About two-thirds of children from separated families will exhibit changes in behaviour at school.
Teachers typically notice changes in the academic performance and behaviour of children within days or sometimes even months or years after the separation or divorce of their parents. While some parents may be in a position to minimise the impact of the separation on their children, others are not. Some negative effects may be noticeable even if the separation is amicable or there is a sense of relief for the child following a period of conflict.
If there are unresolved issues and continuing conflict between parents, behaviour changes and affect on school performance may continue and escalate.
Children’s responses to separation and divorce
Children’s responses to separation and divorce vary according to their age, stage of development and feelings of belonging, security and resilience. Changes that may be evident in children following a divorce or separation include:
- behaviour regression, for example, toileting accidents, thumb sucking, and separation anxiety
- shock, worry, anger, anxiety or depression
- not coping easily with overnight periods away from the primary-care parent, particularly if parental conflict is high
- difficulty in expressing worries verbally, leading to acting-out behaviour, sadness or neediness
- wanting to tell a trusted teacher about the conflict of loyalty felt about parents
- intense anger at the parent who has left
- becoming ‘super-responsible’ and ‘adultified’.
Teachers should be cautious about stereotyped expectations about how children from a ‘broken home’ might behave. Some children, who experience a traumatic home life become more mature and compassionate, and do very well at school with teacher support.
The most vulnerable times for children are during periods of parent conflict and at transition times, for example, when a child is moving from preschool to primary school, primary to secondary school and around Years 8–9 as the child is moving into mid adolescence.
These are periods when children might experience heightened anxiety about a range of everyday changes so reactions to separation and divorce could be more pronounced.
Children experiencing separation and divorce may exhibit some of the following feelings and behaviours.
- grief and loss
- sadness or depression
- guilt or self-blame (for causing the divorce or separation)
- intense worry
- abandonment (by one or both parents)
- confusion (as a result of not understanding the situation or not knowing what is happening).
- friendship difficulties
- rule violations
- distractibility or daydreaming
- lack of organisation with books, other belongings or time
- decrease in academic performance
- learning difficulties
- clinging to the teacher and/or a parent who is leaving the child at school
- over-eagerness to please
- attending sick bay with unusual frequency
- school absenteeism
- not doing or not completing homework
- not returning permission notes or leaving them at the other home.
When and where to seek further assistance
It takes time for children (and parents) to adjust to divorce or separation, and behavioural and emotional issues should improve over time. However, teachers should watch for signs of prolonged anxiety and unhappiness and consider whether it is necessary to suggest to the parents that the child be referred to a psychologist. For home-related issues, such as parent divorce and separation, it is usually more appropriate for the psychologist to be independent of the school or the education department. However, the school psychologist may still assist at school.
In some cases, older primary-aged children and junior secondary children can react with sadness and despair, and may sometimes disclose thoughts about self-harm as they struggle to deal with on-going conflict and turmoil between parents. The impact of the parental dispute on the child needs to be communicated to the parents by the principal or delegated senior staff.
It is not the school’s role to become involved or to take sides when parents are in dispute or in protracted argument with each other, but a duty of care towards the child and the child’s wellbeing should be followed. Principals may wish to consider referring parents in dispute to information and guidance provided by the Family Law Courts, see www.familylawcourts.gov.au and to booklets such as, ‘Me, my kids and my Ex. Forming a workable relationship for the benefit of your children’. To access this Australian Government Child Support Agency publication see www.csa.gov.au
Education departments and governing authorities usually have clear advice to schools about the legal framework that principals and teachers should follow carefully if attempts are made to involve school personnel in Family Court or other legal matters.
Strategies to support the child of divorced or separated parents with conflict issues
Communicating with the child’s parents
- Know which children in your class or homeroom have divorced or separated parents. At the beginning of the year, compile a list of parents’ names, phone numbers, addresses and parenting arrangements. Keep this list up to date. Ensure you know and use parents’ correct surnames. Using the incorrect surname or referring to divorced parents as ‘Mr and Mrs X can lead to the child and parents feeling uncomfortable or upset.
- Be aware of court orders in regard to parenting plans and follow them. If any doubts arise, check with the school principal, who can follow up with the parents, the court, or the relevant legal department.
- Ask the parents to keep you up to date with what is going on in the child’s life. While children are usually open with their teachers about major changes at home, it is important that a parent informs teachers about changed circumstances, such as if a grandparent is taking on more of a role in caring for the child, or if re-partnering of a parent occurs. Teachers need to know a child’s new step-parent or care giver, as they may become involved in school drop-offs and pick-ups, homework, school sporting activities and broader school community activities.
- Keep a record of any co-parenting arrangements so that you are not always asking the child whom they are currently with for the week. This can help build positive relationships and reduce stress for the child. Record keeping of the child’s behavior may indicate which parent the child is more settled with, and whether additional parenting support may need to be subtlety communicated to the parent concerned.
Copyright © Murray Evely and Zoe Ganim 2011
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