Together may we give our children roots to grow and wings to fly.” ~Unknown
When parents get separated or divorced, children either get to continue in their same school or inevitably have to move schools depending on the circumstances and logistics. Changing schools during separation ensues a different set of challenges, a situation that I did not have to face and hence do not have insights. This post examines the scenario of helping children feel comfortable in the same school post separation or divorce.
School is like a second home for children. So when there befalls a crisis situation at home, it becomes a place of refuge for many kids. Since they spend most of their daytime in school, it provides a safe environment of routine and familiarity.
Here are a few ways we can help children readjust and feel comfortable in their own school during separation or post divorce:
1. Teachers: Meet with the class teacher (and not all the individual subject teachers in the Indian schools) and inform her/him about your family situation. It would be worthwhile to even confide in your child’s favourite teacher, someone he/she looks up to and who is sensitive enough to empathise with. Discuss with the teacher about the emotions your child feels at home and to look out for possible behaviour changes he/she may exhibit in school. You don’t need to disclose all the details about your personal life. Just maintain the relevance in context to your child’s well being. Teachers usually contact parents only if an issue escalates in school. Maintain regular contact with the concerned teachers apart from the time spent during parent-teacher meetings. Work closely with them and heed to their advice.
2. School counsellor: School counsellors are qualified to address several emotional and mental issues children face at different ages. Most of the schools would either have a full time student guidance counsellor or have someone coming in part time. Some schools may not have either, in which case the school authorities will recommend counsellors outside of school. Confiding in a counsellor helps the child and the parent deal with the changes at home and the whole new set of feelings. I have been truly fortunate to have access to our full time school counsellor who is compassionate and easy to talk to. Just the thought of having her as someone my kids could talk to in school, someone looking out for trouble signs, was very reassuring to me. She continues to be a sound support in dealing with several issues that I now face with my teenagers in school. School counsellors provide an opportunity for children to discuss their feelings in a stable environment. Counselling in school or outside does go a long way in helping children build their own coping mechanisms.
3. What to say, how much to say: Children are often subjected to many difficult questions that can be painful to answer. ‘Why do you not live with your father?’, ‘Why did your parents divorce?’, ‘Which parent do you love more?’, ‘Do you miss your old home?’, “Is your mom a bad person?’…so on and so forth. People are and will always be curious to know more. This is a reality children coming from a divorced family have to deal with for life. It’s important to teach them that they need not answer difficult questions if it makes them uncomfortable. They need to know that it’s perfectly okay to say they do not want to talk about it. Alternatively, subtle answers can be suggested that do not divulge too many details. It’s equally important for adults to handle this with care, sensitivity and tact.
4. Official formalities: It is essential to update all school records with the new address, contact nos. and change in mother’s name (where relevant). If the bus route has changed, update that as well with the bus authorities and inform the concerned in-charge on the bus. It is extremely important to update the emergency contact numbers, especially that of the family doctor or physician. The school diary usually needs to be signed by both parents. If one parent is not available or refuses to sign, let the school authorities know the reason.
5. Visitation schedules: In many cases, children tend to spend their time between two homes after separation. The teacher needs to be informed of the custody and visitation arrangement. For there may arise situations where children forget to bring along school essentials or leave behind important documents, etc. at the other home. If the teacher is well aware, it would mean sparing the children from scolding or further embarrassment. It is also important for teachers to be aware of extremely hostile situations when the non-resident parent may get invasive or intruding in school. If the child is to be fetched by an adult after school, kindly arrange so with an appropriate identity card to ensure safety.
6. Activities: Some children shy away socially and may avoid extra activities, recourse to being in their own shell. They need to be encouraged to take part in as many activities as possible, fostering their development and confidence. Despite moving further away from school after divorce, the extra distance did not deter me to drive my kids early in the mornings to ensure they participate in school sports (It’s a proud feeling that they went on to be a part of their school teams at various levels). Normalcy and consistency in maintaining their routine is key to their wellbeing.
7. School events: When children of divorce know that both parents love them unconditionally, it does a world of good to them. While it is essential for the custodian parent (usually the mom) to be present for all the school events, the presence of the non-resident parent provides a morale boost to the child. If the situation is amicable between the parents, their equal involvement in the child’s life is healthy. But if the situation has been acrimonious and the parents do not communicate well, the child can be spared of seeing them together in school.
Children are usually quite adaptive and find ways to cope with the changes in school. With love, right guidance and support, they eventually figure out what best works for them. So do single parents!