Back-to-School after Divorce—Smoothing a tough adjustment

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It’s back-to-school season—a time most kids (and many parents) greet with excitement, anticipation, wistfulness, nerves, and even a bit of dread. It’s hard to say goodbye to summer and return to the structure of classes and extracurricular activities. There’s so much to remember and prepare. It can take days or weeks to settle into it again.

For divorced families, there’s an extra layer of complexity, concern, and emotion in the back-to-school process—especially if you’re newly separated and navigating a parenting plan, separate households, modified finances, and the scheduling juggle for the first time.

For kids still in the thick of processing the split, coping with pain and stress, there’s an added worry that there might be confusion at school, that they’ll need to explain the changed family arrangement to peers and teachers, perhaps answer uncomfortable or embarrassing questions.

There’s no perfect roadmap for this, parents. Be patient; it’s a tough transition that will take some time. Fortunately, some general guidelines can help smooth the way for your child and yourself.

Here are ten tips from the experts on adjusting to school after divorce:

Communicate. Committing to keeping the lines of communication open with your ex is vital to co-parenting in general, and it’s especially true when it comes to navigating the school year. Proactively share information from the school or teacher, whether it pertains to special events, schedule changes, or how your child is doing academically, developmentally, or emotionally. Also, be sure to share school-related health updates promptly—is the flu/chickenpox/COVID/strep/head lice going through the classroom? Did your child spike a fever and have to stay home this morning? Keep each other in the loop. Figure out a way to do it that minimizes conflict—can you talk in person or on the phone, or is it best to communicate in writing or via an app?

Create a shared calendar. An organized schedule is vital to keeping your new family life running smoothly and a big step toward facilitating fluid communication. There are numerous helpful co-parenting apps and online options built for this purpose. Be sure to include:

  • All dates outlined in your parenting plan
  • Daily school schedule
  • Drop-offs and pick-ups
  • After-school care and extracurricular activities
  • Practices and rehearsals
  • Special school events: sports games, concerts, plays, dances, field trips
  • Parent-Teacher conferences
  • Vacations, holiday weekends, and miscellaneous days off
  • School picture days
  • Spirit days
  • Homework and project deadlines
  • Doctor and dentist appointments
  • This is only a partial list—be thorough!

Get a head start. Maybe you spent your summer doing fun things to keep your child’s spirits up and ensure they know they’re deeply loved amid the divorce; perhaps the summer was rough, raw, and emotional. Your child will likely need time to adjust to the school week after a long break—earlier bedtime and wake-up time, morning hustle, and evening to-do list. The good news is that kids thrive on structure, and getting back into a routine—consistent between households—can help return a sense of normalcy and stability during a turbulent time. Take this opportunity to get on the same page with your ex about homework help, daily routine, etc.

Talk to your child. Find out how they feel about returning to school after the split and talk about any concerns they might have. Listen. Acknowledge their emotions and fears. Discuss strategies for talking to their friends about the divorce and your new family situation. Kids are inquisitive—let your child know it’s okay to keep some things private and teach them how to decline to answer sensitive questions graciously.

Talk to the teacher. Before the school year begins, let your child’s teacher know the basics of your custody agreement and family dynamics. This information will help the teacher with logistics and enable them to stay alert for any emotional or adjustment struggles that may impact your child’s performance in school.

Coordinate contact info. Ensure your child’s teacher and school have contact information for both parents so that you receive class updates, newsletters, information about field trips and special events, important meetings, and so forth.

The backpack is a big deal. Unless you’re nesting, if you share custody, your child will be going to school, doing activities, and doing homework from two separate households. The transit process between homes can be stressful. Be sure your child’s backpack has everything they need for moving between homes and school—supplies, books, assignments, snacks, etc.—and that the bag is kept up to date and travels with the child at all times. Having a basic set of school supplies in both homes is also a good idea.

Figure out financesbefore the fact. California child support laws do not provide specific guidelines regarding school expenses such as supplies, sports equipment, musical instruments, and so on. While a parent paying child support to a custodial parent may assume it covers school supplies, remember that school expenses can add up quickly, and unexpected costs arise. It’s wise to make an express agreement about school supplies and extracurricular activity expenses in your parenting plan. Volunteering to split costs can go a long way in building goodwill.

Decide what you CAN do together. Although you may be in the midst of a tense and painful time when the last thing you want to do is sit through the third-grade play with your ex, try to set aside your emotions and differences and focus on what is best for your child as they adjust to school again post-divorce. Especially if you have a young child, do drop-off together on the first day. This show of unity lets your child know that even though you don’t live together anymore, you’re still a team as parents. While most teachers will accommodate separate parent-teacher conferences when necessary, attend together if possible. You’re all in it together, supporting your child’s education.

Be flexible. Once signed by the judge, your parenting plan is a court order that must be followed. However, things will come up that impact school: your kid will catch a cold, you’ll get stuck in a meeting, and the tuba will get left at grandma’s house. Extend goodwill and help when things don’t go as planned once in a while, and your co-parent will likely reciprocate.

The skilled and experienced family lawyers at SFLG understand that divorce and the transition to co-parenting present many challenges. We’re here to help you navigate the legal process so you can focus on your family.

By Debra Schoenberg

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