Separation and Divorce

General Information

Up to 50% of children have to deal with the impact of their parents’ decision to end a marital/common-law relationship. The adjustments resulting from a marital breakdown are huge for students. School changes, new routines, and changes in lifestyle and family income are hard for children. Emotional distress—grief, anger, fear— caused by ongoing conflict between parents and the acrimony that can accompany custody disputes can make the adjustment even harder.

When this burden of conflict and sorrow bears down on a student, school life is also likely to be affected—marks may decline, and students may be less able to manage their emotions and stresses. When difficulties persist, they can lead to mental health problems and affect academic success and social development.

Most of these pressures are beyond the school’s ability to control, but there are some measures that can help students stay on track.

General Characteristics To Look For

  • a change in a student’s level of academic performance
  • social withdrawal
  • students may seem less organized (e.g., about returning forms, completing homework) as they and their parents adjust to new routine

  • withdrawn, preoccupied
  • may display increased anxiety or anger
  • may behave in a manner that is inconsistent with their actual developmental age

Impact On Student Success

Parental separation and divorce put students at risk. Mental health vulnerabilities can be triggered or worsen, and a student’s belief in his/her own capacities can decline.

Studies indicate that children of divorced parents drop out of high school at a much higher rate. A 20 year study of 9400 children showed that only 60% of children of divorced parents complete high school, compared to 78.4% for children with parents who are still together. For students who have been subject to the impact of more than one divorce, the drop-out rate rises to 50%.(Strohschein, Roos, and Brownell, 2009)

  • Stay informed about and adhere to legal requirements (e.g., the terms of custody agreements).
  • Develop a baseline of the child’s normal social, emotional, developmental, and academic performance in order to track whether there is an impact on functioning that needs particular attention.
  • Maintain current information regarding community resources that can help families who are struggling to cope with separation and divorce.
  • Help children keep perspective so that they know they are not to blame for their parents’ separation.
  • Develop a practice for communicating with both parents regarding student and school issues if legally permissible.
  • Help students stay “out of the middle” by sharing jointly with both parents whenever possible regarding student issues such as academic work, school events, and student achievement.
  • Consider providing duplicate newsletters or a monthly information pack for the non-custodial parent, and ensure that both parents are notified about parent-teacher meetings.
  • Keep both parents informed if a student seems to be moving offtrack.
  • Ensure that school staff is accurately informed about any legal requirements with respect to custody and access.
  • Support teachers in developing a communication plan with both parents.
  • Make information available to teachers (e.g., in common areas) about how best to support students dealing with separation and divorce.
  • Post school news and events on the school’s web site and in newsletters that can be accessed by both parents
  • Ensure that the school is informed about any legal requirements with respect to custody and access.
  • Foster a co-parenting partnership to address concerns about children and their progress at school. Seek professional assistance in developing this partnership if needed.
  • Allow children to have an ally—someone who will communicate between you and your spouse if you are not able to communicate directly. Give the school permission to use this intermediary.
  • Stay mindful of indicators that children’s sadness and grief about parental separation and divorce are affecting their ability to stay on track developmentally. Seek help and information if needed to help children deal with the impact of separation or divorce.
  • Provide information and support to school professionals to help with particular student or family difficulties.
  • Keep school communities informed about separation and divorce education, groups, or counselling services so that the school can suggest resources to families as appropriate.