One of my memorable claims to fame as a parent was following the school bus on my five-year-old twin’ daughters first day of Kindergarten. Our family lived in a semi-rural area with isolated roads where drivers regularly exceeded the speed limit. Sure enough, on that very special and important morning, the bus driver sped along beyond the speed limit with a bus full of small children. I called the school principal and reported the bus driver’s behavior, and I am sure I was forever identified as an assertive mother.
I think of that episode each year as back-to-school activities ramp up. The start of school year is much more complex for divorced or blended families than intact ones. And there are some generalities about back-to-school that are applicable whether children attend public school, charter school, independent school, boarding school or even home school.
School needs to be a place for children to go unencumbered by their parents’ problems. I did a training recently for early childhood educators who work with preschoolers whose parents were separating. The teachers suggested that they often know parents are separating long before the split occurs just by the behavioral changes in the children. The teachers wondered how to delicately approach parents to tell him their behavior was negatively affecting their youngsters, even though the parents didn’t want to openly discuss the family difficulties. A child’s behavior is generally the tip of the iceberg on family stability. Just because parents don’t want to openly talk about their problems, children send strong signals at school that things are amiss in the family.
Parents, whether together or apart, are experts on their children. It is important for the parents to maintain that expert role in the relationship with the teacher and it is especially critical when families are reorganizing. Parents have been with their child from the beginning, navigating developing personalities, habits, likes and dislikes. When I was a public school administrator, I always encouraged teachers to ask parents, “What can you tell me about your child to help me work with him/her better?” Granted, teachers are experts at academics, but the parents are the experts on what makes each child unique. Changes in the child(ren)’s habits, mood, health or well-being overall because of family changes must be shared with the teacher.
It is unreasonable for split parents to expect teachers to communicate twice about school progress or school activities. Separated parents need to proactively find a way to share information without expecting the teachers to double their communication activities. Since 50 percent of all children in America’s classrooms experience parental separation, educators doubling their communication is a huge and unnecessary expectation. Innovations in technology have helped, as parents can now log on to online records and track their child(ren)’s school performance. One parent withholding school information from the child(ren)’s other parent is an serious example of putting the kid in the middle.
School is a place where children can and should develop their own relationships and identities as they learn to navigate the world outside of the family. Intrusions into their world by problematic parental conduct can be discomforting. Think for a minute about how a parent would feel if their children visited the workplace and misbehaved by arguing or demonstrating overall poor behavior. This awkwardness is real for youngsters whose split parents cannot behave themselves at school functions. School events and activities must remain conflict free. Joint appearances at a school event require separated parents to be on their best behavior and cooperate for the sake of their children.
Using the workplace analogy again, consider how job performance is impacted when family difficulties are a distraction. That reality is also true for children in school. Family conflict, including loud arguing parents, uncertainties about the future, feeling caught in the middle, feeling helpless and starting a new school are typical scenarios that children worry about; those worries are distractions from learning. The outdated notion that the kids will be just fine when parents separate must be modified to the kids will be fine when parents thoughtfully plan ways to ease them through the family changes.
Parenting impulses need to be tempered as children grow older and cultivate attachments to their peers. I like to think that I would not have followed the school bus if my girls were fifteen at the time and not five. A separated parent may be excited about the new love interest in their life, but teenagers may be embarrassed to explain who these people are who show up for school events — For example, “This is my mom, this is her boyfriend, this is my dad, this is his date” and so on. Use good judgment; stand in your teens’ shoes for a moment and see the world from their point of view. If you feel the need to involve new people in school activities, remember that your child lives at school forty hours each week and you do not. Be respectful of their space and remember your conduct reflects on them.
Good luck to everyone in reorganizing families for the new school year. For those parents that decide to follow the school bus on the first day, your child(ren) will appreciate if you wouldn’t mind putting a few car lengths between you and the bus.