How to manage the impact of divorce on children

The process of a separation or divorce can have a significant impact on a child’s emotional wellbeing – and may affect their concentration and performance at school.

The good news is that, as parents, you are not alone in supporting your child through this difficult period. You can ask for help from their school or nursery, where there will be processes in place to provide the appropriate care.

As part of a recently launched campaign, Helping Kids Cope with Divorce, London-based law firm Cordell & Cordell have produced a useful resource to help parents to work together with schools during the separation process - How to Manage the Impact of Divorce on Children. They interviewed three people with teaching experience about the best way for parents to communicate with teachers and other key support workers about their divorce.

How does divorce affect school performance?

How a divorce will affect a child’s performance at school is very much dependent on the situation, and how high-conflict or amicable the divorce is. A lot of the time, the impact is caused by the changes that are taking place in their daily routine. How to manage the impact of divorce on children - paper family and broken heart

“In cases where school performance is affected, it usually impacts their attention, focus and ability to engage,” says Natalie Costa, the founder of Power Thoughts - a teaching, coaching and mindfulness-based service for children. “They may easily get upset and feel sad, guilty, depressed or preoccupied about the future. Because of this, they may not be that interested in learning. Sometimes they withdraw from their peers because they feel left out, and in other cases they have frequent emotional outbursts and tantrums because they are seeking attention or are feeling hurt and afraid.”

Telling the school

“If your kids are in primary school, you can come to the Headteacher, SENCO (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator), as well as the class teacher to inform the school about your divorce,” Costa said. “You can either make an appointment or have an informal meeting or catch-up before or after school. In some cases, it’s possible to communicate via school email too.”

Giving the school regular updates about your divorce procedure is not necessary, unless it has a considerable negative impact on your child. “As long as the parents continue to communicate with each other in a constructive way, the school doesn’t need to be informed of everything that’s going on,” Mimi, a primary school teacher in Year 6, said.

Importantly however, if one of the parents ceases to have custody or have the right to collect the child, the school must be informed.

Minimising the impact of divorce on a child’s school performance – how schools can help 

Simply attending school each day can provide a comforting routine that gives children a break from the changes at home. However, there might still be some anxiety around collection time or drop-off, especially when a different parent is collecting the child or when they are going to stay at another home. Teachers recommend that parents are patient with their child during this transition phase – provided they are supported and reassured along the way, it’s unlikely to last long.

It’s vital that children know who they can turn to during the school day if they are struggling emotionally. “Allow the child to talk about their feelings,” Costa says. “Let them know that it is alright to feel sad and angry.”

It’s preferable that both parents continue to be involved in their child’s progress and development. Mimi explains: “A situation in which both parents are still in touch [with the school] and continue to attend parents’ evenings is ideal.”

Schools can help with this by ensuring that both parents have equal access to reports and newsletter. Separate invitations to parents’ evenings should also sent to each parent.

Some schools may have additional processes in place to help children with the transition. “We use transition boxes with props, resources and stories to explain the concept of divorce to children through play,” says Genevieve Passamonte, a Nursery Education Officer at a London-based nursery.

Transition boxes are designed to support a child through major changes, such as going to a new school or processing bereavement or divorce. They can contain a variety of resources, such as storybooks that help explain the event. Often, a transition box will contain ‘emotions cards’, which offer the child the opportunity to talk about their feelings.

Dealing with being ‘different’

Children of divorced parents can sometimes feel like the exception at school. Society tells us that the nuclear family is the ‘right way to live’, which can make kids of divorced parents feel alienated from their peers.

Teachers can help by bringing together children who are in a similar situation, to help things seem more normal. “It helps the kids accept that they’re still a family, just a different shaped one,” says Christine Lewandowski, director of Single with Kids. Meeting up with other children of divorced parents can cater to a need for community belonging.

Natalie Costa is the Founder of Power Thoughts, a teaching, coaching and mindfulness-based service aimed at empowering children to tap into the power of their minds. Before starting Power Thoughts, Natalie spent 10 years as a primary school teacher, working with children from Reception to Year 6.
Genevieve Passamonte is a Nursery Education Officer at a London-based nursery.
Christine (Chrissie) Lewandowski is the Director of Single with Kids, an organisation that offers holidays for single parents, abroad and in the UK.
Mimi is a primary school teacher in Year 6. She wishes to remain anonymous.

To use Cordell & Cordell's resource How to Manage the Impact of Divorce on Children, click here.